Monday, September 9, 2019

Behind the Numbers


Since the 1990s, I've been keeping track and commenting on the trends in membership, attendance, and stewardship in TEC. If you haven't seen them, here is the big picture from the latest data taken from the 2018 Parochial Reports.


Membership is now 1,676,349 down 2.1% from last year.

BTW in 1965 our membership was 3.8 million. 


Attendance in 2018 was 533,206 down 4.2%  We didn't start keeping ASA until the 90s.


Decline in membership in the last 5 years was 10% and ASA decline in the last 5 years was 14%


Membership decline in the last 10 years was 19% and ASA decline during that time was 24% 


These are depressing and dismal numbers and it is not surprising that many of our current leaders do not wish to discuss this.  Over the years when I have written on the topic of decline, many leaders react negatively.  Decline is not a politically correct topic for either the staff at 815 or our Bishops. I like to respond that if you don’t like this decline then do something about it.


Good news is that still 20% of our congregations show at least a 10% growth in membership and ASA. This 20% number has remained about the same for the past 10 years. Put another way, 20% of our congregations have figured out how to have growth during a time when the denomination is in steady decline. They counter the often-spoken argument that “all mainline churches are in decline and there is nothing we can do about this because it is driven by demographics.” 

BTW, what can we learn from them? Lots, but no one in our denominational leadership seems to care. Sadly, many growing Episcopal congregations are seen and treated as outliers. 


40% of our congregations are experiencing serious decline of 10% or more a year. 

The remaining 40% are remaining somewhat stable.  This is an improvement from 10 years ago when 60% of our congregations were in steady decline.


Stewardship numbers are slightly up but allowing for inflation makes it flat.


If you don’t know, here are the historic general trends for TEC. Like all mainline denominations in the US, we experienced growth after the World War II (think baby boom!). Then, all mainline denominations started declining in 1965. I mark this as the beginning of the end of the Protestant Era. It certainly marked the end of mainline dominance in the Church in the U.S.


TEC has been in steady decline since 1965 with three exceptions. The first was six years of accelerated decline during and after the process that involved the vote allowing the ordination of women.


The second was a period of growth (we were the only mainline to do this) from 1995 to 2000. (Amazing how many of our leaders think that the Decade of Evangelism didn’t accomplish anything) 


The third was a major period of decline for the seven years following the consent to the ordination of Gene Robinson to be Bishop of New Hampshire. During this period, 80% of our congregations reported "major conflict".


Since Michael Curry was elected our PB, the decline has returned to its more historic steady number of about 1.5 to 2% a year.


You may want to ask how your congregation and diocese are doing compared to the trends of TEC as a whole?


Behind these numbers are some very important dynamics related to the size of our current congregations.  For example, the median average Sunday Worship Attendance is now 53.  In 2000, the median was 85.  So, the median dropped from the Pastoral Size Church to the Family Size.  This confirms other information and my experience that the number of congregations that can afford the services of a full-time ordained clergy has been in decline.  More congregations now have part-time, bi-vocational or retired clergy serving them.  This has overwhelming implications for seminaries, for deployment of clergy, and for the Church Pension Fund.  The CPF has been giving commentary on this for some time now. 


As for our larger congregations, the percent of congregations with an ASA of 300 or more is 4%.  This means that if your congregation has over 300 people on an average Sunday, it is in the top percentile of all our congregations.  


Now comes some commentary from me on the congregational dynamics.

First, isn’t it ironic that we no longer have a full-time staff person at 815 dealing either with congregational revitalization or small church ministries.  We have a few dioceses with such a person, but almost no urgency among denominational leadership.


Most dioceses deal with congregations that can no longer support a full-time clergy person by sending a priest in charge who works two to three days a week.  Sometimes a fuller package is provided by merging or coupling two smaller congregations together.  This, I believe is driven by necessity. 


Sadly, there is almost no training for clergy in this type ministry with how to grow these churches.  The strategy is to maintain them and as the numbers show, that isn’t working. And I know of no diocese that sends a full-time priest to such a situation with the intention that they turn it around and grow it to a larger size.  My intuition says that we don’t do this because our Diocesan Bishops don’t know how to do this.


Can smaller congregations learn the skills to evangelize, recruit new people, and form new Christians?  Of course, they can.  We have wonderful examples of this happening despite the strategy of Diocesan leaders.  We also have consultants like me that have the skills to help, but almost no funding or intentionality to make this happen.


My colleague John Wengrovius and I am now in the process of trying to find the funding to make such training and strategies available to churches that need it.  What I do wonder is this. If we find the funding are their any current leaders with the vision to use these resources?   If you are interested in helping with this project, let me know at deankevinmartin@gmail.com 

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

The Preaching Scale


In this blog, I want to point to one thing that clergy could do that would make our congregations more attractive and magnetic to more non-Christians and Christians alike.  Why not improve our preaching?

Let me be clear, I am not saying that preaching in the Episcopal Church is bad.  I think that it is general thoughtful, contextually related to the Sunday lectionary, and generally informative.  It is, in other words, good.  And that is the problem.  It is not great, and I think I know the reasons why.

When I do workshops on preaching or have taught preaching at our Stanton Center, I usually start off by asking about good preachers the students have known.  We make a list on a whiteboard.  The list usually includes some former Rectors, a current Rector, an occasional Bishop, and a few point to some well-known clergy within our denomination such as the Presiding Bishop.  What I then point out to the participants is that none of them are known beyond the Episcopal Church especially when it has to do with preaching.  What this exercise shows is what is generally known outside the Episcopal Church, namely, our clergy are not known as outstanding preachers.  (One notable exception to this is Barbara Brown Taylor, but notice we have not heard much from her lately.)  I think I know why we are are not as good as we could be. 

For 15 years, I worked in positions that put me directly in clergy placement and recruiting which means that I read lots of resumes and Clergy Deployment Office Profiles.  I found that 90% of Episcopal Clergy list preaching as their first or second primary pastoral skill.  In other words, we think we are good at the preaching. So, on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being outstanding, we rank ourselves in the 7 ,8 or 9 categories.  Why do we think this?  We judge ourselves this way this way because our scale is based on Episcopal clergy, those who teach preaching in our seminaries, and hearing ourselves. 

Some folks think that I am a good preacher.  They are surprised to discover that I rate myself as a “5” generally who can occasionally preach a “7” on what I call “The Preaching Scale.”  Then, I point out this truth.  If I am a good preacher, it is because I think I need to work at it.  You see, if we rate ourselves as already good, we do not dedicate ourselves to becoming great.  I consider myself both a preacher and a student of preaching even in retirement.  I attend workshops on preaching.  I constantly read books on preaching. I also study communications and read books on writing well.   I analyze the preaching of others, and along with this I listen to outstanding preachers from other traditions. 

In listening to outstanding preachers, I mark how she or he uses language; words, phrases, and imagery to communicate effectively.  I listen to how they make their case, appeal to their listener, and motivate others to action. 

The good news is that preaching involves multiple skills, and because of this, any preacher can improve.  We can improve the content of our sermons.  We can improve the delivery of our sermons.  We can learn how to create a more engaging introduction and a more pointed and memorable conclusion.  When we do, we almost always get good feedback from our congregation.  When a preacher has something worthwhile to say, and says it effectively, it draws people in.

All our congregations are faced with challenges, and many are in decline.  There are many reasons for this, and truth is that many of these are beyond the power of the clergy person to fix them.  However, we can begin today to become a better, more effective, communicator of the Gospel.  If you want to become a more effective clergy person who is a blessing to your congregation, give yourself over to becoming a student of preaching. Desires to become better at the task than you are now, and you will do yourself, your church, and your community a favor. 


Wednesday, May 29, 2019

How to make Restructuring Work


My last blog on the continuing need to restructure the Episcopal Church received the least amount of comments of any of my blogs.  I wasn’t too surprised because I know that the energy for this work was completely sucked out of the room by our current PB’s agenda of which I approve, and the folks who run TEC and General Convention are so invested in it, that they have no interest in this topic.  So be it.

However, this was the lead in for this blog where I discuss what I have learned about structure and restructuring in my many years of work with diocesan and parish leadership.  Let me start with this observation:

Many current church organizations are badly in need of revisiting their current structure with an eye toward being a more effective organization.  Indeed, many current structures keep mission mined organizations from making the mission the main thing.

 Principles for Structure and Restructuring

Let me begin with a few basic observations, and then I will apply this, at no charge, to the current inefficient, wasteful, and resistance structure of TEC.

Let me start with an observation from my mentor Lyle Schaller.  He observed that consultants in North America make a fortune by going into a centralized system and recommending de-centralization or going into a de-centralized system and recommending centralization.  He went on to observe that it usually took about five years for these organizations to figure out why these recommendations are not going to work and returning to at least what had worked in the past.

What Schaller recommended was that consultants should determine the current structure, centralized or de-centralized, and recommend ways to operate in a more effective and efficient manner.  For my friends in Calgary, this is what I attempted to do in my recent consultation with your Diocesan Council.  I have a word for this kind of work, streamlining, that I will demonstrate with my example for TEC.

I also learned from John Kotter’s writings why most efforts at change fail, namely, too much complacency with the status quo!  I have learned to ask two important questions about this.  First, how much real energy is there for change?  Second, who will be the predictable people in the organization that will resist such change? It takes perseverance for meaningful change to happen.  These are the principle reasons the attempt to restructure TEC failed; too much complacency with the status quo and two many stakeholders in the old system.  Hence, the leadership’s halfhearted support for this mean that the effort was doomed from the start. 

I also learned from Bishop Payne’s example of how to restructure a Vestry of a larger congregation that what is most needed is a way to “streamline” the structure.  So, his model would take the long overgrown and historically complex structure of a large church with its complicated committees, commissions, areas of ministry, and staff direction (or lack of it) and streamline this into a simpler structure of a Vestry and four subcommittees.  (BTW I have a paper on this and if you email me, I will send it to you.)  Once put into operation, this streamlined systems works so much better than the previous one, most Vestries embrace it quickly.

                         Implications for TEC

This brings me back to my free consultation with TEC and its historic structure, which is IMHO costly, overly complex, and inefficient.  It should be because it was designed in the 19th century when we had fewer dioceses and where the leadership of Bishops, Clergy Deputies, and affluent Lay Deputies could board a train for a two-week adventure of leisurely and informally doing the business of the church.  And remember that the Presiding Bishops of that era were the most tenured Diocesan Bishop of the Church.  They had almost no staff.  In those days, it was a de-centralized system.

Then came the first elected Presiding Bishop, now official a Primate, who had a staff that grew as did General Convention until we had 3.6 million members and nearly 100 dioceses.  These two factors centralized our current system. 

Let me remind all of us that we have had at least one major attempt to decentralize in the last 50 years and this was the Provincial System.  Some provinces have had more energy and life.  In others, the Bishops gather regularly. However, these provinces have never really developed for two reasons.  First, the provincial lines were drawn by east coast Bishops with little knowledge of the huge vastness of “the West.”  (For them, the “West” was west of the Allegany Mountains!)

Next, and more importantly, there was never any real attempt to fund these structures especially on a program level.  This remained the prerogative of General Convention with the influence of the Presiding Bishop’s Office and staff.

I have no interest in de-centralizing TEC. I do have a few suggestions to streamline it. Here they are: 

1.      Treat our structure just like any other effective not-for-profit organization.  There is plenty of information available on this topic in the literature of not-for-profit governance.

2.       So, The General Convention sets vision, policies, and procedures.  It does not run programs and it should not bog down in attempting to create the budget of the Church, just its priorities.

3.      Next see the Presiding Bishop as the “Director” of our organization who with his staff operates the programs of the Church just as most dioceses operate.  The PB is, with his staff, accountable to the interim body/board called the Executive Council who oversee all this between General Conventions.

4.      The Execute Council, with input from the Presiding Bishop and staff, should take the initiative in creating the draft budget for the next General Convention.

5.      The General Convention may approve this budget or amend it based on emerging priorities and special needs.

       There it is!  Streamlined and efficient, this structure will then allow General Convention to meet, celebrate, and set policy over eight days beginning with a Sunday Celebration of what has been done and ending with a Sunday commissioning of what will be done.  Occasionally, they will need to elect a new Presiding Bishop.  The GC continues to elect members of the Executive Council. The Executive Council becomes a more significant body with more power to make more immediate decisions; remember that GC only meets once every three years.  

      There may be a need for some committees of General Convention that manage its business to meet before General Convention starts, but all those joint house committees now have a very reduced workload, and many of them could even be eliminated.  Gone too is the myth that all those hundreds of submitted resolutions can be debated, prioritized, and voted on by both houses.  Now, they must be submitted to the Executive Committee first whose four subcommittees will determine if they need to be acted on by the Executive Council or referred to General Convention.  Three years is simply too long for a good and commendable idea to be delayed in our electronic culture.  The streamlining means that all those join committees no longer get to generate resolutions. But hey, we are not a State Church and few in our society care what we resolve and pass.  Just get over it.


                 But Who Said Anything About Restructuring?

Now, if you are a General Convention Deputy or a member of Executive Council, don’t worry.  None of this is going to happen.  There is way too much complacency and resistance in our current structure to lead to any of this being done. Your privileged position along with all its costliness and inefficiency will remain in place.  However, one thing could be done that is now struggling to emerge out of simple necessity.  This is the preparation of the next proposed budget by the Executive Council in consultation with the Presiding Bishop and staff.  The logic of this strait forward and commendable.  In the current structure, the GC passes resolution after resolution with budget amounts that get dumped on the desk of the Budget and Finance Committee who must in the closing days of GC sort this all out.  This should make sense to even the most long-standing Deputy.  (Oh, did I mention term limits?  Well, I am not that stupid!) 


                    Let's Forget About GC!

Now, turn to your more local situation.  Ask this question of your congregation and diocesan structure.  When is the last time we streamlined it to be a more effective missional organization driven by our stated priorities and on-going strategies?


Clarify your mission, then streamline your structure, and you will become a more effective organization.  This has worked for thousands of businesses and hundreds of not-for-profit organizations, and it can work for the Church too.    

Monday, May 20, 2019

Restructuring the Episcopal Church


Do you remember the attempt under our former Presiding Bishop to restructure the Church?  There was a great deal of discussion and energy put into this, but nothing came of it.  In this Blog, I am going to talk about the need for restructuring, and the primary reasons it failed.  In my follow up Blog, I will suggest a way forward and what could be done in the future.

The primary question is should TEC be restructured regarding General Convention, the Executive Council, and the myriad of Commissions and Join Committees of the General Convention.  The answer is very strait forward.  The current structure is the same one that emerged when TEC was almost 2/3rds larger than it is today.  I am a consultant to congregations and diocesan organizations, but you don’t have to be a consultant to figure out that this is an impossible and extremely complex structure for a Church now our size.  It would be very fruitful to take the lead of our current Presiding Bishop and combine his image of the Jesus Movement and his strategy of the Way of Love to aim our corporate life primarily at these missional goals and create a structure that serves these. 

Within these missional priorities would it also be possible to reduce the time and expense of General Convention not to mention the over 500 resolutions that are processed each time it meets?  Of course, we could.  So, why don’t we do it, and why is there no will to carry this out?

The first answer to this for me has to do with leadership.  When Michael Curry was elected our Presiding Bishop, he immediately did what good leaders should do.  He made the main thing, the main thing.  He contextualized our life and mission in the framework of Jesus’ movement.  Did you notice that from that moment on, talk of restructuring just stopped?  This leads us to the two primary reasons this effort at restructuring failed.

First, Curry’s predecessor did not have the energy, interest, and I would add the leadership ability to persevere with this restructuring.  Most of the energy for the restructuring was coming from good leaders who saw the need, but there was clearly no buy in by the then President Bishop, and there was almost no buy in from the Executive Council.  There was no sense of urgency and just like most efforts at organization change, this effort was doomed by too much complacency with the status quo.

Second, and there is no kind way to say this, there were too many people invested in the various committees and commission.  Having been elected a deputy, now folks had earned the right to sit at the table where actual decisions were made.  Why would they ever support a movement that would cause them to lose the power they had or the power at least they imagined they had?  Having served as a deputy for 4 times, I can tell you that the process of General Convention is largely controlled by the senior deputies through the apparatus of the current structure such as the Committee on Resolutions.  But if you are on one of those committees, you are a small group of the Deputies who can hear debate, discuss resolutions, and prepare them for a floor vote.  When I was on the Evangelism Joint Committee, we consider some 20 resolutions.  Only two of these got to the floor of convention and neither made it through the Budget Committee for funding.  Yet, we did a lot of work! 

Now let’s be fair.  We don’t usually see democratic organizations voting to have members of its deliberative body give up their perceived power.  Our deputies are no different and each person on one of those committees represented resistance to change. And since many are second, third, or fourth time deputies, it represents considerable resistance to change.  This too fits my first point, too much complacency with the status quo along with no sense of urgency.

Let’s go back to what would drive such a restructuring.  It would be leadership, missional priorities, and a sense of urgency.  All of this would be necessary to overcome the predictable resistance to change.  And what would be the benefit of doing it?

First as I said, the current structure served a much larger Church and in the economy of scale, we are paying way too much money for structure and organization.

Second, by streamlining our decision-making process, we could create a Church better able to respond to change and issues that emerge and areas that need funding while dropping areas that have lost energy.  Notice that I am for streamlining, not decentralizing.

Third, we could create a greater coherence in what we say is important and what we do.

Lastly, we could eliminate the immense cost of General Convention as a deliberative body.  If you add up the cost of General Convention meeting for two weeks and the cost to individual deputies, quite frankly we are squandering resources that are now needed badly for our mission, our dioceses, and our local congregations.

Next time, I will suggest a way forward in restricting that would enrich our community and its effectiveness.  The good news is that I am paid by the Church Pension Fund so I won’t be billing anyone.




Tuesday, March 19, 2019

St Mark's Erie Blog 3: My Recommendations


This is the third, somewhat delayed, blog on my observations and work with St. Mark’s.  I want to share with you what I recommended to them because it is applicable to lots of “transitional size” congregations, and you may find these helpful to your leadership.


Before I share these, let me start by two preliminary comments. First, I want to say again what a joy it was to work with the Bishop, staff, and lay leadership.  When I met with the leaders, they had all prepared by reading my book The Myth of the 200 Barrier and were prepared to ask great questions and to do the work necessary for the next stage in their development.


Second, I found that they have momentum, had made good decisions, were expanding the leadership, and had a joy and openness that I would like to see in many other congregations.  Consequently, I wasn’t intervening so much as coaching and this is a great position for a consultant.  With all this in mind, here are the recommendations that I gave them.  Note that I’ve added some comments for my readers in blue.


  1. I would like to see the leadership become clearer and more focused on the Mission of the Congregation.  A good way to do this is start with the current good, but long, mission statement and find a way to express this in one or two phrases or sentences. (I want congregations to have a mission, not just a mission statement, and I want them to use this short mission statement to help them recruit others to this mission.) I would want Fr. Don and the other staff members to be able to say, “Here at St. Mark’s our mission is to….”  Once you produce this parish slogan or banner statement then use it on all written material, social media, and the website as a branding for the congregation.  The leadership will also be able to use this in future development by asking if a suggested activity or ministry is congruent with this mission.  (Branding helps make a congregation known in the community!)                                                  
  2. I would like to see the leadership and staff develop a greater sense of urgency in accomplishing your mission and engaging more new people in helping you in this work.  I would like to see the leadership carry out a strategy aimed at moving St. Mark’s above an ASA of 225 within two years.  (Many transitional size congregations simple take to long to get to the program size and wear everyone out especially the leadership.)As I said to all groups while there, if you take to long to develop into the program size, you will grow fatigued and the natural forces of attrition and resistance will keep you in the transitional size.  Trust me that once nearer an ASA of 225 parish life will flow more smoothly and you will be able to have the resources needed to carry out your mission. So, develop a strategy for further development. Some of which I will suggest here and have suggested in my book.



  1. I have suggested that the work group and staff look at points where people are connecting most with ministry and activities and explore adding more.  Some may wish to explore what larger congregations in the area are currently offering to newcomers such as divorce recovery, etc.  (St. Mark’s was set to do this, but the leaders were busy and maintaining what they already have was limiting their potential.) 

  1. I would recommend that the leadership consider the creation of such points of connection exploring especially the area of “felt need” ministries and expanding current outreach programs of the church by incorporating more newcomers to these ministries. 

  1. I would like to see the parish plan and execute four Special Sundays.  I have given the Staff information on forming the task forces to carry these out. (The Special Sunday is the one proven method to increase the attendance of both visitors and inactive members at the same time. I describe these in my book 5 Keys for Church Leaders.) 

  1. The Parish has a wonderful way of welcoming newcomers through dinners.  I would add to these dinners a chance for people to answer two valuable questions: 1. How do you find St. Mark’s in the first place?  2. What or who made it possible for you to stay?  I would also recommend that a key ministry area of the parish be highlighted also at such dinners.  By doing this, you gain valuable feedback and provide points of connecting for the new members. 

  1. I would challenge Leaders and Staff to create a clear path to membership and discipleship.  The essential challenge is to have activities and ministries that invite seekers into a deeper relationship with Christ, his Church, and his mission to our world through the intentional life of the congregation. (It is surprising how few churches in TEC have a rational plan to lead folks to discipleship and membership.) 

  1. The parish did an excellent TV ad.  I recommend you touch base with the “Invite, Welcome, Connect” ministry to explore further creative ways to invite seekers to experience the worship, community life, and ministries of St. Mark’s.  And with the increasing number of disillusioned Roman Catholics in your area, highlight your Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, Good Friday, and other sacramental and liturgical events that are deeply connected to their past spiritual life in the Church.                                            

I am happy to say that the staff and leadership are still on task toward these goals.  One goal, IMHO, of Diocesan Leadership should be to highlight the congregations in their dioceses that are doing things right and let them teach others. 




Wednesday, February 6, 2019

St. Mark's Erie - the Staff


In this second blog on St. Mark’s Erie, I want to focus on what the staff brought to this revitalization because, without a doubt, they have been a major dynamic in the renewal of this congregation.

After Bishop Rowe had chosen St. Mark’s for revitalization, he came up with a different paradigm for leadership.  Instead of the typical practice of choosing a new Rector and charging that person with the work, the Bishop choose a team.  The problem with the ordained leader model is that it is totally dependent on that person to overcome the predictable resistance.  In addition, with around 40 in attendance, it sets the strategy of growing the congregation back into a pastoral sized congregation.  So even when this works, it largely limits the grow to the 150 number which is the upper size of the Pastoral Church. 

When I worked for the Diocese of Texas in the 90s, we realized that if we wanted to plant a program sized church in an urban area then we needed to start with a team.  This was first the planting pastor who would then hire a critical number of staff.  This usually involved a music minister, a Christian Education person, and one other key staff.  This last person depended on the core values that the new plant had chosen.  For example, if it was based on small groups than they needed a coordinator for this.  We also encouraged the recruiting of an unpaid administrative person.  The plan was simple and direct; staff the new plant with the staff you would have in a Program Sized church.  But we quickly learned that not just any staff people would do.  They had to be selected on their ability to build their area of ministry.  There are plenty of staff people in the church who can run and maintain a present existing ministry, but a new plant demanded developmental people. They are hard to find.

This is exactly what I found in Erie.  The three key staff include Craig Dressler, Associate for Parish Life.  Then there is Carly Rowe, Associate for Program and Development.  Third is the Rev. Don Baxter, Vicar.  Each of these staff brought different and complimentary skills to their work. For example, Don is a bi-vocational Priest who owns his own medical practice and who provides the sacramental and liturgical needs.  The staff today also includes a Deacon and a staff member for children’s education and youth.  The staff has grown as the parish has grown.   

Craig is a talented musician and administrator who brings a variety of gifts to the parish. Carly provides great program support, knowledge of new member ministry, and general congregational development skills.  Fr. Don is a good pastor and preaches well.  The key staff rotate preaching.  It was a joy to watch them work together.  But I especially want you to notice their job titles which describe their area of ministry and responsibility.  This clarity is essential for the team to work well together. 

I was impressed with all they have accomplished in a relatively few years.  I was more impressed when I asked them about future development.  They were clearly leading the congregation with a constant eye toward the next steps. 

What does this staffing represent?  Simple, build it and they will come.  The Bishop provided a creative core team of a growing Program Sized Church and they built it. 

In my next blog, I want to conclude this series on what the lay leadership and members have done to carry out this revitalization, but let me conclude this blog with a critical moment is my visit with the staff.

I asked them “what would you do differently if you had it all to do over again?”  After some thought they pointed out that they had started with the remaining 30 to 40 people from the old St. Mark’s.  They wondered if that was a good idea.  As one said it, I wonder if we could have made faster headway if we had started without these folks.  They explained that the strongest resistance toward change had consistently come from folks in this original group.  Let me underscore this hard truth about congregational revitalization.  Even when the membership has lived through considerable decline and know they desperately need new members and to change what they have been doing, they still form a group of people who resist creative change.  This can range from “will the emerging church be one we can live with” to the ever present “we never did it that way back in the golden years.”  I often say that a new vision has difficulty competing with a nostalgic past!”

St. Mark’s chose to keep these folks, and many have caught the new vision, but not all.  The staff wonder “what if” and I can’t but wonder the same as someone who has worked with lots of congregations intending revitalization. 

I do know this.  It is easier to plant a new parish from scratch than to revitalize a present declining one.  St. Marks still shows that such work is worth it. 

Monday, January 21, 2019

Revitalization in a Declining Community - St. Mark's, Erie


This past fall, I received an unexpected email from Bishop Sean Rowe of Northwest Pennsylvania.  He asked if I would be willing to work with St. Mark’s Church in Erie.  He described the Church as a Transitional Size congregation with an ASA between 140 and 200.  Since I wrote a book on this topic, he hoped I would be willing to help move them to the next level.  He gave me some of the background on St. Mark’s.

Located in what is called the Rust Belt, St. Mark’s is an intentional effort at revitalization by the Bishop and the Diocese.  While many congregations in the industrial mid-west are in decline or even closing, the Bishop decided that St. Mark’s had a very good chance and location for a strategic rebirth. 

I was impressed with all that he told me and made a promise that I would work along side them, even making a late November on site visit to assist them.  I also was impressed that the staff and key leaders of the Parish had read my book, The Myth of the 200 Barrier, and were eager to apply the information to their setting. 

I found a vibrant, growing, and diverse congregation and part of my agreement to visit was that I would write about what I discovered.  How was this congregation able to go counter to the trend of so many Episcopal and mainline congregations in the setting of declining populations and stagnant economic environment? 

With this blog, I start a series on what the Bishop, the staff, the leadership, and the congregation are doing right and how this can be applied to many other similar settings. 

Let me start with the Bishop.  What did Bishop Rowe get right!

Bishop Rowe did what few of our Bishops have either the insight or courage to do.  He took the initiative, intervened in the congregation, and made several strategic decisions that began the turn around for St. Mark’s.  My observation is that many of our Bishops, particularly in such settings, are resolved to let their congregations merely continue with little direction and support from their Diocese.  The Bishops seem content to accept the fate of decline and death as inevitable.  Many times, over the years, I have heard Bishops and other Episcopal leaders say that “of course you can plant and grow a church in a growing suburb, but there are many places where churches will inevitable decline.” 

This is because mainline leaders tend to blame growth and decline mostly on demographics.  Remember our past Presiding Bishop who explained decline for TEC because we have older members who aren’t having enough children?  Yet, studies of growth and decline in American churches consistently show that we have declining churches in growing communities, and growing churches in declining communities.  The truth is that growth and decline have much more to do with the attitudes and decisions of current members than with mere demographics.  I am not saying that turning around a church in a declining community is easy, but it can be done.  St. Mark’s is a wonderful example.

Strategically, what did Bishop Rowe do? 

First, he selected which of his declining congregations in Erie had the best setting and was at the right moment for intervention.

Second, he and Diocesan leaders intervened directly both telling the truth to current members and offering them hope.

Third, he selected the leadership.  For St. Mark’s, this consisted of an able lay administrator, a knowledgeable newcomer/ congregational development lay staff, and a part-time clergy who handles the sacramental and pastoral aspects of the church’s life.  Note how important it is that he placed a staff team and not just sent “another” priest with the hope of turning it around. 

Fourth, he mobilized Diocesan leaders and volunteers to help with the project.  One single handedly provided a refurbished professional kitchen for outreach use by the congregation.

Fifth, he added new people from another Erie congregation that was near closure.

Lastly, he has taken an active interest in the congregation’s development providing encouragement and assistance to the staff and lay leaders. 

I would sum all this up with this observation. The Bishop acted like a leader rather than an administrator!

In my next blog, I will explore what the staff team brought to this revitalization.