Looking forward: A path towards survival for the Episcopal church

By | February 14, 2022
The Episcopal Church is dying

Like many, I long ago concluded that the Episcopal church is dying. That is a sad conclusion, for at one time I loved the church dearly.

That begs the question: What would it take for the Episcopal church (TEC) to pull out of its death spiral?

It seems to me that the answers are not difficult. The larger issue is the willingness of the church to embrace change — a challenge many in the church appear unwilling to confront.

Setting that issue aside for one moment, here is what I believe the church must do if it wishes to survive.

    • Engage in truth-telling. We cannot change if we refuse to admit the need for change. Yet even now, we hear rectors minimize the issue, or claim that their parishes are “holding their own.” But with a burgeoning population in the US, holding our own isn’t enough. Thus, if my parish maintains a consistent average Sunday attendance of 1,000, and a budget of $1 million, inflation and population growth mean my church is actually declining.Nor do we have time for blithering. As things stand, TEC is on a trajectory to all but cease to exist in the next 30 years. We need to call a spade a spade and deal with it. And the end is not a few years down the road—for much of the denomination, it is here now.
    • Choose life. As fellow blogger Tom Ferguson aka Crusty Old Dean notes, large swathes of TEC have decided to die rather than change. Members need to recognize that survival requires abandoning their 1970’s vision of a stained glass paradise and moving forward deliberately towards new life and resurrection.

But the issue is larger than just change itself. Choosing life means embracing life and truth at every turn. It means:

      • Living into the Gospel.
      • Letting go of clericalism.
      • Insisting that clergy act according to the highest ethical standards.
      • Putting people first and the institution second. It means ending transactional blithering and replacing it with action.
      • Holding the church to higher standards than corporate America, not lower standards.
      • Holding loosely to power and decisions. Gone are the days where a dog collar results in instant deference. Respect must be earned, not presumed.
      • Letting go of obsolete real estate, even though it may be much loved.
    • End transactional “solutions.” Speaking of love, the church loves feel-good, transactional solutions.  Worried about racism? Have a book study. Hold a listening session. Too often, these solutions are the path towards destruction, versus the path to resolution. Similarly, leaders far too often preach love, versus living love.
    • Be truly welcoming. One of the great truths in sales and marketing is that our former customers are our best prospects. Relatedly, one angry former customer can cause problems for years to come. Indeed, online reviews can make or break a business.Yet far too often, we treat participation as a take-it-or-leave-it proposition. We can ask, “When was the last time my parish reached out to former members?” And if it hasn’t done so, why has it not done so? Are we afraid to go there because of what we might hear? Or learn about ourselves? Similarly:
      • Do our parishes and dioceses embrace criticism? Or do they try to shut it down? Do our parishes and dioceses retaliate against those who raise governance and ethics concerns? Jesus was not engaging in idle commentary when he decried the role of those who serve as stumbling blocks to others.
      • If our church or diocese, or we as individuals have caused hurt or offense, have we tried fixing it? Not via the usual TEC tactic of apologizing and insisting that we move on, but actually hearing the other side, making restitution, and repenting?Nor should we minimize these issues. Studies consistently indicate that TEC is a highly conflictive denomination, and has been for years. In short, conflict and cheap grace are killing TEC.
    • Know ourselves. One church I am following just realized that it cannot afford a new priest. That comes even as the church is in the middle of a search for a new priest. So why are they wasting everyone’s time, versus dealing with the underlying issues? One need only glance at their numbers, in which funerals outnumber baptisms two to one, to recognize where this church is headed.

While we’re on the topic, we need to stop blindly asking members to do more. Many parishes, confronted with major declines during the pandemic, have been pushing their remaining members to up their giving so they can resume the status quo, even though no effort is being made to bring in new members. At some point, members die, move away, or simply don’t have any more time, energy, emotion, or cash to give.

    • Recognize that the last 50 years were not normative. My childhood parish saved and scrimped through two world wars and the depression to complete construction of its church. It was not until the baby boom hit that it really reached solid financial footing. But the baby boom was just that—a boom, a bubble.
    • Commit to growth. Believe it or not, growth is possible. Just within a few miles of my home are Episcopal parishes that have experienced exponential growth over the past few years.What is the one thing they have in common? They made a conscious decision to grow and worked toward that goal.
    • Be willing to let go. Growth inevitably involves sacrifice. We become adults and leave our parents. We spend years getting an education in order to pursue our careers. Yet when it comes to church, we suddenly take a different approach.To grow and survive, we need to be upfront about where we are with things, versus minimizing problems and hoping to retire before the church implodes.And all options need to be on the table. That may include:
      • Selling old, obsolete real estate, including churches, diocesan headquarters, cathedrals and summer camps.
      • Merging dioceses.
      • Recognizing that for much of the church’s existence, having full-time, professional Christians in the form of clergy was not normative. Indeed, I am old enough to remember a time when Morning Prayer was normative for many churches.
      • Funding church planting. Even if our parishes can afford the fusty old heaps that often serve as church buildings, should that be where we spend out time and money? Or would we be better served using the money to plant a new church? If the choice is between a decaying old heap and a new church, you can be sure that Jesus would have opted for the new church.
  • See ourselves as others see us. We may see ourselves as friendly, inclusive, tolerant and welcoming. But ask others what they see and we may discover that the answer is closer to “hypocritical, cliquish, wealthy old white folks who love meetings, paperwork, and doing church, versus being church.”

Another interesting vantage point is former evangelicals who have joined TEC. Many ultimately wind up aghast at the rampant clericalism, the broken business processes, the dysfunctional power relationships, the prevalence of passive-aggressive behavior, and the lack of accountability at every level of the church. If TEC wants to survive, it needs to take this feedback seriously, versus brushing it off.

  • Stop doing church. Speaking of doing church versus being church, TEC drowns itself in forms, paperwork, committees and hearings. Even general convention is better suited to a small nation-state versus a tiny denomination.

And don’t think for a second that the convoluted processes and procedures aren’t killing the denomination. Just look at the report of the diocese of Vermont, prepared by a former partner with Deloitte, which concluded that the tiny diocese has “a staggering number of finance-related committees and subcommittees” that “cloud the financial picture and lead to confusion … and stymie decision making.”Similarly, while the church likes to trumpet its alleged democracy, in most dioceses contact information for elected representatives is unavailable, or flows through diocesan headquarters.

Many also have a small circle of sycophants in the inner circle that can pretty much do whatever they want, including ignoring church canons, disregarding legislation, and more. Doubt it? Just look at the difficulties in establishing accountability for Jon Bruno, or the lack of success in selling the wasteful heap that is church headquarters, despite numerous calls to do just that.

Just stop.

  • Meet people where they are. One of the things I find sadly amusing is clergy who talk about how they are into evangelism, but their church’s Facebook page hasn’t been updated in a year or more. And forget TikTok, Foursquare, Twitter or Snapchat. I can count on one hand parishes that have a presence on any of these. Yet this is where we can connect with others.

Connecting also requires engagement. Turning off comments on our YouTube posts is just as bad as assuming that people will magically just show up on Sundays. Yes, we may not like some of the comments and interaction, but getting our hands dirty is an unavoidable aspect of the Gospels.

For the record, social media is NOT announcing online that you have just posted a new sermon to the website. It’s about discussion, conversation, engagement.

  • Undertake real evangelism. Remember the old joke about evangelism in TEC being like putting a bucket alongside the ocean and waiting for fish to jump in? Sadly, it’s true.

Far too many churches think a few banners on the front lawn, and maybe a booth at a local event are all that’s needed.

But look at evangelical churches, and they have written strategic plans, including for growth. Often, these are professionally done and include empirical measurement criteria.

So why don’t Episcopal churches take a similar approach? It is that we think we are too good? That we believe “if we build it, they will come?” What’s to stop us sending handwritten invites to the neighbors to join us? What about social media ads?

These are questions that demand answers.

  • Hold bishops accountable. Speaking of the late Jon Bruno (and I should disclose that I was friends with him), our bishops too often function as little mini-monarchs. That needs to change.

For the record, I am not engaging with conservatives, who claim that each diocese is an utterly separate entity that can leave whenever it wants. I’m only saying that bishops and their inner circle often report to no one.This leads to ugly situations. Whether it is Bishop Bruno trying to sell the St. James the Great church building out from under the parish, or bishops choosing to turn a knowing blind eye to illegal conduct by clergy under their supervision, far too often there is no recourse against a bishop who behaves badly.

Yes, you might attract the attention of the national church if, like the ironically named Bishop Love, you refuse to marry same-sex couples.

But if it is a one-on-one problem, forget it. The national church will do nothing.This approach doesn’t work in the 21st century. Few today, myself included, are prepared to simply roll over because some priest happens to wear a pointy hat. We simply don’t choose to be part of a church in which the hierarchy is so lacking in accountability.

  • Promote transparency. Far too often, parishes and dioceses continue to follow a Madmen-era approach to budgeting, financial reporting, and disclosure. That means that budgets are blended, so as to tell almost nothing useful. Decisions are made by executive committees, clergy disciplinary decisions are secret, and bishops and clergy enjoy confidential exit packages, details of which are known only to a select few.Dear bishops and standing committee members, in case no one has told you, let me spring it on you: That doesn’t work anymore. We don’t agree to those arrangements.

Gone are the days when members were willing to blindly give money and trust that the church would use it wisely. In fact, from what we can see, the church is really bad with money.

That means we need to see:

        • Line-item budgets, including salary details.
        • Audit engagement letters.
        • Audit reports,
        • Details of all funds held by the church. No off-budget music programs, food pantries, Corp Soles, funds held by ECW, or any of the other tactics you use to avoid transparency.
        • Details of clergy and bishop exit packages. As in the case of bishop Shannon Johnston, no more sweetheart deals, with specifics known to a select handful.

We also need a seat at the table when allegations of clergy misconduct arise.

No more treating everything as secret. No more ignoring the requirement of a pastoral response. No more sandbagging complaints on the advice of some old dinosaur who serves as chancellor.

It’s our church, and we will not sit idly by while you play games. Nor will we play along when you blow off sexual harassment, or conclude that the problem is fixed because you held some lame litany of repentance.

  • Revisiting ordination. Jesus says, “By their fruits you shall know them.” Well, if we apply that standard to our current priests and bishops, the present ordination process is horribly broken.

    Far too often, ordination is the path for people who don’t know what else to do with themselves. Or a draw for narcissists. Or for affluent housewives with nothing better to do. The result is predictable and ugly.

    We need better screening of candidates. We need to be willing to say no to candidates who are not qualified, whether the disqualification is psychological, spiritual, or temperamental. If nothing else, no one should be ordained who has not pledged to their parish, or spent enough time in the church to know of its foibles.

    We need to periodically screen for substance abuse, and conduct psychological screening for every new hire, including for narcissism. Far too many problem clergy have slipped through the cracks, and continue to bedevil the church over time.

    And we need to revisit the seminary system. Far too often, we see clergy emerge who cannot read a balance sheet, who do not understand basics of HR, fair employment, conflict mediation, and other real-life skills. In short, the seminary system is horribly disconnected from the reality of life in many parishes and sets many up for failure. Nor can we expect professionalism from church volunteers when we see priests who have about as much business savvy as a junior high school kid. Or (real life example), inaccurately tell vestry members that if cash gets tight we can always repurpose restricted donations without donor permission.

    While we’re on the topic, most Episcopal clergy are dreadful preachers. We don’t need some mushy babble about be happy, God loves you.

Nor do we need an erudite exposition of the differences between the four Gospels.

We need passionate preaching that is relevant to our times, that connects with us personally, that offers real value. We live in an era of social media blurbs and images, yet the average Episcopal priest drones on on Sunday like we’re still in the era of black and white TVs.

Bottom line: The bottom line is simple. The Episcopal church spends all its time and energy pretending it is still the quasi-state church, even as it spirals ever faster toward irrelevance and oblivion. If it wants to survive, it needs reformation, top to bottom. Absent that, the church’s trajectory towards collapse will accelerate in the coming years, as more and more of its existing and aged membership passes away. The choices before the church are clear: The path towards life, or the path towards death.

As things stand, the Episcopal church is on the path towards death. Only time will tell if the church has the courage to choose life.

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