Friday, June 26, 2009

Wake-Up Call for the Episcopal Church

I finally got around to reading through the "Episcopal Congregations Overview: Findings from the 2008 Faith Communities Today Survey" by C. Kirk Hadaway, Director of Research at the Episcopal Church Center. The report says that the overview "is based on responses from 783 Episcopal parishes and missions that completed the 2008 Faith Communities Today Survey (71% response rate)."

Here are a few of the findings that caught my attention:
  • A majority (62%) of Episcopal parishes and missions report that more than half of their members are age 50+.
  • Episcopalians tend to be older than the general population. Overall, 27% of Episcopal members are age 65+, as compared to only 13% of the U.S. population in 2008. The Episcopal Church has proportionately fewer children, youth and younger adults.
  • 90% of Episcopal congregations reported having conflicts or disagreements in the last five years (up from 86% in 2000, but down slightly from 93% in 2005). 64% of churches reported at least one area of serious conflict.
  • Of congregations that had serious conflict: + Some members left the church: 89%. + Some members withheld funds: 45%. + A staff member was dismissed or reassigned: 18%.
  • Nearly the same proportion of congregations describes the current financial health of their congregation as "excellent" as say they are "in serious difficulty" (7% and 8%, respectively).
  • About one third of parishes and missions reported that their finances are "excellent" or "good" in 2008. The proportion with excellent or good financial health declined from 56% to 32% between 2000 and 2005 and then remained essentially unchanged for 2008 (33%). the proportion in some or serious financial difficulty almost doubled from 2000 to 2005, increasing from 13% to 25% and then remained unchanged for 2008.
I also note that the survey says that the areas where clergy spend the least amount of time include "contacting inactive persons in the congregation (least overall); dealing with conflict; organizing and leading small groups; and evangelism and recruitment." So, on the whole, our clergy are spending most of their time doing things that don't address the root causes of stagnation and decline. Lacking the needed leadership, it's little surprise that the report also notes: "Relatively few Episcopal churches report that their members are heavily involved in recruiting new members. 21% say their members are involved 'quite a bit' or 'a lot.' The more typical involvement is 'a little' (32%) or 'some' (41%)."
Here's what it all boils down to:
Aging membership + conflict + declining financial health + little interest in or understanding of evangelism = no viable future.
Having heard the Presiding Bishop talk about the vitality of the Episcopal Church, one would never guess that we are in the state of crisis described by Hadaway.
One of my clergy colleagues sums it up well: "This is about life or death. Choose mission or die."


Bill Scott said...

Perhaps the Presiding Bishop needs to look at things realistically, instead of through rose-colored glasses. There is no future for a church as described in the 2008 report. Just further decline. Either the Church forcefully proclaims its beliefs to members and non-members alike, or it dies. And, more importantly, either the Church ACTUALLY BELIEVES its beliefs or it dies.

plsdeacon said...


The problem is that we have "fishermen" who were taught how to "fish" by people who had only very rarely caught any fish!

I'll be you can count on one hand the number of seminary professors who had personally led someone to faith in Jesus Christ. It might take two hands if you include bishops.

How can our clergy teach others to make disciples if they cannot, themselves, make disciples?

They say Christianity is one generation away from death. I fear we may find that out to be true the hard way.

Phil Snyder

Joe Rawls said...

Beliefs? We actually have beliefs?

John Bassett said...

It is a problem, but it is NOT a theological problem. The moderator of the Southern Baptist Convention just made his address to the opening of their annual meeting the other day. He described a denomination in serious decline. Most members are over the age of 50. In the next forty years, if not sooner, the denomination will be half or less than its current size. NOBODY can describe the SBC as liberal or lacking in fervency of belief. But this is apparently not enough to help them either.

plsdeacon said...


I submit that it is a theological problem, not just a cultural one. The SBC has only recently begun decline in membership - TEC has been at it for 50 years. The SBC is alarmed by a 50 year decrease in growth rates. TEC has been experiencing increasing rates of decline since 2002. If we follow the current 4 year average loss in ASA (and I picked 4 years beause there will be only 1 set of "Christmas Effect" weekends where Christmas Eve occurs on Saturday or Sunday), we will have an ASA of just over 217,000. While the Baptists are seeing a 50% loss in the next 50 years from their high in the 1980s, we are seeing a complete collapse.

Phil Snyder

Bill Carroll said...

I would say that contacting inactive members isn't generally part of the solution. Working on getting people in the door and welcoming/incorporating those who show up is. Our ASA has held steady, but it is a very different crowd who is showing up. The median age is plummeting. Eventually, especially as we continue to improve, this should translate into real growth. The basic program as I outlined it for the vestry when I got to my present parish is "(1) doing the basics well; (2) building on our strengths; and (3) the ministry of active hospitality."

Our best evangelism tool continues to be a well executed liturgy from the Book of Common Prayer. I would add that Eucharistic worship and generous orthodoxy connected with real diakonia is what resonates with the young adults we are seeing.

Bryan Owen said...

I don't think we can do effective evangelism and mission without clarity about the theological rationale for why we bother doing these things in the first place. It's not enough to offer fellowship (a model of the church as country club) or outreach (a model of the church as social service agency). While both are necessary, they are not sufficient. We need to be clear about what the Gospel is and about why Jesus matters and what difference his life, death and resurrection make for individuals, for society, and for the world.

Part of the reason why we're in the decline we're in is because we suffer from amnesia. We don't remember who we are, even though we run through the anamnesis (remembrance) of the liturgy every Sunday. So it's not surprising that when it comes to the basics of the Christian faith (as opposed to one's personal opinions about all matters religious or "spiritual"), too many of us are failing Christianity.

Perhaps, too, we have reached a point where for many, praying no longer adequately shapes believing. Instead, liturgy is increasingly viewed (consciously or not) as a means for expressing one's individual beliefs such that the very notion of "common prayer" is receding into the background. If I don't like what the prayers in the liturgy say, I can interpret them beyond recognition to my satisfaction, or simply ignore what we just said together while longing for the day when we have a Prayer Book that is "relevant."

It's not a pretty picture.

I think it's time for the leadership of this Church to take the first step towards doing something about all of this by admitting that we have a serious problem.

Bill Scott said...

Bryan Owen has hit the nail on the head. Too many Christians, not just Episcopalians, consider the Church to be just one more country club they belong to. As long as you pay your dues, you're "active." No beliefs are required. Just don't be late with your dues!

The Underground Pewster said...

Bill Carroll wrote,
"Our best evangelism tool continues to be a well executed liturgy from the Book of Common Prayer. I would add that Eucharistic worship and generous orthodoxy connected with real diakonia is what resonates with the young adults we are seeing."

Don't let them read the GC 09 resolutions in the "Blue Book."

Bill Carroll said...

I agree with much of what Bryan is saying, especially when it comes to efforts to create a "relevant" liturgy. As if the Gospel were not always relevant. The liturgy should be fully enculturated. Some privileged Episcopalians seem to confuse enculturation with cultural accommodation or captivity.

As an example of a model that I believe has much promise, I would point to the young adults at our parish who are growing 25,000 pounds of organic food to donate to local hunger ministries. The leaders are all living by a provisional rule of life, including Daily Office, frequent communion, study, sabbath, and other spiritual practices. We have moved one of our midweek Eucharists to the farm where they live, so that the many community volunteers they are drawing can start to connect this outreach to the liturgy and the Gospel. But we don't turn any hands away, whether they participate or not.

I've written about this ministry here:

Bill Carroll said...

Whoops, the Url is too long

Try here and scroll down

plsdeacon said...

I agree with Bryan that the problem is that we don't know why we evangelize or what our end goal is.

Too often, I think we really believe (regardless of what we say) that our goal is to be made into nice people - accepting, tolerant, busy with good works, concerned about social justice, etc.

Jesus didn't come and die to make us nice. He died to kill us and make us new. Jesus was not concerned with "social justice" per se but with all sin and sinfulness. Jesus was concerned with remaking the whole creation and fulfilling God's plan as outlined in Genesis 12:3 " you all the families of the earth shall bless themselves" (or as the RSV lists the alternate reading "in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed."

Only when TEC realizes that the goal is union with God through Jesus Christ (which involves dying to self and being raised to new life) so that we can participate with God in the reconciliation of the whole of creation, will our numbers stop their rapid decline.

Phil Snyder

Joe Rawls said...

Deacon Phil, I don't always agree with you, but the last paragraph of your last reply was absolutely on target!

Bryan Owen said...

Wonderful comments all around!

I agree with Bill that a well-executed liturgy from The Book of Common Prayer is, indeed, one of our best resources for evangelism. And I take heart by the example he shares of young adults in his parish. I would only add that we also need to be able - all of us, not just clergy - to articulate the theological and practical meaning of what we pray together when we gather for the liturgy.

Let me hasten to add that I share concerns with the Underground Pewster about the liturgical resolutions offered to the upcoming General Convention in the so-called "Blue Book." I am considering posting about that in the near future, but suffice it to say for now that, while I do not for a moment doubt the sincerity of those who are offering it for GC's approval, I find most of it therapeutic, utilitarian, and contrary to the intentions entailed within the term "common prayer." And quite frankly, that concerns me deeply.

And thank you, Deacon Phil, for reminding us that Jesus did not die to make us "nice." I am reminded, in this regard, of William Mattison's citation (in his book Introducing Moral Theology: True Happiness and the Virtues) of M. Cathleen Kaveny's article "Wholesomeness, Holiness, and Hairspray":

Too often, she says, we think following Christ means being wholesome, by which she means tidy and orderly. In wholesome lives there are no addictions, no debilitating disabilities, no pregnancies out of wedlock, no ravaging diseases, no vicious arguments, no messiness. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with a life marked by none of these. (Indeed, full union with God in the next life will include none of them.) But wholesomeness becomes a problem when one begins to seek orderly appearances rather than what is truly life-giving to those in need. When we hide our disabled children, ignore blatant problems that are corroding family life, send away pregnant teenagers, fail to face real weakness and suffering of those who are sick, then we have made wholesomeness more important to us than true holiness. True holiness, exemplified in Christ, reaches out to people in their messy brokenness and sinfulness, always to serve them and enable them to live more fully. When things are indeed orderly - when our parents genuinely love each other, when people live chastely, or when we are fully healthy - the holy person is grateful. But never does a wholesome concern for orderly appearances lead the holy person to fail to see or avoid serving where there is brokenness, be it sinful or otherwise.

Bill Carroll said...


I agree that the goal is union with God through Jesus Christ. This union involves comprehensive transformation of human life and human relationships. Social justice is part and parcel of our fidelity to the biblical witness and Jesus' own vision of the Kingdom of God. But Jesus identified the Kingdom with his own presence and mission, and he is the criterion, not some externally derived notion of justice for which Christian language is pious window dressing.


It is absolutely necessary to engage in thorough catechesis and Christian formation. For too long, we relied on cultural Christianity, rather than real discipleship. The illusion we could do so was always that, an illusion. I am finding it a difficult challenge to engage people. A lot of the basic formation has to happen from the pulpit and in the liturgy.

This group of young adults is one example of a success story outside (as well as inside) that basic context and I'm hoping that we can replicate it. Another experiment is to build Christian formation into committee work and meetings. Our worship committee, for example, reads books together and discusses the purpose of various parts of the liturgy. We are going to try to involve the whole parish in that conversation in various ways. It's a very different model than just meeting to help plan worship in the absence of any kind of theological reflection.

I am convinced that we can't underestimate the value of consistent, biblical preaching appropriate to the assigned readings, the liturgical context, and the congregational and societal context.

plsdeacon said...


I may have been too strident in my discussion of Social Justice. Social Justice is a result of the goal - a by-product if you will. The goal remains union with God through Jesus Christ. Making anything else the goal turns that goal into an idol because it turns God into a means to something else.

That does not mean that Christians should not work for Social Justice - they should. But they should recognize that Social Justice is not their goal. As a friend of mine said: Keep the main thing the main thing.

Phil Snyder