By the Rev. Dr. George Clifford. Republished by permission. First published in 2011.
Ample evidence of the continuing numerical decline in The Episcopal Church (TEC) is widely available. The recent report, Episcopal Congregations Overview: Findings from the 2010 Faith Communities Today Survey, provides the latest documentation:
• Over half (52%) of all Episcopal congregations are in communities of 50,000 or fewer people and another 8% are in rural areas, a cause for concern given the steadily increasing urbanization of the U.S. population.
• The median age of Episcopalians is 57; fewer and fewer young people identify with TEC.
• Unless the median age drops significantly (or life expectancy increases very rapidly!), half of all Episcopalians will die in the next 18 years.
• Only 3.1% of Episcopal congregations have an average Sunday attendance of 351 or greater; these large congregations are more likely to grow than are smaller ones.
The picture is deeply depressing for people who value TEC. Median attendance in Episcopal congregations was 66 in 2009, 72 in 2006, and 77 in 2003 (Episcopal Café: Numbers worth watching). If that rate of decline continues (i.e., median attendance declining by 5 people every 3 years), in 15 years the median attendance will be 31 and in 30 years attendance will average just 6 people on a Sunday per congregation.
Having once taught college statistics, I know that projecting a linear decline over the next 30 years based on three data points relies upon an indefensible methodology. However, the projection underscores the dire future confronting TEC. Although some Episcopal congregations are growing, and a handful of dioceses have experienced some growth, the preponderance of the evidence clearly points to the inevitability of continuing denominational decline if not demise.
This decline constitutes an existential threat to TEC. Unless TEC reverses the decline, TEC will soon become a remnant numbering in the tens of thousands. When that happens, the media will not care, and few non-Episcopalians will even notice, what the Episcopal Church says or does. TEC will no longer be a vital incarnation of God’s love in Christ. Instead, TEC will have gone from being the established church in several eighteenth century American colonies and states to being a twenty-first century anachronism.
In my hometown, the Grange has made a similar transition. During the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, the Grange was a vibrant, influential organization that enriched the lives of its members and celebrated, supported, and defended an agrarian lifestyle and economy. Today, that agrarian economy and its associated lifestyle are long gone. The Grange Hall sits empty, maintained by a handful of elderly members who find satisfaction in each other’s companionship and in caring for the building.
Although I hope that no Episcopalian wants such a future for TEC, the denomination’s current trajectory seems inexorably headed toward an elderly and (hopefully!) companionable remnant preserving underutilized buildings as monuments to once vital ministries and missions.
Contrary to some pessimists, I do not believe that the current trajectory and prospective fate of TEC are irreversible. Change is possible. Even as a small rudder can steer a mighty ship, so can visionary leadership steer an organization. Adding the momentum of committed people and well-utilized resources to that vision will accelerate the speed of organizational transformation.
Visionary leadership begins with a simple question: What is our agenda? That question integrates vision (who we are) and mission (what we do) into an action-oriented proposition. An agenda that addresses the root causes of numerical decline may enable TEC to alter course. An agenda that fails to address fifty years of relentless numerical decline in TEC is tantamount to acceding to the denomination’s passing from influence and presence on the American scene.
Current TEC agenda items include developing rites for blessing same sex relationships, publishing a new hymnal, restoring Church buildings and ministries in Haiti and Japan in the wake of disasters, and resolving a host of governance issues, not the least of which is the proposed Anglican Covenant. Those are important issues. Some of them evoke passionate responses; some of them, such as the rite for blessing same sex relationships, are long overdue. As important as any of those issues is, or others that I neglected to mention, none represents or identifies an existential threat to TEC. None of those issues, individually or collectively, will cause the demise, much less the renewal, of TEC.
What should be our agenda?
Better use of our resources is an obvious agenda item if TEC is to reverse its numerical decline. Demographic analysis quickly reveals that TEC has resource distribution problems. A majority of TEC congregations (53%) were founded before 1901. Consequently, population shifts have left many congregations with underutilized facilities in a location where the congregation is unlikely to grow. Apart from staff support, most congregations (remember the median attendance is just 66 people!) expend the largest portion of their resources on maintaining their physical facilities (19-36% of the budget, varying indirectly with average attendance – the larger the attendance, the smaller the percentage spent on facilities). Staff support represents the largest set of expenditures, averaging about 50% of a congregation’s budget. The 17% of congregations with average attendance of 1-25 persons on a Sunday, the 36% of congregations with average attendance of 26-50, and the 66% of congregations with average attendance of 51-100 that now have full-time clergy do not fully utilize this costly resource. Similarly, a disproportionate share of diocesan resources supports a small congregation (episcopal visits, deployment issues, etc.).
From an objective, statistical perspective the analysis proceeds easily. Identify congregations that waste resources based on average Sunday attendance. Then find and implement a creative alternative. Some congregations could merge, with either another TEC congregation or a congregation with whom TEC has intercommunion. Other TEC congregations could yoke together, establishing team ministries, as is increasingly happening in the Church of England. In both cases, congregations could cede surplus assets to the diocese and utilize revenues, previously expended on building maintenance and staff support, to fund mission. Dioceses, serving fewer congregations, would also have more resources for mission.
However, these are not new ideas; TEC has rarely implemented any of these ideas. The real agenda in TEC is not maximizing our participation in God’s transformative activity. The real agenda, though generally unspoken and unacknowledged, is self and local congregation. Institutional and personal inertia, emotional attachments to buildings, and Churchmanship modeled on the eighteenth and nineteenth century Church of England all represent substantial barriers to change. As readily apparent from meeting agendas and budgets, congregations and their members invest themselves and their resources more in building maintenance than mission; TEC and dioceses similarly invest themselves more in institutional maintenance than mission.
I am not arguing, à la Rick Warren and The Purpose Drive Life, that the Church’s purpose is evangelism. I am passionate about making a difference in the world. I believe that the Church should incarnate God’s love for the world, modeling in community the abundant new life that God wants people to enjoy and offering living water, literally and figuratively, to a world dying of thirst. TEC talks a great deal about this or a similar vision for itself. Yet we fail to incarnate that vision. In truth, we are more about maintaining the status quo than about transforming the world. A dying church unavoidably sends the opposite message. A dying church dissipates its precious resources in a losing campaign to maintain an increasingly lifeless institution.
Yet, we in TEC have some cause for hope. The Episcopal congregations most likely to have experienced numerical growth in the past decade are large and very liberal congregations, according to the 2010 Faith Communities Today Survey. A Church committed to ongoing renewal, a Church that seeks to live ever more fully into love for God and others, and a Church that recognizes that theology, worship, and resources are but earthen vessels is a Church that will become an increasingly vibrant and alive incarnation of the body of Christ. I want this future, this agenda, for TEC. I believe God wants this future, this agenda, for TEC.
George Clifford, a priest in the Diocese of North Carolina. He served as a Navy chaplain for twenty-four years, is now a visiting professor of ethics and public policy at the Naval Postgraduate School, and blogs at Ethical Musings (http://blog.ethicalmusings.com/).