Church Planting Part 1

by

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.

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Drew Downs
Guest

The politics and logistics of the church get messy when what we are discussing is intentional and simultaneous downsizing and investment in the best of times. In the present fearful climate, it feels like an impossible proposal. And yet we all here are the church geeks who like to talk about this stuff anyway. We're the ones who wade into the weeds and help people discover the more difficult truths about themselves and about our future. It is on us to make this better.

I can't help but think that the logistics are our excuse, like the myth of more research equals better outcomes, rather than an excuse to kick the can further down the road. We have what feels like an impossible situation, in which doing nothing is an option with bad consequences. It is as risky as doing something; but gives the illusion of being without risk.

Perhaps the underlying problem can be found in the expectations of our congregations and our structure, in the way we can consume church without being church. That money is what fixes problems. What if its really not about the project, but the compassion and willingness to be a blessed community. Rather than write more here, you can read a few more thoughts on this here: http://drewdowns.net/2014/08/12/compassion-church-missing-ingredient/

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Jim Naughton
Guest
Jim Naughton

Susan, I've worked in the church long enough to be familiar with Churches A-C and area D. Also, long enough to know how difficult some of the sorts of the transitions you describe turn out to be in practice. Which isn't to say they aren't worth trying.

There are very few dioceses in the northeast, or around major cities east of the Mississippi that aren't overbuilt. For every church that it repurposed (usually with an ongoing diocesan subsidy) there are several others, sometimes within easy drive of one another, with average Sunday attendances of 40-50. Some of these congregations can sustain themselves on a bare bones budget and some can't. Additionally, few clergy want to spend their careers tending churches of this sort, where resources and compensation are scarce.

Each case is, as you say, different. But in many, many cases, we are devoting significant resources to serving few people, and then wondering why we don't have the money to do better.

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Susan Snook
Guest
Susan Snook

Jim, I don't agree that opening new churches means closing old ones. I don't think we have too many churches - in fact, I don't think we have enough. What we have too many of are churches in the wrong place, reaching out to dwindling populations (or more often, not reaching out to them). Each case is different.

Take Church A, in a rural area, with no other Episcopal church within 20 miles, and membership that has been slowly declining for 20 years as young people move to the cities. There is a good argument for keeping that church open because it is the only Episcopal option on the ground. Keeping it open may mean developing lay leadership with supplemental supply clergy (retired priests who don't mind driving to provide sacraments on some Sundays).

Church B is in an older section of a city and there are two other Episcopal churches within 5 miles. Church B has been on a steady decline for 20 years as most of the young Anglo professionals with families that used to fill the pews aged and left the neighborhood. The population around Church B is majority Latino, and the church has done nothing to reach the new neighbors. I think Church B should either be closed (the few members left can easily find another Episcopal church to attend) and a Latino church opened in its place, or if there is still some vitality to the Anglo congregation, then a Latino church planter should be sent in to start a second congregation that shares Church B's building.

Church C has been slowly dwindling for 20 years, but is located next door to a bustling university. Perhaps Church C could become a headquarters for vital campus ministries, outreach ministries with the college population, emerging church worship, and theology on tap events.

Area D has no Episcopal church at all, but it is the growing suburb where all the families that used to attend Church B, and their grown children with children of their own, now live. Area D is exploding with growth and now has 220,000 people living there (like Gilbert, Arizona!). A new Episcopal church needs to be started there, and fast. Of the four situations above, this is the only one that costs a significant amount of money (the cost of the other three basically relates to some salaries without any capital expenditures). But this is the situation, of the four outlined, that may have the highest potential for growth. And remember that a great deal of the money to accomplish the mission of the new Area D church will come from the joyful contributions of the people who attend that church. We need to be in that area, telling the good news of Christ to people who haven't heard it.

Where the initial seed money comes from (diocesan, church-wide, or other) is a separate subject that will be hammered out on convention floors across the church. (I am working hard on this question on Executive Council!) But the money question does not come first. The first step is to acknowledge, as one of the people I interviewed for my book said, that we have a problem we are powerless to solve. On our own, we can't envision a way to bring The Episcopal Church out of its malaise. It is the power of the Holy Spirit, working through us, that will make it happen. We must open ourselves up to that power.

Susan Brown Snook

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Lisa Shirley Jones
Guest

I really wasn't aware that many people sharing the same denomination as me believed that Christ wasn't the only way to God. I mean, I would never say, "You aren't getting into Heaven because you don't go to my church" because of the judge-not thing, but at the same time -- we're supposed to be promoting Christ here. If we aren't doing that, then why don't we just set up some secular community clubs?

Lisa Jones

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Tom Sramek, Jr.
Guest

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.

While I am hardly in favor of a sort of theological "my way or the highway" approach to God, I don't think we can discount the possibility that viewing the Episcopal/Anglican way of being Christian (or even being Christian itself) as one of innumerable equally effective ways of connecting with God has indeed stunted, if not crippled, any sort of missionary zeal that existed in the Episcopal Church decades ago.

I suspect that not only do most people in the Episcopal Church believe that there are a great many paths to God, of which the Anglican/Episcopal way is but one, but also believe that our way of connecting with God, to the extent that they even understand it, is simply a matter of personal preference--like preferring chocolate ice cream over vanilla. There are no "vanilla ice cream evangelists" precisely because people don't think of that personal preference as having any sort of life consequences. Similarly, if those of us in the Episcopal Church believe that we are only one choice in a myriad of similarly excellent choices regarding one's spiritual path, what exactly do we have to recommend? I submit that most people in the pews feel more passionately about their chosen professional sports team than about their church.

Combine the easy access to a variety of spiritual paths with the view that one's spiritual path is a personal, private, and perhaps even inconsequential matter, and there is no surprise that we haven't planted more than a handful of churches. After all, why start an Anglican/Episcopal spiritual feeding place when there are plenty of other places to be spiritually fed, and people who are really hungry can find their own food anyway, right? No need for us to interfere with their private and personal quest.

Clearly the "we're the only way to God" position is not going to have any traction in the twenty-first century world. But I fear that the pendulum has swung the other way--we no longer believe that there is even a best way to know God--much less that the Episcopal/Anglican way is it. If we have no passion for our faith and our church, why should anyone else?

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