Toronto archbishop calls for reorganization to address demographic decline

Archbishop Colin Johnson read this statement to Diocesan Council on May 19, recommending that the Diocese continue with four episcopal areas at this time and seeking its concurrence with his request for the election of a third suffragan bishop on Sept. 17. 

Over the past six weeks, I have consulted with over 210 clergy in six parish hall meetings, and with numerous lay leaders in other settings, about the proposed changes in the episcopal areas and the advisability of continuing with four episcopal areas, each with an area bishop, or reducing the areas and hence number of bishops by one. I have also met with the regional deans, and the area bishops have met both with their regional deans and area councils to consider this.

The results indicated a spectrum of thinking (not atypical for Anglicans on any subject) but a number of common themes emerged.

  • The primary focus needs to be on the missional strategy of the Diocese.
  • Money should not be the primary driver of the decision.
  • If the decision is to reduce the number of bishops by one, the money saved should be redirected to provide diocesan support services for parishes in transition.
  • In a period of complexity and transition, more support and leadership is needed, not less, although there is some diversity of opinion whether this should be episcopal, archidiaconal or staff support.
  • Regardless of the number of bishops, their job descriptions need to be reconsidered.
  • Of the various roles of the bishop, administration is a necessary function but should not be the predominant function.
  • Archdeacons may have a role, either in picking up administrative responsibilities now done by bishops (e.g., project approvals, meetings with parish selection committees, compliance issues) or as gift-based specialists in an identified diocesan priority as part of the diocesan bishop’s staff (e.g., church planting, missional strategy, amalgamation coaching or facilitating closures, etc.)
  • High-quality lay ministry and leadership needs to be encouraged to serve across parish boundaries in the Diocese (It was noted that many parishes seem reluctant to share their most capable people.)

Having listened, prayed and thought about this carefully, I recommend that the Diocese of Toronto continue for this time with four episcopal areas, each with an area bishop, and that Diocesan Council concur with my request for the election of a third suffragan bishop to succeed the retiring or translated bishops suffragan of Toronto.

It is clear that we are in the midst of substantial change, change that must be managed well. One of the responsibilities of leaders is to gauge the readiness for change and to pace it (as much as that is possible) so that it is productive rather than paralytic. While reduction of one bishop might make a bold statement, it can be interpreted as much as a sign of decline as one of strategic initiative. In my opinion, this is one change that would focus attention and energy at the wrong place.

Bishop as Chief Missioner

The bishop is by ordination one with the apostles in the proclamation of the Gospel and the evangelization of the people both by her/his personal witness and by delegation to clergy and laity. He/she participates in the oversight of the church locally and through the world. She/he links communities together regionally, represents the wider to the local and vice versa, and helps realize the common mission. This iconic or sacramental sign of episcope embodied in a person is a core part of Anglican understanding of being the Church. It is also key in recognizing the bishop as the chief missioner in a region.

Practical Implications

Reduction by one area bishop has a number of immediate implications. It would entail the reduction of a support staff position. The four epsicopal areas would be reduced to three, and some deaneries would be redrawn. All four area councils would need to be reconfigured. Diocesan Council would be reduced by five (a bishop, a clerical and two lay members from each area and one member from an area council.) Synod would be reduced by one bishop and five youth members. This would need to take effect by January 2017 when the new bishops are consecrated.

Demographics

The demographic projections for the Diocese project that in 15 years we will have 50-70 fewer parishes (and clergy?), although there may be more non-traditional forms of ministry and gathered missional communities. The visioning, coaching and pastoral care involved in amalgamations and closures requires substantial resources, direction and leadership if done well (and even more if it is done poorly!). The same is true for establishing new forms of ministry. We are learning about that from other dioceses and from our own experiences. We are leaders in this area and other dioceses, including English and American dioceses, look to us for advice, though the learning is usually mutual.

Regardless of where we will be in 15 years, the Diocese at this time has about 200 parishes, 300 active clergy and 300 retired clergy and some 50,000 identifiable members. Each of the existing areas has more clergy under the oversight of a bishop than most of individual dioceses in Canada.

In my 12 years as diocesan bishop, there has been substantial and substantive change:

  • Shift focus to missional ministry.
  • Amalgamation of unsustainable parishes into more sustainable parishes and clusters.
  • Mixed economy churches with expansion of alternative expressions of ministry alongside a traditional context.
  • Experimental funding of new models of ministry.
  • Expanding funding for curacy training.
  • Initiatives in ethnic-based worshiping communities (e.g., CSI, Sudanese, Mandarin, Ghanaian, Hispanic, Tamil) and with Lutheran-Anglican partnerships.
  • Implementation of a major capital campaign.
  • Appointment of Canon Missioners.
  • Rebuilding of churches in various parts of the diocese.
  • Introduction of new governance models.
  • Same sex blessings protocol.
  • Implementation of Sustainability Policy.
  • Increased use of lay volunteers and appointment of paid lay leaders.
  • Development of successful ongoing stewardship models.
  • Move from five episcopal areas to four.
  • Development of strategic mapping.
  • Targeted use of MAF to support parish development.
  • Simplified grant approval (REACH, STRETCH, OFOH).
  • Application of Canon 10 to redeploy clergy.
  • Use of parish administrators and boards of management to augment parish resources.
  • Education initiatives for evangelism and invitational ministry.
  • Increased funding and accountability for outreach projects.
  • Focused social justice and advocacy work.

There are currently five large cluster/amalgamation discussions underway, several church plants, and a number of pending closures. We need to work on implementation of the Strategic Plan, including reconsideration of how we use our real estate resources, deploy and remunerate our clergy and develop new models for training and educating clergy and laity. We must work at full and equitable inclusion of people from differing cultures and races, especially welcoming their leadership. General Synod will be debating not only the divisive issue of same sex marriage, but entering into new and still developing relationships with First Nations people that will affect our church and our diocese.

My proposal, then, is not a reluctance to engage in change or to continue the status quo. It has a missional focus: what episcopal leadership and area structures will help the Diocese live into its strategic mission in the next five years.

In the midst of such large changes that are currently underway and which will emerge in the next 3-5 years, I think that introducing one more significant change will hinder, not help, our process.

There was little or no mention of restructuring of the episcopal areas or reduction of the number of area bishops in the Strategic Plan consultations process. (There were over 700 respondents.) It was not identified as a priority.

Additional Notes

The parish hall meetings revealed considerable confusion about available resources, with some suggesting that the Diocese appoint experts to offer parishes assistance, which is already done and widely accessed (e.g., coaching for amalgamations, facilitation for clerical appointments). Diocesan staff and high-capacity volunteers already provide resources that archdeacons do in some other dioceses (and mostly at a higher level of competence because the volunteer and staff are functioning out of their professional expertise). Trained diocesan volunteers contributed over 2,300 hours of direct high-level ministry to parishes‎, not counting travel time, this past year alone. There is an expressed desire that the Diocese develop more reliance on lay ministry. Most of our staff and volunteers are lay; archdeacons are not.

One rationale for reducing by one bishop that some suggested was to force the Diocese to use more lay ministry. That is exactly what the diocesan ministry strategy has been. Unfortunately, we have found it very difficult to get many clergy and parishes to nominate highly competent laity for diocesan-wide work, and the area bishops have been a prime source to recruit such people through their work with parishes across the Diocese. Lay leadership development is a priority for our Strategic Plan. It is hard to see realistically that we will have a sudden influx of volunteers within the next year replacing a full-time bishop to support the immediate missional needs of the Diocese. We are moving in that direction but are not there yet.

This is a recommendation for this time, not for five years from now. I suggest that by October of this year the Diocesan Council establish a committee of five to:

  • look at options, at dioceses of comparable size and complexity,
  • consider the demographics and the Strategic Plan,
  • review how other dioceses express and share episcopal leadership,
  • examine the realistic capacity of lay and clergy volunteers to support congregations in transition (whether growth or decline),
  • if there is a re-organization of the areas, how that division should occur and what steps would be needed to implement that with a proposed timeline.

This report should be ready for consideration by Diocesan Council by before Synod 2017.

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