The big stink: 9.5 theses on the survival of the Episcopal church

By | September 25, 2022

Years ago, I read a book on how to be popular. It had some unfortunate reference points, including trading on gender stereotypes. Boys should be masculine and like sports. Girls should be feminine and like cooking and sewing.

But it had some good ideas too, including some that apply, or should apply, to The Episcopal Church. Like, “Check to see if you are relating to other people in ways that no longer work.” Translated, that means if you are still clinging to the notion of “build it and they will come,” you are in for a rude awakening.

So, as a priest who is blessed to have a vibrant, growing parish, here is my take on the Big Stink, otherwise known as the fact that the Episcopal Church is dying.

Not maybe dying. It is dying. But that is the choice that many have already made, typically implicitly, by refusing to acknowledge that the church is on its last legs.

By the way, that touches on my .5 thesis, or half a full-blown thesis. My .5 thesis is that, if you are reading this, you actually care about the fact the church is dying. And want to do something about it. So, I might be right, or you might just be here to see what drivel NSB (the Notorious Stinkbomb) is spouting this time.

Either way, here we go, over the cliff, into the stinky miasma. Martin Luther, watch out!

  1. The church needs to accept reality. Folks, here’s some seriously stinky news: What we’re doing now isn’t working. Every data point reflects that. And yet the church continues making excuses — we need younger priests. We need older priests. We need to plant churches. It’s because of the baby boom. People have moved to suburbia. Kids will come back when they have families. We need to be more inclusive. We need to keep on being church. We need to be less inclusive. We’re holding our own (even as the population in the US grows, but we decline.) The future is immigrants. You name it, it’s been tried.

Stop. Just stop. I don’t believe it. You don’t believe it. No one believes it. We’re not fooling anyone. It makes my head hurt to listen to this nonsense.

  1. The church needs to change. If what the church is doing isn’t working, then it needs to do things differently. And for the record, The Episcopal Church right now is a masterpiece of dysfunction. Okay, right about now some of you are getting defensive, thinking about your food pantry, your homeless shelter, or your outreach to migrants. Those are important, but they’re not what I’m talking about. None of those have much effect on membership or the future of the church. They are just part and parcel of the daily business of being Christians. What I’m talking about is change at every level, but with two key focuses: 1) how do we minister within the church, and 2) how do we grow? Neither happens by accident. And we seriously stink at both.

Both aspects of change are important. Many churches are great at serving the community, even as they squabble internally and quietly implode. So, we need to be better at loving each other and recognizing the spark of the divine in each of us—what the Quakers call the “inner light.”

Similarly, the reality is we can and must grow. Many Episcopal parishes already cannot afford their current cost structures, even as they cling to outdated notions about the need to have their own buildings, a full-time priest, and similar assumptions. More on that later, but for now, let’s remember that there are parishes in the church that are growing rapidly—typically, because they have made the decision to do so.

And don’t think because you are friendly and inclusive you’ve nailed it. Hundreds of friendly, progressive, inclusive churches close every year. Nor is there an in-between. Churches are always doing one of two things: Growing or dying. So if your church is not growing, it needs to embrace change or it will die.

  1. The church needs to be Mr./Ms. Right, versus looking for Mr./Ms. Right. My mom, an Episcopal priest and practicing psychologist, tells people this.

All. The. Time. And promptly gets ignored, including by me. (That may explain why I am still single.)

But if the church wants to grow and prosper, it needs to be the real deal. Kind. Compassionate. Welcoming. Embracing change. Loving. Relevant.

There’s no workaround for that. A new presiding bishop won’t solve the church’s problems. A new bishop in your diocese can’t solve the church’s problems. Only we can solve the church’s problems. We need to be the change we wish to see.

And like any healthy relationship, there can be no winners or losers. No one who’s unwelcome because they criticized someone, did something the altar guild doesn’t like, ordered the wrong flowers for Sunday or otherwise failed to live up to our expectations. Jesus welcomes the outcast—we must do the same. There is no excuse to do otherwise. And when we do otherwise, we pay a heavy price for our sin.

That is not to say that there are not some who may not be appropriately excluded from attending church. For instance, my parish has two convicted sex offenders who, for various reasons, cannot attend. But they are still part of the body of Christ, and we make generous provision for their pastoral and other needs, including virtual worship, visits from clergy, and access to counseling and care. Indeed, while I often struggle to remain close to them, and I do not understand the choices they have made, I realize that in many ways the measure of my integrity as a priest is my ability to care for these persons. They are made in the image of God, just like every other human being. And they are welcome parts of the church, even though rigorous boundaries are placed on their participation.

Nor am I saying we should not be selective about our leaders. My two sex offenders will never serve on my vestry. Period. There are several others in the parish who will never serve. Period. But the reasons they are not in leadership roles are good ones. The reasons are not that they are old, young, wealthy, poor, like me, don’t like me, are friendly, are irascible, or anything else. The reasons are real reasons and reflect my concern, and that of my vestry, for the wellbeing of the church and its people. Being a leader means more than showing up at vestry meetings and being on time. Being a leader requires maturity on multiple levels and a genuine love for others. If these are missing the church is in trouble.

It’s also important to recognize that far too many of our parishes are churches in name only. Often these are friendly parishes, ostensibly welcoming, typically with a charismatic rector. But scratch the surface, and underneath the friendly veneer is a toxic morass of gossip, petty disputes, unresolved intrapersonal conflicts, and more. So being church involves more than saying we are the church — it means internalizing that commitment and consciously living into it.

  1. The church needs to plan. Healthy churches are rarely a matter of chance. Nor are they the result of targeted sermons, a friendly priest, or any of the other things we pretend are important. They are the result of planning. This includes:
    • Establishing written norms for behavior. For example, vestry members should commit to being kind, direct, inclusive, avoiding parking lot conversations, and to conducting all business at vestry meetings. Bulletins should avoid listing preachers, to discourage people from attaching to one particular priest. Communication must be kind but direct, made up of 1/3 talking and 2/3 listening. The list goes on, but you get my drift.
    • Planning to grow. When was the last time the church had a written growth plan? These are common in evangelical churches, but unheard of in The Episcopal Church. How many members will you have by the end of the year? How do you plan to get there? How are you using social media? (Social media does not mean having a Facebook page with a post about your parish picnic last July. It includes Twitter, Snapchat and more. It includes responding to critics and engaging. In other words, if you have turned off comments on your posts, you might as well not bother.)
    • Using the budget process to grow. Churches need to stop budgeting based on the past. Start with a zero budget and work from there. And everything needs to be listed as a line item—the rector’s salary, the cost of candles, ECW. No off-budget items, no blended budgets where everything disappears into categories. If you can’t know what your priest or bishop makes, something stinks.
    • Having a “dream budget.” In addition to your “real budget,” ask members what they would include in their “dream budget.” Then ask the question, “How can we get from here to there?” It’s surprising how well this works.
  2. The church needs to insist on results and urgency. Have you ever noticed how hard The Episcopal Church works to avoid actually doing anything? At every level, there are staggering layers of committees, groups, and bureaucracy, often tasked with nothing more than issuing reports. Many of the reports have been saying the same thing for decades — like the need to address substance abuse. But nothing ever gets done. And the more committees there are, the less happens. A healthy church makes up its mind to push to results, while discouraging busy work.
  3. The church needs accountability. Most experts say at least 30 percent of clergy are narcissists, and that seems to be about right. But hold a narcissist accountable, and he’ll head for the hills in record time. Meanwhile, far too many clergy get away with murder, including bullying, coming in late and leaving early, being “out of town” beyond what is authorized in their letter of agreement, and generally not being accountable to those they are supposed to serve. For the record, good clergy don’t mind being accountable—they welcome it. And good bishops set boundaries, and hold themselves and others accountable for maintaining boundaries. If you’re a bishop who takes a “no blood, no foul” approach, you’re doing the church grave harm. The damage you are causing often is irreparable. And there is zero likelihood that feckless bishops can successfully address issues like structural racism if they can’t maintain mission integrity.

Speaking of, many clergy and most vestries have very little idea what their obligations are under church canons. Accountability isn’t possible if you don’t know what the rules are.

  1. The church needs to avoid sycophants. Many priests and bishops surround themselves with pleasant people who are all churchy nice. As a result, they build echo chambers for themselves and hear only what they want to hear.

    Good vestries and standing committees include the loyal opposition. Every priest and bishop needs at least one person willing to stand up and say, “I disagree. Here’s why.” If you are a priest or bishop and haven’t faced open disagreement in the past year, something stinks. And if you conduct all your business behind the scenes in order to keep control, or you interfere with vestry elections or decisions, you are toxic. For the record, sycophants are deadly, while our harshest critics are often our dearest friends. Indeed, the best priests I know encourage parish curmudgeons (every church has a few), to be involved in leadership. They are one of the most overlooked treasures in every parish.
  2. The church needs to avoid transactional solutions. There is a role for book groups, listening sessions, study groups and similar things. But none of these are solutions. They must not be mistaken for solutions. Yet in almost every instance they are the go-to for Episcopal churches that want to address social justice issues. While I’m on the topic, let me come right out with this: Building Beloved Community is a crock. Repeat: Building Beloved Community is a crock. And yes, I know this will offend many.

If you want to really understand racism, spend a month volunteering in Spanish Harlem or other area of systemic injustice. You’ll have a far better understanding of the issue than you could ever hope to get in the comfortable confines of your rector’s study. Not to mention you’ll understand the numerous other ways the church and society oppress others: Sexism. Ableism. Ageism. Sexual orientation. Financial capacity. Access to education. Access to public services. Give me a couple of hours and I can add lots to this list.

And for the record, we cannot build Beloved Community on the basis of one issue alone. We need to strive to become Beloved Community, but we start becoming Beloved Community when we live into the Baptismal Covenant, respecting the dignity of every human being. In doing so, we become attuned to the sacramental aspect of all aspects of daily life, or the ethical implications of decisions we make, large and small.

Relatedly, we like to gob onto issues that, by definition, are too big to fix, like “structural racism.” But even as we do so, we use study groups and circles to help us feel good about our failings. After all, we’re busy fixing society. But if we ignore the elderly parishioner who sits alone in the midst of the pandemic, we are rank hypocrites. If we bully someone out of the church because we don’t like something they have done, we have a log in our own eye. If we fail to make sure the person who lacks transportation gets to church, we make a lie out of our claim that all are welcome, no exceptions.

Justice starts at home. Love should be the basis for all we say and do. Love is not a word to be tossed into sermons, like dressing on a salad. It is what we say and do, even when no one else is watching, even when it is neither easy nor fun.

  1. The church needs to understand and embrace death and resurrection. To be clear, death is not a decline in attendance, followed by an increase. Death is not a bare-bones budget; resurrection is not a budget increase.

Death is letting go of self. It is the end of the pain and attachments of life. It is losing things we love. It is about goodbye. And in the midst of profound loss, it opens all possibilities.

As such, death calls into question even basic ideas about church. For example:

    • Does the church need buildings? It did in the 1950’s, but today probably not. Nor does it need the romantic Gothic revival heaps we often call church. Far better to be in a run-down storefront in the inner city than a lavish, costly building with stained glass.
    • Does the church need cathedrals? The early Christian community did just fine without them.
    • Does the church need full-time paid clergy? I don’t know, but some of the most effective priests I know are volunteers; some of the least effective make six-figure salaries at program- or corporate-size churches. Nor is it a given than paid bishops are better than volunteers. Latter-day Saint (LDS) bishops are all volunteers, and while I disagree with their theology in so many ways, most LDS bishops run circles around the Episcopal variant.
    • Does our seminary system make sense? The reality is very few graduates know how to be priests, and even fewer have the business, non-profit, and organizational skills they need to succeed. I’d much rather a priest who genuinely loves and serves others, versus someone who can wax eloquent about the textual differences in the Gospels. Similarly, the trite “James tells us” stuff that goes into most sermons is empty and irrelevant for many in the pews.
    • Does our Victorian England notion of churchmanship, replete with wardens, vestries, canons to the ordinary, and all the other archaic nonsense, align with today’s needs?

The list goes on and on, but the underlying point is important, which is that all ideas must be on the table. We can assume very little, except that when we die, we do so in the “sure and certain hope of the Resurrection.”

At the same time, we cannot deny that the process of dying often is painful and traumatic for all involved. We are hard-wired to avoid looking these issues in the eye, yet death and suffering await all creatures. And when we see that The Episcopal Church as we know it is dying, we try hard to avoid the topic, let alone embrace the dying process.

How might we begin to embrace the death of the church and open the doors to resurrection?

One way is to start by doing the unthinkable in many parishes: Call up members who have left due to conflict and ask if they would be willing to share their experiences. When you do, forget the usual BS about them leaving before you got there, the fact you may have only a vague idea of what happened, people say they are real a-holes, or any of the other usual sad excuses. Instead, listen carefully, apologize sincerely, and see if there is a way you can make restitution. That’s what Jesus would do, and it is what we are called to do.

In case it’s helpful, my experience is that very few people leave the church without a good reason. And while people you talk to may not come back, at least they know you are sincere, you care, and the door is always open. If they do come back, make sure they are sincerely welcome—no side-eyes, no throwing shade, no passive-aggressive behavior.

As the church, we are called to be a light in the darkness. But far too often, we don’t even adhere to the mediocre standards of for-profit companies. That is profoundly damning, and a legitimate reason people take a pass on organized faith.  Nor is it okay to say, “Well, I’m sorry,” and hope that we’ll get a pass. We are better than that. If we’re not, then we have no business calling ourselves Christians.

In closing

In closing, we are at an inflection point, a fork in the road. One path leads to death and destruction, the other leads to death and resurrection. Neither path leads to more of the same.

Nor does the road lead us back in time to the good old days when church attendance was normative, and being a bishop was a BFD.

Nor does either path lead to Presiding Bishop Curry’s painless “revolution,” which so far amounts to empty codswallop.

Nor can we ignore the fork in the road. Time moves us down the road, even if we want to cling to the past. And if we make no decision, the church gets shoved down the path of death and destruction.

Which path will your church choose?

Stinkbomb is a regular contributor to Anglican Watch.

He is graduate of VTS and rector of a fast-growing church on the west coast. Openly gay and still single, Stinkbomb has been told by his bishop, “If you didn’t exist, I’d have to make you up.” He is still trying to decide if that is a compliment.



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Colin Ross

I mean the reality is that the theology is just plain