Top ten predictions for the Episcopal church in 2021

By | December 31, 2020

As many look eagerly to put the difficult year of 2020 behind them, so too are many looking forward to 2021.

With that in mind, here are Anglican Watch’s top-ten predictions for the coming year for the Episcopal Church:

  1. Church budgets are over-optimistic due to the surging pandemic.

Many churches and dioceses used budget forecasts in which income and expenses were consistent with 2020. But in many areas, declines in church budgets have accelerated in recent years. This factor, combined with pandemic weariness, and darker days ahead for the pandemic spell bad news for already thin church budgets.

     2. Church leadership faces a wave of retirements.

In many larger parishes, lucrative six-figure compensation arrangements are held by older, male, baby boomer clergy. Similarly, relatively few bishops are under age 60.

The inherent higher risk profiles for these cohorts, combined with increasing financial pressure and a shift away from “church as we’ve always done it,” will push a great many of these older clergy out the door.

     3.  Increasing pressure for change.

The pandemic increasingly looks to be a do-or-die inflection point for the Episcopal Church. While the hierarchy continues its efforts to avoid change at all costs. including clinging to the increasingly irrelevant, Madmen-era church headquarters in New York, the financial constraints imposed by the pandemic are making this denial of reality increasingly difficult. Moreover, Millenials, Gen Y’s, and Gen Z’s are unwilling to support creaky paradigms of this sort.

      4. More assets sold.

In a day and age where social media reigns, the big limestone heaps and neo-gothic piles occupied by many churches and cathedrals increasingly look like expensive stage sets for streaming live services. (Does anyone under 20 even use Facebook anymore?)

Nor do upcoming generations have much interest in maintaining drafty, energy-inefficient old buildings when the funds used to keep them running could be used for social justice.

And while AW’s evidence is largely anectodal, we get more and more emails from people talking about signs that their church building is quietly up for same. That’s to be expected, given the increasing number of parishes with less than 20 active members.

      5. Flatter organizational structure.

While Planet Episcopal is a quaint place, with its references to 18th-century churchmanship replete with  canons to the ordinary, wardens, suffragens, vergers and other quaint creatures inhabiting myriad committees, task forces, consultative groups and other contrivances, neither busy professionals nor younger generations have the time and resources to fall prey to Planet Episcopal’s gravitational pull.

Instead, many will prefer service work and caring for those in need, versus this sort of busy work.

     6. Greater transparency.

Younger generations are unwilling to blindly send money or donate time when the only financial reports they see are the typical pie charts contained in parish reports, which obfuscate the details of salaries and specific line-item expenditures. Nor are they willing to be brushed aside with assurances from clergy along the lines of, “Well, I see the financials.”

The days of blind denominational deference are over.

     7.  Increasing accountability.

Just as younger people demand transparency, so too will they demand accountability. The days are over when church hierarchies, increasingly irrelevant to churchgoers, can turn a blind eye to clergy misconduct, or engage in coverup. And with high percentages of young people viewing church as hypocritical and judgmental, the days of petty bickering and mean girl antics in vestries, altar guild, and other church groups is fast coming to an end for those churches that want to survive.

     8. Parts of the church choose to die.

Just as Tom Ferguson aka Crusty Old Dean has noted, large swaths  of the Episcopal Church will choose to die rather than change. And why not? With generous defined benefit plan retirements awaiting, many current clergy have neither the energy or the appetite for change. They just want to make it to retirement and get the hell out of Dodge, before the stuff hits the fan.

    9.  Less clericalism.

Young people, with ready access to myriad data points via social media, are increasingly unwilling to simply hand over decisionmaking to outsiders. And the debacles in the Roman Catholic Church and the SBC suggest that clericalism faces stiff head winds down the road. Churches and dioceses that wish to survive are going to need to rely less on the Pointy Hats Club sweeping through in full regalia, and more on authentic relationships, based on going out and finding young people, versus waiting for them to find the church.

   10. Some resurrection.

The office for burial of the dead reminds us that “in the midst of life, we are in death,” and so it is for the Episcopal Church. Those portions of the church that choose to embrace change, to be truly inclusive, to put aside the petty bickering and childish infighting that so often mark the Episcopal Church, will find growth and renewal in 2021.

Conversely, those portions of the church that dream of a return the 1970’s, when church attendance was normative and the baby boom resulted in torrents of cash for the mainline denominations, will experience 2021 as an accelerated decline into irrelevance, obscurity, and death.

Happy New Year!


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