New Church Planting Part 2

by George Clifford

Part 2 of 2 (Part 1 is here)

In the nineteenth century and first half of the twentieth century, The Episcopal Church (TEC) grew both in numbers of members and of congregations. That missionary impetus has dissipated; in 2012, TEC planted only three new congregations. The first part of this essay considered the demographic and theological imperatives for planting new churches and two impediments TEC must overcome. This second and concluding installment outlines practical steps that the TEC can take to recover its missionary momentum.

Attempting to reverse TEC's numerical decline can easily feel like retrenching. Instead, we should adapt an idea from Harvard professor Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, who suggests that persons needing to downsize because of financial, health, or other reasons envision the change as a generative opportunity (How to Think About Downsizing Your Life, Wall Street Journal, June 23, 2014).

On a congregational level, small congregations might envision their demise generatively by:

(1) Cherishing the opportunities for enrichment intrinsic to uniting with a larger congregation, even a congregation of another denomination
(2) Swapping the stress of trying to keep the doors open and the priest paid for the joys of engaging in the pro-active missionary endeavors possible in a larger, better funded congregation
(3) Celebrating their obedience as good stewards, easing the time and financial burdens small congregations impose on dioceses.

On a diocesan level, bishops might envision downsizing generatively by recognizing that diocesan clergy, not diocesan staff, are the bishop's primary resource for her/his ministry as chief pastor. Front-line ministry mostly occurs in the parish, yet most bishops tend to spend a disproportionate amount of time with their staff and rarely interact directly with the majority of their parish clergy. (How many rectors receive multiple calls or visits per from their bishop for which the bishop's only agenda is to encourage and to support the priest's ministry? How many bishops regularly attend deanery meetings to be available to their clergy? In what percentage of bishop-priest relationships do priests prefer, whether from suspicion or good cause, to keep her/his distance from the bishop?)

Like most of us, bishops are busy. Bishops, therefore, need to re-focus by intentionally minimizing the time spent on problem clergy, vacancies, etc., to maximize the time they spend energizing, coaching, and encouraging their stronger parish clergy. Effective bishops are chief pastors who become the wind that provides the lift clergy need to soar like eagles. To some significant degree, a diocesan bishop as chief pastor must shoulder responsibility when a congregation well situated for growth either stagnates or declines.

Concurrently, bishops and dioceses will seek to identify people whom TEC (and the larger church!) serve inadequately or not at all. Where we find those people is where we want – need – to plant new churches or to attempt to revitalize dying congregations. Adapting a regenerative focus, with the accompanying changes in priorities, effort, and spending, will provide the resources these efforts will require. Critically, revitalizing and new starts both require expertise as well as adequate financial support.

On a national level, a generative focus will seek to reduce national staff and budget to free resources for dioceses and congregations. Legacy programs continued primarily out of inertia and programs that are minimally effective, regardless of how vocal their constituency may be, need to give way to developing and sharing expertise on church planting. Unlike numerical decline, ending those programs will not pose an existential threat for TEC.

The TEC Treasurer, in his latest report, noted that 42 dioceses have committed to the full 19% of diocesan income asking level adopted by General Convention in 2012 and 39 dioceses contribute between 10% and 19% of their income. The remaining 30 dioceses give less than 10% of their income to TEC. The list recording the percentage that each diocese contributes to TEC is revealing. Some dioceses (e.g., Honduras and Colombia) are essentially missionary dioceses, underwritten by TEC. Some dioceses pledge little, probably reflecting a lingering history of conflict between the diocese (or its parishes) and TEC (e.g., Dallas and Springfield) or conflict within the diocese (e.g., Pennsylvania). And some dioceses are simply poor: ten domestic dioceses report income of less than $500,000 and another 15 domestic dioceses income between $500,000 and $1 million. In short, the declining few increasingly carry the heavy burden of denominational support.

If we don't get busy with these tasks today, a tomorrow very soon will be too late. TEC will have dwindled into an irrelevancy that no amount of heroic life-support efforts can resuscitate. New branches on the vine that is Christ will have replaced the dead and useless branch that TEC will have then become.


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.

Comments (6)

I am grateful to George for these essays, and the conversation he as started. Here are a few thoughts of my own on this subject based primarily on having served on a diocesan staff, co-authored a book about using communications strategies for the purpose of evangelism and worked as a consultant in a number of dioceses around the church:

1. The principal problem regarding church growth is that our churches are disconnected from their neighborhoods and therefore have no natural constituency beyond the people already in attendance.

2. The people already in attendance come, in many instances, not to engage in a great project but for deeply personal reasons having to do with either family matters or their own well-being and continued functioning. (This is not necessarily a bad thing.)

3. It is necessary to determine where the needs and interests of the congregation of the congregation and clergy overlap with the needs and interests of the people of the neighborhood.

4. This can only be learned by actually speaking with the people of the neighborhood.

5. A bishop's constituency is not the people of his or her dioceses, but the congregations of his or her dioceses. Congregations, not individuals, drive diocesan budgets. This makes it difficult to raise money for things that don't benefit congregations, most of which are either a) just getting by at best, or b) flourishing, but convinced that perfecting their own garden is preferable to planting a new one.

6. As a result, unless a bishop makes a significant public commitment to planting churches, it is extremely unlikely to happen.

7. It would probably be helpful if more money remained in dioceses and less went to the budget of the broader church, but many dioceses are ineffectual, and the amounts of money that would be returning to many dioceses will not be large enough to make a significant impact.

8. Speaking in systematic terms, nobody knows very much about how to make a church grow. It is a craft, like growing finicky plants and what works extremely well in one micro climate does not work in another. (Much of my thinking, for instance, is shaped by experience in overbuilt urban dioceses.)

9. Nonetheless, there are successful crafts people out there, and we need to collect their wisdom, record their experiences and try to reason toward a more cohesive body of knowledge.

10. The church has thus far shown little interest in doing this in any official capacity. So people interested in this project are going to have to do it themselves.

11. Unless, say, the next General Convention were to create a task force to take this on.

Thank you, George, for these essays and for highlighting the conversation the church needs to have around decline and growth, and the imperative of planting new congregations if The Episcopal Church is to survive and continue doing God's mission.

I don't think that church planting depends on closing old congregations, but I agree that if small, declining congregations are sapping an inordinate amount of diocesan resources (including clergy and bishop time), we should look carefully at how to redeploy those resources. Many older church buildings can be repurposed to reach out to the people who now live in the neighborhood, as opposed to the people who lived there 40 years ago (often a whole different demographic group). We should be concentrating on the mission field God actually gives us rather than the one that we are most comfortable with. If we do this, we can plant many churches without significant capital expense.

Planting entirely new churches can happen where there is significant population growth. This is more expensive, since it generally does involve capital expenses, but much of this expense will be borne by the people in the congregation, not the diocese or "national" church.

However, there are significant ways the "national" church can reconfigure its financial priorities to help support church growth and revitalization, including church planting. Our current church-wide budget devoted to Mission Enterprise Zones, though it is a paltry $2 million (in a total church-wide budget exceeding $100 million for the triennium), takes a step in this direction, and a number of new initiatives are underway church-wide because this money is available. On Executive Council, we are working hard on a budget proposal for the next triennium, and I hope it will be visionary and will take further steps in this direction. I hope that we can (1) leave more money in the dioceses to accomplish their own work, (2) address the "fairness" problem that exists when some dioceses pay their full asking but many, including wealthy dioceses, do not (and you left out a fourth category of non-paying dioceses in your essay - those who simply choose not to pay even though they can afford to and have no particular political differences with the "national" church), and (3) redirect financial resources away from non-essential spending toward high-priority mission spending, like church planting and redevelopment. This is a tall order for a budget, and Executive Council asks your prayers.

Amen to Jim's comments on church mission above.

Susan Brown Snook

Dear George,

Thank you for these clear sighted articles.
I have served in Dioceses that are not blessed with population growth and have been part of their serious efforts of revitalization. I saw it make a difference there.

There is a particular satisfaction to being located in a Diocese that is experiencing demographic growth in some areas, and to serve a Bishop determined to plant new churches there.

We are hosting a Church Planting Boot Camp, September 15 in Phoenix, (azdiocese.org). There is still room to attend. We invite you to join us.

We want to re-learn the tools of Church Planting and are praying for leaders with that Charism. But I believe that many of these skills, the outward orientation, and predisposition to actually speak of our life with Jesus, cross all congregational lines. It is the fruitful life of the Great Commission and is suitable for all followers, one way or the other.

I truly believe that is now is the time to get out of the boat and follow Jesus through the storm. This last Sunday we were reminded that the story of Peter and Jesus walking on water is not the story of Peter who stepped out and sank, but the story of Jesus who called, and saved.

Megan Traquair

I live in the northeast in an area that might be considered to be "over-churched." From the doors of my parish I can go just a few miles in any direction and find another Episcopal church. This placement of parishes made sense when a circuit riding priest attended to all of them, and when people walked or rode horses to church, but it makes less sense today. It is maintained though because we all love our own places, and "it's always been this way."

None of us are large; my parish is blessed/cursed with an ample endowment, but most of those around me are struggling, and some are just barely hanging on.

In this diocese (CT) we've been spending time dreaming -- reimagining how we might restructure ourselves to be more fully engaged in God's mission in the world. From where I sit, what we need here is not church planting so much as refocusing--our resources, our energy, our vision of who we are and what we are about. In our "listening sessions" I hear a deep yearning for freeing up our resources from building maintenance so that they might be used for mission, a desire to share our resources in different ways, a longing for more collaboration, and a wish to hear more of each others' stories.

All of this is wonderful but how to actually achieve it, even work towards it still has to emerge and be worked out. How do we help people hold onto what is essential and let go of that which holds us back (like maintaing almost empty and run-down buildings?) I hope that we will be bold enough to take the enormous leap of faith that will be required to really let go of some pieces of our past that are like millstones around our necks -- whether those are buildings or things less tangible. It is time to step out of the boat and follow Jesus into what may be completely uncharted waters.

Frankly, the reimbursement process for clergy does not promote church growth. Having high health insurance and pension costs price out churches. This is why churches are having more part-time than full-time clergy.

Moreover, I believe that the culture of ECUSA is focused on settled success than risks. When this culture changes, than the ECUSA will grow. Otherwise, it will guard its assets, spend down the endowments, and remember the "good old days."

This is a helpful conversation, and I am pleased that it is taking place with both candor and an openness to doing things differently.

Concerning practical steps that TEC can take, my initial suggestion would be to investigate the church planting structures in growing denominations such as the Assemblies of God. The AoG understands church planting as an essential part of growth, partly because new congregations create a lower barrier to entry for potential new church members. That being said, I realize that some here might dismiss the AoG experience as too far afield from the Episcopal Church to be of much use.

If we are talking about the revitalization of older congregations, Tim Keller of Redeemer Presbyterian Church in New York City has done significant work in the area of "re-seeding" dying churches. Similarly, the Financial Times recently produced this video about church renewal in the Anglican Diocese of London. Note that the growth has not been replicated south of the Thames: http://video.ft.com/3696469203001/An-Anglican-church-rebrand/companies

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