Saturday, June 30, 2012

Episcopal Church - Golden Anniversary

You will not see banners marking our “Golden Anniversary of Decline” when The 77th General Convention of the Episcopal Church convenes this week in Indianapolis.  Nevertheless this is the reality of the last 50 years.  For all practical purposes the Episcopal Church stopped growing in 1962 with a membership of 3.6 million persons.  The Episcopal News Service recently reported membership is now 1.951 million; this is a 47% loss in half a century.  But the numbers are even worse when compared to the total United States population.  In 1960 there were 19 Episcopalians per 1000 Americans and now the number is less then 8 Episcopalians, a loss of 58%.  So why not be honest and festoon the Convention with “Commemorating 50 Years of Decline” or “Golden Anniversary of Decline”?

The 1950s were filled with religious energy and worshippers overflowed our buildings, but that changed when we were confronted with the tumultuous Age of Aquarius.  Our bishops in the 1960s sought to identify the Church with the culture’s needs but were ‘out at first’ by half a step and the decline began – 50 years ago.  

The House of Deputies Committee on the State of the Church published report to this General Convention details the loss of membership numbers noted above and the fact we also lost over 300 congregations between 2006 and 2010.  We will lose twice that many in the next five years because, as the Committee reports, 72% of Episcopal congregations are in financial difficulty. This would equate to shutting down 20 dioceses in a fifteen year period.  Considering the ageing of our membership and that most of our congregations are small with low average Sunday attendance, the number of viable dioceses in ten years could be calculated at 25 to 30 rather then the current 100 domestic dioceses.  The time to pursue mergers and/or partnerships is now and not after scores of jurisdictions have sunk in a sea of red ink.  For example, it is not that difficult to imagine six or eight jurisdictions forming together to become The Diocese of the Heartland. 

Readers should be aware of our other marks of decline as reported to an Executive Council meeting this past January: child baptisms down 36%, adult baptism down 40%, confirmations down 32%, Church school enrollment down 33%, and marriages down 41%.  Equally as troubling is that our number of clergy has jumped 80% during our half century of decline; when we were 3.6 million members strong there were 10,000 clergy and now that we are 1.9 million members we have over 18,000 clergy – more clergy is obviously not the answer to stopping decline. 

The General Convention will this week consider a great number of important but secondary issues all the while believing that our diocesan and national leadership, both ordained and lay, must be on the right track and that if they ‘keep doing what they have been doing’ -- divine intervention will turn a dying denomination around.  The last fifty years suggest otherwise.

Many of the entries in Episcopal Journey of Hope by my fellow bloggers and comments from our readers provide insight to the issues that ought to be on the floor of Convention but won’t make it.  As a responder wrote this past week, about all we can expect is rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.  


  1. Thanks, Gary, my entire life in the Episcopal Church spans this grievous anniversary period. The strange math that increases ordinations as our overall numbers are dramatically down is most disconcerting. For a short while, with a simple procedure I developed for Bishop Ogilby of the DofPA, I found a positive and affirmative way to stem this crazy proliferation but that was soon changed there, and the increases soon returned. There is a way out that is loving and meets the original intent of the Commission on Ministry canon.

  2. Although nothing said here is wrong, and with much of it I agree, I do have to point out that the experience of the Episcopal Church vis-a-vis membership growth-and-decline is not peculiar to it. All mainline Protestant churches and many civic organizations over the same period of time have exhibited the same growth or decline curve. Robert Putnam documented this loss of "social capital" in his book "Bowling Alone".

    Looking for internal causes of the Episcopal Church's decline is a futile and ultimately fruitless endeavor. The causes are not internal, they are external to the church. What the church (all denominations) can be faulted for is not anything they did - it's what they didn't do that is the problem. They didn't recognize the changes in the society around them and act to meet them appropriately. As a result, society moved, the church didn't, and the church become irrelevant!

    At the Indianapolis General Convention, time will likely be wasted on reactive "solutions" (re-structuring, re-budgeting, pointing accusing fingers at bishops, arguing about sex in one way or another), solutions that have been accurately characterized as "rearranging deck chairs." Fortunately, there will be some there that have other things in mind.

    I commend to all who are in attendance at the Convention and who believe it is time stop the navel gazing and internal fault finding to be in contact with the "Act 8 Moment" folks: Susan Brown Snook, Tom Ferguson, and Scott Gunn.

  3. I appreciate the urgency of the post, but challenged congregations need more than a sense of urgency.

    Just as few Episcopalians are likely to pledge because it is their "duty", it is also unlikely that congregations will revitalize out of fear or the experience of crisis. Congregations with healthy pledging typically have excellent preaching, worship, an authentic and consistent welcome to all strangers, vibrant ministries, programs for children and youth and so on. Likewise congregations are more likely to merge or form partnerships through local leadership (rector and bishop working together with vestry and congregation)and hearing turnaround stories of congregations similar to theirs.

    Through Congregational Seasons I am trying to share these stories of vitality and viability. There are a few (just a few) bishops, clergy and lay leaders emerging across the church in a couple of dioceses. The problem is that these passionate leaders are in a handful of dioceses and every diocese needs this kind of leadership and the energy they are generating with real strategies that are beginning to show growth and curtail closings.

    We need to network these leaders beyond their individual diocese.
    Unfortunately seminaries and dioceses are organized around the strategy of the survival of the fittest. We need as a church to break out of the competitive model and find ways to share resources across all dioceses. We also need mutual accountability and good stewardship of people and churches.

    This week on Congregational Seasons I will be placing the celebratory spotlight on Episcopal leaders who see the integral relationship between mission, vitality and viability. One of these leaders who I will celebrate is Rt. Rev. Sean Rowe, who I will feature tomorrow on Congregational Seasons. Bishop Rowe challenges the common congregational statement that "things are just fine the way they are". No, Bishop Rowe says they are not fine. He is not passively watching the numbers of church closings increase. He is actively exercising leadership and working with The Episcopal Church Building Fund to reinvigorate his diocese's congregations with the needs of the neighborhoods where the churches are located.

  4. The “Golden Anniversary of Decline” has attracted a large number of readers but only a few commentators. Nevertheless, each of the three persons responding has added significantly to the topic. How can anyone argue that we are not in a humungous decline and are in fact a dying denomination?

    Eric Funston argues that it is fruitless to look for internal causes and advocates an Acts 8 Moment. Full agreement with the later premise but not the former; we need to both understand our failures and be renewed by the Holy Spirit. Joe Duggan hits the nail on the head when he talks about what it takes to be healthy congregation. Ron Reed helps us focus on the deluge of questionably competent clergy. Joe continues that thread when he notes the need for (strong) local leadership.

    The strength of our Church is in gathered congregations and not the diocese. As I pointed out in several earlier blogs – the traditional paradigm of the role and function of bishop is dead in the water. Good people have worn purple shirts during the last five decades and just look at the results. The real leaders on the road to recovery have always been “highly motivated, professional and accountable” rectors.

    One diocesan staff priest persisted, “ . . . but that means a whole new way for bishops to function.” Yes, it does but after all, where has it been demonstrated that the church has ever, repeat, ever, grown because of the bishop. Bishops can drive members away but not bring them it. This being the case: (1) We must consolidate the number of dioceses to 25 to 30, in order to (2) keep sufficient resources at the local level, therefore, (3) it is time to change assessment formularies to a voluntary tithe?

  5. I am forced to repeat: "where has it been demonstrated that the church has ever, repeat, ever, grown because of the bishop? " My only qualification would be historic: in the past forty years? That is not say that Gary's question is not more extenstively accurate but rather to make the conclusion easier to substantiate. Okay, who is willing to take that one on?

  6. Thanks Gary, for this well thought out and persuasive post. You hit the nail on the head when you note that General Convention will mainly concern itself with secondary issues. While fiddling around with restructuring on the national level, important as that is, they will ignore the incrasingly rapid decline of the church. Right noe the emphasis must be on strengthening congregations and decreasing the number of bishops and dioceses. Also, much attention must be devoted to decreasing assessments to dioceses. Cutting off the money supply will hopefully result in diocesan mergers.

  7. We face some of the same problems in the UK. I blog about them too at I don't see any simple answers however. Although there is growth in some areas of the church it can lack depth.

    We need to start talking about renewal a lot more, sacramental and charismatic. Re-engaging with what it means to be a reformed catholic church with our roots in the apostolic era. Taking the theological energy of post-liberalism and communicating that to a non-theological audience.

    This will probably result in alienating those who are left!

  8. A few comments:

    The validity of a lively faith is NOT in its numbers but in the living faith of its members. I could care less how many folk put their tushes in pews on Sunday - I am extremely interested in the percentage of the parish actively involved in ministry internally and externally.

    If we're called to follow the Jesus way then let's stop worrying so much about "winning" and more about picking up our crosses and moseying on with the folks around us.

    I'd like to offer the thought that maybe we ought to do some online reading of what is going on in other denominations around us - and not just the usual suspects: Church of the Brethren, Conservative Quakers, and Moravians. Each has something to share with us if we're open to listening and hearing.

    We are called to be a new thing, I believe. Let us do it with humility, faith, and humor at, with, and about ourselves...

  9. BTW, Goodthunder, I would only say that the real turn around of TEC will come when the Laity take control and demand more of the other orders of ministry in terms of equipping layfolk to live into their ministries....

  10. "Small Farmer in the City" wants lay folks to take (back) control of the Church and to hold the other orders accountable. I agree! It is time for the House of Bishops to regain an understanding of being servant of servants and not CEO's. And yes, we rectors need to understand our role. Thanks for your comment.

  11. A Happy and Healthy 4th of July to one and all!

  12. Can you believe General Convention’s Committee on Structure? They held a hearing so speakers could testify that our Church is facing an emergency. Obviously they have been ignoring the facts for the past 50 years. Like we fell off the cliff in 1962 and hardly noticed until now when we are about to be smashed on the rocks at the bottom. One representative had the gull to say “Let’s stop thinking and saying our church is broken. Our church is not broken. We have in place structures and concepts and values that have served us well for more than 100 years …” What part of “Golden Anniversary of Decline” is unclear. The part where we have lost 47% of our members in a half century or that we have closed 300 congregations between 2006 and 2010? The part where 72% of our congregations are in financial difficulty or the part where a reasonable projection is that we will lose the equivalent of 20 dioceses over a fifteen year period?