Beware the ecclesial fiscal cliff

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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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barbara snyder
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barbara snyder

(Come to think of it, the Episcopal Church may have the worst of both worlds at this point.

It now has a Sunday liturgy that closely parallels the Roman Catholic mass - which was originally designed to be sung. The old book with its high liturgical language is gone. And TEC doesn't have a strong hymn-singing tradition, either - at least not the way Methodists and Lutherans do. It does have, via the CofE, the strong cathedral choral tradition, though - so it's no accident that that's what people are talking about here.

But that still leaves the local parish church with a talky - and, sadly, often "preachy" - Sunday service that's ineffective at helping people to relax and pray, or to feel close to God. And that pretty much explains the results we're seeing, I'd guess.

Nothing a little Taize chant or something like it couldn't help with, though, I bet....)

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barbara snyder
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barbara snyder

Ann, we're just not talking about the same thing here. My focus on this thread has been on people who aren't already hooked into the faith or to churchgoing; you're talking about people who are.

Of course it's not essential to sing the Creed or the Psalm; if people don't want to do it, they shouldn't. But the examples I cited here were of people outside the church who have found that it has something to offer, via its liturgy, that helps them psychologically. Both these people mentioned sung services; I think that's kind of an important data point. (There were certain liturgical actions I saw when I first came around that blew me away, too, BTW, so I can totally identify with them!)

Lots of people sing their way through liturgies, BTW. Methodists do, and Lutherans, too; both, in my experience, love music and sing with gusto throughout their services. Christians have always done a lot of singing in their worship; Psalms - the prayer of the church - are songs, of course, to begin with. I would guess that talking through the whole thing is fairly recent, in fact.

Churchgoing isn't compulsory anymore - but faith is helpful to people. That is the new problem, and maybe it's only temporary; maybe the at some point people will return to the church, once it's finally stopped trying to gain political power, having ruined its own reputation for at least a generation.

Meantime, I think it makes sense to pay attention to people who say these services appeal to them and help them. It's wonderful - and as Clint says: all we need is already there.

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Clint Davis
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Clint Davis

Ann, I think you make an important but incomplete point, but the point Barbara is making, and to some extent Dr. Baber, is that these aren't bells and whistles, that there is something essential in a well-sung liturgy that communicates the emotional content of the faith liturgically in ways that other things just can't. The language of the BCP is so excellent that for centuries this content was transmitted by recitation and hymn or anthem singing alone, which is still mostly effective. But the sense of otherness that happens in a well-sung liturgy softens the heart in ways that go beyond words, just like all the good works you were describing do. Your point and ours are two sides of the same coin, and both are incomplete without the other.

To our Buddhist friend above, I totally understand, in fact I understand so much that I still practice Shin Buddhism. It is all about gratitude and softening the heart, about whittling away at those things we think we are in order to find out that what we truly are is as unnameable and difficult to pin down as God is, so all we can do is say is no birth, no death, no soul, no not-soul, gone beyond, hallelujah! As a Pure Lander, I look further at the truth that we cannot accomplish our redemption all on our own, but Other Power intervenes in ways we cannot imagine, clothed in light as the sun, with trains of bodhisattvas risen up from the earth to be the hands of the Undying and Immeasurable. Am I talking about the Pure Land, or the New Jerusalem? And all is made possible by true entrusting, that's where it all starts. Faith alone, grace alone. Shinran, Luther.

My overarching point though, is that all we need is there already, we just need the courage and imagination to be inventive and draw upon all our resources.

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Ann Fontaine
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Ann Fontaine

Barbara -- maybe for your experience that is liturgy -- but many have never heard a sung service - in Episcopal Churches of the rural West for instance - and the church grew and flourished mainly because women set up Sunday Schools where the story could be taught. Many churches founded hospitals and other agencies to make their communities a better place. Seeking the heart of Christ and being a witness to that heart wherever we live is our call - the bells and whistles are lovely -- but not essential to becoming a Christian IMO.

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barbara snyder
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barbara snyder

It pays to remember that most of the service has traditionally been sung, not said. This is still true at, for instance, St. Mary the Virgin in Times Square; the reading of the Old Testament, the homily (10 minutes, usually, yes! - and focused on the readings for the day), and the Eucharistic Prayer after the Sanctus are (if memory serves) the only parts of the service that are spoken.

So: sing the Sunday service. Sing the Psalm, sing the Creed; sing it all - and use modern music, if you like. Saying this stuff is not as effective, IMO; music is fun, and helps with memory too. Lots of talk and "opinion" is not effective in helping people get hooked into the mystical (or even just into ordinary prayer).

Said services are fine, too, of course - but they are, IMO, more suited to people already hooked into the faith.

Really: the historical liturgy was on to something. It's able to address all levels of commitment and participation - from those who simply want to get out of themselves for awhile, to those who want to experience God (or, perhaps better said, "the holy"), via the music and atmosphere, to those who are ardent believers. One thing can work for everybody because the church has had a couple thousand years to figure it out. That's the beauty of the whole system, in fact - and it's absurd to just ignore this, in my opinion.

Compline is bedtime music - relaxing, contemplative. It does just what it was developed to do. The Sunday liturgy can do this, too, if it's allowed to. If church isn't fun - if it's just a drag where people feel "preached at" - then who will want to come? And if they don't come, they won't hear the story at all, or ever have a chance for it to become taken into their hearts and lives.

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