This is the second part of our ongoing series on closings of Episcopal churches. In this segment, we focus on intangible factors that lead to closure.
The real risk is doing nothing — Dennis Waitley
When an Episcopal parish closes, ostensibly it’s for the usual reasons: money, members, ministry. As in no money, no members, and ministries that no longer matter.
But these typically are not the real reasons for church closure. Instead, these are manifestations of larger issues.
Among these issues are some that are notoriously difficult to discuss, because they are almost impossible to quantify. That said, these factors are consistently present when we examine church closings.
So, what are some of these intangible factors when Episcopal churches close?
It’s no secret that the Episcopal church is highly conflictive.
Whether it’s the descriptions of Ellen Cooke’s time at church headquarters, internal surveys that support this conclusion, the millions spent on litigation, or just hanging out listening to altar guild members carry on about the latest trivial slight, Episcopalians love to fight, quarrel, and generally act like tossers. Including, in Ellen Cooke’s case, firing hundreds of church employees to “balance the budget,” even as she embezzled millions.
All this squabbling comes at a high price, with 93 percent of churches that have experienced elevated conflict seeing drops in Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) as a result.
So why doesn’t the church clean up its act and stop the bickering?
That’s a tricky question, but we believe several answers exist. These include:
- A general decline in civil society. Older Americans recall the sense of community American society experienced as the country mobilized to resist the spread of fascism and totalitarianism. Today, the prevalence of conspiracy theories and the notion of self-care as the center of life has led to a marked shift in attitudes. Paradoxically, we see increased acceptance of political views that, only a few years ago, would have been rejected as fascist.
- Skeletons in the sacristry. Every church, large or small, has parts of its past that we prefer to forget. Sometimes the issue is minor in the scheme of things, like the parishioner who dies in the middle of a church service. Or it’s significant, like the Ellen Cooke scandal. But, large or small, these issues must be carefully unpacked, typically with outside help. When they are not, the skeletons of these issues live on for generations to come, influencing organizational dynamics, often in negative ways.
- Elephants in the sanctuary. Many clergy and churchgoers are bad at conflict. As a result, church members may try to ignore conflict, treat it as an all-or-nothing proposition, or redirect the situation, often in passive-aggressive scenarios. Or they may demonize or attack persons with whom they disagree. But in these situations, overall levels of conflict increase geometrically.
- Safety in the herd. Seeing someone willing to buck the trend is rare in any church. Even worse, many will follow the herd, even if it misbehaves. And this paradigm is far too standard in vestries, standing committees, altar guilds, and church choirs. Indeed, want to see bad behavior? Watch an altar guild or church committee that thinks someone has just stepped on their precious Jimmy Choos. Yet these groups forget they are killing the same church they claim to serve.
- Nostalgia is a healthy part of emotional regulation, reminding us of the importance of relationships and the joy of past experiences. But it becomes unhealthy when we long to return to the past or miss the opportunity to live in the present. And no one does nostalgia better than the Episcopal church, with its quaint neo-gothic heaps, vestments, and Madmen-era headquarters. Yet far too often, the church clings to these trappings while ignoring that they are part of the past and are financially unsustainable. And the church refuses to consider the possibility that, in many cases, it doesn’t need a physical plant. There are plenty of places to meet, worship, and find God that don’t require colossal heating bills or thousands of dollars a day in overhead.
- Lack of diocesan leadership. Truly, there is a time to every purpose under heaven, including a time to call out and address bullying and other misconduct. But far too many bishops want to avoid dealing with unpleasant parts of their jobs.
Lack of outreach
There’s an old joke about the Episcopal church’s efforts at evangelism being akin to putting a bucket next to the sea and waiting for the fish to jump in. Unfortunately, the quip is true; very few churches try to grow.
That contrasts sharply with evangelical churches. While we may disagree with their theology, evangelical churches seldom leave this to chance–a vast portion of their time and resources go to growth.
Yet even relatively basic initiatives like “Invite, Welcome, Connect,” are often seen as groundbreaking. These behaviors are fundamental to the Gospel message, so the fact that there even needs to be a discussion of these topics is telling.
There’s also a conflation of service ministries and outreach. So, for example, having a food pantry may be essential to your community, but that is different from calling the neighbors and asking if they would like to attend an event.
Churches also tend not to meet people where they are. As a result, we hear from countless clergy and laypeople who say they are into growing their churches, even though they’re not on social media. When this happens, we bite our tongues to avoid asking, “If you’re so into church growth, why aren’t you on TikTok?”
And if you’re one of those priests who still can’t figure out how email works, please retire.
Unwelcoming buildings and practices
Have you ever visited a church only to wander by during coffee hour and have no one say hello? Unfortunately, it happens far too often.
Or, even worse, realize that news of your pregnancy or other personal matter, shared in confidence, is the hot topic of conversation?
Or, still worse, wander in and realize (real example) that the topic is someone’s alleged penile implant? Or (another actual example) that the guy who married his wife in the parish last month and is into fashion is secretly gay?
Whether it’s ugly discourse, a website that hasn’t been updated in months, or neglected physical plant maintenance, a lot goes on in Episcopal parishes that sends a message of radical exclusion, not inclusion.
And anyone who doesn’t think that people notice an unkempt building or ugly gossip is delusional. Not only do people see both, but even if it doesn’t directly involve them, these things send potent messages. People realize that, sooner or later, these trends can and will affect them.
Speaking of making people feel unwelcome, parishes where social events revolve around alcohol or the annual parish retreat involves people getting smashed at the Scotch tasting may be awkward for people who choose not to drink, or don’t need to drink to have a good time. Not to mention they may rightly question the church’s relationship with alcohol and its inability to address related issues.
Narcissism is an ugly thing. Yet we see far too many churches that spend most of their money on themselves while giving 3 percent or less back to the community.
In these cases, the church exists to meet the needs of its members, and it is a social club, not a church. The in-crowd hangs out together, serves on the vestry together, and loves each other.
But with this narcissism comes blindness, including to the church’s faults. As a result, a parish may sit all “fat and happy,” even as its fortunes implode.
And because the church functions as an echo chamber, it seems pure bliss to those caught up in the web of narcissism.
That results in a secondary lack of insight, which leads to insiders viewing those who don’t find the parish to be a slice of stained glass paradise as crazy, troublemakers, dissidents, or ingrates.
Ironically, this blindness continues until the end, when many will remark as the church closes its doors, “It was such a loving church.” Yet that begs the question: Why did members leave if the church was so great? Or why did the church not share that love in a way that connected with the outside world?
And often, this mirage of a stained glass paradise conceals layers of really ugly behavior behind the scenes. With a focus on liturgy, versus theology, many parishes gloss over problems. As one priest we know says, “Father can’t solve everything.” But that doesn’t mean his approach should be to solve nothing.
Refusal to change
While many Episcopalians look at the church’s decline and shake their heads, pretending they don’t understand why the church is dying, the reality is that most are entirely aware of the reasons.
Long ago, we concluded that large swathes of the church would rather die than change. Yet, even now, we see a strong preference towards ignoring complaints, business as usual, and the friendly over the faithful.
But danger lurks. A handful of affluent suburban churches cover diocesan operating costs in many areas. Church missions and diocesan budgets quickly implode when these churches can no longer foot the bill. Thus, in many regions, the whole house of cards is more precarious than people realize. Indeed, as we have said many times, there is a large swath of the church that is living pledge check to pledge check, with no savings for the future and one major repair away from closure.
Lack of data
This intangible is ironic, as the Episcopal church loves to amass data. The parochial report forms go out every year, and they trickle back, first to the dioceses, then the national church. From there, the national church publishes both trends and individual parish data.
Meanwhile, intangible data is hard to come by, with assessments of conflict within the church, for example, stopping in 2005. And while the church is shopping qualitative data better to understand the pandemic and its effect on the church, there’s a real risk that this will only normalize decline.
But we believe that the data the church and its parishes lacks is actionable information.
Specifically, in many parishes, the average pledge is skewed by a handful of generous donors, many of whom donate their savings while alive.
Even worse, younger affluent donors may quickly establish a quid pro quo, where their generosity results in positions of prominence on church boards and committees. This isn’t necessarily bad, but much like the Ellen Cooke debacle, in which the family’s seeming generosity made them untouchable, it can leave the church profoundly vulnerable when things go sideways.
In the case of older donors, there typically is no Plan B.
That’s ironic, because even in churches where giving information is carefully protected and not shared with the rector, most are adept at sniffing out the big donors in short order.
Yet these same rectors, who toady up to the wealthy, rarely plan for the day when a career change or death cuts off the gravy train. In these cases, churches that have sat fat and happy for years may suddenly discover a massive hole in the budget, resulting in either draconian budget cuts or closure.
Indeed, one diocese with which we are closely acquainted went on for years running a deficit, and every year going to one wealthy family to make up the difference. “How much do you need?,” was the inevitable question, followed by a check in the requested amount. But big trouble hit when older family members passed away, and the children and children, who had no connection with the diocese, saw little reason to continue writing checks.
This situation gets worse when churches try to kick the can down the road by drawing down savings. Unfortunately, this behavior is endemic in the church (Diocese of Chicago, here’s looking at you) and countless churches have been bailed out by wealthy individuals when folks looked around and suddenly realized the cash had run out. (A certain former of secretary of state anonymously bailed out their parish when the latter suddenly realized it could not complete the acquisition of a new organ, thanks to a previous rector playing fast and loose with financial reports.) But this doesn’t always happen, and it’s not something that churches can count on.
Note that we are not advocating for sharing every detail of church giving. But parish administrators and others with access can be essential in sharing trend data and helping parishes avoid financial brinksmanship.
Lack of transparency
This intangible relates to the lack of actionable data.
Business executives have known the importance of transparency, collaboration, and disclosure for years. Indeed, the best way to restore confidence is to share one’s failings publicly.
Yet Episcopal churches are masters of the blended budget, the sidestepped question, or the quietly handled problem. How often have we heard clergy say, “Well, I see the audit report?” Or deny vestry members, who legally serve as fiduciaries, access to crucial budget data?
These issues become self-perpetuating when conscientious leaders refuse to step into leadership because of a lack of transparency. Thus we see situations like the swarm of empaths, flying monkeys, and enablers surrounding most bishops and quite a few priests.
As a result, running into someone in the church willing to disagree is rare. This engenders an exclusive inner circle that controls all decisions, with the vestry acting as a rubber stamp for decisions made by the rector — or not made at all. The latter often is worse than making bad decisions, for situations eventually become everyone’s problem, but no one’s solution.
In short, there’s a profound need for the Episcopal church to tackle a profoundly dysfunctional internal culture that makes for bad decisions, incestuous discussions, and the exclusion of prophetic voices if it wants to survive.
Next: Integrity and decline