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.