Beware the ecclesial fiscal cliff

by

by George Clifford

Many, perhaps most, Christian congregations in the United States are approaching an ecclesial fiscal cliff. Unlike the expiring tax cuts and growing deficits that define the federal fiscal cliff, declining memberships and rising costs define the ecclesial fiscal cliff.

For specifics, consider The Episcopal Church (TEC). From 2007 through 2011 (the last year for which data is available), the number of parishes declined from 7055 to 6736 (6.5%), the number of Episcopalians declined from 2.1 to 1.9 million (9.1%), and average Sunday attendance declined from 727,822 to 657,887 (9.6%). The 2011 mean average Sunday attendance was 97; median average Sunday attendance was 65 (half of all congregations were above 65 and half below); and 68% of our congregations reported an average Sunday attendance of fewer than 100.

If those numbers are insufficiently grim, consider attendance in the context of finances. The average pledge in 2011 was $2410. Optimistically assuming that a congregation’s number of pledging units equals its average Sunday attendance, then the average income for Episcopal congregations in 2011 was $233,770. (Surprisingly, that assumption is not too far off the mark in terms of total income per congregation. In 2010 (last available year), average income per TEC congregation was $244,719.) For an Episcopal congregation whose average Sunday attendance was 67 (the median for TEC, with half of our congregations being larger and half-smaller), income from 67 pledgers who gave the denominational average would be $161,470. (All data from the TEC research office’s website.)

What can $162,000 – or even $244,000 – in revenue support for an Episcopal congregation in 2012 or 2013? The diocesan asking is generally 10% or more of pledge income. A full-time priest can easily cost a congregation $100,000 in stipend, housing, pension, healthcare coverage, and any other benefits. Operating a building (utilities, insurance, cleaning, perhaps a mortgage) probably runs upward, and perhaps substantially upwards, of $30,000. Allowing for other items deemed essential (audits, music, religious education materials, etc.), an average sized congregation can quickly find itself in a position of having insufficient funds to operate in accordance with members’ expectations.

Few congregations are average. Congregations with large endowments, significant sources of revenue other than giving (e.g., income from parking rentals or a school), or an unusually large percentage of above-average generous givers often have ample income. These affluent congregations, which I’m guessing might constitute 10% but certainly no more than 20% of all congregations, are TEC’s equivalent of the nation’s wealthiest 2%.

A growing number of congregations, perhaps already a plurality within TEC, are in the opposite position: their revenue is insufficient to pay the diocesan asking, fund a full-time priest, and properly maintain their physical plant. Deferred maintenance on the physical plant is perhaps the most common means of covering a revenue shortfall. Other options include spending endowment funds’ principal, reneging on the diocesan asking, and eliminating perceived “essentials” (such as a paid musician, fresh religious education materials, etc.). Many congregations rely on several of these strategies.

Each year, the speed with which this ecclesial fiscal cliff approaches accelerates. Attendance declines, expenses increase, and options for covering financial shortfalls diminish. Episcopalians’ average age, perhaps somewhere between 50 and 60, which portends growing numbers of losses from death, seems likely to compound the speed with which the ecclesial fiscal cliff drams near because TEC membership gains widely lag losses due to death and other causes.

I do not intend this essay to be an message of unrelenting gloom and impending doom. TEC has some thriving congregations that experience significant growth year after year. We live in a world full of hurting, hungry, empty people whose lives the Christian gospel and our ministries can transform.

Christmas is a season of expectant new beginnings. Persevering with business as usual is a dead end for TEC. Sadly, better management – a topic near and dear to my heart, as a visiting professor in a graduate school of business and public policy – is no panacea, not even a partial solution.

Correctly perceived, our ecclesial fiscal cliff can become a catalyst for a paradigm shift that, while preserving the gospel treasure, exchanges TEC’s anachronistic earthen vessels for timelier, post-modern vessels. Among our dated earthen vessels are:

(1) Expensive investments in underutilized (generally, used only a few hours per week) buildings that are costly to operate and often poorly located to take advantage of current demographic trends;

(2) Increasingly unaffordable and underutilized full-time clergy (though their days may be full, they spend disproportionately little time doing that for which they were ordained (teaching, preaching, administration of the sacraments) and ever more time doing what is properly the ministry of the laity (most administration and most pastoral care);

(3) Music that though beloved by the few (I number myself in this group), feels to a majority of today’s young adults like it belongs in another century (actually, much of it is two or more centuries old);

(4) Sixteenth century technology designed to empower congregants (i.e., printed materials including worship leaflets, the Book of Common Prayer, and hymnals) that now ironically places TEC firmly in the eighteenth century and seems unwelcoming to twenty-first century people accustomed to video and electronics;

(5) Theology framed in terms of Greek philosophy and first millennium debates that post-moderns neither understand nor appreciate.

Your enumeration and description of our dated earthen vessels probably varies from mine. That’s okay. In our increasingly multi-cultural world, no one set of earthen vessels will suit everyone. People who seek uniformity will probably be happier in a Church such as the Roman Catholic Church or a fundamentalist sect that emphasizes conformity.

Diversity of theological, liturgical, and organizational earthen vessels will proliferate in the coming decades. Some vessels will be tried and found wanting. Other vessels will serve well in a limited number of specific locations or contexts but not be adaptable for broader use. A few vessels may find wide use. Experimentation is the only heuristic for identifying the vessels that belong to each of those categories. This multiplicity of styles and patterns echoes the early church’s practice. It was not until Christianity became the Roman Empire’s official religion that a single set of earthen vessels emerged as the sanctioned norm. Creative experimentation will become one hallmark of good leadership.

Our historic Anglican ethos of inclusivity, pastoral concern, commitment to worship in the lingua franca, cultural sensitivity, theological diversity, and unity rooted in common prayer seems well suited for TEC to thrive in our post-modern twenty-first century world.

The promise of Advent – that God has not finished creating the world – offers hope and renewal for we who seek the transcendent mystery and wonder of God’s presence in our lives, a presence that generations of Christians have celebrated annually in the feast of the Christ-child’s birth. TEC needs leaders – our current Presiding Bishop and her successor, diocesan bishops, parish clergy, wardens, and vestry members – who inspire this hope in their preaching, teaching and ministries, motivating and empowering us to replace tired, archaic vessels with fresh ones better suited to this century. In such a Church, the impending ecclesial fiscal cliff, instead of signaling doom, will have become a force for renewal of both the Church and God’s people.

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 and now blogs at Ethical Musings.

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Clint Davis
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Clint Davis

Dr Baber, at least you're honest, and the place in which you start is the place a lot of folks start. Even if the level of interior softening never increases, such a thing is nonetheless important to point out, namely that the splendor of the liturgy is found with us and other catholics, and nowhere else, and if we don't do it, who is going to? What is not said is that there are very many folks who are not good at doing liturgy at all and instead of softening hearts a museum rite just hardens resistance. What in the world is a bishop looking for if not a person of constant prayer and zeal for the House of the Lord, and a heart to be filled with the love of God's people?

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Harriet Baber
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How many times have we heard this? BS, BS, BS.

There are plenty of churches that cater for the taste for pop culture, trashy music and self-help platitudes. Let the garbage people go to churches that cater for their garbage tastes. The Episcopal Church has a niche market for those of us who like high art, fancy ceremony and "theology framed in terms of Greek philosophy." Where else can we go?

And, guess what: more people might come if you advertised, showed the church's stuff--elaborate ceremonies, exotic rituals, fancy costume and silverware, an historical fantasy, an escape to a fantasyland of sheer aestheticism--a high church acid trip. That's what I was involved for--and because the church didn't provide those things any longer I left--and will never forgive the Church for taking these goodies away. Let it be known: the Church is for aesthetics, not ethics. Believe what you want, behave as you please, the Church provides the aesthetic experience, the fantasy world, the escape from dull reality that is the vision of God.

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Clint Davis
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Clint Davis

I don't understand why a priest wouldn't say a daily mass every day or at least most days, along with morning and evening prayer. This combined with personal meditation time, study and reading, visiting the sick of all faiths in hospitals and nursing homes, should keep a priest very busy. On Major Feasts there shouldn't be any reason why there isn't an evening liturgy said and sung (even with just one or two cantors) where anyone who wants to keep the holy day can come and receive the Eucharist. There are cathedral churches for instance who don't celebrate an evening Eucharist on Ascension, which I find absolutely inexcusable, and it doesn't matter if no one shows up, you do it because it's on the Kalendar and you're the parish church. These are the things I feel like I'm paying a priest for, because they're things no one else can do.

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Tom Sramek Jr
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This does, however, beg the question of how those of us with M.Div. degrees and trained for full-time parish ministry (and thus out of training for anything else) make a transition to either part-time work (the Protestant model) or being in charge of multiple yoked congregations (the Church of England model, and not really catching on here). In my (albeit limited) exploration, I do not find a robust support base for tentmaker/bi-vocational clergy, or those of us who may be forced to become such.

By the same token, if preaching, teaching, and sacramental services don't consume a 40+ hour week (and I agree, they don't) and administration and most pastoral care are properly the purview of the laity, then what exactly should clergy be doing with our "extra" time? Can we make a case for using increased continuing education time to train for another career? It's a challenge--and I have 15+ years to go until early retirement!

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Chris Epting
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Absolutely right on target, George! May many heed your wise observations.

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