Huge COVID-19 Surge Bodes Ill For Episcopal Church

Recent studies suggest that the United States may be about to experience a devastating wave of COVID-19 infections, even as a vaccine offers a glimmer of hope. The news likely bodes ill for the Episcopal Church, which already is facing a precipitous decline in giving due to the pandemic. Moreover, the timing is particularly troubling, for it comes at a time when most parishes are in the midst of their annual pledging and financial planning processes.

Here in the author’s home of Virginia, where the state just topped 300,000 COVID-19 cases, an updated University of Virginia model reflects the lack of social distancing during Thanksgiving.

The result?

A predicted surge, culminating in the week ending February 7. During that one week alone, 98,000 new cases are expected, or 13 times the previous peak of 7,500 cases for the week ending August 9.

Other states face similar, and often more dire, predictions.

So what does that mean for the Episcopal church?

Financial Impact

First, existing church financial forecasts generally appear to be predicated on a steady state scenario for the pandemic, culminating in a vaccine that begins the transition to a more normal state of affairs. This outcome appears increasingly unlikely, at least for 2021.

While a vaccine, together with continued social distancing, may eventually result in an easing of the situation, the catastrophic job loss, hospital utilization, and financial/social disruption resulting from the upcoming tsunami of COVID-19 likely will further erode income and participation in 2021, with damage possibly lasting into the indefinite future.

Demographic Challenges

Second, the aging demographics of the Episcopal church make the situation doubly challenging. Indeed, 31 percent of Episcopal church members are age 65+, versus just 14 percent of the US population. Thus, the church will be hit harder than the population at large, and even with a vaccine, church members will need to remain vigilant in social distancing and other measures to reduce the risk of infection. This means that a return to “normal” worship will not happen any time soon.

Moreover, Episcopal liturgical practices, among them the common cup and congregational singing, will remain problematic. And preschools, nurseries, and other community services provided by Episcopal churches, even with social distancing, will result in church buildings remaining high risk locations for older congregants.

Crisis of Conflict

Third, it is axiomatic that financial issues engender conflict. Thus, the tsunami of infections will almost inevitably bring with it a crisis of conflict, even as society as a whole struggles with anxiety, depression and other mental health issues emanating from the depression.

Indeed, the Episcopal church data referenced above reports that finances are the most common source of intra-parish conflict, with declining parishes facing more overall conflict and more areas of serious conflict. For example, in the relatively tranquil year of 2014, which was not marred by the massive upheavals caused by the property recovery litigation. 38 percent of parishes reported at least one area of serious conflict. That contrasts, for instance, with PCUSA churches, in which just 8 percent report serious conflict.

Nor is the Episcopal church good at dealing with conflict in a positive manner. The Episcopal survey identified above reveals that, in churches with serious conflict, 74 percent lost members as a result, while 35 percent experienced members withholding funds. Only 56 percent report that the conflict was dealt with openly, and just 36 percent reported that the conflict made the parish stronger. In other words, two thirds of parishes find conflict damaging. This is indeed troubling, for it is well-established that properly managed conflict can result in interpersonal  and organization growth and health.

Thus, it is reasonable to conclude that many Episcopal congregations will remain true to form, and respond to the challenges faced by the rising tide of the pandemic with poorly handled internal strife, member loss, and reduction of giving. It also bears mentioning that multiple authorities report a hidden pandemic within the pandemic, which is a huge upswing in domestic violence related to stay-at-home-orders and the breakdown in normal domestic violence reporting systems, including schools and doctor’s offices.

Flat-Footed Denominational Response

Unfortunately, there’s little sign that diocesan or denominational officials recognize the surging alienation and conflict likely to emerge in the coming weeks. Indeed, this would be the ideal time to formally offer online training on:

  • Maintaining mental health.
  • Recognizing that conflict can be both healthy and normal. Indeed, conflict can be a gift from God.
  • Practical strategies to live into the baptismal covenant.

Specific competencies the church might teach:

  • Active listening.
  • Guidelines for dealing openly and positively with conflict.
  • Strategies for respectful engagement.
  • Recognizing and reporting domestic violence or abuse in the absence of normal reporting systems.

In addition, dioceses would benefit by helping their parishes move towards healing and wholeness in cases of longstanding conflict, versus the usual Episcopal practices of passive-aggressive behavior, avoidance, and papering over conflict. Indeed, how many times is the phrase, “We just need to move on,” heard in parishes, with no attempt made to address the underlying issue. In short, the pandemic is the ideal inflection point to address long-standing problems within the church, even if not rooted in the current crisis.

For the Record

For the record, church leaders should not conflate the usual Christmas sermons about light in the darkness, joy, and hope, with the need for more extensive educational opportunities to deal with financial disruption, safety and health, and conflict. The latter should be addressed at every level, including within parishes, in the workplace, and in society as a whole.

A healthy church is one that is healthy on a holistic level. A church cannot, for example, have great financials and unresolved conflict and still be a healthy parish. Similarly, a church cannot have friendly, welcoming, members and a cash flow crisis and still be a healthy parish.

Nor can one respond effectively to the pandemic using the tried and true Episcopal tactic of ignoring it and hoping it will go away. COVID-19 is here, and left to its own devices, it will devastate an aging and increasingly irrelevant church and its membership. And the devastation wrought will not just be the death of members; it will play into every one of the church’s problematic organizational dynamics, including conflict, passive-aggressive behavior,  dysfunctional leadership, declining worship attendance, and more. In short, the pandemic kills in many ways, and attacks on our physical health is just one of its myriad tactics.,

Neither is the solution regathering. Indeed, the upcoming tidal wave of infections suggests now is the time to cease all in-person worship. Indeed, there is a good argument to be made that even live-streaming services from churches is simply not worth the risk when one can remain safely at home.

As to the socially distanced and outdoor Christmas services happening at some churches, let me say this: Growing up in a home where Christmas was celebrated with splendor, I well understand the emotional ties of Christmas.

But the looming wave of human death and suffering amidst the pandemic surge makes any notion of an in-person service during one of the holiest days of the year not just ill-advised, but utterly contrary to the Christmas message. Light in the darkness warrants keeping our brothers and sisters safe, and should override our nostalgic desire for a “traditional Christmas.”

In other words, having an in-person Christmas service, even if outdoors and socially distanced, is downright stupid.

In Short

While many are suffering from pandemic weariness, COVID-19 is a ruthless disease that plays a long game. Now, even as we approach widespread access to a vaccine, is not the time to let down our guard. And prudent church leaders need to understand that an effective response to the pandemic is a holistic response that includes:

  • Spiritual health.
  • Health and safety.
  • Employment issues.
  • Financial matters.
  • Mental health.
  • Interpersonal issues.
  • Organizational dynamics.

Nor are these issues that can be relied on to sort themselves out. Neither can any of these issues be adequately addressed without addressing the other issues, for they form an interconnected web of human pain and suffering.

This Christmas, let’s hope that leaders at every level of the church look at the surging pandemic not merely as a challenge, but as a divine invitation to positive growth, health, change, rebirth, renewal, and resurrection.

Episcopal Diocese of Virginia PPP Application Raises Questions

Members of the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia are very familiar with the recent “Shout it from the Mountaintop,” campaign to fund capital expenses and improvements at one of the two diocesan retreats, Shrine Mont. But a review of Shine Mont Paycheck Protection Program loan information, together with Shrine Mont’s 990’s (federal tax forms), raise issues regarding the potential accuracy of its application for federal funds.

By way of background, Shrine Mont is a privately held corporation, with all 370 shares held by the Episcopal bishop of Virginia. The board of directors reads like a who’s who of the Mayo House inner circle, and the 990 shows that neither the bishop nor any of the board members are paid. The highest paid employee is Kevin Moomaw, whose salary was $93,752 in 2019.

Otherwise, Shrine Mont expended $1,025,242 in total salaries, with most of the rest of the budget going for food and maintenance.

In terms of overall financial posture and liquidity, Shrine Mount certainly sits on a mountain — a mountain of money.

In addition to almost $1.37 million in cash and cash equivalents, Shrine Mont holds almost $3.5 million in investments, for a total of just shy of $4.8 million. And that excludes the endowment, which ended 2019 with just shy of $1.2 million.

Here is Shrine Mont’s 990:

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Payroll Protection Program Data

Where things get a little weird though is the Shrine Mont Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loan itself.

Per federal disclosures, Shrine Mont got a loan of $301,902, which originated with the Farmer’s and Merchants Bank. Under PPP guidelines that suggests a 2019 payroll of approximately $1.45 million, which is not wildly off the mark once indirects are included.

But what is curious is that the loan application, which was approved on April 10, 2020, suggests 38 jobs were retained. That, of course, was before the busy summer season, and prior to the announcement that, except for some very limited events, Shrine Mont would not open this year. Moreover, PPP guidelines would suggest an average salary of $38,135 per employee, using the normal formula.

In fairness, different types of entities have different means of calculating payroll under PPP, so some variance is possible. But it is difficult to imagine what comprises the 38 jobs allegedly saved, particularly with an annual salary of $38,135, or even anything close to that. Here is the federalpay.org analysis:

Meanwhile, with the vast majority of the budget comprised of food and salaries, there’s not a whole lot of carrying costs for the empty buildings, and Shrine Mont has plenty of cash on hand to survive.

That raises questions:

  • What are these 38 jobs that allegely were saved? Most of the summer help — kitchen, cleaning crew, etc. likely hadn’t been hired in April, and probably never were hired for 2020. And one has to seriously doubt that there are 38 year-round jobs at Shrine Mont.
  • If these jobs indeed exist, what are they?
  • Were these people on payroll at the time of the loan application or during the summer?
  • How many people does it take to run a largely empty facility?

In short, while there’s no evidence of anything illegal, one certainly wonders how the diocese came up with the 38 allegedly saved jobs. And while the federal programs allows considerable leeway regarding use of the funds, one certainly hopes that the diocese’s application was truthful and accurate in every way.

At the same time, given dearth of detail the diocese shares about its budget and inner workings, it is good to see some glimmer of financial transparency via Shrine Mont’s 990.

The Collapse is Here

The following was written by The Rev. Tom Ferguson for his blog Crusty Old Dean and is reprinted with permission. The original may be found here. Tom’s views, while they coincide with those of Anglican Watch, are entirely his own and do no represent the views of his parish, his wife, or his dog.

The Collapse Is Here.

Crusty has noticed some buzz in the interbloggerwebotwitfacesphere around the Episcopal Church’s release of annual membership statistics. The news, friends, continues to be not good, very bad, alarming, four horsemen of the apocalypse, dogs and cats living together, bad.

Hey!  I wrote that sentence in 2016!

Turns out the super rich are more numerous than Episcopalians.

Hey!  I wrote that sentence in 2011!

Collapse, my friends.  That’s what’s coming.

Hey!  I wrote that in 2012!

As Phil predicted: It’s going to be cold, dark,
and last the rest of your life.

 

In what is becoming a Groundhog-Day esque experience, the Episcopal Church has onceagain released its membership numbers, and once again, it is VERY bad.

Some of the current cover-your-eyes numbers:

From 2008-2018, average Sunday attendance has dropped nearly 25%, to about 562,000.  By comparison, in the year 2003, it was 858,000.

We have more parishes with an average attendance of less than 10 persons than we do with congregations with attendance of 300 or more.

And this is not taking into account other demographics, such as we are about 87% Anglo when the United States is about 62% Anglo, and the average age of an Episcopalian in 57 in when in the United States the average age is about 37.  We are old and white in a missional context that is less old and less white.

The numbers continue to be terrible overall.  Some provinces have declined 30% in average Sunday attendance in the past decade.  To be sure, these are aggregate numbers.  A couple of dioceses have shown small growth.  Some parishes, no doubt, are growing.  But overall we simply cannot ignore the trends.

In the past decade I have blogged on these issues here, here, here, herehere, and probably some other places I’ve forgotten. I’ve also given presentations at clergy conferences and even at a state Council of Churches annual meeting on issues of denominational collapse.

I’ve noticed a kind of cycle here. When the membership and attendance numbers get released, what usually happens is there is a flurry of debate about the “reasons” for the decline: some of it on target, some of it ridiculous, but despite a general understanding of the state of our situation, overall a general state of unwillingness to engage the issues in any substantive ways has settled in.  The Episcopal Church membership statistic release conversation is almost like the way American society has its gun debate after mass shootings:  a flurry of the same statements being made, then the whole conversation just goes away in a week or so.

Here’s a brief rundown of some of the reasons for the decline:

1)  The Episcopal Church did not keep up with movements in population.  Approximately 12-13% of Episcopal Churches were founded after 1968.  We have had massive population shifts to the South, Southwest, and West, and simply never kept up with those shifts.  New Haven, CT has a population of 130,000 and 7 Episcopal churches.  Mesa, Arizona, has a population of nearly 500,000 and 2 Episcopal churches.  (Yes, I know New Haven has a greater metro population — but so does Mesa.  Not an exact analogy, just an illustration.)  I once was living in a diocese whose generally population had nearly doubled in 30 years but had not planted a single successful church in those 30 years.

2)  Demographics.  As noted above, we are older and whiter than the society as a whole.  Of course we’re shrinking when we’re old and white in a country that’s less old and less white.  There’s a similar dynamic in seminary enrollments.  Looking at the aggregate numbers of the 200+ seminaries accredited by the Association of Theological Schools, the number of people enrolled in accredited seminaries has dropped.  Yet if you look at the seminaries that are the most diverse, their numbers have increased.

3)  Conflict.  This one gets spun a lot: the whole canard that liberal churches are shrinking and conservative churches are growing, and liberal churches are shrinking because millions are leaving over disagreements on human sexuality.

Conservative churches are shrinking.  The Southern Baptists have been losing members for nearly a decade.  The Catholic Church’s Anglo-membership numbers track very closely with the Episcopal Church’s losses, and the Catholic Church is only barely holding steady because of growth among non-Anglo members.

Yes, the Episcopal Church has lost members due to conflict.  We shouldn’t be pollyannish about that.  But making it somehow the central, core reason simply doesn’t hold up to any reasonable demographic or statistical scrutiny.  For instance the single biggest drop in Episcopal Church membership in the past 40 years — 400,000 + members — has come not from conflict, but from former overseas missionary dioceses becoming either independent or linking up with other Anglican provinces (Philippines, Panama, Liberia, etc.).

4)  Secularization.  Church attendance collapsed in Europe in the past 75 years as it has become a largely secularized, post-Christian society.  It has collapsed Ireland in the past generation, going from having one of the highest rates of church attendance of any culturally Western society to now looking more and more like the rest of Europe.  We are well into the post-Christian secularization in the United States.

5)  Toxicity of Christianity.  To a large portion of the un-churched culture, Christianity is seen as toxic.  The Pew Research Forum and Barna Group have both done extensive studies of un-churched attitudes towards Christianity.  In a Barna Group survey, the top words associated with Christians by un-churched persons are “hypocritical” and “judgmental”.

6)  The end of denominationalism, with the whole model established in the 1500s coming to the end of its historical life cycle.  (And BTW — good riddance, denominationalism!  It was birthed out of empire, ethnicity, class, and regional differences.  We can still share our different Christian charisms and leave that balkanization of Christianity behind!)  In fact, we need to go all-in on ecumenical cooperation and collaboration precisely at a time when many are privileging our distinctivenesses.

This is not an exhaustive list, there are many other factors; nor have I done justice to all the aspects and elements of the ones I outline here.  Scroll through the old blog posts referenced above, check out the very good work of Pew and Barna in these areas.  (Note: while Barna does important demographic and statistical analysis, I do not often agree with the strategies the suggest for addressing the decline.)

So we actually don’t need a lot of think pieces:  members are dying and we are not replacing them.  It’s pretty straightforward.

And what’s even more terrifying: the many folks just don’t seem to care.  I’ve been in parish ministry for several years now and frankly have been terrified by most of the reaction when we have conversations about this stuff.  It seems to fall into several areas, these are comments I’ve heard in various places in the past 4 years since I’ve been in parish ministry:

–Refusal to engage.  I had a clergy person stand up and say (paraphrase): “Attendance doesn’t matter, what matters is the ways in which we are changing the lives of our members for the better.”

Actual photo from most church conversations
about membership statistics.

–Technical fixes.  Another colleague who said, “What we need is a new hymnal, people don’t like old hymns from the 1800s.”

–Understanding the situation perfectly well but not caring.  Another colleague said, “I’m only 5 years from retirement I just don’t have the energy to do any of what we need to do to grow the parish.”

–Knowing perfectly well what needs to be done but unable to do it.  I have a bishop who’s a friend who said, “I need to create yoked congregations and pair up about half the parishes in my dioceses yet given our polity hardly any of them will do it so they’re probably just going to close and we’ll have a bunch of empty buildings in 25 years.”

–Worshipping our governance as a way forward.  I’ve seen dioceses reorganize their deaneries thinking that’ll do it. We spend millions on General Convention which has done next to nothing on church revitalization and growth.  We decided to be “nimble” and got rid of all almost all of the Committees, Commission, Agencies and Boards (CCABs) in 2012.  At the end of the 2018 General Convention, we had re-created and re-established more task forces than we had CCABs in 2012.  We were also spending more money on them than we did in 2012, and all without the clearly defined mandates, membership composition, and lines of accountability that the old CCABs had.  General Convention does what it is set up to do, and addressing our collapse is not one those things.

In his systems theory work, Ed Friedman identified two aspects of anxious religious systems that come back to me again and again:

–Just because you may be right about something, don’t think that will get you anywhere or convince anyone.

–A system may clearly know exactly what they are facing, may be well informed as to their options, and may still choose to do nothing, or even choose the option that will lead to their death.

Crusty sees plenty of both of these behaviors Friedman noted in many explicit and implicit statements and actions, both in the Episcopal Church and with ecumenical partners.

So after 8 years of blogging on this, and four years on the front lines in parish ministry, I have become more convinced that we are well into The Collapse.  I wrote this from the blog several years ago:

——————

For Jared Diamond [in Guns Germs and Steel: the Fates of Human Societies], there are a number of reasons why societies collapse.  Some are outside, unexpected, and catastrophic:  how would Native American cultures, some large and elaborate like the Aztecs, know that in a few years some outlandish looking people from out of nowhere would suddenly arrive and decimate 90% of their population with germs they had no immunity to?  Many, many societies, however, collapse due in large part to decisions of their own making.  For instance,

Societies collapse because they can presume the out-of-ordinary to be normal, and are unwilling or unable to adapt when things change.  As an example of this he cites Native American civilizations in what is now the American southwest.  Scientists have been able to demonstrate that, at times, the American southwest suffers through catastrophic droughts, lasting years and years, almost like the seasons on Westeros (read Diamond to see the science, read George R.R. Martin to learn more about seasons on Westeros).  Native American cultures overbuilt during good years, and, when the drought set in, were unwilling to believe what was happening or unwilling or unable to adapt — and thus the civilization died out.

So one problem is taking the blips, the anomalies, to be normative.  COD is convinced that the Episcopal Church has, in a way, done something similar.  We have taken the period from 1950-1990 (give or take a few years) as somehow a normative and determinative time period — what it means to be the Episcopal Church is what occurred during this period — when, in fact, it was a blip, an anomaly.

Any perusal into the history of the Episcopal Church prior to this period will reveal a litany of concerns.  Just to name a few:  For one, it wasn’t until the period around WW I that the Episcopal Church had more ordained clergy than lay readers.  The church had a chronic and persistent clergy shortage for most of its existence, which, in turn, impeded its ability to engage in domestic and foreign missions, which, in turn, impeded effort at growth.  For another, there were chronic struggles adequately to establish institutions.  Colleges, schools, and seminaries opened and closed.  William Augustus Muehlenberg, considered one of the foremost presbyters of this church in the 1800s, founded a series of institutions that flopped for every St Luke’s Hospital that eventually thrived.  Dioceses were established that were unsustainable and had to be re-merged with other dioceses (Duluth; Western Nebraska; we could name some more).  Seems, at times, we have forgotten all of this.  The thought of a diocese merging with another is seen as some unimaginable failure rather than something which happened not unfrequently.  We fret about finding enough resources to meet missional needs, without remembering that the first incarnation of the DFMS was so woefully underfunded that the whole thing was scrapped.

The experience of Anglicanism in the United States has been one of chronic struggle for most of its existence.  The same William Augustus Muehlenberg presented a memorial (in essence a resolution) to the 1853 General Convention lamenting that the Episcopal Church was simply missing the boat on what was happening in the USA and was going to lose out on the opportunities for mission and evangelism, thus jeopardizing its future (any of this sound familiar?).  The General Convention referred it to a committee, and, three years later, rejected any of the suggestions for more dramatic, structural changes and basically only approved the option of allowing Morning Prayer and the Communion service to be used as separate and distinct forms of worship (at a time when MP, Litany, Ante-Communion/Liturgy of the Word, and Communion were often the order of the day on communion Sundays).  Hmmm…General Convention reluctant to act on a proposal for significant change in the face of struggles of the church to accommodate to massive changes in society?  Thank goodness that’ll never happen again.

So one major problem is that we embrace the blip — 1950-1990, when the church grew, in part because of positive steps and actions taken, but in part due to factors utterly beyond our control, like a population surge in our core demographic — as normative.  This includes taking things like establishing a large centralized church organization headed by a CEO in New York City as thenormative way to organize for mission, because the 1950-1990 period was also a time of consolidation and coordination by centralized institutions, in both church and society.  We look back on this period from 1950-1990 as normative, when one could argue, if anything, it was out of the ordinary for our experience.  For almost all of its existence prior to 1950, the Episcopal Church was a collection of affinity based networks (dioceses, missionary organizations, etc.) loosely connected and coordinated.

It’s important to note there’s nothing inherently wrong with assuming the anomaly is normative, it happens to almost all organizations and cultures at some time.  It’s how you react when the real normal comes back, or when a new normal emerges, which is important.

In fact, if you want to draw the circle even wider, one could argue that we are witnessing the end of another blip:  the whole period from 500-1900 or so when Christianity held a privileged place in North American and Western societies.  First beginning in Europe in the 1800s and 1900s, waves of secularization are coming ashore in the USA.  This is going to wash away many notions in the West of what the church should be: a building belonging to an organization people join and hire a clergy person to minister to them which in turn is part of cluster of churches holding vaguely similar beliefs that pretends the culture as a whole thinks it has something to say.  That blip is over as well.

COD finds himself thinking that restructuring is so 2011.  The scope of change we are looking at in the next 50 years is so profound, and, on the other hand, how utterly incapable governing structures currently are at shaping a discussion about what is needed (a quick run-through of the Blue Book Report shows that nothing of substance will likely emerge from this General Convention this summer, brought to us by the same people who can’t use Excel properly).

Collapse, my friends.  That’s what’s coming.

So COD offers the following:

1)  Realize the blip is not normative, and that the much of the structures we have cannot be tweaked because the structures are part of the blip.

2)  Dismantle national church structures to be solely canonical governance.  General Convention is going to be unsustainable eventually, anyways. Begin to end it now; shut it down but do so in order to

3)  Begin a process to fully empower dioceses, provinces, networks to do mission, formation, and evangelism.  We have some assets:  $250 million in endowment funds held by the DFMS; property in New York; a series of networks which, at times some more successfully than others, coordinated by denominational staff; a network of over 7,000 parishes and 100 dioceses and many, many affiliation based groups and networks.  Empower the networks fully instead of having them have stuff periodically dumped on them every three years.  We will still do many of the things we used to do, but in different ways, with broader buy-in and support — maybe Forma (formerly NAECED) or provinces would hire Young Adult & Youth Ministry network coordinators to work with congregations and dioceses instead of what 815 used to do.

Or, maybe like those germs which devastated the Aztecs, maybe a whole new and unexpected way of doing church is going to emerge.  Or maybe it’s already here and we can’t fully empower it blowing millions on a building in New York and on holding a once-every-three-years meeting.

4)  End those parishes as clubs for members, provide a congregational hospice chaplain to minister to them, set up as Ponzi schemes for committees, which sees recruitment as getting people to serve on committees.  Would many of the towns where our Episcopal churches are located even notice, or care, if they were to close?  How many of our parishes function solely as clubs for the gathered?  How many dioceses have 10%, 15%, 20%, of their parishes on diocesan support?  How many dioceses are struggling to function?  We have to change not only the diocesan structure, but fundamentally reshape what it means to be a parish and a diocese.  Some of many options which are available, should we be willing to pursue them:

A cursory study of the history of the Episcopal Church shows that at many times people lamented whether it would survive, and at other times showed a constant litany of concerns about growth, organization, governance, and finance.

Yet we can also learn from the past that, despite all of this, many believed the Episcopal Church and Anglicanism have a charism to tap into something greater.  By being a church catholic and reformed; by not being tied to a particular ethnic group; but not defining itself solely by theological confessionalism; by combining historic catholic order and representative governance.   People like William Augustus Muhlenberg, William Reed Hungington, Julia Chester Emery, and others argued this in the 1800s.  In our own time people many are pondering whether Anglicanism is missing out on exploring how it can tap into a new Great Awakening in the religious trends sweeping our way, instead wrapped up in internal squabbles.

We can do so again.   However, the only way to be resurrected is to die.
——————

So I wrote that part years ago, in 2012.  The Collapse continues to unfold, and, as a whole, we continue to do not much about it.  I’m honestly not sure why every single meeting of Diocesan Convention, every single diocesan Standing Committee,  every single meeting of Executive Council, does not have the membership numbers report given to them as an agenda item and have a discussion on how we are going to outline a coordinated churchwide effort at renewal and evangelism.

I wrote what follows years ago as well:

——————————-

Crusty at Thanksgiving dinner (warning: not actual photo).

So it’s not about one generation over and against one another.  Since we [all] are the church, we need to BE the church together.  Millennials need to understand how institutions are helpful in furthering goals — you can put up all the online petitions you want, but more substantive organization is essential to effect change.  Boomers need to get just how different things are, this isn’t like not knowing how to work a DVR or which input button lets you watch DVDs on TV.   Xers, I think, can serve an important bridge function in how we straddle the divide between Boomers and Millennials — I said to a colleague once I felt my whole ministry might be like the Steward of Gondor from Lord of the Rings (well, without the homicidal mental illness): striving to preserve something until someone else (the Millenials and Gen Z) comes to claim and transform it.   How much of the church can we preserve, how can we let what we have and know and are, be resources to the Millennials and Generation Z?  The church has looked very, very different from age to age:  from house churches in Dura Europos in the third century to a Gothic Cathedral in the 13th to Methodist circuit riders in the 19th, and so on.  The 21st century church will look very, very different from the 20th century church.

And I say, God help us.  Will we leave rubble, or will we leave a foundation?  The next decade, and the way we can embrace these transformations, will determine much of that.

————————————-

And hey, I’ve practiced what I preached: I became academic dean of a seminary I thought would not survive, and realized that resurrection was the only option. I worked with many other faithful, committed folks to merge it with another seminary and transform it from a nearly 100% residential model to 100% low-residential model (online courses, short-term intensives).  It didn’t make everybody happy, to be sure, but the seminary survives, has more than tripled its enrollment, and is serving people most of whom would not have been able to engage theological education.  I’ve been in parish ministry for four years and through lots of effort we are holding the line, not growing but not shrinking; winding down some legacy programs and outreach but beginning new efforts; all in a town that has not seen any overall population growth in 20 years.

I’ve written and blogged and presented on these issues for nearly a decade, and now have realized I have moved into acceptance mode.  And let me clarify what I mean here:  this is not weak resignation to the evils we implore, as the hymn warns us.  Acceptance does not mean I am OK with the church’s generational failures in mission, evangelism, and formation.  I am going to go down swinging.  I have, however, accepted the fact that a good portion of the church will choose to die rather than change or adapt.  That is the acceptance I have come to.  It’s why I don’t blog on structural change or give the kind of long breathless General Convention recaps that I used to.  Because our dioceses and congregations are going to close or merge and Convention will look different in 20 years by necessity.

I said years ago I thought around the year 2035 the Episcopal Church’s attendance numbers would bottom out in the 400,000 attendance range, and will have closed 20-30% of the parishes to give us south of 5,000 congregations.  It’s then that the church will either begin to slowly rebound, or continue to slide towards irrelevance.

The church as we know it is dying.  But the church itself is not dying, because it can’t.  The church is God’s creation.  It’s not ours to kill; God help us we probably would have already if we could have.  And that rebound in the 2040s, if there is one, will be because have seen the new way of being church that God is calling us, and have embraced it.

So I ask again: for those of us active now, to whom God has entrusted the church in this transitional moment: will we leave rubble, or will we leave a foundation?

Episcopal Dioceses Enact Further Restrictions as Pandemic Rages

As the pandemic soars to new heights and daily deaths in the US top 3,300, Episcopal dioceses across the country are rolling back regathering initiatives in an effort to reduce new infections. As a result, many churches will only offer online services for Christmas and Epiphany.

Among the dioceses to do so are Virginia, California, Maryland, Massachusetts, Western Massachusetts, Western New York, Northwest Pennsylvania, Mississippi and others.

Some dioceses, including Los Angeles, continue to allow outdoor worship, although the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia has noted that even outdoor services are risky at a time when Americans should do everything in their power to stay home.

Those seeking a safe, online holiday worship experience may be interested in the Washington National Cathedral’s program, which comprises traditional worship, jazz offerings, a blue Christmas for those who have lost loved ones. In addition, the program offers online signup for event notifications and can be accessed here.

Registration is free for the National Cathedral services, although the website pushes users to make a donation.

Suicide by Cop Mars Christmas Performance at St. John the Divine

The Episcopal Cathedral of St. John the Divine in New York, seat of Episcopal bishop of New York, faced a horrific incident yesterday just as its Christmas concert was concluding.

The performance, held on the front steps of the cathedral, the first since the Cathedral closed its doors in response to the pandemic, was just concluding when shots rang out.

The gunman, who apparently had climbed the construction scaffolding around the cathedral, was heavily armed, carrying two handguns, a container of gasoline, rope, wire, tape and multiple knives, as well as a Bible.

Cathedral security guards responded by pushing numerous bystanders inside the cathedral, then closing the massive bronze doors. The gunman then began firing at the central door as SWAT members raced to the scene.

Police officers, crouching behind trash cans nearby, begged the man to put down his weapon. The gunman continued to fire, repeatedly urging police to shoot him.

Officers shot the suspect in the head, and moments later ambulances arrived to carry the gunman to the hospital, where he was pronounced dead.

Fingerprints of the suspect, who allegedly has a lengthy criminal history, have been taken, but officials have not yet released his identity.

Such shootings are often referred to by law enforcement as “suicide by cop,” and present a grave risk to law enforcement officers and onlookers. Some also believe the phenomena may be linked to the dearth of mental health resources in the United States.

Construction on the cathedral begin in 1892 and remains unfinished to this day. The cathedral is one of the largest in the world and has been frequented by presidents and luminaries from around the world. It also has been considered as the site for a potential field hospital amidst the surging pandemic.

Diocese of Washington Budget Reflects Pandemic Pain

One of the things that is nice about the Episcopal Diocese of Washington (EDOW) is that, in the scheme of things, it’s relatively open about its budget and business operations. Indeed, it scores a C for financial transparency, publishing an online annual report that includes hard numbers. And Bishop Budde, although not as willing to address clergy misconduct as one would like, answers many of her emails herself — always a good sign in a church where far too many bishops operate like mini-monarchs.

The diocese has just released its annual report, and the financial results reflect the profound impact of the pandemic. And the grim news may not be over; one suspects that even with signs of careful planning, EDOW is overly optimistic about next year’s income.

When the 2020 budget was approved, the diocese was expecting $2.6 million in income from its parishes. And of course, like many dioceses, there are enough investments and trust funds floating out there to provide a decent cushion, which don’t appear to be reflected in the report.

As things stand, the diocese is expecting to end the year with just $2 million in parish-based revenue — a staggering 26 percent decrease.

Based on information in the annual report, EDOW appears to have done a good job of addressing the deficit. It pulled down a forgivable Paycheck Protection Program of $408,000 and slashed expenses by $200,000. At the same time, it obtained a Lilly Foundation grant of $1 million to revitalize and strengthen its congregations, while ramping up assistance to food pantries and other organizations serving the community.

In short, unlike the shambolic response of the Diocese of Virginia and many other dioceses, EDOW has had its act together during the pandemic.

But what is concerning is the larger message for the Episcopal Church and indeed all domestic non-profit organizations.

While EDOW certainly comprises pockets of profound poverty and social injustice/inequality, it also includes areas of tremendous wealth, including Georgetown, NW DC, and Bethesda MD. Indeed, the proximity to the federal government tends to stabilize the local economy, and many DC-area parishes include a high percentage of well-educated, senior federal employees.

Thus, if EDOW is facing a 26 percent decline in revenue due to the pandemic, it’s a surefire bet that many rural dioceses (including Northwest PA, where this author has close ties), are facing far greater pressure, particularly as the pandemic bursts onto the scene in areas where many once believed themselves to be largely exempt from the effects of the outbreak.

Looking forward, there also is reason for concern about the 2021 EDOW budget. While it appears that the diocesan finance committee built several models scenarios to consider when drafting the upcoming budget, even with steady annual revenue of $2 million in 2021, EDOW faces a $160,000 budget deficit, which it plans to cover from its investments.

But larger social issues call into question the prospect for $2 million in 2021 income from the parishes:

  • As the pandemic drags on, not attending church is becoming increasingly normative for members, at a time when society as a whole no longer considers church membership an integral part of living in community.
  • Congress still has not passed further pandemic relief, meaning that increasing numbers of Americans are at risk of losing their jobs and their homes. Both job loss and housing loss are issues that are not readily fixed; once they happen, the results may linger for months or years.
  • Vaccination, while hardly the panacea envisioned by some, will take a long time to reach the economically disadvantaged, including homeless persons, workers without permits, and more. Thus, it is illusory to conclude that EDOW’s pandemic-related challenges will be ending in 2021, or any time in the near future.,
  • Mass transit systems and other late twentieth century infrastructure is being decimated by a vicious cycle of declining funding during a public health emergency and reduced usage, thus making it difficult to return to pre-pandemic routines.
  • Many Episcopal liturgical practices and forms of piety, from taking communion in two kinds, to holy water, to congregational singing, to the laying on of hands at ordinations, to the adoration of the host, will remain problematic for the foreseeable future, even once we see widespread vaccination.
  • The demographics of the church, which comprise more persons at elevated risk of COVID due to age and other factors, provide an added disincentive to in—person church attendance, while resulting in higher membership loss due to persons aging out.
  • Pandemic weariness, in which people are simply becoming tired of the increased vigilance needed to ensure public safety and thus may be reluctant to leave the comfort of their homes in order to attend church services.
  • Church services that, for the foreseeable future, won’t feel like church, instead being very different from the worship experiences Episcopalians are used to.

Thus, a number of factors suggest that even the $2 million annual income figure for 2021 is optimistic. At the same time, the proposed 8 percent budget deficit for the coming year and the diocese’s comments about maintaining existing human capital make clear that there’s not a lot left to cut in the budget. And while the latter is a line one hears at many Episcopal organizations that indeed have found that they could, and had to, make further cuts, any further cuts at EDOW are likely to erode key organizational capabilities.

In other words EDOW, which is well-run by Episcopal standards, is really teetering. That spells bad news for DioVA and other more chaotic and poorly governed dioceses in the church.

 

CPG Clergy Compensation Report Displays Disturbing Numbers

The Church Pension Group, or CPG, is the Episcopal Church’s captive insurance company. Every year, it publishes a compensation report for clergy, a treasure trove of data for governance geeks.

As always,the 2019 data never fails to disappoint, and in many cases manages to alarm as well.

Total Number of Clergy

First, the number of full-time clergy in the church as a whole is declining precipitously, in keeping with the overall state of the church.

Looking only at the domestic dioceses, the church went from having 5,731 full-time clergy in 2009, to 4,677 in 2019. an 18.39 percent decrease. During that time, inflation-adjusted median annual income went from $54,436.00 in 2009 to $55,250.00.

Overall, 60 percent of compensated clergy are men, while 40 percent are women. Men receive $80,994 in median annual income, while women receive $70,772, representing a 12.62 percent disparity. That compares to an unadjusted overall variance for women in the US generally reported as 18-19 percent.

Average Sunday Attendance

Family-sized parishes (0-75 ASA)

When correlating compensated clergy by Average Sunday Attendance, or ASA, we see female clergy lag in every category, but experience marked disparity among family-sized parishes, which are among those likely to pay the least.

Thus, 42 percent of paid female clergy work in such parishes, versus 33 percent of males, and females receive 7.75 percent less annual compensation on average.

Pastoral-sized parishes (76-140 ASA)

Among pastoral-sized parishes, 28 percent of all paid male clergy work in such parishes, versus 25 percent of all paid female clergy. Men earn a median average income of $83,097 at these churches, while women earn $79,813, accounting for a 3.95 percent variance.

Transitional-sized parishes (141-225 ASA)

Among pastoral-sized parishes, 18 percent of all paid male clergy work in such parishes, versus 15 percent of all paid female clergy. Men earn a median average income of $92,500 at these churches, while women earn $84,989, accounting for an 8.12 percent variance.

Program-sized parishes (226-400 ASA)

Among program-sized parishes, 14 percent of all paid male clergy work in such parishes, versus 13 percent of all paid female clergy. Men earn a median average income of $103,562 at these churches, while women earn $72,504, accounting for an 29.99 percent variance. These numbers may be influenced by the increased likelihood among these parishes of an assistant rector or other additional clergy.

Resource-sized parishes (400+ ASA)

Among resource-sized parishes, 7 percent of all paid male clergy work in such parishes, versus 6 percent of all paid female clergy. Men earn a median average income of $118,261 at these churches, while women earn $83,130,  accounting for an 29.71 percent variance. As with progran-sized parishes, these numbers may be influenced by the increased likelihood among these parishes of an assistant rector or other additional clergy.

Gender and Age

There is some good news on this front, as younger clergy, while still experiencing a gender-correlated pay gap, are less likely to do so, with the overall gap smallest among the youngest cohorts.

Parish Income and Gender Pay Disparity

Interestingly, parishes with the most income, and thus the greatest ability to address gender-based pay disparity, have the worst track record in doing so. Again, it must be noted that the presence of assistant rectors and other additional clergy is a factor, but nothing suggests that this is the root cause of the problem.

Indeed, at parishes with more than $450,001 annual operating income, female clergy experience, on average, a 20.11 percent average pay differential, far greater than other cohorts as measured by annual operating income,

Compensation by Role

Interestingly, there is relatively little pay disparity among assistant rectors. But things really heat up when when correlates gender and role for solo and senior rectors.

Overall, solo rectors account for 57 percent of all compensated clergy positions. Within this cohort, female clergy experience an 8.96% pay differential.

Among senior rector positions, which account for 12 percent of all clergy positions, men earn a median average income of $118,266, while women earn a median average income of $104,305, accounting for a shocking 11.80 percent disparity.

Gender and Compensation Range

In this cohort, things get ugly. Really ugly.

Overall, 24 percent of compensated clergy earn annual median income of $100,000 or more. Twenty-nine percent of all paid male clergy occupy these positions, while just 17 percent of women do so.

At the bottom end of the pay scales, 16 percent of male compensated clergy earn $50,000 a year or less, while 25 percent of women earn less than $50,000.

Region III

I like to examine data from Region III, not only because it is my home region, but also because it is, in many ways, the bulwark of the Episcopal Church in the US.

Suffice it to say, in Region III, things are ugly indeed.

Comprising 807 compensated clergy, with a mean annual income of $81.303, gender-based pay disparity is particularly acute in this region.

To be fair, things don’t look too bad in the categories of specialty minister, assistant, or solo rector.

But it is the country club digs of the often elderly cohort of senior rector where things go awry. In this category, males earn average median annual income of $129,903, while women earn just $97,680 — a shocking 24.81% disparity. And while 18 percent of male clergy are aged 65 – 72 (the latter being the mandatory age for retirement), 26 percent of female clergy are within this cohort.

Thus, while there is little empirical data from CPG to support this conclusion, the author believes, based on his own prior research, that the male senior rectors in the largest Region III parishes are holding onto their richly compensated jobs until hell freezes over, or their vestries get tired of watching them play golf, whichever comes sooner. Certainly, these data reflect the historically disadvantaged role of women in the church.

Moreover, it is important to recall that, when a motion about these issue reached the floor of the diocesan annual meeting in 2014, a motion was put forth in response calling for the diocese to study the issue. While that motion fortunately was voted down, we have had 2,000 years of the Christian church to figure this one out. No one needs any more studies, and the motion illustrates that folks who play games remain alive, well, and active in TEC.

In short, it’s time to act, and I have zero patience for people who want to play the delay, deny, obstruct game.

Sexual Orientation and Gender Identity

It is this author’s understanding that, for the first time, General Convention tasked CPG with collecting data on sexual orientation and gender identity. In that regard, my hope is that these data soon will be reflected in the annual compensation report.

This may, of course, prove tricky, as in many areas the numbers may be too small to report without breaching privacy. That said, the church’s track record with transgender clergy is nothing to be proud of, and openly gay clergy still face barriers in many parishes, despite what church canons say.

Conclusions

To its credit, the Episcopal Church is making progress in these areas. But its dilly-dallying over sexual misconduct and continued efforts to water down protections in the House of Bishops, as well as its almost utter disregard for bullying, spiritual abuse, and other forms of misconduct that are used to oppress and make life difficult for women, LGBTQUIA+, and other marginalized and oppressed groups within the church make for a challenging path forward.

Bishop Peter Ball and the Dynamics of Abuse

The late Peter Ball was a bishop in the Church of England. A founder of the Community of the Glorious Ascension, he was a notorious pedophile and abuser of the boys and young men in the monastic order. His abuse ranged from sex, to spankings, to massages and more.

The allegations against Ball are well documented, and there is no need to reiterate the horrific details. Instead, this author would like to focus on the underlying dynamics that allowed the abuse to continue for so long.

Much of the situation stems from Ball’s association with Prince Charles. Although it does not appear to have been a particularly close relationship, Ball traded on this connection, creating the impression that he was in close contact with the royal family and thus above reproach.

Subsequent investigations raised several related issues. One was the church’s use of high-priced, high-power attorneys, who intimidated victims, making it difficult for them to sound the alarm.

There also was a large element of what the Rev. Robin Hammeal-urban terms, “if it can’t be conceived, it can’t be perceived.”

Far too often, fellow bishops and other church enablers minimized Ball’s conduct, brushed it aside, or ignored it altogether.

Worst of all, investigators later found that Lord Carey, the Archbishop of Canterbury, ignored and brushed off warnings for more than 20 years. Indeed, he is known to have received seven letters warning of Ball’s conduct over the years, but only passed one — the least innocuous — to the police. Rowan Williams similarly came in for criticism, even as Justin Welby concluded that the “colluded and concealed,” instead of trying to help, being concerned primarily with its own reputation.

Survivors mirrored these comments, with one, Graham Sawyer, saying that the church treated him with contempt. “I continue to endure cruel and sadistic treatment by the very highest levels of the church,” adding that he wants police to investigate Justin Welby’s role in the matter. Others noted that the church had bullied and silenced whistleblowers and victims.

But if there is one message to be gleaned from of this, it’s the group think that besets churches as they worry first about the organization, and secondly (if at all), about the persons who make up the organization.

Today Ball is dead, having suffered a fall in his home.

But his appalling and outrageous use of the church and his monastic order as a recruiting ground for victims, and the lack of ecclesiastical oversight, will sound far too familiar to victims of abuse in any church setting.

Christian Post Reports Upcoming Demise of Episcopal Church

In an article posted yesterday, The Christian Post reiterated warnings that The Episcopal Church is lurching towards collapse. That assessment coincides with similar predictions elsewhere.

At its height in 1966, almost 4 million Americans were members. As of 2018, official reports count just 1.676 million members.

And while all mainline denominations are facing decline with the passing of the baby boom, the church’s total membership doesn’t tell the whole story.

For example, Sunday worship, sometimes referred to in Episco-speak as “Average Sunday Attendance,” or ASA, has plummeted 25 percent from 2009 to 2019. The Post adds:

“The overall picture is dire,” the Rev. Dwight Zscheile, an Episcopal priest and professor, according to ChurchLeaders. “Not one of decline as much as demise within the next generation unless trends change significantly.”

He said that at this rate, “there will be no one in worship by around 2050 in the entire denomination.” Although offering pledges have risen, “the fact that fewer people are giving more money is not a sustainable trend over the long term,” he added.

Approximately 55% of U.S. Episcopalians are age 60 and older, the highest average age of the largest 20 religious traditions in the nation, according to a demographic analysis by researcher Ryan Burge.

In a recent episode of “The Holy Post” podcast, Burge said the Episcopal Church will be dead in two decades. In a subsequent blog post, he noted that while it might not be gone completely, it will be “vastly diminished” and likely on “life support.”

“A terrifying reality emerges” when looking at the mode as opposed to the average age, he added.

“The modal age of an Episcopalian in 2019 was 69.”

Moreover, birth rates among Episcopalians are the lowest of the mainline denominations.

As a result, Burge predicts that the church may comprise approximately 50 percent of its current membership within 20 years, leaving it in a situation in which it is on “life support.”

The post notes that the Anglican Church in Canada appears to be on a similar trajectory.

DioVA Response

So what’s the denomination doing about the decline? This author cannot speak to every diocese out there, but here in DioVA, the answer is nothing. Or same might say less than nothing.

In the recent DioVA budget, which this author cites because he lives within its geographic boundaries, the church has zeroed out funds for leadership development, on the grounds that that task force is inactive.

Hardly a good sign.

On other fronts, the Rev. Sven vanBaar, the clueless wonder of an intake officer who held that clergy perjury is only actionable as a clergy disciplinary matter if criminal charges are brought and now serves as a delegate to General Convention, has been tasked with exploring ways to stabilize the diocesan budget.

If vanBaar can’t even figure out the ethics behind the clergy perjury, it’s highly doubtful that he and the other Mayo House insiders can figure out how to fix the church’s financial and membership woes.