by George Clifford
Part 1 of 2
Incredibly, TEC started only three new churches in 2012, the last year for which data is available according to research by the Rev. Susan Snook (she planted, and is now rector of, a thriving parish in the Diocese of Arizona). Jim Naughton, reporting Snook’s research at the Episcopal Café (Why doesn’t the Episcopal Church plant more churches?) wondered why The Episcopal Church (TEC) plants so few new churches. Two factors, one demographic and the other theological, underscore the poignancy of his question.
First, the US population grew from just under 180 million people in 1960 to 308 million in 2010. That significant growth suggests that a flourishing church would also have been a growing church during those five decades. Yet the increase in US population sharply contrasts with TEC’s decline from 3.4 million members in 1960 to fewer than 2 million today. In other words, during the last five decades, the US population increased about 70% and TEC’s membership declined by roughly 42%.
Second, God calls Christians to be a missionary people. In previous generations, the missionary impulse may have derived much momentum from people believing that the only way to experience the fullness of God’s love was through Christ. Thankfully, many Episcopalians no longer believe that Christ is the exclusive path to God.
Yet that shift in beliefs does not leave us bereft of a missionary impetus. We value both TEC and our local congregations, an assessment obvious from hundreds of posts on the internet (including the Episcopal Café!) and comments from people in thousands of pews across the country. We Episcopalians find our liturgy and communal life personally helps us to connect with God and enriches our lives. If words really indicate how Episcopalians feel, why don’t we extend a warmer and more persuasive invitation to family, friends, and even acquaintances to explore – if not to join – the religious tradition and community that we allegedly value so highly?
The claim that TEC has a shortage of clergy is a bogus explanation of why TEC is failing to plant new churches. In 2009, TEC had 17,868 clergy compared to 9079 in 1960, or about twice as many as when we had one-third more members. In spite of a sizable number of clergy retirees, we still have ample numbers of active clergy. However, TEC does have a clergy distribution problem. Rural and small town TEC congregations often struggle, both to raise the funds needed to pay a full-time priest and to find clergy willing to serve in those locales (a majority of our clergy, based on their choices about where to reside, apparently prefers to live in more urban areas).
Although we have plenty of congregations, they, like our clergy, are maldistributed. Our approximately 6,700 congregations – if they had an average of 750 members – would comprise a Church of five million. Unfortunately, the US is experiencing significant internal demographic shifts. These changes have left many Episcopal congregations in locations with a static or even diminishing population. Meanwhile, numerous areas with growing populations lack a conveniently located TEC congregation.
So, why doesn’t TEC plant more new congregations to proclaim the good news to the growing US population? Scripture plainly depicts Jesus enjoining his disciples to make disciples. At least two impediments exist.
First, TEC utilizes its resources inefficiently and ineffectively. We waste much effort and money keeping small congregations in geographic places with diminishing populations on life support long after any realistic hope of revitalization has faded away. Well-intentioned efforts to develop alternative approaches to theological education to staff these dying congregations will only prolong the misery and drain additional resources. Closing these outposts can cost a great deal of political capital, but not closing them will only expedite TEC’s demise.
I’ve served a congregation with an average Sunday attendance under 20. I know how much those people valued their congregation, its worship, and its other ministries. However, two vibrant parishes were located within a one-mile radius of my small congregation. None of my parishioners wanted to ask, let alone answer, the question of whether we would be most faithful by closing our congregation and joining one of the other parishes. In the meantime, keeping the congregation alive cost a great deal of money and contributed less to the body of Christ than we would have contributed by shuttering the doors and joining one of the neighboring congregations. My parishioners prioritized loyalty to a location, preserving a congregational identity, and perpetuating a dwindling community over doing the most for God’s kingdom. As their priest, I failed to realign their priorities more closely with the gospel imperatives. Loyalty to God’s purposes rather than loyalty to place, building, or tradition best defines Christian fidelity.
Second, TEC, in common with a great many organizations, finds dealing with small issues easier than dealing with large issues. Numerical decline represents an existential threat for TEC. A growing number of congregations devote a disproportionate (often almost 100%) of their resources to paying a priest and keeping the building open. We find the latter two issues – how to reduce what we pay a priest (e.g., by reducing educational debt) and funding the building – easier to address than the overarching issue of numerical decline.
Blaming the numerical decline on either the ordination of women or the 1976 Book of Common Prayer constitutes a red herring. TEC’s serious numerical decline did not begin until the 1980s, well after both of those changes.
The real issue is that the interpretation and praxis of Christianity passed to people in the US in the second half of the twentieth century no longer speaks to people. Theoretically, every generation must claim the faith for itself, putting ideas and practices into wineskins appropriate to that generation. In fact, we tend to change the wineskins only when forced. The wineskins that I received in seminary are an increasingly poor fit in a globalized, electronically connected, scientifically oriented world. Creating new wineskins is no easy task.
Many Episcopalians, clergy and laity alike, thus choose an easier option. We find a cause to support: we fought poverty, we fed the hungry, we campaigned for civil rights, we supported the full inclusion of women in church and society, and now we work for justice for gays, lesbians, the transgendered, and bisexuals. In short, we walk some of the Jesus path. We do good things and we should keep doing them; none of those worthy tasks is yet finished. Meantime, we avoid giving too much thought to disturbing questions about who God is, how we connect with God, and how we can discern God’s presence and activity in our midst. We love our neighbor, but we do so incompletely because we ignore our post-modern world’s pervasive spiritual hunger. We are most faithful and best incarnate the body of Christ (i.e., be the Church) when we integrate loving God explicitly and consistently into our efforts to love our neighbors.
The second part of this post will offer practical ideas for reversing the decline.
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.