“Becoming Ecclesial Entrepreneurs: A Conversation with Bishop Stacy Sauls”

By Cameron Nations

“Becoming Ecclesial Entrepreneurs: A Conversation with Bishop Stacy Sauls on The Episcopal Church as Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society”

As The Episcopal Church heads into a Convention year armed with the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church’s (TREC) recommendations for structural reform, its members find themselves asking questions of identity, governance, and structure. What constitutes the structure of the Church and the operations of the Church aren’t just throwaway questions, either. Rather, they demand rigorous reflection and principled discourse that involves participation by the whole Church in teasing out purpose, mission, and direction for the future.

This got me thinking—what if, in considering the future of the Church, we thought not as The Episcopal Church, but instead as the name under which we are incorporated: The Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the United States of America, or DMFS for short. Despite its length, this name is part of our identity too, and I think it merits our consideration as we continue to ask questions regarding our past, present, and future.

Does thinking of the Church in this way— as a mission society, domestic and foreign— change the way that one might view structural reform? How does it shape the way that seminarians begin to view their future ministry in the Church? Does it change anything at all?

I reached out to Bishop Stacy Sauls, chief operating officer of The Episcopal Church, to explore these questions and to talk about the Church’s missionary activity.

Though we both agreed that the DFMS was far too much of a mouthful to warrant its frequent use in place of “The Episcopal Church,” Sauls expressed his desire to see a missionary ethos recaptured in the life of the Church.

He referred to the history of the name itself, pointing out its distinctively Anglican character, “In the early 19th century, all denominations were creating missionary societies. Yet we are the only denomination that made every member, by charter, a member of DFMS, seeing mission as something fundamentally Anglican.” In this way, the DFMS can be seen to focus not so much on structure, as the name “The Episcopal Church” does (episcopal = bishops), but rather on action—namely, the missionary action of the whole Church.

Of course, the context of the 19th century is not the same as our own today. Thus we have to reimagine what this missionary activity might look like in our contemporary world. For Sauls, this means that instead of going into a place with the intention of importing Christ, we go “into places to meet Christ. Christ is already there.” To acknowledge Christ’s presence in the people and places we go to serve inverts the traditional model of doing missions and challenges us to examine our own prejudices and cultural assumptions.

That said, I wonder what room this notion of missions leaves for evangelism—a topic that seems ever more important in light of the Church’s current precipitous decline. This decline has, in the words of Sauls, pushed the Church to move “from an established, ‘take it for granted’ mindset to an entrepreneurial one.”

This shift in mindset provides a tremendous opportunity for the Church’s seminaries, as Sauls points out that “residential seminaries in particular can form a missionary ethos in a way that no other place can.” Living in community among those who are also training for ministry in the Church fosters collaboration, innovation, and support for bold new mission initiatives that can propel the Church forward.

One can see the Church’s shift to a more entrepreneurial mindset reflected in its current mission efforts, explained in great depth in the Church’s recently released We Are All Missionaries: A Report to the Church 2015 (www.episcopalchurch.org/page/report-church-2015). According to Sauls, more than 25% of the Church’s membership are working on mission projects, and approval of budget initiatives like the Young Adult Service Corps seek to make missionary action normative for all in the Church within a generation.

Though we may be seen as in decline for the moment, Sauls sees our current situation as part of a larger cycle. “I don’t believe we’re dying,” he said. “You couldn’t kill the Church if you wanted to, but you could kill the Church’s vitality.” Though our vitality may have waned, the eventual emergence out of the rubble will see a refocusing on central tenets of the faith—on living the Christian life rather than living life as a Christian.

Though, at least for the immediate future, Sauls concedes that we will likely continue to shrink, he hopes that the Church will form into a more committed community, presumably a community that sees every one of its members as invested in the mission of the Church, both domestically and abroad. “I hope,” said Sauls, “that we are going to see a church that is much less invested in material well-being—a Church that acts as a leaven in the culture.”

And what happens when we think and act in this way?

“Then we will grow again.”

What do you think? Let us know.