The Episcopal Diocese of Washington (EDOW), led by Bishop Mariann Budde, has launched an innovative program to strengthen or otherwise address issues involving struggling parishes. The program, “Tending our Soil,” involves a holistic look at parish finances, membership, governance, attendance, dynamics, leadership and more. In cases where it is warranted, the diocese can extend financial, consulting, and other support. Per recently passed canons, the diocese also has the authority to implement other resolutions, including replacement of parish leadership, reversion to missions status, merger with another parish, and even dissolution.
The program arose from an increasing awareness by EDOW leadership that a handful of troubled parishes occupied a disproportionate portion of time, attention, and recourses from the diocese. Even worse, a number of churches were known to have chronic financial issues, or problems with internal dynamics, but were adamantly resistant to diocesan intervention.Thus, the recent changes to diocesan canons were essential to provide a flexible but structured approach that incorporates an express authorization for diocesan involvement.
Earler today, the initial cohort of participants was announced, which includes:
- Christ Church, La Plata and Christ Church, Wayside
- Christ Church, Washington Parish
- Church of the Ascension, Sligo Parish
- Good Shepherd Episcopal Church, Silver Spring
- St. Dunstan’s Episcopal Church, Bethesda
- St. John’s Episcopal Church, Beltsville + Zion Parish
- St. John’s Episcopal Church, Olney
- St. Matthew’s Episcopal Church/ Iglesia Episcopal San Mateo
- St. Nicholas Episcopal Church, Germantown
- St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, K St. (Full disclosure: The author was a member of this parish after leaving a church in the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia)
- St. Timothy’s Episcopal Church
- Transfiguration Parish
In joining the program, participant churches make a three-year commitment “to listen to God in their congregations, their neighborhoods, and the Episcopal tradition to discern where God is calling them; reimagine or launch a new ministry so they can help people deepen their relationships with God, build strong relationships with each other, and contribute to the flourishing of local communities and the world,” per a diocesan statement.
Model for Other Dioceses?
One of the things I like — even though I am no longer a member of the Episcopal Church — is that Bishop Budde is not afraid to take action. That stands in sharp contrast to the paradigm in the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia and far too many other dioceses and parishes, in which hand-wringing and denial are the byword of the day, even as they face double-digit declines in membership over the past 10 years.
I’m particularly reminded of the dysfunctional approach to conflict in the my former parish, located in the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. There, ongoing conflict, both within the parish and with this author, has resulted in financial free-fall in recent years, yet the diocese adamantly refuses to address the underlying issues, including allegations of criminal conduct by prior clergy. Indeed, Bishop Goff and her inner circle even refuse to follow church canons, with Bishop Todd Ousely backing that decision. Thus, the diocese has locked itself and the relevant parish into a spiral of decline that, as things stand, provides no path of escape.
The program also offers an alternative to the conclusion I share with Crusty Old Dean and many others, which is that large swathes of the church have made the decision to die, versus to change.
Does the EDOW program ensure that large swathes of the church won’t ultimately die, even if adopted nationwide? Certainly not. The reality is that churches that are determined to fail ultimately will do so. Similarly, parishes that remain wedded to conflict will ultimately find that conflict kills their church. And churches that follow the great TEC paradigm of ignoring issues and hoping the challenges will go away will discover they are correct — when their toxic churches implode, the issues leading to that toxicity will indeed vanish.
Today’s announcement on participating parishes is here.