Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Elephant in the Episcopal Church's Living Room

Rod Webster is the Vice President and General Manager of the Church Insurance Companies (which are all wholly owned subsidiaries of the Episcopal Church's pension fund). In the following video, Mr. Webster names the elephant in the Episcopal Church's living room with the backing of empirical data. It's not a pretty picture:

Several things Mr. Webster says stand out for me, including:

  • "Closing churches outnumber new churches by 2.5 to 1."
  • "Just over 40 churches each year are closing based on the data we collect and the data we manage very carefully over the last 39 months. And of course each year that suggests that the number of churches closing is about the size of very small, admittedly, Episcopal diocese each year, offset, in very small part, by new openings."
  • " ... we anticipate, of course, a larger number of closings in the near future."

The "Episcopal Congregations Overview: Findings from the 2008 Faith Communities Today Survey," which was delivered to the deputies and bishops at the 2009 General Convention, lays out similarly grim data. As I recall, however, virtually nothing was said about any of this at General Convention.

This should be a wake-up call. But aside from the occasional rhetoric about "moving from maintenance to mission," it appears that many of us are okay with the status quo of allowing the elephant to stay in the living room. I hope I'm wrong about that!

Is there, in fact, a sustained discussion at the highest levels of the Episcopal Church that seeks to proactively address the very serious issues raised by Mr. Webster and the "Episcopal Congregations Overview" report? Is there a plan for dealing with our decline?


Kelso said...

I seem to remember when we were "The Church of Beauty" we couldn't build churches fast enough....that's what good poetry and music can do for you. Ave, 1928 BCP, Ave, Ave.

C. Wingate said...

Of course, on top of the church closings are the parish departures (which I'm wondering if he included in his statistics). These are not insignificant. And the national statistics are prettied up a bit by dioceses which are lying about their numbers by reporting stats on parishes which left several years ago.

I've looked at the parish stats in my diocese (Maryland), and they are almost without exception terrible. Almost no parish shows any meaningful increase; many show declines, slow or not. And this is in ECUSA's core area. If you can't do maintenance, you can't do mission either.

The most depressing aspect is that the national church offices seem far more obsessed with punishing the departing dissidents than with doing anything positive with what remains. And there is way, way too much self-congratulation over our "inclusiveness" when the reality is that we cannot get past our public image as being only for upper-middle WASPs, preferably politically liberal. Paradoxically this is coupled with a deep loss of confidence in our own traditions and our theology. We can't do mission because we don't have a message anymore.

Kurt said...

Thirty years of right-wing evangelical hatemongering has contributed its own portion to what is happening. Church membership contraction is not simply “the problem” of liberal churches such as TEC or ELCA but is also taking place within right-wing denominations, too (e.g., Southern Baptists). The church attendance of the 1950s was a fluke of history, not the “norm.” Well, welcome to the new, post-Christian USA.

Though, interestingly, in my own small, liberal Anglo Catholic parish in Greenpoint, membership is up within the past two years. We now have two Masses on Sundays instead of only one. Baptisms are up, too. Many of the parish closures in the NYC area are of what have been marginal parishes for decades. Major parishes (e.g., St. Thomas Fifth Avenue, St, Mary the Virgin, Trinity Wall Street, St. James, Grace Church, etc) are making out okay.

Kurt Hill
Brooklyn, NY

Fr. J said...

I think that C. Wingate is onto something, although Kurt's point is fair that this shrinking is a reality that hits traditional parishes as well as liberal ones. Nevertheless, one of the things that the national church has been saying for years is that each innovation we've made in doctrine would bring people in and stop the decline. That clearly isn't happening. That in and of itself doesn't mean that the direction we have taken is wrong, but it does mean that we cannot say that reinventing the theological wheel will somehow make us popular. I think the real question we need to ask in TEC today is what we exist for. There is no point in having an institution simply for the sake of its self.

Kurt said...

I agree with Fr. J that we Episcopalians need to get our act together. And, it’s true, leadership is important in this respect. We are fortunate in the Diocese of Long Island to have a dynamic new Bishop, Lawrence Provenzano, who is rolling up his sleeves (or, is it his lawn sleeves?) and working to reverse the drift of his predecessor. I agree that complacency is our greatest foe (besides the Evil One, of course).

Kurt Hill
Brooklyn, NY

slink said...

My family and I are visiting a local Episcopal church and we may soon add to your numbers. Hopefully the comments of a potential new member are welcomed here.

I agree with the first comment from Kurt. I live in the Bible Belt and there are lots of Baptist churches around here (Southern, Independent, and others) which are barely hanging on. Also, you don't have to do too much digging around on blogs about the Southern Baptist Convention to discover that their membership is roughly half of what is routinely reported. This is definitely is not an Episcopalian problem but one which cuts across all denominational lines.

I have noticed a couple of trends in this area and I would be curious to see if they are present elsewhere. The first is that the mainline churches in my town are built where their target demographic population USED to be. Most of those neighborhoods are now populated with Mexican and Asian immigrants. The remaining churches don't know how to reach out to these new groups and the new groups don't seem particularly interested in showing up to a church where no one speaks their language. People for whom English is their first language have moved on to other parts of town or out into the county. I see very few new churches getting started in these areas and what few are being started are independent, fundamentalist groups meeting in abandoned stores and warehouses. Why won't Episcopalians try to follow the people and get something going in these new neighborhoods?

The second trend that I see is that no matter what the denomination people are drawn to large congregations and they largely ignore small churches. It may be that the way forward for all of us is to consolidate smaller existing parishes into larger ones.