My last blog centered on the Diocese of Connecticut’s paper and strategy called The New Normal. In it I called attention to the fact that 2/3rds of their congregations can no longer afford the services of full-time clergy. Another way of saying this is that formerly larger congregations have declined into Family Size churches and the typical strategy for maintaining these is often placing a bi-vocational or retired clergy person in these situations. This situation is made more dire in Connecticut because many of these once larger churches have property and buildings more suited to a larger congregation with larger budgets. We should face that all this is a crisis, but it is the kind of long-term crisis that dioceses usually react to rather than respond. Connecticut is trying to respond.
A further complicating factor for this Diocese is that bi-vocational, part-time, and retired clergy are not likely to move to the church’s community to serve them. Not only is this a problem in recruitment, it is a further expansion of these churches’ essential dilemma, how are they to even maintain themselves in this situation?
Put along side these issues the growing clergy shortage and you have the perfect storm for the future. The Diocese of Connecticut is rightly concerned and in my last blog, I talked about the creative ways they are attending to the churches that can at least afford a full-time clergy.
This allows me to comment on the increasingly failed strategy of the wider church in addressing the basic problem of how to carry out revitalization for these smaller congregations and even grow them. Lets even put this for a moment in the wider issue of evangelization. The communities in the US are simply becoming more unchurches especially as the Millennial Generation replaces the GI Generation. The former generation is less than 10% churched and the latter were over 60% churched. Bishop Doyle of the Diocese of Texas calls this the Tsunami of Death. It has driven the decline of church membership in North American from a predictable 40% after World War Two until 2000 to the 2019 figure of 20%!
The first thing that we should say, and mission people have been saying this for decades, is that evangelism in a post-Christian society is different from that of either a pre-Christian society (where Anglicanism is growing fastest) or a Christendom model where denominations are basically recruiting new members.
So, ironically there are more unchurched and non-Christians living all around us making the target for evangelization larger, but we are reaching fewer of them which contributes to our decline. For me, Connecticut’s situation highlights all these issues. What is to be done?
The first thing that I think church leaders should acknowledge in all this is that a strategy that is primarily maintenance directed is doomed to failure! What I saw during my year traveling about Oklahoma and talking to leaders of town parishes is that a part-time clergy person seldom ever leads a church to revitalization and growth. The frequent changes in clergy serving these situations often leads to further decline.
The second thing I think church leaders should acknowledge and even rejoice in is that some clergy and small churches have figured this out. We do have examples all over the church of such churches not only surviving but also finding healthier life and growth. Bishop Doyle said to me that at the beginning of his Episcopacy he thought that many of these smaller congregations would just close, but what he found is that given some support many find a way to hold together. The question, of course, is what do these revitalizing congregations and their ordained leaders know that the rest of us do not? I like to ask the even more obvious question as a church consultant, why not let these leaders both lay and clergy train those sent to these congregations? Truth is that many of these leaders are outliers and not used as resources.
Third thing I think church leaders should do is develop a plan for the revitalization of these congregations that uses proven strategies. As I said, most diocesan leadership see such congregations as a problem to solve and solve them by attempting to put part-time clergy in these to maintain what already exists. Must of what the Diocese of Texas does now is based on its former Bishop Claude Payne’s understanding that revitalization involves a series of steps by a Diocese. These would include:
a. 1. Learning what congregations have a readiness for revitalization and targeting them.
b. 2. Recruiting the right clergy person and backing them in their placement.
c. 3. Identifying the key lay leadership to give stable direction to the parish which often means keeping the same wardens and vestry in place for 3 to 5 years. (Rotating leadership by 1/3 each year may be a helpful strategy to keep existing and growing parishes healthy, but it is too unstable for a small congregation with limited leaders. We asked such congregations to “put the A team” in charge.)
d. 4, Revitalization often takes place in a church with limited budget and resources and declining facilities with deferred maintenance. This means that the Diocese needs to invest in such parishes to refresh its facilities.
e. 5. All this means that there must be a group of local leaders and diocesan leaders to oversee this work and to hold each other accountable
Knowing all this, I not only commended the Diocesan leadership of Connecticut, but also recommended that they learn from places like Texas to do the above.
In summary, when it comes to revitalizing these declining congregations let those who have done it teach others, use proven strategies, and form a healthy partnership between the Diocese and local leaders all of whom work off the same play book.
Imagine a Mission Training Center dedicated to such work at a time like this and you have imagined a healthier and growing Episcopal Church.