Is the Episcopal Church going the way of the Grange?

By George Clifford

Ample evidence of the continuing numerical decline in The Episcopal Church (TEC) is widely available. The recent report, Episcopal Congregations Overview: Findings from the 2010 Faith Communities Today Survey, provides the latest documentation:

• Over half (52%) of all Episcopal congregations are in communities of 50,000 or fewer people and another 8% are in rural areas, a cause for concern given the steadily increasing urbanization of the U.S. population.
• The median age of Episcopalians is 57; fewer and fewer young people identify with TEC.
• Unless the median age drops significantly (or life expectancy increases very rapidly!), half of all Episcopalians will die in the next 18 years.
• Only 3.1% of Episcopal congregations have an average Sunday attendance of 351 or greater; these large congregations are more likely to grow than are smaller ones.

The picture is deeply depressing for people who value TEC. Median attendance in Episcopal congregations was 66 in 2009, 72 in 2006, and 77 in 2003 (Episcopal Café: Numbers worth watching). If that rate of decline continues (i.e., median attendance declining by 5 people every 3 years), in 15 years the median attendance will be 31 and in 30 years attendance will average just 6 people on a Sunday per congregation.

Having once taught college statistics, I know that projecting a linear decline over the next 30 years based on three data points relies upon an indefensible methodology. However, the projection underscores the dire future confronting TEC. Although some Episcopal congregations are growing, and a handful of dioceses have experienced some growth, the preponderance of the evidence clearly points to the inevitability of continuing denominational decline if not demise.

This decline constitutes an existential threat to TEC. Unless TEC reverses the decline, TEC will soon become a remnant numbering in the tens of thousands. When that happens, the media will not care, and few non-Episcopalians will even notice, what the Episcopal Church says or does. TEC will no longer be a vital incarnation of God's love in Christ. Instead, TEC will have gone from being the established church in several eighteenth century American colonies and states to being a twenty-first century anachronism.

In my hometown, the Grange has made a similar transition. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the Grange was a vibrant, influential organization that enriched the lives of its members and celebrated, supported, and defended an agrarian lifestyle and economy. Today, that agrarian economy and its associated lifestyle are long gone. The Grange Hall sits empty, maintained by a handful of elderly members who find satisfaction in each other’s companionship and in caring for the building.

Although I hope that no Episcopalian wants such a future for TEC, the denomination’s current trajectory seems inexorably headed toward an elderly and (hopefully!) companionable remnant preserving underutilized buildings as monuments to once vital ministries and missions.

Contrary to some pessimists, I do not believe that the current trajectory and prospective fate of TEC are irreversible. Change is possible. Even as a small rudder can steer a mighty ship, so can visionary leadership steer an organization. Adding the momentum of committed people and well-utilized resources to that vision will accelerate the speed of organizational transformation.

Visionary leadership begins with a simple question: What is our agenda? That question integrates vision (who we are) and mission (what we do) into an action-oriented proposition. An agenda that addresses the root causes of numerical decline may enable TEC to alter course. An agenda that fails to address fifty years of relentless numerical decline in TEC is tantamount to acceding to the denomination’s passing from influence and presence on the American scene.

Current TEC agenda items include developing rites for blessing same sex relationships, publishing a new hymnal, restoring Church buildings and ministries in Haiti and Japan in the wake of disasters, and resolving a host of governance issues, not the least of which is the proposed Anglican Covenant. Those are important issues. Some of them evoke passionate responses; some of them, such as the rite for blessing same sex relationships, are long overdue. As important as any of those issues is, or others that I neglected to mention, none represents or identifies an existential threat to TEC. None of those issues, individually or collectively, will cause the demise, much less the renewal, of TEC.

What should be our agenda?

Better use of our resources is an obvious agenda item if TEC is to reverse its numerical decline. Demographic analysis quickly reveals that TEC has resource distribution problems. A majority of TEC congregations (53%) were founded before 1901. Consequently, population shifts have left many congregations with underutilized facilities in a location where the congregation is unlikely to grow. Apart from staff support, most congregations (remember the median attendance is just 66 people!) expend the largest portion of their resources on maintaining their physical facilities (19-36% of the budget, varying indirectly with average attendance – the larger the attendance, the smaller the percentage spent on facilities). Staff support represents the largest set of expenditures, averaging about 50% of a congregation’s budget. The 17% of congregations with average attendance of 1-25 persons on a Sunday, the 36% of congregations with average attendance of 26-50, and the 66% of congregations with average attendance of 51-100 that now have full-time clergy do not fully utilize this costly resource. Similarly, a disproportionate share of diocesan resources supports a small congregation (episcopal visits, deployment issues, etc.).

From an objective, statistical perspective the analysis proceeds easily. Identify congregations that waste resources based on average Sunday attendance. Then find and implement a creative alternative. Some congregations could merge, with either another TEC congregation or a congregation with whom TEC has intercommunion. Other TEC congregations could yoke together, establishing team ministries, as is increasingly happening in the Church of England. In both cases, congregations could cede surplus assets to the diocese and utilize revenues, previously expended on building maintenance and staff support, to fund mission. Dioceses, serving fewer congregations, would also have more resources for mission.

However, these are not new ideas; TEC has rarely implemented any of these ideas. The real agenda in TEC is not maximizing our participation in God's transformative activity. The real agenda, though generally unspoken and unacknowledged, is self and local congregation. Institutional and personal inertia, emotional attachments to buildings, and Churchmanship modeled on the eighteenth and nineteenth century Church of England all represent substantial barriers to change. As readily apparent from meeting agendas and budgets, congregations and their members invest themselves and their resources more in building maintenance than mission; TEC and dioceses similarly invest themselves more in institutional maintenance than mission.

I am not arguing, à la Rick Warren and The Purpose Drive Life, that the Church’s purpose is evangelism. I am passionate about making a difference in the world. I believe that the Church should incarnate God's love for the world, modeling in community the abundant new life that God wants people to enjoy and offering living water, literally and figuratively, to a world dying of thirst. TEC talks a great deal about this or a similar vision for itself. Yet we fail to incarnate that vision. In truth, we are more about maintaining the status quo than about transforming the world. A dying church unavoidably sends the opposite message. A dying church dissipates its precious resources in a losing campaign to maintain an increasingly lifeless institution.

Yet, we in TEC have some cause for hope. The Episcopal congregations most likely to have experienced numerical growth in the past decade are large and very liberal congregations, according to the 2010 Faith Communities Today Survey. A Church committed to ongoing renewal, a Church that seeks to live ever more fully into love for God and others, and a Church that recognizes that theology, worship, and resources are but earthen vessels is a Church that will become an increasingly vibrant and alive incarnation of the body of Christ. I want this future, this agenda, for TEC. I believe God wants this future, this agenda, for TEC.

George Clifford, a priest in the Diocese of North Carolina. He served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years, is now a visiting professor of ethics and public policy at the Naval Postgraduate School, and blogs at Ethical Musings (http://blog.ethicalmusings.com/).

Comments (6)

What concerns me more is TEC is fast becoming an "urban" church. Rural people need inclusivity too--maybe as much or more as urban ones.

What I hear the naysayers saying is "those people don't live in rural areas." To that, I say, "Bull." No parents of gay children in rural areas? No gays? No poor? No bullied? No one living in poverty? I doubt it.

But I am also convinced the future of TEC is not in "steepled" places. I think we need to consider different (and "microbrew" ways) of putting TEC's presence in rural areas.

Not everyone seeking God in rural America is a stereotypical "red state" Christian.

You need to visit Wyoming and see the vibrant churches with full ministry staff - lay and ordained. Just have to catch a new vision. Yoking was impossible when churches are 75 to 100 miles apart and buying a priest for every place was not feasible. Get creative for great ministry in both rural and urban ministry.

"If what they have planned and done is of human origin, it will disappear,
but if it comes from God, you cannot possibly defeat them." I agree with much of what you have to say. I have been part of four parishes in three states and all have been growing, dynamic, multigenerational congregations. They don't have much in common beyond a focus on spiritual discipline and growth in faith in community. I firmly believe that those places and many like them will continue to do well and that Anglicanism in America won't go away.

But we should be thoughtful about the ways in which we shift our ecclesiology so that we don't lose sight of who we are or that our clergy are called to the whole church and not just a particular congregation.

Also, though we shouldn't devolve to building preservation societies, I think you underestimate the value and power of the symbol of many of our church buildings in the public space. The problem there though is that so many of our churches were not built to be part of the community but to be a shelter from the community.

I don't see the point in mourning for the loss of an established church. The Constantinian model for the church implies identification with the powerful. In the 1950s, The Episcopal Church was very popular in this country but I don't think many people would say it was better. One need not be Soren Kierkegaard to see the contradiction in traditional Christianity. Merging congregations sounds like a last-ditch effort to maintain priest-centered parishes.

Ann, Your description of ministry in Wyoming sounds exciting and very important!


Gary Paul Gilbert

It's rather antique to be even talking about "mourning for the loss of an established church" in a country that has never had one, Episcopal delusions notwithstanding. And it's really time to pry the cold dead hands of 18th-19th century European philosophy off the throat of the church.

And anyway, saying what the agenda of ECUSA is pretty pointless in an organization which is so much at odds with itself. Right now it appears that 815's main aim is to injure its rebels; meanwhile we have this whole chaplaincy to homosexuals thing going.

The subtext everywhere is that, more and more, the laity is thinking of the hierarchy as a destructive force. They espouse various heresies; they screw up the prayer book; they force problematic clergy on us; and they close our churches. And some large portion of the clergy are their allies, so they are problems too.

This is really the institutional strategic question: how many congregations and leaders will discover renewed vitality by being liberal disciples of Christ, and how many will wither amidst forms we are attached to that do not in themselves, bring us a hopeful future.

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