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How small is too small?

How small is too small?

In New Zealand, the outgoing bishop of Dundedin, the Rt Rev Kelvin Wright has announced his retirement.  In his retirement letter though he offered that he was giving adequate notice so that the diocese might have time to figure out whether it might be too small to continue.

“The simple truth is, we, in the Diocese of Dunedin can no longer afford a full time bishop. This year we are balancing the budget because the St. John’s College Trust Board has recognised my role as a ministry educator and has allowed us to use some of the funding we use for educational work to be applied to the episcopate.

I have spoken of the reasons for the changes in our circumstances before. At our peak, back in the early 1970’s there were about 10,000 people worshipping in Anglican Churches in Otago and Southland every week. Last year there were around 2,000. In other words, there has been an 80% decline over the last 40 years. The infrastructure of our church was developed to serve a spiritual environment which has changed beyond recognition, and now we cannot sustain it. The reasons for our decline are linked to the shifting patterns of religious behaviour in the Western world generally, and to the enormous social changes which have taken place in the Rural South Island over the last few decades. In many ways we have met these challenges quite well: many of our churches are quite buoyant, and our attendances at services across the diocese have actually risen over the last 3 or 4 years but this rise in attendance has not been matched by a rise in committed membership, or in giving. ”

H/T Anglicans Down Under

This same situation is facing several dioceses here in the Episcopal Church as well.  Twenty-three of our domestic dioceses had average Sunday attendance (ASA) of less than 2500 in 2014 (the latest year for which there are stats) according to the Episcopal Church’s statistics web page.  Of those twenty-three, six had ASA of less than one thousand.  Several have explored innovative approaches such as Western Kansas, whose last bishop was also the rector of a church, Eastern Oregon, who had a provisional bishop who was an assisting bishop in another diocese or even merger with a larger diocese, such as Quincy who merged with Chicago.

The question before us, just as in Dunedin, is whether the current structures of the church are fit for purpose in our current context.  It seems pretty clear that they are not and yet change is slow and what would be best is still unclear.  If we are smart, we will look to be ahead of the change and create the structures for ourselves that will best enable us to fulfill our Christ-given mission; if we are not, change will be imposed upon us anyway by the myriad of changes happening all around us


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Prof Christopher Seitz

So 28 TEC dioceses under 3000 ASA. 28 with less than enough for a Bishop and asst. And how many under 4000 ASA?

WVA has brought in a Bishop to assist from Africa. That is good news that changes a demographic across the church not one iota.

But everyone knows that already.

The real question, as noted, is survival of a TEC with rapidly declining numbers and average age in late 50s.

Scott Westley Borden

My experience in not-for-profit organizations is that when you get into the mode of shrinking to fit it is a death spiral. Merging, closing, combining, etc. are, in their various ways, part of the shutting down process. That said, death and resurrection are always part of the Christian story – so parishes, dioceses, and such dying are not to be feared. What do we want and need from Diocese and Bishops? And does our present model deliver those well and efficiently? Could we learn from the Scottish Episcopal Church where Bishops still serve parishes for the most part? Does taking some of our best clergy out of parishes and making them Bishops make the best use of their abilities? I think there are lots of questions that, if we honestly answer, may point to radically new ways of being church.

Prof Christopher Seitz

Which bishops in the SEC do you have in mind?

Certainly wasn’t the case when I lived in St Andrews.

And remember the SEC is tiny. 28k in a country the size of SC. Hard to compare with TEC.

Marshall Scott

The problem is certainly not going away, and there are dioceses that might merge that would resist. I think, though, there may not be as many as we fear. Also, removing the requirement that a diocese must have a diocesan bishop in place to consider joining another diocese can make things easier. And, I fear that merging dioceses may end up being functionally easier, if not necessarily faster, than merging congregations.

I’m aware of local discussions of this sort. I think we need to observe them, and perhaps even encourage them, to see just how they end up working out.

Prof. Christopher Seitz

I believe the threshold for a Bishop and executive/assistant is 3000 ASA. If 22 dioceses have less than 2500, the total number with less than 3000 may be 40-45. That is a major challenge to face, not least because as canons now stand, dioceses have to agree to merge, and many are unwilling to do that. This problem is not going away.

prof christopher seitz

Thanks for your cheery account.

I did not know that the statistics confirmed that dioceses under 300K were NOT 40% of TEC.

I look forward to seeing your data.

22 Dioceses are under 2500. How big is the ‘handful’ under 3000?

And is there any genuine doubt that 3000 ASA is the threshold for a Bishop salary and assistant? No.

Michael W. Murphy

I believe it is time to rethink the episcopate. The early church had a lot more bishops. Later, the big city bishops turned the small city bishops into chorbishops (full episcopal orders, limited powers) and later priests.

In spite of their name, bishops should be teachers only. Bishops should not be overseers, not executives and not administrators! As teachers, bishops and other clergy should encourage study, free discussion, community and ministry. The bible should be fully explored. Alternate translations should be discussed. (For example, the commentator to Job 42:6 in the Jewish Study Bible, (2 Ed) states at p. 1555: The key [verse] should be rendered: “Therefore I am disgusted and I take pity on wretched humanity.” Doctrinal straight jackets should be thrown away.

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