Congratulations to the United Methodists of Kansas and Missouri. They openly acknowledged the population movement from rural areas and the resulting decline in the number of Methodist churches in the two states. So like good stewards, on August 23rd, they merged three Conferences: Kansas East, Kansas West and Nebraska, into the new "Great Plains Annual Conference"; please note that they will still have over 1,000 Methodist churches across the two states. So why merge? Their answer: "Our hope is that we'll be stronger, and able to do more in mission by uniting than we could as three smaller conferences."
The Episcopal Church also has three jurisdictions in the two states: the Diocese of Nebraska, Kansas, and Western Kansas. Could they not be stronger and do more in mission by uniting into one rather than continuing as three smaller jurisdictions? The reality of rural to city movement and the decline of the number of Episcopal churches is as true of us as it is for the Methodists. Even with merger the two states would have only 129 Episcopal congregations with many in the waning moments of life: 50 congregations (39%) have an average Sunday attendance (ASA) of less than 20 members, another 35 congregations (27%) have an ASA of 20-49. At the National level 68% (4,580) of our congregations have an average Sunday attendance under 100 members; in Nebraska and Kansas 66%of our congregations have an average Sunday attendance under 50 members.
Why have three bishops? Why have three diocesan staffs managing similar programs for so few congregations? If the Methodists can service seven times as many congregations in the same geographical area, why can't we Episcopalians centrally manage 129 congregations in the two states?
Repeatedly lay-persons suggest the reason we can't merge is the lack of leadership in our bishops and senior clergy. To be fair one of the bishops involved did offer to take one or both of the other dioceses under his wing; nevertheless, when was the last time any bishop challenged a diocesan convention to make merger a major priority? When was the last time a parish delegation pushed legislation for merger? The remnant Diocese of Quincy did retreat back into the Diocese of Chicago last month but that was a move based on financial desperation and not mission; in any case, it is atypical.
If we used the Methodist example of 1000 congregations as a decent basis for a new jurisdiction - the Episcopal Church in the United States would have only seven dioceses instead of the 100 we have now. The National Church listed just 6,736 congregations in the last reported year of 2011 and that was down 58 churches from the year before; hundreds of these congregations have no priest at all and hundreds more have only part-time clergy - this in spite of the fact that there is no clergy shortage in the Episcopal Church. So why do we need 100 Episcopal dioceses and staffs that are inefficient, or worse, that incompetent that we need so much redundancy? The Methodists merged to be stronger and do more in mission.
What keeps the Episcopal Church in Kansas and Nebraska from actively working toward merger? What keeps the other 97 diocesan bishops from actively working toward merger? The most common answers do not focus on inefficiency or incompetency but rather that our most senior leaders are "territorial" - "empire builders." If this is accurate, it is a sad commentary that those entrusted with leading the Church are actually about keeping dominion over their domain. As Author David Gibson says, "An organization that was born as a divine kingdom...and flourished by donning the trappings of monarchy does not yield easily to retrofitting." Granted, many in Episcopal Orders are dedicated and committed but many others are aloof and their ministry lacks accountability and transparency; one respected university historian put it this way, "...a betrayal of fidelity enable by arrogance that comes with unchecked power." That may be too strong but it is time for renewal and reorganization.
History teaches us that change will not originate from those with Holy Orders; it must come from "ordinary" lay people who, face it, have little leverage in a voluntary organization that is proudly defined as hierarchical. Nevertheless, if the Episcopal journey forward is to be one of "hope," the key is in the hands of the laity.