I waited for the New Year before posting this third in my series on hope for the future of TEC. In this blog, I want to point to the hope that lies within our Church and that could be a tremendous resource if we choose to use it.
In the mid-1990s, the Diocese of Texas started holding annual gatherings of church leaders based on size. As a large Diocese, by dividing our churches into Family, Pastoral, Transitional, Program, and Resource size, we were able to adapt material on congregational development in the most relevant ways to our leaders. Early on, we discovered an immensely powerful tool that enabled most of our congregations to grow substantially in membership, attendance, and stewardship.
Each year as we gathered each size, we selected one or two congregations with a best and proven area of ministry. For examples, one year we focused on stewardship. One congregation in each size shared how they had the best stewardship of that size congregation in the Diocese. Another year we focused on outreach. One year we focused on newcomer ministry and welcoming. We did this for seven years. It was one of our primary strategies that helped us become the fastest growing Diocese in the Church.
The congregation in our program size that presented the first year had Mary Parmer, their newcomer coordinator, present. Later she developed the “Invite Welcome Connect” ministry that has benefitted congregations all over TEC and beyond. This process is called “Benchmarking” and is now a common practice in many organizations and businesses. Its tremendous advantage is having the best present and teach the rest of the organization.
Growing Churches Reaching Newer and Younger People
In 2019, the year before COVID changed everything, TEC was still in steady decline. Statistically, we had 60% of our congregations in decline, some in very steep decline. However, another 20% were managing to stay stable. Amazingly, 20% were growing and many growing steadily. For me, these are the churches that should be teaching us how to meet the challenge of this decline and to reach the growing number of unchurched in our society.
It is important to pause for a moment and realize that these 20% are now outliers in TEC. They are operating in many ways counter cultural to what our community and its leaders are accepting as normal. Normal for us is aging and declining churches with denominational leaders who move from one crisis after another caused by this decline and who spend their time problem solving each situation. Remember, “if you always do what you have always done, you always get what you have always gotten.” This describes much of our current culture.
Who Are These Leader Congregations and What Can we Learn from Them?
To bring this more fully to our attention as we move forward in this new year, I set out to find some of them and turned to social media to help me. My goal is to find 100 congregations that meet the following criteria. My hope is that others will study them and share what they know that our declining culture does not know. What criteria did I use?
First, for at least 3 years prior to 2020, these churches showed growth in membership and attendance above 5%
Second, their growth came from people new to TEC and many younger than 40 years of age. BTW, if you are concerned about our diversity, the best strategy is to reach Millennials and younger generations because they bring diversity as a part of their identity.
I did not list growing congregations like mine in Georgetown Texas that have had great growth but because of our county’s demographics, most of the growth comes from transfer Episcopalians and retiring Boomers.
I also did not include new plants or missional communities because, great as these are, they are not doing the work of congregational transformation. They are an important part of our future, but not the subject of this blog. Obviously, they are doing the work of evangelism. But we will save these for another list.
Here is my list and I want you to nominate other congregations that meet the above criteria. I know several of these Churches firsthand and the others by reputation. The list is in alphabetical order by church name.
Christ the King, Tulsa, Oklahoma
Church of the Epiphany, Richardson, Texas
Church of the Epiphany, Seattle, Washington
Grace Church, Yukon, Oklahoma
Good Samaritan, Brownsburg, Indiana
Good Samaritan, Paoli, Pennsylvania
San Matteo, Houston, Texas
St. Dunstan’s, Madison, Wisconsin
St. James, Austin, Texas
St. John’s, Memphis, Tennessee
St. Peter’s, Del Mar, California
Zion Church, Oconomowoc, Wisconsin
This is the beginning of what I hope will be a longer list of leading welcoming congregations. If you know of any that meet the above criteria, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org and I will add them.
Join me in creating hope for our future by finding these congregations and by holding them up to our leadership as congregations that can show us how to build the future Church.
Remember, even a declining denomination has growing churches. Let us learn from them and focus on our strengths and not or weakness, on our future and not our past.