Why doesn’t the Episcopal Church plant more churches?

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The Rev. Susan Brown Snook of the Diocese of Arizona is writing a book about church planting. Today on her Facebook page she wrote:

As part of my research, I have discovered the following utterly shocking statistic. In 2012 (the most recent year for which we have parochial report data available), in the entire Episcopal Church, THREE new congregations were added. That number again is 3.

This led, as you might imagine to quite a bit of conversation about why the Episcopal Church has devoted so few resources to church planting.

I wrote: “I am only mildly surprised. I don’t think we can plant more [churches] until we close more [churches] freeing up assets and energy. But closing and merging parishes requires a bishop to spend a lot of political capital, so I can understand why many avoid doing so.”

But I am also wondering whether the church–perhaps rightly, in some instances–is hesitant to plant more congregations because most traditional congregations are in decline. I am not arguing that decline is inevitable everywhere, or that church planting isn’t important, but I think we do have to reflect, as a church, on what kind of communities we are attempting to foster, and what sorts of models are most viable.

if you were attempting to start an Episcopal community in your area, would you assume a traditional congregation could be successful (Susan’s certainly is.) or would you go in a different direction?

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Enzyte Bob
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Enzyte Bob

Ummm ... you think the fact that only three parishes have been planted is because older parishes haven't been closed or merged? It has nothing to do with the leftist agenda of the church hierarchy?

People like me don't hate gays, but we are traditionalists. We don't want to know about who someone is sleeping with and we don't want to bring the secular world into church.

As far as I'm concerned, the Eastern Orthodox Churches have it right. They stay out of politicking and pop culture and stick to being the keepers of the faith.

[Enzyte Bob - please sign your name when you comment - thanks]

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Geoffrey McLarney
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Geoffrey McLarney

"Every objection I hear to planting new congregations is some version of one of those underlying assumptions."

Only if there were some rule that ministering to people "outside the church" has to be literal: constructing new buildings to do so at another location. There will undoubtedly be places where the limitations of the facilities mean that this is the case - and I assume these are the situations where successful church plants happen - but there is no reason why it is so on principle. Otherwisem, it just sounds like snobbery ("we might consider joining an Episcopal church as long as we get our own and don't have to hobnob with that moribund old guard").

My last parish had a very small congregation, not considered "viable" by the diocese on paper and yet indispensable to it because of the number of people in the neighbourhood it feeds on a weekly basis. This is a parish that has a strong sense of its obligations to the community outside it.

Church-planting, on the other hand, fairly explicitly assumes that the goal and barometer of success is bums in pews. After all, if you "root out" that assumption, then the tininess of parishes isn't a "problem", and church plants aren't needed to "solve" it.

I'm not a missiologist, but I did learn to clear my plate before I ask for seconds. If we're struggling to attract members in the churches we have, I'm not sure whence the confidence that "if we build it, they'll come." We live in a post-Christendom society and there are a number of reasons why we can expect to serve a lopsided constituency with a lower ratio of members. I wish I were optimistic enough to believe that not having more shiny new physical plants is a significant one.

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Eric Bonetti
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Eric Bonetti

It is interesting to compare the discussion here with the actions of The Falls Church, Anglican, which since its split with TEC in 2006 has single-handedly planted seven churches if memory serves. Their Timothy program focuses not on closing and opening churches, but rather on the 100 million plus unchurched Americans, and what they term "refugees" from TEC.

A PowerPoint on their program is at: http://www.tfcanglican.org/uploads/1000Churches_REVl2010_07_19.pdf

Notably, there's no sign in their materials of bickering, or assumptions that church planting involves raiding existing parishes. Indeed, the program appears to be something of a win-win; the parish "donates" members to the planted church, who I am told often get to attend church closer to home as a result. And lots of discussion about strategic planning and training....although I find the bit about TEC refugees having "bad DNA" amusing....rather like the mark of Cain, I suppose.

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Adam Wood
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It seems to me that there are two underlying problems in these discussions, two assumptions or points of view that are so ingrained in those in leadership throughout the Church that they inform and pervert every conversation about growth and planting:

1. Seeing congregations as essentially liabilities rather than assets.

2. Seeing the mission of a parish or congregation as primarily ministering to existing Episcopalians.

Every objection I hear to planting new congregations is some version of one of those underlying assumptions.

A tiny handful of enthusiastic planters and growth hackers throughout the Church have been able to do wonderful things because they have cast aside these notions, or never held them in the first place.

If we wish for the entire Church to grow and renew itself, these assumptions need to be rooted out among the leadership at all levels.

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Lara
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Lara

Susan, thank you for your work and for sharing your insights.

Does the dailyoffice.org count as a church plant? It's a faith community - a source for discipleship and encouragement. A congregation gathers each day for liturgy.

How about development of a Hispanic / Spanish language congregation and ministry within an existing Parish / building?

I think in the present and more so in the future there are emerging ways of doing church / being the church. Part of the challenge is updating the yardstick for measuring growth and vitality to recognize and reflect this.

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