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We will tell the stories not because we live for the past but because the past informs the present, and we must be present before we begin, with God’s help, to claim our future.

(http://www.ecw-nc.org/the-story-goes-on/)

Episcopal Church Women have been an organized, officially recognized presence in the Diocese of North Carolina for more than 130 years. You don’t stay around that long in any meaningful way unless you’ve demonstrated an ability to adapt to the times while holding fast to core truths. Well, it’s time for some more God-centered adaptation. In fact, we’ve been up to our eyeballs in the subject of change for several years now. Our look at the mission and ministry of ECW caught the attention of Nancy Davidge, editor of the Episcopal Church Foundation’s “Vital Practices” (http://www.ecfvp.org/). Believing that what we’re doing speaks to some universal issues within our Church right now, she asked if I’d write an article for the March 2012 “Vestry Papers” section about what we’re doing and why. Here’s the article and above is a cool word cloud generated from the article’s text. Stay tuned.

Of Dinosaurs & Discernment

By Lisa H. Towle, part of the Vestry Papers issue on Death and Resurrection
(March 2012)

Years ago, a physician I knew had a cutout of a purple dinosaur on the outside of her office door. It wasn’t the infamous Barney, but still, the dinosaur was cute and smiley. Its message, though, was serious. Above the head of the dinosaur, in big letters, was the word, EVOLVE. Below its feet were these words, OR DIE.

Change happens

It took decades of lobbying before women in the Episcopal Church were allowed to officially organize. General Convention authorized the Board of Missions to create the women’s “auxiliary” to the Board of Missions 141 years ago. Today, the entity known as Episcopal Church Women is one of the largest ministries in the church. And while the ECW profile certainly varies from diocese to diocese it is in key respects a microcosm of the Episcopal Church. Generally speaking its health and ability to pivot can be used as a gauge to measure the health and dexterity of the whole.

A romp through history helps make the point. In the Diocese of North Carolina, where I live, women who’ve chosen to affiliate with ECW have led. Now, as then, they continue to do what needs to be done, whether it’s supporting the work of missionaries abroad or paying for a new church roof at home.

  • It was a right and good thing in 1913 that the ECW in North Carolina created the Social Service Commission to work with prisons and state farms, and to monitor and encourage legislation of particular relevance to women and children. That legislation included adequate care for mentally ill children and minimum wage laws.
  • It was a right and good thing when, in the 1970s, the diocesan ECW president – a woman then known as Scott Evans – spoke up in the face of heated opposition and encouraged women to actively support their sisters in Christ who sought to become priests in the Diocese of North Carolina. They did.
  • It was a right and good thing that in 2007 the ECW stepped up and committed a minimum of .07 percent of its annual income to meeting the Millennium Development Goals, particularly as those eight goals pertain to women and children. (And, as our bishop Michael Curry has pointed out, almost every goal pertains to women and children.)
  • And it was a right and good thing that the ECW partnered with the diocese’s MDG Committee and Episcopal Relief & Development to successfully meet the ambitious objectives of the diocese’s NetsforLife anti-malaria campaign, which concluded in January 2012.

What is Our Future?

All to say, the past and present of the ECW has made a difference in this diocese and beyond. But what about our future? If we want a future that makes a difference – heck, if we want a future at all – the Episcopal Church Women, born into changing times, must shift again. And the shift will have to be seismic. This isn’t about continuing to manage what’s been, something so many in our church focus on. This is about leading; about meeting people and need where they are, not where we think they should be; about being nimble enough to act thoughtfully and quickly. This will happen with God’s help, of course, and hopefully with God’s people acting with less insularity and more informed collaboration.

These big-picture conclusions were drawn from a long series of small events that came to a head in the spring of 2010. That’s when I invited the presidents of the ECW boards in the dioceses of Western North Carolina and East Carolina to meet with me in Raleigh, in the Diocese of North Carolina. What was supposed to be a one-day meeting extended to two days. A conversation about our shared joys and challenges as the heads of ECW in our dioceses, and the plan to come up with a project we’d share statewide, veered into something much more to the core of things: What is our future? And who, on earth, will take us there?

Challenges

We hear common refrains from many members of ECW. They go something like this: “We can’t recruit people to leadership positions anymore.” Or, “Our programs aren’t well attended.” Or, “Look at my gray hair. Look at my eyes. I’m getting old. I’m tired. I can’t keep doing this, but I’m afraid to stop. Who will do this if I stop?” (Like I said, a microcosm of the church.)

Who will do this, indeed. Now to be fair, we’re not alone. Certainly those involved in “women’s ministries” outside the state of North Carolina have encountered similar laments in their dioceses; the subject comes up time and again in provincial and national meetings. But it’s not just church folk hanging out with other church folk talking about churchy things. For example, I hear variations on these themes expressed quite frequently by people involved in the world of secular not-for-profits.

First Steps

We got down to the business of framing our discussion in March of 2011. That’s when our respective boards of directors retreated for two days with Mary MacGregor, a member of the laity who focuses on leadership as Director of Evangelism and Congregational Development (http://www.epicenter.org/iona-center/) for the Diocese of Texas. In addition to all of her other gifts, Mary brought with her a indepth understanding of ECW as she’s intimately familiar with the ministry. Our time together was marked by prayers for guidance and discernment, yet in the beginning it was difficult to resist the temptation to rush ahead and throw what have become standard answers to many church-related dilemmas — More Millenials! More money! More technology! — ahead of the hard but necessary basic questions.

Here, in no particular order, are some of them:

  • What are we about, really?
  • Do we now meet for the sake of meeting?
  • Does our organizational structure need streamlining?
  • Are our various ministries too varied?
  • Is ECW relevant now that women have voice and vote at all levels of the church?
  • Do we communicate in the most effective way the invitation to engage in worship, prayer, study, service, and fellowship?
  • How can we transform lives in ways that matter in a broken and hurting world?
  • What would happen if we just stopped all our fund-raising?
  • What would Jesus say about all this?

Change is hard

Here we are in 2012. Everything is now on the table. An understanding has emerged. We must be willing to radically change. Nibbling around the edges of the issue, tweaking a few things here and there, won’t work if the ministry is to be truly present. And so we are proceeding simultaneously on three fronts: We must learn from our past, we must take action for the present, and we must engage in active discernment about the future.

This evolution won’t be easy; not everyone is going to be happy. For some, there’s little energy for the effort involved in imagining a different future. For others, the sacred cows are just too sacred to touch. In fact, I’ve already been told, in essence, “why mess with success?“ I get it, I do. I’m praying, though, that enough people will agree being part of a new day and a new way for ECW in North Carolina makes the journey forward worth taking.