Should the Episcopal Church go out of business?

By George Clifford

A February item reported at the Episcopal Café’s Lead intrigues me: Methodist Church in the UK to go out of existence? The Rev. David Gamble, President of the U.K.’s Methodist Conference said that he was willing to end the separate status of the Methodist Church for the sake of the “Kingdom.”

From a sociological perspective, the Episcopal Church (TEC) has suffered both a striking numerical loss in membership (almost 30%) and an even larger decline as a percentage of the nation’s population (almost 60%). In 1960, TEC had 2.9 million members, equaling 1.6% of the U.S. population. Forty-eight years later, TEC had fewer than 2.06 million members, or only 0.65% of the U.S. population.

From an organizational perspective, TEC struggles with declining revenues. For example, the national Church budget for the 2010-2012 triennium is $23 million smaller than for 2007-2009. The current recession, especially for entities such as TEC that are heavily dependent upon endowment income, has accentuated financial difficulties. Underlying the recession, the real cause is declining membership.

Less obvious although pervasive, a huge proportion of TEC’s revenue and fixed assets yield small returns in congregations whose primary organizational focus is survival. The median average Sunday attendance in TEC congregations was 69 in 2008, continuing a long-term decline. My point is not that small congregations are of less value than large congregations are, but that small congregations necessarily devote a far greater percentage of their resources to maintaining their physical plant than do large congregations. In fact, keeping the building open and maintained often consumes such a large portion of available revenue that insufficient funds remain to pay clergy adequately, let alone fund ministry and mission programs. The building, instead of being a means to an end, becomes the congregation’s de facto raison d’être.

These are not newly identified problems. Richard Kew and Roger White wrote about these dismaying trends in their 1992 New Millennium, New Church and 1997 Toward 2015: A Church Odyssey. Numerous articles, blogs, and speakers have all addressed the same concerns. Yet the downward trends persist, perhaps even accelerating in spite of the earnest efforts to reverse them by many individuals and Church organizations.

So … what if we think the unthinkable? What if we followed the lead of the Rev. Gamble, President of the U.K. Methodist Conference, and wonder whether TEC should go out of business – for God's sake?

Rather than immediately react with a heartfelt, uncompromising negative couched in expletives, pause for a couple of moments to reflect on some realities and possibilities instead of the impossibilities. First, fifty years from now the church in the United States (its worship, community, structure, facilities, and leadership) will almost certainly look vastly different than today’s church. The shift away from the way of being church that I personally cherish is already underway. In the last couple of decades, thousands of mostly non-denominational congregations, many with rapidly growing membership and diverse patterns of being church, have emerged. Living in denial benefits neither God nor the growing non-Christian majority. Pro-actively adapting to a rapidly changing context and constituency will afford the church more leeway in defining and shaping its identity and form than reactively struggling to survive.

Second, TEC is not alone in facing these challenges. Other Churches – the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and the United Church of Christ to name a few – have experienced similar, large declines and face parallelchallenges. While not wanting to underestimate differences in ethos, liturgy, polity, and theology that divide these Churches, the substantial commonalities between various Christian denominations dwarf those differences in contrast to the competing forces of secularism, new age spirituality, and eastern religions. Businesses that pro-actively respond to changing markets and merge from strength tend to thrive. Businesses that react to market changes and merge in an effort to survive rarely recover.

Third, the real work of the Church – becoming God's people by striving to increase the love of God and neighbor – occurs primarily in local congregations. A dismayingly small and decreasing percentage of diocesan, provincial, and national expenditures supports missions and ministries that would not happen if left to local parishes. Endorsing and supporting chaplains for federal ministries (military, Veterans Affairs, and prisons) is an example of one such ministry. Much of the work of Episcopal Relief and Development is another example. Instead, most of what happens at the diocesan and national levels is “overhead,” essential as a means to an end but not, per se, why the Church exists. Bishops, for example, perform critical tasks teaching, confirming, ordaining, organizing and deploying ministries but those instrumental tasks support the life and work of local congregations. As much as I love and appreciate my bishop, my parish does not exist to support him. Similarly, most diocesan and national staff offices exist as a means to support the life and ministry of local congregations.

Imagine … several small, geographically adjacent congregations of various Churches laying aside their idolatry of buildings and accoutrements to unite as the people of God, worshiping in homes, served by a single member of the clergy, and using their consolidated resources to engage in expanded ministry and mission.

Imagine … large and medium size, geographically adjacent congregations sharing a single physical plant while retaining their distinct identities, cooperating in diverse projects that might include feeding the hungry, offering different styles of worship, establishing an institute for lay spiritual formation, etc.

Imagine … seminaries and judicatory staffs of different denominations consolidating to reduce expenses on physical plant and internal administration while better serving their constituent congregations.

In 1991, while on the staff of the Navy Chief of Chaplains, I conducted a feasibility study for consolidating the Navy, Army, and Air Force Chaplain Schools into a single school. I concluded that consolidation would save as much as 35% in operating costs per annum, provide a more comprehensive program, better prepare chaplains to function in the joint environment predicted to become the norm for military operations, and still permit each service to meet its unique needs. The Chief of Chaplains rejected my recommendations. Neither the Navy nor the other services wanted to surrender control of any aspect of their programs. Several years ago, budget constraints and the new standard of joint operations forced the three chaplain schools to consolidate.

Over the last century, the pace of social change has accelerated and will most likely continue accelerating. We Episcopalians, with our emphasis on incarnational theology, should recognize that the Church, the incarnated body of Christ, is no more immutable than is a human body. Indeed, the Church remains faithful to its call as the intentional community of God's people only by adapting to changes in the larger society.

Visions of the future Church vary greatly. I proffer my intentionally provocative imaginings as a catalyst for further creativity. Nobody has urim and thummim (or even the twenty-first century equivalent, a reliable computer model) with which to discern the future. Furthermore, I’m far from sanguine about the prospects for any unified body that might emerge if several American denominations unexpectedly achieved organic unity in the next few years. I’m also mindful that most of the ecumenical movement’s twentieth century momentum foundered on doctrinal and structural shoals. On the other hand, I know that staying the present course will only lead to continuing declines. (Remember the definition of stupidity: repeatedly performing the same actions, each time expecting a different result.)

Genuine renewal requires new wineskins. Ethos, liturgy, polity, and theology are all part of the wineskin, human efforts to savor and to communicate God's ineffable, transcendent love manifested in the Christ. Change necessarily entails conflict. Out of creative, well-managed conflict over the church’s future new wineskins will emerge from which the next generation can drink deeply of God's timeless and unconditional life-giving love.

The Rev. Dr. George Clifford, Diocese of North Carolina, served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years He taught philosophy at the U. S. Naval Academy and ethics at the Postgraduate School. He serves as priest in charge at the Church of the Nativity in Raleigh and blogs at Ethical Musings (http://blog.ethicalmusings.com/).

Comments (19)

While your specific suggestions about the shape of the future church may need more discussion, your judgment about the current state of our church is quite accurate and needs to be acknowledged. It is virtually impossible to address a crisis until one admits being in a crisis. And, unlike the common wisdom about people with substance abuse problems, we do not have to hit bottom before we recognize that we have a very real problem. None of our heretofore remedies, e.g., the Decade of Evangelism, has made any difference in the decline. If the leadership to rethink our future does not come from the top, it will have to come from the grassroots, and as we see in national politics, that can be messy and unfocused.

Rather than "going out of business" I believe that the "emergent/emerging" church may well develop along the lines you suggest. A post-evangelical, post-liberal, mission-driven ecclesia committed to Jesus' program and God's mission of reconciliation. Sign me up!

It has been well documented that institutions, for a variety of reasons, will need to change or end. That can be caused either by "success" or "failure," but always by change in context. The March of Dimes made such a change when the Salk and Sabin vaccines all but eliminated polio in the United States. They found other health concerns for children. International Business Machines made the changes as necessary from adding machines to electronic typewriters to mainframes to desktops (and back). They continued to provide essential hardware, even as the form changed, and the software industry ebbed and flowed.

I think the Episcopal Church certainly needs to change as our culture changes around us. Some of that seems to be happening, at least as we experiment with Emergence themes, and as we become more facile with electronic social communications. There are a number of questions out there, including but not limted to: claiming the importance of ministries in small places; determining the role of seminary education, and of seminary educated clergy, in the midst of other choices from necessity; new models of collaboration and networking in the face of reduced resources; and engaging folks who are used to cafeteria media and dispersed communities.

It remains necessary, however, to claim and hold a central narrative of why we exist. We have a lot to work with there: maintaining traditional worship with contemporary theology; maintaining a community of educated and educating Christians; radical hospitality; etc. Each of those, though, is necessary but not sufficient as a theme in itself. We need to claim once again what it means to us to make God present so that we and those around us can be present to God.

Marshall Scott

Preach it, brother!

I believe that Christianity was never meant to be comfortable, predictable, or contained within rigid strucures. We have operated in this manner for too long and it is squeezing the life out of a way of life that is both meaningful and important.

I'm all-in for The Episcopal Church doing something that seems outside of anyone's wildest imaginations - all in the name of bringing God's dream for us a little bit closer to reality.

I think that some of the observations and suggestions are worthwhile. Certainly, everything changes, or dies.

However, I am very leery of so-called “house churches” which seem to me to be breeding grounds for the same type of evangelical/charismatic world-view which has created so much of the current pain in the Episcopal Church. Rather than “house churches” it would be better to choose a centrally-located physical plant and consolidate the small, but close, congregations into a “new entity” which can continue the best of the liturgical traditions of the past. Sell or rent the other properties to provide an endowment of the “new” consolidated congregation.

Kurt Hill
Church of the Ascension
Greenpoint, Brooklyn, NY

Should the Episcopal Church go out of business?

If it does, it will leave Eucharistically centered Anglo-Catholics like myself with nowhere to go. "House church" just isn't going to cut it--sacramentally, liturgically, or aesthetically.

Paige Baker

I'm not sure that's true, Paige. Anglo Catholics have worshipped in settings simple and grand. Just take a look at some of our monastic communities (surely they qualify as Anglo Catholics!). Incense, chant, silence, and sacramental worship can take place in a variety of settings.

Thanks, George, for this piece. I'm a little bit hesitant to get on board with the "sky is falling" verbage, as this prognosticating about the church going out of business or dying has been going on for at least my lifetime in our Church (over three decades.) Truth is, if we live into the Gospel, we are dying, going out of business, and rising again to new life all the time.

But I think it is helpful to distinguish between TEC as an institution -- one whose languishing structures are largely rooted in the post-War boom of the 1950's -- and TEC as a branch of the Body of Christ, rooted in the Gospel.

The former is already "going out of business." One only had to be on the floor of General Convention this past summer to see all the red ink and the painful layoffs and cutbacks that resulted.

The latter -- amongst God's people -- is where the Spirit will move.

Bishop Epting--but we need a priest to celebrate the Eucharist. If we are not based in a central worship space, how often will we be able to partake?

(Full disclosure: I'm married to a priest. I can't imagine how he could get around to do Eucharist for nearly 300 people a week in various homes!)

And I'm very comfortable in my living room, but I find great value in worshiping in a space that is dedicated to God and that is saturated with the prayers of the faithful. That's my issue, of course, but losing those spaces would be very difficult for me and a lot of others. It's not that we *can't* worship elsewhere, but that there is something valuable about coming together in a place that is outside our daily orbit to focus on God.

We share our worship space with a local Conservative Jewish community. It's been a great partnership for both faith groups, I think--so I'm all about finding new ways of "being church." But closing shop would be a tragedy in my mind.

The Episcopal Church has something to offer that no other church does--I know, because, in those times when I have been so disgusted with the actions (or lack thereof) of the institutional church that I wanted to throw in the towel and leave, I looked around. There was truly nowhere else for me to go.

Paige Baker

Well, it will be a challenge, but there are models of small groups who meet together for fellowship and mission but gather (weekly?) for Eucharist. And there are the mutual ministry and local ordination options explored by dioceses like Nevada, Northern Michigan, etc. Again, I don't think this means "closing up shop" but perhaps more about death and resurrection.

Well, Bishop Epting, I agree: the real challenge will be in areas such as Nevada, Utah, and Wyoming where Episcopal churches are fewer and farther apart than they are east of the Mississippi and west of the Rockies. It is in these areas that some interesting experimentation is likely. I don’t see much of an extinction threat to most parishes in our area. True, many have had to work hard over the years to survive--including my own. Now, we are experiencing modest, but steady, growth. This is something I think that most Episcopal parishes can aspire to. Most will survive the coming period--and some will thrive. Remember, the Episcopal Church has survived far more challenging periods than the current one.

Kurt Hill
Ascension Church,
Greenpoint, Brooklyn, NY

I do think that ordination will be a key piece of this if we are to move to a whole different model of church.

My impression as an outside observer of the ordination process in three different dioceses has been that only those who are seen as "parish priests" are ordained. Others, whose ministries might really benefit from a sacramental presence, have been turned away.

If we are moving away from the parish model, then diocesan bishops and Commissions on Ministry will have to broaden their thinking about just what a priest IS and what s/he does. I suspect that may be as difficult a transition as the one George has highlighted!

Paige Baker

Buildings, however beautiful, are unnecessary. Likewise, clergy with expensive seminary educations are unnecessary. People themselves can use the Prayer Book and conduct their own simple services. Eucharist can be cut back or communion can be distributed from the reserved sacrament. Sermons can be downloaded from the web from reputable sources. It really doesn't have to be complicated.

Spending most of one's time keeping a building up is not a wise use of resources.

Northern Michigan has developed some good resources on team ministry which recognizes the strengths and weaknesses of different kinds of ministry.


Gary Paul Gilbert

Likewise, clergy with expensive seminary educations are unnecessary.

I grew up in a denomination where clergy were not well educated--in fact, "worldly education" (defined as anything outside the control of like-minded, and similarly uneducated clergy) was seen as an impediment to Christian discipleship.

I don't recommend it.

Paige Baker

“Buildings however beautiful are unnecessary”

I strongly disagree. Many people, particularly those of us who have grown up in the older parts of our nation, value our historic buildings. It’s a form of bonding with past generations--sometimes generations spanning centuries. Many people come to us precisely because we offer the historic liturgy in historic settings. We might well find that the “house church” model will turn off many who otherwise might check us out. (After all, there are plenty of Baptist and Pentecostal store-fronts out there).Come what may, most of these historic buildings will be preserved and will be utilized in the traditional ways.

With all respect to those folks such as Gary Paul Gilbert, I distrust the “house church” model for many reasons: aesthetic, liturgical, as well as theological. “House churches” tend to appeal more strongly to those evangelical and charismatic trends which--let me be blunt--have caused so many headaches in TEC during the recent past. Why promote such breeding grounds?

Kurt Hill
Ascension Church
Greenpoint, Brooklyn

Gary's off at a meeting to review recent lobbying efforts on behalf of former prison inmates, so he won't see Kurt Hill's comment for a while yet. I just want to say in the meantime that I don't think Gary is a big proponent of the house church.

For one thing, most of us here in Queens, NYC, don't live in houses. Our apartments are mostly not convenient for meetings. What we have discussed is foregoing the expense of property upkeep by renting space appropriate to current numbers. Storefront congregations abound in our area. The Methodist Church a block south of the Episcopal parish hosts a half-dozen congregations from Korean evangelical to independent Old Catholic.

Gary and I appreciate traditional liturgy, good music, and a stable group of congregants. But the faithful fifty in our local parish can't pay for a facility designed for two hundred or more. The diocese has helped bail, but shows no sign of knowing how to repair the ship. None of a succession of clergy have proved magic, and their approaches have been inconsistent. So some parishioners are thinking more about lay leadership and how to maintain the presence the parish has held in the neighborhood. "House church" is not high on the list, but all options are being considered.

Dear Kurt, I don't believe in presenting a one-size-fits-all solution for all congregations. I applaud those who are able to maintain historic buildings and do mission. But if maintaining buildings supplants mission to the community then there is a problem that must be addressed.

Murdoch has described the situation at our local parish, which has lost the luxury of having both a beautiful building and doing mission. Values are often in conflict and people must choose the most important one, mission, in certain situations, such as when one can no longer pay the bills. If the choice is between no church presence in a neighborhood and house churches, then house churches are the better choice.

Lay people are not stupid and are not all fundamentalists. We are perfectly capable of conducting simple services. Teams of lay people, priests, deacons, and bishops can work with each other in new contexts. Members of a congregation can be consecrated as priests in order to provide the eucharist to their congregations, while priests with a traditional seminary education can supervise them at a distance.

It need not and ought not be either/or.

Gary Paul Gilbert

Hi Gary,

I certainly agree with you that laypeople can--and should--shoulder more leadership responsibility for parish work, including conducting non-sacramental services. As a graduate of the Education for Ministry (EFM) Program myself, I am certainly not against lay leadership! I am also a member of the Vestry of our parish here in Greenpoint.

I totally agree with you; we are not here just to minister to a self-referential circle of friends. Mission and service to others is at the heart of the Christian message. Resources are important in this regard. Some smaller congregations in our (NYC) area have adapted their physical space to both liturgical worship and programs for the needy and the wider communities. I can think of St. Mark’s in-the-Bowery (1795) which fully utilizes its historic structure, both for more traditional worship, as well as a performance space, dance studio and meeting hall for the wider East Village community. Holy Apostles (1846) also utilizes its historic space similarly for worship, but also hosts in the Nave one of the largest soup kitchens in the City during the weekdays. Perhaps you folks can make similar modifications to your church structure?

And, yes of course, not all “house church” entities are composed of theological reactionaries; unfortunately, all too many of them are.

May God bless your work!

Kurt Hill
Church of the Ascension
Greenpoint, Brooklyn, NY

What comes to mind is the word "entitlement", as it refers to church folks who hold titles the meaning of which few understand today. If churches were to combine, then those with titles, and we all get attached to titles as a means of power and prestige to differing levels of attachment, will resist change. This happened at Boeing 20 years ago when there was a movement to make the organization more bottom-up, which would effectively eliminate middle management. The idea collapsed because of fear - all fear is based on the fear of loss, just saying. The liturgical churches have run the cycle of an organization, they're in the death throes, and either they are reborn or they go the way of telegraph operators. The middle class has said what they want and the liturgical churches don't give it = a direct emotional, feeling experience of God. Dennis Bennett figured it out but no one was trained to take his place - again, fear-based passion cause his expulsion from California and his transplantation to a failing church in Ballard, WA. Look to what he did - we don't need to combine, we need to do what Jesus called us to do. Read Nine O'Clock in the Morning by Bennett to see what I mean when I say 'trained'. There's hope, but the tide of resistance will snuff out the light. Ignorance bourne of fear will rule the day.

[SnoqualmieLass - please sign your name when you comment. Thanks editor]

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