Saturday, December 11, 2010

The Second and Third Reasons for our Continuing Decline

The second and third reasons for the decline of TEC on my list of seven key reasons have to do with young people.

#2.  The failure to keep and to recruit younger generations of people, especially younger than boomers!

#3.  The failure to recruit younger lay and ordained leaders

Of course we have wonderful younger people in the Episcopal Church.  Our own parish has some extraordinary younger members. The diocese has an outstanding ministry to younger people, as does my former Diocese, Texas. 

However, nothing points to our continued decline more than this simple fact; for almost my entire life, I have been near the median age of Episcopalians.  I joined the Church when I was 12 and I am now 64!  This means that during this time span, our community has continued to age.   Today, the typical Episcopalian is a 61 year old, college educated, white female. 

Among some of the reasons for this failure to keep and recruit younger people, I would list the following:
1.       The abandonment in the early 70’s of a National Curriculum for Church Schools. 
2.      The failure to have a unified teaching and age for confirmation, and the lack of emphasis by our bishops of the place on confirmation. 
3.      The moment toward ordination to an older and older age, along with making ordination almost exclusively a “second career” track for people.

     These two reasons are closely related because it is younger leaders who have the best chance of reaching their own generation for Christ.  So for a person ordained at 27, number 3 is critical.  I was ordained in the year in which the Commission on Ministry System was instituted in the Episcopal Church.  While I understand the reasons and certainly the rationale for such a system, I think it has not served the Church well.  For example, we have greatly underestimated the dynamic of a committee selecting candidates for ministry.  Simply said, a committee tends to recruit toward the median of the committee in age, education and experience. 

A second dynamic is that this system was to be “advisory” to Bishops.  Today, almost all bishops defer the decision making to the Commission on Ministry.  Few would ever attempt to ordain a person against a majority vote of the Commission.  So COMs are now “selection committees” in most dioceses.

Since 1971, I have listened to countless justifications for our current way of doing things, but the most common one is “Well, our system has flaws, but it is so much better than what we had before.”  When I compare the extraordinary clergy who came into the ordained ministry between 1945 and 1970 versus today, I think such a justification is nonsense. 

What I think is needed is a concerted effort of Bishops, Commissions on Ministry, and Standing Committees to recruit young leaders to ordained ministry.  Let me be clear, I have no objection to ordaining people past 40, but these should represent a minority of our ordained folks, not the vast majority.


  1. Hear, hear! It's the same in the Church of England as well, though we do encourage all Year 6 students to be confirmed at our parish primary school.

    When I was in Dallas at Church of the Incarnation, Fr Jeff Bishop and I prepared nearly all the sixth graders for the Sacrament of Holy Confirmation.

  2. Yes! This has been my greatest frustration as a 23 year old cradle episcopalian. The national church cutting funding for canterbury as a national organization has forced collegiate episcopalians to become a burden to local congregations and, as is the case with canterbury dallas, a point of conflict between local churches vying for anyone under the age of thirty. It makes your first experience out of your home church an overly political and unpleasant experience, hence my current sabbatical from the episcopal church.

    You hit the nail on he head about the lack of a uniform curriculum.

  3. Kelly,
    I would also list the cutting of Canterbury Ministries as a critical point in all this. For many in my generation, Canterbury is were we learned about leadership. I hope you will return from you sabbatical soon. We need you!

  4. Where are you getting your data for the median age of Episcopalians? I discussed this with Kirk Hadaway some years back and came up with a much lower and unsurprising number, and he had no direct data but supposed up a number based on other demographics.

  5. From 815 second avenue, the congregational development office. I last got the age information 3 years ago, but haven't changed recently. It could have changed, but I doubt it has changed significantly.

  6. Amen Dean Kevin!

    I would add that the "quest for relevance" is another contributing factor to our decline among younger people. Younger people can smell marketing gimicks a mile away and tend not to commit to them unless there is some "there" there. In striving for relevance while not embracing the truth that Truth is relevant is more like a marketing gimick that true relevance.

  7. I would add a corollary to your reason #2, Kevin. That is the failure of parents to evangelize their children. And I don't think "evangelize" is too strong a word. I think there has to be a family commitment to being a Christian family. And this commitment has to be more than sending the children to church school, or even faithful attendance as a family. Surely, the challenge to live the Gospel in our daily lives is nowhere more critical than in our families. How can we believe in the transformative power of the Gospel on individuals and on society unless we allow it first to transform how spouses relate to each other and to their children, and how children relate to their parents, their siblings, other adults, and their peers.

    And lest someone accuse me of utopian idealization of "The Family," I really and truly mean any and every family, with all the attendant brokenness that implies.

    Tom B

  8. I have to think that the people at Congo Dev are giving out information that is a little misleading. US median age, at least in out lifetimes, has not been below 25 (interestingly the low point was around 1970); it was 35 at the last census. A median age in the 60s is really hard to believe; I would guess that the median age of AARP members might even be less than 70.

    Analyses of the red book numbers I've done over the years lead me to believe that we are not that far out of step with overall demographics. If one takes infant baptisms to represent births, for instance, we get that there's a baptism for every 59 members, which is in the range of enough to sustain our numbers. We baptize far more people than we bury, and we have about two infant baptisms for every marriage. What this suggest to me is that we're tending to lose people after they marry and have kids. It's taking a lot of reading between the lines to get these numbers, of course.

    The ordination numbers are more certain. By doing some number crunching of the clergy compensation report I've arrived at the conclusion that somewhere around 75% of all priests are ordained after age 45. The numbers for women are worse. Half of all full-time clergy are over 55.

  9. C. Wingate, I would just make two observations further. First, 1 Baptism for every 59 members cannot "sustain" us especially when you realize, as all clergy know, that doing a baptism doesn't mean "getting a new member." Confirmation is the much better statistic to note regarding "sustaining ourselves." By the way, we lost nearly 15% of members 05 to 09 and are on a course to lose over 15% in 10 to 14. That is a 30% decline in membership over 10 years.

    Second, I don't know where you live or how extensively you visit other congregations - most Episcopalians measure our health only by how "our" congregation is doing. I have traveled a lot, and the majority of TEC are small, family sized congregations where the median age is well over 60 years.

    I am not trying to be an alarmist here, but a realist. As I've said, we can do something about all this, but we better begin with current realities.

  10. I'm looking at the 2008 Episcopal Congregations Overview and it specifically says that "Overall, 27% of Episcopal members are age 65+, as compared to only 13% of the U.S. population in 2008." The only way that the median age could be in the sixties is if 37% of the membership were between 60 and 64. There's a breakdown by age just below this statement which would put the median age in the low 50s-- still not a good number, but the picture of us as just waiting to die is exaggerated. There are lots of very small parishes out there in small towns and rural areas which no doubt do look that bad, because the areas they are in also look that bad. Discussion of youth is more germane to the Diocese of Maryland (where I'm sitting now) which has only a few tiny rural/town parishes and where the heavily upper middle population is generally pretty good about cranking out the 2.1 kids per family.

    If you add up all the confirmation and reception columns, they nearly add up to baptisms, and increasingly one finds adult members who were baptized but never confirmed. My sense of the situation is that a decade ago the larger part of the no-growth problem was retaining youth, but it was always balanced by a relatively high rate of adult converts (generally from other churches). My sense of the statistics since 2003 is that retention of adult membership is growing as a problem, and one which I don't know that we can solve now by better catechesis (though one would like to think it will help in the long run). Of course one could certainly point to bad catechesis years ago as leading to poor retention.

  11. When I was 27 my bishop told me that he was in no hurry with me and the process dragged on. He said that if I were in my 30s or 40s he would move faster. No wonder there were so few young priests in the 80s and 90s.

  12. What if the 80s and 90s bishops told their young aspirants that they couldn't promise them a job after completion of seminary, but that they would be overjoyed to welcome them back to the diocese to plant a new church? I know that the seminaries weren't preparing priests to do this work at that time, so the whole thing would have taken a sea change to happen, but what if?

  13. What if indeed? Unfortunately, as a church community is in decline it shifts to a survival mode and becomes a low risk community. We are low risk on organization and strategic innovation. Of course, there are other areas where TEC is happy to be innovative.

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