Church Planting Part 1

by George Clifford

Part 1 of 2

Incredibly, TEC started only three new churches in 2012, the last year for which data is available according to research by the Rev. Susan Snook (she planted, and is now rector of, a thriving parish in the Diocese of Arizona). Jim Naughton, reporting Snook’s research at the Episcopal Café (Why doesn’t the Episcopal Church plant more churches?) wondered why The Episcopal Church (TEC) plants so few new churches. Two factors, one demographic and the other theological, underscore the poignancy of his question.

First, the US population grew from just under 180 million people in 1960 to 308 million in 2010. That significant growth suggests that a flourishing church would also have been a growing church during those five decades. Yet the increase in US population sharply contrasts with TEC’s decline from 3.4 million members in 1960 to fewer than 2 million today. In other words, during the last five decades, the US population increased about 70% and TEC’s membership declined by roughly 42%.

Second, God calls Christians to be a missionary people. In previous generations, the missionary impulse may have derived much momentum from people believing that the only way to experience the fullness of God’s love was through Christ. Thankfully, many Episcopalians no longer believe that Christ is the exclusive path to God.

Yet that shift in beliefs does not leave us bereft of a missionary impetus. We value both TEC and our local congregations, an assessment obvious from hundreds of posts on the internet (including the Episcopal Café!) and comments from people in thousands of pews across the country. We Episcopalians find our liturgy and communal life personally helps us to connect with God and enriches our lives. If words really indicate how Episcopalians feel, why don’t we extend a warmer and more persuasive invitation to family, friends, and even acquaintances to explore – if not to join – the religious tradition and community that we allegedly value so highly?

The claim that TEC has a shortage of clergy is a bogus explanation of why TEC is failing to plant new churches. In 2009, TEC had 17,868 clergy compared to 9079 in 1960, or about twice as many as when we had one-third more members. In spite of a sizable number of clergy retirees, we still have ample numbers of active clergy. However, TEC does have a clergy distribution problem. Rural and small town TEC congregations often struggle, both to raise the funds needed to pay a full-time priest and to find clergy willing to serve in those locales (a majority of our clergy, based on their choices about where to reside, apparently prefers to live in more urban areas).

Although we have plenty of congregations, they, like our clergy, are maldistributed. Our approximately 6,700 congregations – if they had an average of 750 members – would comprise a Church of five million. Unfortunately, the US is experiencing significant internal demographic shifts. These changes have left many Episcopal congregations in locations with a static or even diminishing population. Meanwhile, numerous areas with growing populations lack a conveniently located TEC congregation.

So, why doesn’t TEC plant more new congregations to proclaim the good news to the growing US population? Scripture plainly depicts Jesus enjoining his disciples to make disciples. At least two impediments exist.

First, TEC utilizes its resources inefficiently and ineffectively. We waste much effort and money keeping small congregations in geographic places with diminishing populations on life support long after any realistic hope of revitalization has faded away. Well-intentioned efforts to develop alternative approaches to theological education to staff these dying congregations will only prolong the misery and drain additional resources. Closing these outposts can cost a great deal of political capital, but not closing them will only expedite TEC’s demise.

I’ve served a congregation with an average Sunday attendance under 20. I know how much those people valued their congregation, its worship, and its other ministries. However, two vibrant parishes were located within a one-mile radius of my small congregation. None of my parishioners wanted to ask, let alone answer, the question of whether we would be most faithful by closing our congregation and joining one of the other parishes. In the meantime, keeping the congregation alive cost a great deal of money and contributed less to the body of Christ than we would have contributed by shuttering the doors and joining one of the neighboring congregations. My parishioners prioritized loyalty to a location, preserving a congregational identity, and perpetuating a dwindling community over doing the most for God’s kingdom. As their priest, I failed to realign their priorities more closely with the gospel imperatives. Loyalty to God’s purposes rather than loyalty to place, building, or tradition best defines Christian fidelity.

Second, TEC, in common with a great many organizations, finds dealing with small issues easier than dealing with large issues. Numerical decline represents an existential threat for TEC. A growing number of congregations devote a disproportionate (often almost 100%) of their resources to paying a priest and keeping the building open. We find the latter two issues – how to reduce what we pay a priest (e.g., by reducing educational debt) and funding the building – easier to address than the overarching issue of numerical decline.

Blaming the numerical decline on either the ordination of women or the 1976 Book of Common Prayer constitutes a red herring. TEC’s serious numerical decline did not begin until the 1980s, well after both of those changes.

The real issue is that the interpretation and praxis of Christianity passed to people in the US in the second half of the twentieth century no longer speaks to people. Theoretically, every generation must claim the faith for itself, putting ideas and practices into wineskins appropriate to that generation. In fact, we tend to change the wineskins only when forced. The wineskins that I received in seminary are an increasingly poor fit in a globalized, electronically connected, scientifically oriented world. Creating new wineskins is no easy task.

Many Episcopalians, clergy and laity alike, thus choose an easier option. We find a cause to support: we fought poverty, we fed the hungry, we campaigned for civil rights, we supported the full inclusion of women in church and society, and now we work for justice for gays, lesbians, the transgendered, and bisexuals. In short, we walk some of the Jesus path. We do good things and we should keep doing them; none of those worthy tasks is yet finished. Meantime, we avoid giving too much thought to disturbing questions about who God is, how we connect with God, and how we can discern God’s presence and activity in our midst. We love our neighbor, but we do so incompletely because we ignore our post-modern world’s pervasive spiritual hunger. We are most faithful and best incarnate the body of Christ (i.e., be the Church) when we integrate loving God explicitly and consistently into our efforts to love our neighbors.

The second part of this post will offer practical ideas for reversing the decline.

George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC. He retired from the Navy after serving as a chaplain for twenty-four years, has written Charting a Theological Confluence: Theology and Interfaith Relations and Forging Swords into Plows: A Twenty-First Century Christian Perspective on War, and blogs at Ethical Musings.

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11 Comments
  1. Susan Snook

    George, thank you for an excellent essay. It is truly befuddling to me how The Episcopal Church has ignored the gospel mandate to go into all nations and make disciples (Matthew 28). The social justice work we do is terrific, but it takes disciples, usually acting in local congregations, to do that work. If we allow our church to shrink away to nothing, which is effectively what we are doing. all the work we do in God’s name – evangelism, worship, teaching, service, challenging unjust structures, caring for one another in love – all of it will fade away as the church disappears.

    I am currently at work writing a book on the subject of church planting in TEC. If all goes as planned, it will be published by Church Publishing sometime in Spring 2015. In that book, I make some of the same points you do about how the US population has grown by leaps and bounds while TEC has withered away. Not only that, but if you look at the racial and ethnic distribution of TEC, we are disproportionately and inexcusably white (Latinos, for instance, constitute only 3.5% of the TEC population, while Whites account for 87%, very skewed percentages compared to the US population as a whole). We have failed to reach out to shifting populations in the US, not only geographically but also ethnically, preferring instead to remain in our cozy, small churches where we are comfortable (lots of empty space! a pew to ourselves!).

    For those who are interested, Stephen C. Compton wrote a book called “Rekindling the Mainline” that points out that not only did the mainline denominations shrink while the population grew over the past several decades, but he believes that this decline is very clearly caused by the failure to plant new churches. Our older mainline churches were created to serve populations that no longer exist in great numbers. We have very few new churches that have been created to serve the populations that do exist.

    I am not sure why we have failed so miserably at this mandate in TEC, but I think it’s a failure of nerve – a failure of leadership. Our church has sunk into a deep and chronic depression and seems to have accepted the fate of slow fade and ultimate demise. We seem to think we have no money and no way to make these things happen. But we do have money – our church-wide budget alone is well over $100 million this triennium. What we have is a failure to use the ample resources we have in a strategic way. My book will outline how churches can be planted across the country, some of them not very expensively. It is the gospel call to us, and we need to start responding.

    Susan Brown Snook

  2. Scott Lybrand

    Our inability to start new congregations is also a leadership development problem. Parish, national, and diocesan staff need to be actively seeking out potential ministers (lay and ordained) who have the skills to start new ministries/congregations instead of waiting for those candidates to present themselves for ordination. Once those candidates are identified, we should be developing and investing in them.

    Renewal won’t necessarily come from the top down, but some national and diocesan coordination is necessary. Providing resources for training and supporting new ministers (again, lay and ordained) is too important not to be a major investment.

    TEC has so much to offer our communities. We just need to believe it and invest in our future.

  3. Scott Jones

    Your article gets right to the heart of the matter. Thank you for that. I am an Episcopal priest who is passionate about church growth. I believe we find ourselves where we are as a denomination today because we’ve forgotten that our mission, our fundamental reason for being church, is to be faithful to Christ’s Great Commission.

    I am in the beginning stages of planting a new church in the Diocese of Arizona, in Gilbert, a community of more than 220,000 people (2010). Unbelievably, there is no Episcopal church in that city and there are many more opportunities like this here in Arizona and around the country, where the church has failed to follow growth and go where the people are. That has to change if our denomination is to have a relevant future.

    There is such a great spiritual hunger in our world that can only be satisfied through a real and loving relationship with God through Christ. We, the church, have been called upon by Jesus to reach those people with that Good News. That is our mission; there is no other.

    Sadly, too many churches choose to look inward and focus more on the functions of church at the expense of doing what we have been called to do first…and they are dying. We can no longer afford to prop-up these churches by diverting our valuable resources to keep them alive. Our money is more faithfully and effectively used towards establishing new communities of Christ, in the areas where they are most needed.

    To help the church to re-learn how to start new congregations, the Diocese Arizona is sponsoring a church planting “boot camp” in Phoenix September 15-17th. The boot camp will be led by Jim Giffith, a nationally-known church planting consultant and trainer. This is open to all interested parties, especially diocesan personnel in charge of congregational development and clergy with an entrepreneurial spirit and a heart for reaching people who don’t know of God’s love for them. For more information you may contact me at frscottaz@gmail.com or go the Diocese of Arizona’s website to register.

    When we begin to focus again on our mission, the church’s depression or whatever you want to call it, will begin to lift, the Spirit will move,and the church will begin to become alive again as it was at the time of Pentecost. I truly believe that.

    The Rev. Scott Jones

    Gilbert Church Planter

    Diocese of Arizona

  4. This wonderful essay, and the above comment by Susan Snook, are the most important conversation the Episcopal Church can have. This conversation should precede any conversation about restructuring. After all, we can easily restructure ourselves in a way which continues “a slow fade and ultimate demise.” Unless we explicitly set out to restructure in a way which is faithful to Christ’s call in the present day, we are likely simply to replicate our existing problems. Restructuring to foster new life and create new wineskins will be costly and risky. Nevertheless we need to take measured steps to experiment with the development of new wineskins for a new generation with the ultimate goal of making disciples. Both Christ’s mandate and the demographics could not be clearer.

  5. Jim Naughton

    It would help me to know what role people think the national church and the budget of the General Convention should play in this conversation. (I know we try to avoid the phrase national church, but if I said general church I am not sure people would know what I meant.)

    It can be argued that the only role the national church has in the church planting process is to leave enough money in dioceses to let them do the work that dioceses alone would have the knowledge to do.

    Two cents: it is hard to get existing congregations, many, many, many of which are struggling, to pay their full diocesan assessment as it is. If they knew the money was to go to another congregation which didn’t yet exist. They might be even more reluctant.

    So how we come up with the money and decide where to put it seem to be among the essential questions.

    On the one hand, I acknowledge that it is important to plant new churches. Most of the research suggests they can succeed even if nearby parishes are struggling. However, I think those of us who want dioceses to plant churches have to realize that the church already has too many dioceses, too many churches and, once you get beyond the pension fund, endowed parishes and a few fortunate dioceses, is under-capitalized on almost every level.

  6. Jim Naughton

    Just a reminder to commenters, we generally like to see you sign your comments with your full name, and we don’t let people take pot shots at other commenters while using an obvious pseudonym.

  7. God calls Christians to be a missionary people. In previous generations, the missionary impulse may have derived much momentum from people believing that the only way to experience the fullness of God’s love was through Christ. Thankfully, many Episcopalians no longer believe that Christ is the exclusive path to God.

    While I am hardly in favor of a sort of theological “my way or the highway” approach to God, I don’t think we can discount the possibility that viewing the Episcopal/Anglican way of being Christian (or even being Christian itself) as one of innumerable equally effective ways of connecting with God has indeed stunted, if not crippled, any sort of missionary zeal that existed in the Episcopal Church decades ago.

    I suspect that not only do most people in the Episcopal Church believe that there are a great many paths to God, of which the Anglican/Episcopal way is but one, but also believe that our way of connecting with God, to the extent that they even understand it, is simply a matter of personal preference–like preferring chocolate ice cream over vanilla. There are no “vanilla ice cream evangelists” precisely because people don’t think of that personal preference as having any sort of life consequences. Similarly, if those of us in the Episcopal Church believe that we are only one choice in a myriad of similarly excellent choices regarding one’s spiritual path, what exactly do we have to recommend? I submit that most people in the pews feel more passionately about their chosen professional sports team than about their church.

    Combine the easy access to a variety of spiritual paths with the view that one’s spiritual path is a personal, private, and perhaps even inconsequential matter, and there is no surprise that we haven’t planted more than a handful of churches. After all, why start an Anglican/Episcopal spiritual feeding place when there are plenty of other places to be spiritually fed, and people who are really hungry can find their own food anyway, right? No need for us to interfere with their private and personal quest.

    Clearly the “we’re the only way to God” position is not going to have any traction in the twenty-first century world. But I fear that the pendulum has swung the other way–we no longer believe that there is even a best way to know God–much less that the Episcopal/Anglican way is it. If we have no passion for our faith and our church, why should anyone else?

  8. I really wasn’t aware that many people sharing the same denomination as me believed that Christ wasn’t the only way to God. I mean, I would never say, “You aren’t getting into Heaven because you don’t go to my church” because of the judge-not thing, but at the same time — we’re supposed to be promoting Christ here. If we aren’t doing that, then why don’t we just set up some secular community clubs?

    Lisa Jones

  9. Susan Snook

    Jim, I don’t agree that opening new churches means closing old ones. I don’t think we have too many churches – in fact, I don’t think we have enough. What we have too many of are churches in the wrong place, reaching out to dwindling populations (or more often, not reaching out to them). Each case is different.

    Take Church A, in a rural area, with no other Episcopal church within 20 miles, and membership that has been slowly declining for 20 years as young people move to the cities. There is a good argument for keeping that church open because it is the only Episcopal option on the ground. Keeping it open may mean developing lay leadership with supplemental supply clergy (retired priests who don’t mind driving to provide sacraments on some Sundays).

    Church B is in an older section of a city and there are two other Episcopal churches within 5 miles. Church B has been on a steady decline for 20 years as most of the young Anglo professionals with families that used to fill the pews aged and left the neighborhood. The population around Church B is majority Latino, and the church has done nothing to reach the new neighbors. I think Church B should either be closed (the few members left can easily find another Episcopal church to attend) and a Latino church opened in its place, or if there is still some vitality to the Anglo congregation, then a Latino church planter should be sent in to start a second congregation that shares Church B’s building.

    Church C has been slowly dwindling for 20 years, but is located next door to a bustling university. Perhaps Church C could become a headquarters for vital campus ministries, outreach ministries with the college population, emerging church worship, and theology on tap events.

    Area D has no Episcopal church at all, but it is the growing suburb where all the families that used to attend Church B, and their grown children with children of their own, now live. Area D is exploding with growth and now has 220,000 people living there (like Gilbert, Arizona!). A new Episcopal church needs to be started there, and fast. Of the four situations above, this is the only one that costs a significant amount of money (the cost of the other three basically relates to some salaries without any capital expenditures). But this is the situation, of the four outlined, that may have the highest potential for growth. And remember that a great deal of the money to accomplish the mission of the new Area D church will come from the joyful contributions of the people who attend that church. We need to be in that area, telling the good news of Christ to people who haven’t heard it.

    Where the initial seed money comes from (diocesan, church-wide, or other) is a separate subject that will be hammered out on convention floors across the church. (I am working hard on this question on Executive Council!) But the money question does not come first. The first step is to acknowledge, as one of the people I interviewed for my book said, that we have a problem we are powerless to solve. On our own, we can’t envision a way to bring The Episcopal Church out of its malaise. It is the power of the Holy Spirit, working through us, that will make it happen. We must open ourselves up to that power.

    Susan Brown Snook

  10. Jim Naughton

    Susan, I’ve worked in the church long enough to be familiar with Churches A-C and area D. Also, long enough to know how difficult some of the sorts of the transitions you describe turn out to be in practice. Which isn’t to say they aren’t worth trying.

    There are very few dioceses in the northeast, or around major cities east of the Mississippi that aren’t overbuilt. For every church that it repurposed (usually with an ongoing diocesan subsidy) there are several others, sometimes within easy drive of one another, with average Sunday attendances of 40-50. Some of these congregations can sustain themselves on a bare bones budget and some can’t. Additionally, few clergy want to spend their careers tending churches of this sort, where resources and compensation are scarce.

    Each case is, as you say, different. But in many, many cases, we are devoting significant resources to serving few people, and then wondering why we don’t have the money to do better.

  11. The politics and logistics of the church get messy when what we are discussing is intentional and simultaneous downsizing and investment in the best of times. In the present fearful climate, it feels like an impossible proposal. And yet we all here are the church geeks who like to talk about this stuff anyway. We’re the ones who wade into the weeds and help people discover the more difficult truths about themselves and about our future. It is on us to make this better.

    I can’t help but think that the logistics are our excuse, like the myth of more research equals better outcomes, rather than an excuse to kick the can further down the road. We have what feels like an impossible situation, in which doing nothing is an option with bad consequences. It is as risky as doing something; but gives the illusion of being without risk.

    Perhaps the underlying problem can be found in the expectations of our congregations and our structure, in the way we can consume church without being church. That money is what fixes problems. What if its really not about the project, but the compassion and willingness to be a blessed community. Rather than write more here, you can read a few more thoughts on this here: http://drewdowns.net/2014/08/12/compassion-church-missing-ingredient/

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