The collapse is here

The following was written by the Rev. Tom Ferguson for his blog Crusty Old Dean and is reprinted with permission. The original may be found here. Tom’s views, while they coincide with those of Anglican Watch, are entirely his own and do no represent the views of his parish, his wife, or his dog.

The collapse is here.

Crusty has noticed some buzz in the interbloggerwebotwitfacesphere around the Episcopal Church’s release of annual membership statistics. The news, friends, continues to be not good, very bad, alarming, four horsemen of the apocalypse, dogs and cats living together, bad.

Hey!  I wrote that sentence in 2016!

Turns out the super rich are more numerous than Episcopalians.

Hey!  I wrote that sentence in 2011!

Collapse, my friends.  That’s what’s coming.

Hey!  I wrote that in 2012!

As Phil predicted: It’s going to be cold, dark,
and last the rest of your life.


In what is becoming a Groundhog-Day esque experience, the Episcopal Church has onceagain released its membership numbers, and once again, it is VERY bad.

Some of the current cover-your-eyes numbers:

From 2008-2018, average Sunday attendance has dropped nearly 25%, to about 562,000.  By comparison, in the year 2003, it was 858,000.

We have more parishes with an average attendance of less than 10 persons than we do with congregations with attendance of 300 or more.

And this is not taking into account other demographics, such as we are about 87% Anglo when the United States is about 62% Anglo, and the average age of an Episcopalian in 57 in when in the United States the average age is about 37.  We are old and white in a missional context that is less old and less white.

The numbers continue to be terrible overall.  Some provinces have declined 30% in average Sunday attendance in the past decade.  To be sure, these are aggregate numbers.  A couple of dioceses have shown small growth.  Some parishes, no doubt, are growing.  But overall we simply cannot ignore the trends.

In the past decade I have blogged on these issues here, here, here, herehere, and probably some other places I’ve forgotten. I’ve also given presentations at clergy conferences and even at a state Council of Churches annual meeting on issues of denominational collapse.

I’ve noticed a kind of cycle here. When the membership and attendance numbers get released, what usually happens is there is a flurry of debate about the “reasons” for the decline: some of it on target, some of it ridiculous, but despite a general understanding of the state of our situation, overall a general state of unwillingness to engage the issues in any substantive ways has settled in.  The Episcopal Church membership statistic release conversation is almost like the way American society has its gun debate after mass shootings:  a flurry of the same statements being made, then the whole conversation just goes away in a week or so.

Here’s a brief rundown of some of the reasons for the decline:

1)  The Episcopal Church did not keep up with movements in population.  Approximately 12-13% of Episcopal Churches were founded after 1968.  We have had massive population shifts to the South, Southwest, and West, and simply never kept up with those shifts.  New Haven, CT has a population of 130,000 and 7 Episcopal churches.  Mesa, Arizona, has a population of nearly 500,000 and 2 Episcopal churches.  (Yes, I know New Haven has a greater metro population — but so does Mesa.  Not an exact analogy, just an illustration.)  I once was living in a diocese whose generally population had nearly doubled in 30 years but had not planted a single successful church in those 30 years.

2)  Demographics.  As noted above, we are older and whiter than the society as a whole.  Of course we’re shrinking when we’re old and white in a country that’s less old and less white.  There’s a similar dynamic in seminary enrollments.  Looking at the aggregate numbers of the 200+ seminaries accredited by the Association of Theological Schools, the number of people enrolled in accredited seminaries has dropped.  Yet if you look at the seminaries that are the most diverse, their numbers have increased.

3)  Conflict.  This one gets spun a lot: the whole canard that liberal churches are shrinking and conservative churches are growing, and liberal churches are shrinking because millions are leaving over disagreements on human sexuality.

Conservative churches are shrinking.  The Southern Baptists have been losing members for nearly a decade.  The Catholic Church’s Anglo-membership numbers track very closely with the Episcopal Church’s losses, and the Catholic Church is only barely holding steady because of growth among non-Anglo members.

Yes, the Episcopal Church has lost members due to conflict.  We shouldn’t be pollyannish about that.  But making it somehow the central, core reason simply doesn’t hold up to any reasonable demographic or statistical scrutiny.  For instance the single biggest drop in Episcopal Church membership in the past 40 years — 400,000 + members — has come not from conflict, but from former overseas missionary dioceses becoming either independent or linking up with other Anglican provinces (Philippines, Panama, Liberia, etc.).

4)  Secularization.  Church attendance collapsed in Europe in the past 75 years as it has become a largely secularized, post-Christian society.  It has collapsed Ireland in the past generation, going from having one of the highest rates of church attendance of any culturally Western society to now looking more and more like the rest of Europe.  We are well into the post-Christian secularization in the United States.

5)  Toxicity of Christianity.  To a large portion of the un-churched culture, Christianity is seen as toxic.  The Pew Research Forum and Barna Group have both done extensive studies of un-churched attitudes towards Christianity.  In a Barna Group survey, the top words associated with Christians by un-churched persons are “hypocritical” and “judgmental”.

6)  The end of denominationalism, with the whole model established in the 1500s coming to the end of its historical life cycle.  (And BTW — good riddance, denominationalism!  It was birthed out of empire, ethnicity, class, and regional differences.  We can still share our different Christian charisms and leave that balkanization of Christianity behind!)  In fact, we need to go all-in on ecumenical cooperation and collaboration precisely at a time when many are privileging our distinctivenesses.

This is not an exhaustive list, there are many other factors; nor have I done justice to all the aspects and elements of the ones I outline here.  Scroll through the old blog posts referenced above, check out the very good work of Pew and Barna in these areas.  (Note: while Barna does important demographic and statistical analysis, I do not often agree with the strategies the suggest for addressing the decline.)

So we actually don’t need a lot of think pieces:  members are dying and we are not replacing them.  It’s pretty straightforward.

And what’s even more terrifying: the many folks just don’t seem to care.  I’ve been in parish ministry for several years now and frankly have been terrified by most of the reaction when we have conversations about this stuff.  It seems to fall into several areas, these are comments I’ve heard in various places in the past 4 years since I’ve been in parish ministry:

–Refusal to engage.  I had a clergy person stand up and say (paraphrase): “Attendance doesn’t matter, what matters is the ways in which we are changing the lives of our members for the better.”

Actual photo from most church conversations
about membership statistics.

–Technical fixes.  Another colleague who said, “What we need is a new hymnal, people don’t like old hymns from the 1800s.”

–Understanding the situation perfectly well but not caring.  Another colleague said, “I’m only 5 years from retirement I just don’t have the energy to do any of what we need to do to grow the parish.”

–Knowing perfectly well what needs to be done but unable to do it.  I have a bishop who’s a friend who said, “I need to create yoked congregations and pair up about half the parishes in my dioceses yet given our polity hardly any of them will do it so they’re probably just going to close and we’ll have a bunch of empty buildings in 25 years.”

–Worshipping our governance as a way forward.  I’ve seen dioceses reorganize their deaneries thinking that’ll do it. We spend millions on General Convention which has done next to nothing on church revitalization and growth.  We decided to be “nimble” and got rid of all almost all of the Committees, Commission, Agencies and Boards (CCABs) in 2012.  At the end of the 2018 General Convention, we had re-created and re-established more task forces than we had CCABs in 2012.  We were also spending more money on them than we did in 2012, and all without the clearly defined mandates, membership composition, and lines of accountability that the old CCABs had.  General Convention does what it is set up to do, and addressing our collapse is not one those things.

In his systems theory work, Ed Friedman identified two aspects of anxious religious systems that come back to me again and again:

–Just because you may be right about something, don’t think that will get you anywhere or convince anyone.

–A system may clearly know exactly what they are facing, may be well informed as to their options, and may still choose to do nothing, or even choose the option that will lead to their death.

Crusty sees plenty of both of these behaviors Friedman noted in many explicit and implicit statements and actions, both in the Episcopal Church and with ecumenical partners.

So after 8 years of blogging on this, and four years on the front lines in parish ministry, I have become more convinced that we are well into The Collapse.  I wrote this from the blog several years ago:


For Jared Diamond [in Guns Germs and Steel: the Fates of Human Societies], there are a number of reasons why societies collapse.  Some are outside, unexpected, and catastrophic:  how would Native American cultures, some large and elaborate like the Aztecs, know that in a few years some outlandish looking people from out of nowhere would suddenly arrive and decimate 90% of their population with germs they had no immunity to?  Many, many societies, however, collapse due in large part to decisions of their own making.  For instance,

Societies collapse because they can presume the out-of-ordinary to be normal, and are unwilling or unable to adapt when things change.  As an example of this he cites Native American civilizations in what is now the American southwest.  Scientists have been able to demonstrate that, at times, the American southwest suffers through catastrophic droughts, lasting years and years, almost like the seasons on Westeros (read Diamond to see the science, read George R.R. Martin to learn more about seasons on Westeros).  Native American cultures overbuilt during good years, and, when the drought set in, were unwilling to believe what was happening or unwilling or unable to adapt — and thus the civilization died out.

So one problem is taking the blips, the anomalies, to be normative.  COD is convinced that the Episcopal Church has, in a way, done something similar.  We have taken the period from 1950-1990 (give or take a few years) as somehow a normative and determinative time period — what it means to be the Episcopal Church is what occurred during this period — when, in fact, it was a blip, an anomaly.

Any perusal into the history of the Episcopal Church prior to this period will reveal a litany of concerns.  Just to name a few:  For one, it wasn’t until the period around WW I that the Episcopal Church had more ordained clergy than lay readers.  The church had a chronic and persistent clergy shortage for most of its existence, which, in turn, impeded its ability to engage in domestic and foreign missions, which, in turn, impeded effort at growth.  For another, there were chronic struggles adequately to establish institutions.  Colleges, schools, and seminaries opened and closed.  William Augustus Muehlenberg, considered one of the foremost presbyters of this church in the 1800s, founded a series of institutions that flopped for every St Luke’s Hospital that eventually thrived.  Dioceses were established that were unsustainable and had to be re-merged with other dioceses (Duluth; Western Nebraska; we could name some more).  Seems, at times, we have forgotten all of this.  The thought of a diocese merging with another is seen as some unimaginable failure rather than something which happened not unfrequently.  We fret about finding enough resources to meet missional needs, without remembering that the first incarnation of the DFMS was so woefully underfunded that the whole thing was scrapped.

The experience of Anglicanism in the United States has been one of chronic struggle for most of its existence.  The same William Augustus Muehlenberg presented a memorial (in essence a resolution) to the 1853 General Convention lamenting that the Episcopal Church was simply missing the boat on what was happening in the USA and was going to lose out on the opportunities for mission and evangelism, thus jeopardizing its future (any of this sound familiar?).  The General Convention referred it to a committee, and, three years later, rejected any of the suggestions for more dramatic, structural changes and basically only approved the option of allowing Morning Prayer and the Communion service to be used as separate and distinct forms of worship (at a time when MP, Litany, Ante-Communion/Liturgy of the Word, and Communion were often the order of the day on communion Sundays).  Hmmm…General Convention reluctant to act on a proposal for significant change in the face of struggles of the church to accommodate to massive changes in society?  Thank goodness that’ll never happen again.

So one major problem is that we embrace the blip — 1950-1990, when the church grew, in part because of positive steps and actions taken, but in part due to factors utterly beyond our control, like a population surge in our core demographic — as normative.  This includes taking things like establishing a large centralized church organization headed by a CEO in New York City as thenormative way to organize for mission, because the 1950-1990 period was also a time of consolidation and coordination by centralized institutions, in both church and society.  We look back on this period from 1950-1990 as normative, when one could argue, if anything, it was out of the ordinary for our experience.  For almost all of its existence prior to 1950, the Episcopal Church was a collection of affinity based networks (dioceses, missionary organizations, etc.) loosely connected and coordinated.

It’s important to note there’s nothing inherently wrong with assuming the anomaly is normative, it happens to almost all organizations and cultures at some time.  It’s how you react when the real normal comes back, or when a new normal emerges, which is important.

In fact, if you want to draw the circle even wider, one could argue that we are witnessing the end of another blip:  the whole period from 500-1900 or so when Christianity held a privileged place in North American and Western societies.  First beginning in Europe in the 1800s and 1900s, waves of secularization are coming ashore in the USA.  This is going to wash away many notions in the West of what the church should be: a building belonging to an organization people join and hire a clergy person to minister to them which in turn is part of cluster of churches holding vaguely similar beliefs that pretends the culture as a whole thinks it has something to say.  That blip is over as well.

COD finds himself thinking that restructuring is so 2011.  The scope of change we are looking at in the next 50 years is so profound, and, on the other hand, how utterly incapable governing structures currently are at shaping a discussion about what is needed (a quick run-through of the Blue Book Report shows that nothing of substance will likely emerge from this General Convention this summer, brought to us by the same people who can’t use Excel properly).

Collapse, my friends.  That’s what’s coming.

So COD offers the following:

1)  Realize the blip is not normative, and that the much of the structures we have cannot be tweaked because the structures are part of the blip.

2)  Dismantle national church structures to be solely canonical governance.  General Convention is going to be unsustainable eventually, anyways. Begin to end it now; shut it down but do so in order to

3)  Begin a process to fully empower dioceses, provinces, networks to do mission, formation, and evangelism.  We have some assets:  $250 million in endowment funds held by the DFMS; property in New York; a series of networks which, at times some more successfully than others, coordinated by denominational staff; a network of over 7,000 parishes and 100 dioceses and many, many affiliation based groups and networks.  Empower the networks fully instead of having them have stuff periodically dumped on them every three years.  We will still do many of the things we used to do, but in different ways, with broader buy-in and support — maybe Forma (formerly NAECED) or provinces would hire Young Adult & Youth Ministry network coordinators to work with congregations and dioceses instead of what 815 used to do.

Or, maybe like those germs which devastated the Aztecs, maybe a whole new and unexpected way of doing church is going to emerge.  Or maybe it’s already here and we can’t fully empower it blowing millions on a building in New York and on holding a once-every-three-years meeting.

4)  End those parishes as clubs for members, provide a congregational hospice chaplain to minister to them, set up as Ponzi schemes for committees, which sees recruitment as getting people to serve on committees.  Would many of the towns where our Episcopal churches are located even notice, or care, if they were to close?  How many of our parishes function solely as clubs for the gathered?  How many dioceses have 10%, 15%, 20%, of their parishes on diocesan support?  How many dioceses are struggling to function?  We have to change not only the diocesan structure, but fundamentally reshape what it means to be a parish and a diocese.  Some of many options which are available, should we be willing to pursue them:

A cursory study of the history of the Episcopal Church shows that at many times people lamented whether it would survive, and at other times showed a constant litany of concerns about growth, organization, governance, and finance.

Yet we can also learn from the past that, despite all of this, many believed the Episcopal Church and Anglicanism have a charism to tap into something greater.  By being a church catholic and reformed; by not being tied to a particular ethnic group; but not defining itself solely by theological confessionalism; by combining historic catholic order and representative governance.   People like William Augustus Muhlenberg, William Reed Hungington, Julia Chester Emery, and others argued this in the 1800s.  In our own time people many are pondering whether Anglicanism is missing out on exploring how it can tap into a new Great Awakening in the religious trends sweeping our way, instead wrapped up in internal squabbles.

We can do so again.   However, the only way to be resurrected is to die.

So I wrote that part years ago, in 2012.  The Collapse continues to unfold, and, as a whole, we continue to do not much about it.  I’m honestly not sure why every single meeting of Diocesan Convention, every single diocesan Standing Committee,  every single meeting of Executive Council, does not have the membership numbers report given to them as an agenda item and have a discussion on how we are going to outline a coordinated churchwide effort at renewal and evangelism.

I wrote what follows years ago as well:


Crusty at Thanksgiving dinner (warning: not actual photo).

So it’s not about one generation over and against one another.  Since we [all] are the church, we need to BE the church together.  Millennials need to understand how institutions are helpful in furthering goals — you can put up all the online petitions you want, but more substantive organization is essential to effect change.  Boomers need to get just how different things are, this isn’t like not knowing how to work a DVR or which input button lets you watch DVDs on TV.   Xers, I think, can serve an important bridge function in how we straddle the divide between Boomers and Millennials — I said to a colleague once I felt my whole ministry might be like the Steward of Gondor from Lord of the Rings (well, without the homicidal mental illness): striving to preserve something until someone else (the Millenials and Gen Z) comes to claim and transform it.   How much of the church can we preserve, how can we let what we have and know and are, be resources to the Millennials and Generation Z?  The church has looked very, very different from age to age:  from house churches in Dura Europos in the third century to a Gothic Cathedral in the 13th to Methodist circuit riders in the 19th, and so on.  The 21st century church will look very, very different from the 20th century church.

And I say, God help us.  Will we leave rubble, or will we leave a foundation?  The next decade, and the way we can embrace these transformations, will determine much of that.


And hey, I’ve practiced what I preached: I became academic dean of a seminary I thought would not survive, and realized that resurrection was the only option. I worked with many other faithful, committed folks to merge it with another seminary and transform it from a nearly 100% residential model to 100% low-residential model (online courses, short-term intensives).  It didn’t make everybody happy, to be sure, but the seminary survives, has more than tripled its enrollment, and is serving people most of whom would not have been able to engage theological education.  I’ve been in parish ministry for four years and through lots of effort we are holding the line, not growing but not shrinking; winding down some legacy programs and outreach but beginning new efforts; all in a town that has not seen any overall population growth in 20 years.

I’ve written and blogged and presented on these issues for nearly a decade, and now have realized I have moved into acceptance mode.  And let me clarify what I mean here:  this is not weak resignation to the evils we implore, as the hymn warns us.  Acceptance does not mean I am OK with the church’s generational failures in mission, evangelism, and formation.  I am going to go down swinging.  I have, however, accepted the fact that a good portion of the church will choose to die rather than change or adapt.  That is the acceptance I have come to.  It’s why I don’t blog on structural change or give the kind of long breathless General Convention recaps that I used to.  Because our dioceses and congregations are going to close or merge and Convention will look different in 20 years by necessity.

I said years ago I thought around the year 2035 the Episcopal Church’s attendance numbers would bottom out in the 400,000 attendance range, and will have closed 20-30% of the parishes to give us south of 5,000 congregations.  It’s then that the church will either begin to slowly rebound, or continue to slide towards irrelevance.

The church as we know it is dying.  But the church itself is not dying, because it can’t.  The church is God’s creation.  It’s not ours to kill; God help us we probably would have already if we could have.  And that rebound in the 2040s, if there is one, will be because have seen the new way of being church that God is calling us, and have embraced it.

So I ask again: for those of us active now, to whom God has entrusted the church in this transitional moment: will we leave rubble, or will we leave a foundation?

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