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A Reflection on Congregational Vitality

A Reflection on Congregational Vitality


by J. Kenneth Asel, D.Min.


At the spring House of Bishops meeting, the Bishop of Washington, Mariann Budde spoke to the House.  According to Dan Martins, her colleague in Springfield, after a morning of reflection, prayer and an emphasis on personal growth, there seemed to be some dis-ease in the House.  Budde arose to address what was termed “the elephant in the room.”  She spoke of congregational vitality, saying in part,

I can’t bring myself to count the number of congregations I cannot, in good conscience, recommend to those who are seeking a vibrant expression of Christian community. . . . Many of the issues holding us back in the Diocese of Washington are spiritual.  We, like Nicodemus, need to be born again.  Many of the congregations in the Diocese of Washington offer a tepid expression of Christian life, with almost nothing to offer the very people congregational leaders say they want to ‘attract.’


I believe we ignore her observations at our peril.  After 42 years in the priesthood, I retired two years ago.  With some time on my hands, I occasionally glance at the Red Book – Episcopal Church Annual, checking in, if you will, on congregations and clergy familiar to meIt has not been a gratifying exercise!  This snapshot of statistics reveals significant decline in some formerly much larger parishes.  Of course, the causes are varied and peculiar to the local situation, but the trend is startling.


On January 4th of this year the Washington Post published an article by David Haskill director of Religion + Culture at Wilfrid Laurier University in Canada.  The topic not a new one, Liberal Churches are Dying, But Conservative Churches are Thriving. He quotes Pew Research Center from 2015 stating liberal congregations in North America seem to lose about 1m. members annually.  His own research studied 22 congregations in Ontario, drawing the conclusion that conservative theology is a predictor of growth; liberal theology a predictor for decline.  Although I wish otherwise, Haskill does not seem to be brandishing an axe grinder nor an agenda.


We’ve heard this before and there are exceptions (Diana Butler Bass’ Christianity for the Rest of Us is a good place to start).  My last two cures before retirement demonstrated substantial growth in all the secular metrics. In both cases we were recognized by the public for our progressive approach to worship, theology, social witness and inclusion.  We all know of similar and exciting examples of numerical growth and spiritual faithfulness.  That being said, Haskill’s observations should not be discarded.  His sample reveals that both conservative and liberal clergy tend to be strong in their faith.  Both work hard.  He emphasizes, however, ministry in conservative churches is much more frequently focused on making disciples than in liberal ones.


Is Dr. Haskill’s conclusion an accurate appraisal of parochial life and clerical ministry in the contemporary Episcopal Church?  Have we failed to keep the main thing the main thing, to borrow a phrase?  Is there a way to be faithful to Christ’s call to serve and change an unjust world while not neglecting the personal reasons why thousands and thousands of people still come through our doors week after week hoping, sometimes against hope, that we can share with them a cup of living water?


In her 2012 book, Christianity after Religion, Diana Butler Bass posits five events for what she terms the Church’s “horrible decade, 2000-2010.”  It was a time when resources diminished and orthodox beliefs became less important than spiritual experience to many Americans.  She names the first cause for this re-orientation as 9/11.  After an initial upswing of religious practice, many people became uncomfortable with the demonization of Islam.  I was appalled, especially as a North Carolinian, Franklin Graham’s branding Islam on Fox News as a “devil religion.”  Retribution in many pulpits replaced reconciliation.  Secondly, Bass notes the failure of the Roman Catholic Church to address seriously the clergy abuse scandal, which continues to this day, resulted in public undermining the respect of all religious institutions.  Prompted in 2003 by the election of Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire, Protestants exploded into fratricidal warfare over human sexuality, which also remains unresolved.  In 2004 this cultural warfare became a central issue in the presidential election. Writes Dr. Bass, There is ample evidence that young adults – even evangelical ones – now understood ‘Christian’ to be coterminous with ‘Religious Right’ and were leaving churches because of it.  Christian people, who once converted the Mediterranean world by being known for “how they loved each other,” instead manifested embarrassing, even sinful, behavior, in the name of Christ.


Attendance fell; labels like “orthodox” or “progressive” superseded “Christian”; reputations damaged and friendships ceased.  These conflicts often played out in divided congregations and a great many people began to question the value of remaining a part of one more quarrelsome institution.  Complicating was the final blow to the American Church, the 2007 religious financial recession.  Eroding public trust in the church reduced available resources at the very time political leaders turned to faith based organizations to relieve human suffering, driving, as Dr. Bass says, “religion into farther (sic) irrelevance.”


In the Episcopal Church our hierarchical structures tended to respond especially poorly.  Diversity no longer extended to theological expression, losing one of the crown jewels of Anglicanism.  We protected our national and diocesan structures, often at the expense of what was happening in the local church.  Pressure to preserve programs and outreach ministries flowed downward from “815” to the diocesan office to congregations.  Our natural desire for continued relevance in an increasingly skeptical society may have accelerated this process.  Prophetically Loren Mead anticipated this trend in 1998:

I don’t know anything that has become a more central idea in church finances than what we have named outreach.  It refers to a congregation’s obligation to provide financial assistance to those outside its walls, especially the poor or those otherwise hurting.  I feel congregations and denominations need to raise serious questions about the way the church handles this issue. . . . Good money is money we give away; bad money is money we spend on ourselves.  Outreach becomes a kind of new law by which a congregation justifies itself.


By doubling down on trying to maintain what was familiar about the church and its mores, we may have poorly positioned ourselves to respond positively to what was happening in our parishes and neighborhoods.  Inadvertently, in the press to respond to profound human suffering and changing circumstances which were often baffling, we all too often neglected the nurturing of disciples of Christ, which for Christians is the raison d’ etre of any Church.  Despite innovative efforts such as Godly Play, Education for Ministry, Compass, to name only a few, volunteer time and budgets for Christian formation decreased dramatically.  The same was true for available positions for educators, youth ministers and parish life coordinators in all but the wealthiest congregations.  Long term investments in disciple-making were often neglected in the middle of growing crisis in communities and in congregations.


Bass then turns to the Gallup survey of religious identification to discover data on what has changed, and fascinatedly, what has not.  In doing so, she also points to a way forward.

At the beginning of the horrible decade (1999), Gallup found people classified themselves as following:

Spiritual but not religious                                                              30%

Religious but not spiritual                                                             54%

Both spiritual + religious                                                                  6%

Neither spiritual nor religious                                                        9%

And 10 years later (2009)

Spiritual but not religious                                                              30%

Religious but not spiritual                                                               9%

Both spiritual + religious                                                                48%

Neither spiritual nor religious                                                        9%


Undoubtedly the figures will change in 2 years’ time. It is well worth noting, while the religious community has lost its monopoly on spirituality in our country (if we ever really had it), a solid majority of Americans have not (yet) given up on the connection between a vital spiritual life and  religious expression.


But do we know how to compete, or as Dr. Haskill wonders, do we even think it is important enough to try?  Expressed more starkly by Father Rolfe Lawson of St. Luke’s in Fair Haven VT, “You concentrate on being the church, and the numbers come or don’t come.  Who cares?  It’s what you are doing as church that counts in the long run.”  True.  Laudable, but I contend numbers can be a valid indication of parish vitality.  Have we reacted to the turmoil of the earlier part of the 21st century in several well-meaning, but ultimately self-defeating ways?  Joseph Britton illustrates:

Although the Episcopal Church within the global Anglican Communion may formally exist as both a national and even international institutional entity, its real life is always emphatically and inescapably congregational . . . Thanks to the imaginative leadership of my predecessor, the congregation (I serve) is one that wears its Episcopal identity rather lightly and so has a history of being willing to push liturgical and spiritual boundaries in new directions . . .


A number of years ago I stood outside with my bishop, whom I admire greatly, while we awaited to greet the arriving congregation.  He remarked that he did not realize our small town had so many Episcopalians.  I, throwing caution to the wind, replied that we had only about 50 Episcopalians and another 650 or so people who looked to St. Paul’s as their home church.


While the diocese and national church can coordinate ministry, supply sacramental and theological boundaries and impose necessary discipline, for most people in our pews the parish is the prime expression of people living out the Great Commandments and life spreading love of Jesus Christ.  Insuring congregations have ministry resources might well simply be a higher priority than diocesan or national assessments.  Might there be a better way to disperse resources to where the needs are great and where the disciples are located?


And the same can be asked about parish outreach.  At my first Outreach Committee meeting in a new parish I innocently asked if their charge was social or evangelical outreach.  Social was the quick reply.  I then inquired which committee focused on evangelical outreach and was told “We don’t do that kind of outreach at our church.”  I responded, “Who then will give all this money away to these fine organizations 20 years from now?”


I have seen churches release staff, charge for Sunday school, replace a professional musician with a volunteer and eliminate programs and liturgies so the outreach budget could continue to grow.  We do ourselves great harm by neglecting or diminishing our congregation’s spiritual and catechetical life.  Christian communities find their vitality in story and relationships, which empower those who gather to live the baptismal covenant in witness.  When funds are sparse, perhaps our outreach contributions should focus on the much more difficult work of advocacy for justice and mercy.  It is not good strategy to strip a congregation of those resources which nourish spiritual life.  Besides, as Loren Mead continues:

As I understand church life, everything a church does is supposed to be outreach.    The worship is outreach.  The parish education program is outreach.  Every activity of the congregation should be dedicated to strengthening its members for outreach and supporting activities of outreach . . . 100% of a congregation’s energy and resources should be engaged in outreach, not 10% or 20% or even 50%.

We do the world no favors writing checks to organizations no matter how worthy if the voice of Christian advocacy is stilled. Vital congregations require adequate resources if they are to serve as incubators of gratitude and generosity.  I wonder as we look ahead if a model of ministry commonly used in the Church of England or, in this country, the United Church of Christ might be worthy of consideration.  Regional parishes could provide resources and oversight for local clergy in congregations in a defined area.  Bishops and dioceses could then focus on the teaching, pastoral and sacramental offices of their order that often are important, but not as urgent as other functions.  Details would have to be worked out, but if the focus remains on the quality of congregational life and witness, it might just inject some much-needed vitality into our tired, but lovable, “rag tag army” (with apologies to Martin Bell).


I advocate not a solution, but for a conversation.



The Rev J. Kenneth Asel, D.Min. is a retired priest in the Diocese of Wyoming


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Pete Haynsworth

“Insuring congregations have ministry resources …” should be “Ensuring”? Mentioned only ’cause “farther” was correctly sic-ed in the article.

Tom Downs

Having commented earlier complaining about the editing and formatting (comment since removed), I would like to thank those responsible for cleaning it up.
If I understand the author’s ruminations, he begins by acknowledging that we are caught between shifting demographics/politics/theologies and a general loss of direction/purpose. The first decade of the 21st century was a “perfect storm”. He then goes on to suggest that diocesan/national overhead is draining the resources away from the parishes–the place where church growth really happens.
I am also old enough to remember who Loren Mead was (technically retired but still working part time). When our diocese was formed in 1995 (Eastern Michigan) it was designed canonically to put the emphasis at the grassroots. This small diocese raised 4 million dollars strictly for congregational development. We saw stead gradual growth in our parishes until 2003. At that point a half dozen clergy became the focus for dissatisfaction over what the Diocese of New Hampshire was doing. Not getting the rest of us to join them, they left and a number of people went with them. The focus then shifted from local parish ministry to culture wars. After that we seemed unable to completely regain our sense of common purpose. Despite the fact that diocesan leadership continues to push congregational development, we have yet to recover. Like the rest of the church we continue to shrink. Nevertheless, the structure is still there and we continue to experiment with new approaches. There is reason for hope.

Lindy Bunch

And great article! Important points.

Dan Justin

This is a great article providing much to think and pray about.

The challenge I face in my parish: I have been rector for five years. I have been trying to focus on discipleship and formation during my time. Prior to my arrival, the parish heard nothing other than outreach and social justice for seventy years. In fact, after finding the sermons of my longest serving predecessor (26 years as rector) in a file and reading through them, I discovered that the parish had not had any biblical preaching in that time. Rather, the sermons were a mix of gnosticism, self-help therapy, and social justice.

So, how does one turn this ship around?

Whitcomb Touby Johnstone

FWIW- I would be defined as a “Conservative Christian” by Haskell’s definition of the term, though I have voted for Democratic or independent progressive candidates in every election in which I have voted. Haskell defines a “theological conservative” as someone who believes in a literal resurrection, that God can answer prayers with miracles, and that evangelism is important. I’d call that orthodox, not conservative. Essentially, if you can say the Creeds without crossing your fingers you’re a “conservative” by his definition. His definition of conservative did not reach to a church’s position on issues like the ordination of women or same sex marriage, which are commonly held to separate liberals from conservatives within the Anglican communion.

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