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.