October 11, 2014

A Network Proposal (Is This What TREC Has in Mind?)

As readers will perhaps remember, I was unimpressed with the study paper on networks from the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church (TREC). (See “Evaluating the TREC Study Paper on Networks.”) I was reminded of the incoherent treatment of the subject in TREC’s first study paper while reading an essay yesterday published by Marshall Scott. His blog post is “The Chaplain on the TREC: What I’d Like to Hear.” Apparently Scott couldn’t figure out what TREC was getting at, either. In his discussion, he points out that there are many kinds of networks, each with its own strengths and weaknesses, and he argues that the church needs to have a discussion about networks before next year’s General Convention. “I do think, though,” he writes, “that if we don’t have the conversation about our expectations of networks we’ll discover that those concerns get shaped not by our ministries but by the needs of the tools themselves.”

Although networks can inspire and provoke, build and maintain relationships, and help develop leaders—see the recent TREC letter—their use is not free. Staying connected takes time and energy, and one can easily feel overwhelmed by information (or simply chatter).

Since I have no idea what TREC has in mind and am not confident that TREC even has a clear idea of how networks could serve the church, allow me to propose a possibly helpful mechanism. It would be useful for parishes to know what parishes elsewhere are doing, to know what seems to work to advance mission. Sometimes, Episcopal News Service is helpful here. Early news reports of “ashes to go,” imposing ashes on passing pedestrians on Ash Wednesday, seem to have inspired the proliferation of the practice throughout the church. Whatever the spiritual merits of this practice, it has certainly led to some very good publicity for The Episcopal Church.

What would be very helpful, I think, is a network that collected reports of the experience of individual parishes, not only their successes, but also their failures. Although it is helpful to try to reproduce the successful mission initiatives from elsewhere, it is equally important to avoid the mistakes of others or to at least find a way to turn failure into success.

A network of the sort I am suggesting has several requirements. First, churches have to be willing to describe their activities and their results. This includes admitting to abject failures. (Good batters fail at the plate two-thirds of the time. I doubt that churches do any better.) It will be necessary not only to describe big “programs,” but also small initiatives. (We put envelopes for Episcopal Relief and Development at the back of the nave and encouraged worshipers to pick on up and use it.) Fortunately, Episcopalians seem to be good at collecting and reporting statistics. (Consider our parochial reports.)  Entries should include:
  1. What was done and why
  2. What was expected
  3. What actually happened
  4. Whether the practice will continue
  5. Who to contact to learn more
  6. Keywords describing the activity
That last item, keywords, is critical. No one is going to read through thousands of entries to find out if anyone has tried something that a parish is considering doing. There must be a classification system and a database that can easily be queried to learn of related experiences and identify needed expertise.

I am not completely confident that such a network could become a significant asset to support the mission of The Episcopal Church. It would have a steep learning curve and might need people whose job it is to clarify and tweak keywords to make entered information useful. The idea does, I think, have potential to be a game changer.

Is there a diocese that would like to pilot such a network?

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