The Bible tells us that the wages of sin is death. While Christians may differ in their understanding of the phrase, Anglican Watch can say with confidence that one outcome is sharp declines in funding for the dioceses and parishes involved.
Several churches we follow reflect this trend, including:
- St. Paul’s, Dayton, OH, which is running a 40% deficit, which it is covering from its investments.
- St. Paul’s, Englewood, NJ, which is running an almost 18% deficit, and has been covering these overruns from savings for more than 20 years. The church has largely exhausted its savings.
- Grace Chapel, TN, where attendance continues to decline steeply.
- Tenth Presbyterian in Philadelphia, where the place increasingly looks like an abandoned mausoleum.
- Grace Episcopal Alexandria (former church of AW editor Eric Bonetti) where the church is struggling to fill pews even at a combined Sunday service.
- St. Paul’s, Alexandria, where the church budget is slowly eroding due to inflation.
What’s the common denominator?
In every instance, the answer involves a superficially charming pastor who’s misbehaving. The money is declining, but no one wants to discuss the elephant in the living room.
Forms of misconduct in the list run the gamut, including:
- Rector Dan McClain’s bullying, myriad lies, and extramarital affair at St. Paul’s, Dayton, OH.
- Alcoholism and flagrant bullying at St. Paul’s Englewood by former rector Bill Allport
- Lies and spiritual abuse by Rob Rogers at Grace Chapel. (What kind of asshole teaches church members to say the imprecatory psalms against a 14-year-old girl who just lost her brother?)
- Liam Goligher’s outrageous lies and bullying at Tenth Presbyterian, as well as the conviction of a former ruling elder of child sexual abuse.
- Criminal conduct at Grace Episcopal Alexandria by former priest Bob Malm and his minion, Jeff “Sugarland” Chiow. The arrival of adulterous Anne Turner followed this.
- The feckless sense of entitlement of rector Oran Warder at St. Paul’s Alexandria.
These situations share further similarities. In every instance, the diocese or other institutional structures either have been slow to address the underlying issues or refused to do so entirely.
Meanwhile, vestries, boards of elders, and parishioners typically unquestioningly run the jolly roger up the mast in defense of their rector/pastor.
Why this reaction? The reasons are complex but include the following:
- Conflating friendly with faithful. In other words, someone can be the “nicest” clergy person we’ve ever met, even as they are engaging in sexual harassment, bullying, and other egregious misconduct.
- Relational investment. Our priests and pastors are there for all the critical moments in our journeys — baptisms, weddings, sickness, and funerals. Thus, it’s inherently challenging to sever these relationships.
- Ties to faith. Admitting that our priests and pastors engage in misconduct or worse calls into question the very basis of our faith.
- Sycophants, empaths, and enablers. Many clergy prone to misconduct are experts at surrounding themselves with yes people. Relatedly, many will shove out of the church any who oppose them. The result is churches that lack real leaders.
- Reluctant judicatories. Bishops diocesan, often busy and dependent on others for information, can quickly default to “I don’t want to get involved.” This trend is made worse by the fact that dioceses often lack a meaningful mechanism to enforce parish budget contributions.
- Fear of failure. The great irony is that many judicatories fear getting involved on the basis that they will disrupt the parish in question. But problems ignored grow exponentially over time and do no one any favors. Consider: What would have happened had the Diocese of Newark gotten involved when the first signs that St. Paul’s rector, Bill Allport, is impaired emerged? Not only might Allport have gotten treatment, but the parish would not have exhausted its savings. Similarly, ongoing issues with rector Dan McClain at St. Paul’s Dayton are causing the parish to implode.
- Lack of accountability. The joke at Anglican Watch is that the unofficial motto of the Episcopal Church is “those things left undone.”
So how should churches NOT handle these situations?
- Don’t draw on reserves. Drawing anything more than 4 percent of total value on the basis of an average, three-year rolling basis will result in depletion. Doing so disrespects those who gave the money and is a recipe for disaster. (Read, ponder, and inwardly digest, St. Paul’s Dayton.)
- Ignore the issue and hope it will go away. Sorry folks, we’re here to tell you this has never once worked. Parishes that learn dysfunctional behavior rarely recognize that they are dysfunctional. Similarly, unhealthy ways of relating to one another often continue within parishes for generations to come.
- Attack people. As the last bishop Barbara Harris noted, “no one hates like Christians.” True to form, truthtellers who speak out about problems in a church face shunning, rumors, and even physical assault. (Yes, it’s happened to Anglican Watch staff.)
Positive steps may include:
- Factor in inflation. If a church is in a high-growth area but the budget hasn’t increased since 2000, the parish is losing both buying power and market share. Yeah, that would be St. Paul’s, Alexandria, VA.
- Make a collective decision to live within the church’s means. If a church cannot pay cash-and-carry, its vestry has tough questions that must be answered.
- Develop a zero-based budget. Far too many church budgets reflect the fact committees develop them. Thus, there’s a lot of, “Well, we’ve always funded ______________.” Learn to ask questions and establish priorities.
- Bring in outside resources. Particularly in light of the high percentage of older persons in many churches, it can be hard to see things with a clear eye. Nor is it fair to put clergy on the line in cases of severe conflict.
- Ask if the church is a narcissistic construct. Suppose the church has a million-dollar annual budget but spends only $30,000 on serving your community. In that case, the church is a religious club that is indulging its organizational desires and preferences. It is not a church.
- Fix past wrongs. If the church’s response is, “That happened long ago,” it’s got a severe ethical gap. Sin is sin and needs to be fixed, whether it happened a year ago or 100 years ago.
- Ask the tough questions. In situations like rector Dan McClain at St. Paul’s Dayton or the hot mess of Bill Allport in Englewood, NJ, parishioners cannot ignore toxic clergy.
- Most importantly, look at root causes. If folks see their churches as little slices of stained glass paradise, but the pews are empty and the money is drying up, there is a reason. Find out why. In other words, a church where revenue is declining is living in a fool’s paradise if the only question asked is, “How do we get people to increase their pledges?” And to be blunt, churches that ignore clergy misconduct, like St. Paul’s, Dayton, deserve to be shuttered. Same goes for churches that pay their operating expenses from their savings.
It’s time for churches of every ilk to get their acts together. If this does not happen, many will close within the next ten years.