This is the question put to me by a seminary classmate of mine who is serving a smaller parish part-time in retirement. I have taken my initial response and elaborated on it for this blog.
The first thing we should acknowledge right up front is that most of our current leaders do not think this is possible. They give a number of reasons such as:
All Mainline Churches are in decline
We are a denomination with older members
Young people are not interested in Institution religion
We are not interested in numbers but quality
Secularism and Atheism are replacing faith
Many of our churches are doing a lot of outreach and many are inclusive places.
We don’t need to focus on growth
We don’t need to focus on growth
Growing Churches are offering simple explanations to people. We Episcopalians are too sophisticated for that.
I think it safe to say that most diocesan Bishops would be happy just to hold current membership and the number of congregations stable and that few actually expect to have positive baptismal, or attendance increases. Despite all these stated reasons and more, I still believe it is possible to grow our community.
Let me start with the big picture. I will turn to congregational growth, but the big picture and what it would take to change the big picture is important. First, TEC is declining because only about 18 to 20% of Episcopal churches are showing numerical growth. About 20% more are stable and nearly 60% are in decline with some of these in steep decline even to the point of closing. In other words, the growing congregations cannot sustain the losses in other congregations. If this balance of growing and declining congregations continue, it means that our current decline will continue for some time.
The last time we were growing, from 1995 to 2002, about 35% of our congregations were growing, 30 to 40% were stable, and the rest in decline. During this period, we were the only mainline denomination showing positive growth in baptisms and average Sunday attendance. You have probably heard people say the Decade of Evangelism didn't work, but the numbers show differently. This is one of the untold stories of TEC.
Of course, no one joins the denomination except on the local level, so we need to turn our focus more locally. We should start with a Diocese. So how does a diocese get 30% or more of its congregations to grow? The answer is rather strait forward. It does this by supporting and developing its current congregations and by planting new ones among new communities and groups of people. The Diocese of Texas has continued to do just exactly this kind of congregational development since 1993 through 3 diocesan bishops and lots of changes. Each year this diocese continues to offer educational opportunities such as “The Iona Program,” the “Invite, Welcome and Connect” workshops, and a strong Vestry equipping program. They also continue a strong peer modeling and sharing where local clergy and lay leaders who are doing outstanding work in some area of ministry share the “how to” with others.
Let me turn to the congregational level. I wrote 5 Keys for Church Leaders to introduce the basic systemic issues related to healthy growing congregations. The chapters on paying attention to generational differences, opening the front door, and closing the back door are aimed specifically at growth. These strategies have been proven on the ground in all sorts of denominations and even within TEC in all sorts of locations. I am not the only teacher who offers this kind of information, but I mention it because I know firsthand that it gets results. What I am saying is that where there is a will and a strategy of intentional congregational development growth can happen. We do not need all of our congregations to grow. We just need more than 30% of them to do it.
What about changing culture and demographics many would want to ask. Remember that I pointed to the planting of new congregations in new communities and among new groups of people. Let me point out that adults between 20 and 40 are “a new group of people” and rather than wait for them to find our declining churches (and our few vital ones) why not start work aimed specifically at them? A great example is St. Thad’s in Los Angeles, but there are others examples. There are also millions of Hispanic people in the U.S. not all of whom are Roman Catholics, but many of whom have seen the Church in its catholic and sacramental forms. We found plenty of these folks when I was Dean of the Cathedral in Dallas. The Diocese of Dallas trained leaders from our congregation who have gone on to become clergy and lay leaders. These good leaders have restarted churches and started new Spanish language communities of faith. Notice I haven’t mentioned the multitude of Africans moving here, many of whom are already Anglicans. The field is ripe for the harvest, but where are the laborers.
This raises a critical question about our ordained leaders and why, even though we have lots of ordained people, we have a declining church. I have written about this in other places, but let me underscore the problem we have. Most of our clergy have been educated in a maintenance culture where they expect the church to be given to them and that all they need do is update liturgy, do the Lenten Program better this year, and talk about being accepting and inclusive and people will come. Our current situation underscores that this is not working.
Let me be clear, I am not laying this matter primarily at the feet of our seminaries. I believe the primary goal of seminary is a sound education in the disciplines of the ordained ministry such as Scripture, Church History, Preaching, and all those other things that I for one hold dear. However, we should also acknowledge two things about our seminary training. First, despite all the language in seminaries today about “Mission” and “Leadership” our academic folks are not up to the kind of leadership development that mission leaders need. Second, the academic model is primarily that if an ordained person has knowledge information and if she or he will teach this, people will follow. The development of new leaders goes much wider than seminary education. It starts with how we identify and select candidates for ordained ministry. It extends through seminary education and continues into the first 5 years of ordained ministry.
I would like to see regional centers for missional leadership training. These could be modeled on what Bishop Payne has developed for new leaders. To this I would add rotating faculties of proven leaders who have planted and developed churches of different sizes and among diverse people. Remember that 20% of our congregations still are showing positive numerical grow. Badly needed today are clergy who have helped rebuilt once Pastoral Size congregations especially in town ministries that have declined to Family Size Churches of 30 to 40 people gathering on Sunday. We have them, but sadly they are not the teachers and mentors of new clergy.
Of course, congregational development strategies are not all that we need to begin to grow TEC. We also need something else that I would call passionate and contagious spirituality. Here is how I get at this issue will local congregational leaders especially Vestries.
I ask these leaders to rate their congregation on a scale of 1 to 10. 1 is "I don't even know why I come here anymore, let along why I would ever invite someone else." 10 is (tears in eyes) "Let me tell you about my church. My church is my family; I can't wait to go on Sunday to see what will be happening next. I am loved, accepted, and inspired there and I am challenged to grow spiritually as a follower of Jesus Christ.”
Most Vestry members, remember that these are many of the most involved members of a church, rate their church between 4 and 6. Many times I've gotten as low as 2s. Once is a while I will get a few member who give their community a 7. Then I point out that places were folks rate their church above 7 are already growing churches. I share with them that the role of leaders, clergy and lay, are to move those numbers up starting with the next Sunday! There are lots of ways to do this once a community decides to do it. There are many strategies that have been proven in other congregations both large and small. The question before the leaders becomes “are we committed to increasing the quality of the spiritual passion of our community?” Once leaders understand this as opposed to their work at balancing a budget, mowing the grass, giving the clergy more benefits, or keeping the status quo, the community through its leaders begins to have a sense of urgency. In other words, there is a work that they must do NOW to fulfill their calling.
Can we grow TEC? Yes, if we are willing to take the initiative to bring to our congregations the kind of spiritual vitality that built the community that has been bequeathed to us by previous generations of passionate leaders. If you are a leader of a congregation or diocese and you are not committed to this task, then you are part of the problem. As the Holy Season of Lent reminds us, there is great power in falling to our knees in tearful repentance and asking God to kindle a new passion in our lives for the Church for which our Savior was willing to die and rise again. Each one of us should make our prayer “Lord, renew your Church and begin with me.”