Saturday, October 12, 2013

Episcopal Church Achieves Boutique Status

Preliminary membership numbers released last week by the Episcopal Church confirm another year of decline.  Last year, 2012, the Church experienced a 4.15% membership loss.  This now reduces the Episcopal Church to 1.8 million members – a 13% drop in the five years since 2007 and a 50% loss in the last 50 years.  Average Sunday Attendance (ASA), often hailed as the best indicator of active membership, also nose-dived last year by 4.9% which was called “staggering” by one reporter.
The Episcopal Church is no longer a part of America’s religious narrative, according to one commentator.  That bears repeating: “The Episcopal Church is no longer a part of America’s religious narrative.  That is to say, we are no longer a meaningful part of the future religious story of America; even the National Missionary Baptists are bigger than we are and how often do you hear about them? The best the Episcopal Church can hope for is a place in the “boutique” culture – joining boutique shops, boutique hotels, and boutique medical practices.  Boutiques in any endeavor are upscale, trendy, expensive, exclusive, snobby, and cater to an elite clientele.  Boutiques do not worry about reaching the masses; a few well-healed patrons and they can survive.
Consider the recent House of Bishops meeting with the theme of “Transforming Loss into New Possibilities.”  The 148 bishops in attendance considered re-imagining the Episcopal Church but it is nowhere reported that those same bishops addressed the fact that they, themselves, will cost the Church over 22 million dollars this year just for stipend and benefits; their staffs easily triple that number to a cost of $700,000,000 or more in the next 10 years – pricy even by boutique numbers. 
The bishops heard Dr. Elaine Heath, Perkins School of Theology, challenge them “…to go into neighborhoods and engage people where they are, where they live.”  Let’s be fair; scores of good men and good women have been bishops over the last 50 years and they have all understood what Dr. Heath advocates and even after spending over a billion dollars for bishops and staffs – our membership is down 50%.
We can play Monday morning quarterback and wish we had dramatically avoided all the dumb stuff of the last fifty years and instead shrunk the number of dioceses, reduced the number of bishops, kept multi-millions in assessment dollars in parish treasuries, and refused ordaining late-vocation, non-seminary graduates – would our declining situation be different?  Perhaps, but we’ll never know.
We do know that nothing we have done in the last 50 years has stopped the hemorrhage.  Time to bind up our wounds and actively plan to be the best boutique church on the block. 



  1. Gary once again you have provided us with a full and informative view of our reality. It follows well from what I had been observing and noted in the last article and so many others recently written.

  2. Nice work Gary. Its too bad that the preliminary statistics demonstrate another year of decline for TEC. I do like the idea of a boutique church, since obviously we are reduced to something like it. Your always astute observations reveal once again the high cost of doing business at the diocesan level. When are the bishops going to "get it?"

  3. Yikes! A billion dollars to have bishops for the last 50 years, that’s a very expensive boutique and the church still lost half her membership. In business or in sports a leader wh0 keeps losing would be fired. How have the bishops avoided being sacked? I hear you saying a boutique church is not a real church because a real church is not exclusive, snobby and catering to the elite.

  4. Too many Bishops?

    This goes on Facebook.

  5. What are we missing as a church? It seems to me that, as a body, we have good intentions, seeking to serve the world, but it may not be the best bintentions! I wish I had an answer to this decline. In the long run, this season may be good for us. We have lived with the illusion that we are the 'established' or 'national' church - and now such a moment calls us to begin to pay attention to those aspects of our life and mission that we have neglected. May we enter this period with a discerning heart and a creative spirit!

  6. I refuse to be a boutique church. Who is willing to die for that? I think it's clear where the Episcopal Church has gone wrong. We got co-opted by culture and became the Church of the left wing of the Democratic party. The problem is that there are not many Christians there.

    The unwritten and unspoken truth is that not all local Episcopal congregations are dying nor giving up. God will use a broken vessel but not a dirty one. My first suggestion is that TEC confesses, then repents, then returns to God. Otherwise, the rapidly accelerating death cycle will continue.

  7. I appreciate Gary's thoughts. I'm not sure TEC is headed for boutique status though. It appears, at least in many places, the graying of the church won't allow for a future as good as "boutique-status." Unless something changes drastically, then TEC will continue to shrink out of existence. Is there hope? Absolutely! What is it? Well, you'll have to buy my book when it's published!

    Blessings to you all for your heart for the Church.

  8. These sorts of numbers are truly dismaying, but it would help our analysis and response to keep the data for the Episcopal Church in the context of American Christian churches at large. A "boutique" we may be, but let's not go full sectarian. See for example the comparative statistics at the Hartford Seminary site.

    Our decline is comparable to that of other mainline churches, and less stark than the declines of membership in the PCUSA and UCC. Note that these last two most emphatically do not "do bishops" (as my Presbyterian wife says). So, whatever reforms might be useful in our denomination's episcopal overhead, the issue is not the episcopacy per se (which this post might seem to suggest).

    What else is going on? Has our investment in seminaries and seminary education, for example, not paid off? (I write as one who has served and taught in 4 different seminaries.) I have even seen recent reports that more conservative denominations have started to see membership declines. So it's not just "liberalism".

    Mormons and Jehovah's Witnesses continue to grow-- what's going on there?

    And then there is the growth of the famous/infamous "Nones", especially among the under-30s.

    I'm a parish priest, and I care about the Episcopal Church at large; I'd like to think I care still more about the Church at large. Not everybody will choose to be Episcopalian: if you ask me, our "boutique" status is tied up with the Prayer Book and/or other aspects of our liturgical and sacramental practices. What am I supposed to do about that?

    It may be that our episcopate is structured around assumptions of scale that no longer pertain, and/or modeled on an establishmentarian, Church of England vision that does not suit the increasingly "missionary" status of the church in this country. Reform needed? Yes, no doubt. But I don't think that's all there is to it.

  9. One of my friends has been developing the idea of membership drives for parishes and has generated interest in that in at least one diocese. In talking with him about I suggested that unless a parish has a commitment to and some understanding of God's mission in their neighborhood membership would be meaningless. He agreed and as he outlined his ideas more I saw that we have often been muddled in our thinking about the requirements of membership. I recall reading about Gordon Cosby and the Church of the Savior, a church whose Sunday attendance was larger than its membership, a church that had very clear and demanding expectations about its members' involvement in mission. I am less interested in how many members we have than I am with how faithfully we engage in God's mission.

  10. Sounds over-used but to keep doing the same thing (and more of it) expecting a different result is the deinition of insanity. There are Episcopal congregations that have demonstrated significant growth inspite of the "tax" on them from their dioceses. We need to do more of what they do!!!The congregations from which I just retired tribpled ASA in eight years. Steve Mues+

  11. All of these bishops could benefit themselves and the people whom they serve by ordering life-sized copies of God's Holy Shroud of Turin, and placing them inside their churches - because God's Holy Shroud testifies to the Crucifixion, Death and Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, at the heart of the gospel. They can order these images at:

  12. I meant to write:

    Bishops and Episcopal clergy can also order life-sized images of God's Holy Shroud of Turin at:

    A lifesized image costs about $1,500