Episcopal Realities: Getting Back to Growth

Seal of the Diocese of California
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In March 2011 I wrote about the long decline in average Sunday attendance and membership in the mainline protestant religions.  It isn’t a new problem or one we face alone.  The Episcopal Church has been in a long slow decline since at least 1988 and so has the Diocese of California.

Our Declining Membership Challenge. At the beginning of the new millennium in 2000 the Diocese of California saw average Sunday attendance of 10,994 but by the beginning of 2011 it had dropped to 8,169 (-26%).  The problem was masked because despite the decline in pledge units from 9686 beginning 2000 to 7047 beginning 2011 pledge giving grew from $14.0 million in 2000 to $16.4 million in 2011 an increase of 17% as the average pledge grew from $1,442 to $2,332.  But if you project that declining attendance and falling pledge units forward and consider the changing demographics of a population growing older the numbers tell a very different story for the Episcopal Diocese of California.

Forecasting Today’s Decline Rate Forward to 2022.  By 2022 average Sunday attendance is forecast to decline to 5712 at its average -3.3% rate each year.  Pledge units will decline from 7210 in 2010 to 4928 in 2022.  And pledge income is forecast to fall to $12.4 million for the diocese in 2022 down from $16.9 million in 2010 even though the average pledge will grow to $2, 525 in 2022 from $2,316 in 2010.

Growing the Church from the Congregations Up

As a member of the Executive Council of the Diocese of California the realities we face are that we must find ways to grow average Sunday attendance, pledge units and average pledge size year over year not just to do the mission and ministry work of the church, but to afford the work we are doing today. The only way to arrest this decline is to help the congregations grow filling their pews with new faces, new pledge units, and new hands and hearts out doing the work of the church.

When the congregations thrive and grow, the entire church will grow again. No organization can successfully raise money, recruit priests or launch new programs when it is seen as being in decline or where the forecast is as sobering as losing 50% of your members and 25% of your income when you depend upon those members to sustain the work of the church.  We are not an aging church. We are a church struggling to be relevant in the lives of the faithful bombarded with competing demands on their time, talent and treasure.

We are not here just to offer service, we’re here to offer salvation, to offer a faith foundation for kids, a network of caring support for those in need.  We offer renewal and spiritual healing.  We pray for you and we will be there for you in time of need.  You are family and we love you just the way you are.

This is the message Jesus preached more than 2000 years ago and it is still true today.  Our mission and challenge is to open our doors and our hearts wide enough to let the light of Christ shine on our whole community beckoning them home.

Yet in our Diocese a growing number of our 80 congregations are struggling financially.  The smallest and weakest can no longer afford the cost of a single priest or struggle with the growing costs of deferred maintenance on buildings the congregation can no longer afford.  We need to find ways to hold up and sustain faith communities at whatever stage of their life journey.  That may mean freeing them from the chains of aging structures.  It may mean matching them with larger congregations willing to be partners in Christ with them and help them.  It means reaching out to the faithful and those seeking Christ in their lives and helping them find a place where they can be at home, at peace at one with Christ.

The answer for us is NOT to keep raising the Diocesan assessment which taxes the growing parishes by requiring them to pay 20% of their income over $62,000 per year to the diocese to make up the gap in income from the decline.  Doing so eats the seed corn of the church by diminishing the capacity of thriving congregations at a time when the church badly needs them to grow even faster.

The answer to is to broaden our pledge base by reaching out and attracting new members, making them feel welcome and at home on Sunday mornings and incorporating them meaningfully in the mission and ministry work of the church.  You can call it evangelism.  You can call it marketing.  You can call it anything you want as long as we find creative ways to break the cycle of decline and get back to growth.

This is not a problem Bishop Marc created nor can he solve it for us.  This decline has been going on since at least 1988 and the ravages of the recession are forcing us to face it.  It is not a problem that any single parish can solve alone.  The parishes need the common infrastructure and support system the Diocese can offer to help them build program and membership across the congregations, but each congregation must focus on growth as a key goal not just for themselves but for the whole church.

But by naming, framing, working together as a community of faith to address the issues we face honestly and prayerfully we can develop new ways to bring the Good News to people who love God and seek Christ in their lives—and in so doing get the church growing again.

How we do that is the question on the Diocesan table, at the deanery meetings and for every Vestry in every congregation.   Bishop Marc and the Diocesan staff can’t do this on their own.  It is going to take the joined hands of a thousand souls in the pews to make this work and with God’s help, it will.

There is much to be thankful for in our Diocese

  • New Clergy with Fresh Ideas across the Diocese. Over the past five year we have a large group of new rectors and clergy in the diocese bringing fresh ideas and new thinking to these issues, the challenge for the Bishop is to energize them and get them focused on enriching and enlivening each congregation they serve to create the conditions for growth.
  • Better Communications and Collaboration. The Diocese is focusing on new technology and new strategies to provide the infrastructure, support system the congregations need to become more efficient at communications, at stewardship, as community-building and ministering to the needs of the faithful.
  • Building Lay Leadership. We need to build he lay leadership across the Diocese and the deanery action plan is the start of a new strategy for leadership development and involvement of the congregations in the collaborative work of the church.
  • New Ways to Leverage our Outreach Ministry. Episcopal Charities Action Networks is a new approach to encourage collaboration across parishes on shared outreach and social service needs.  We’ve learned a lot in this first round but the architecture for parish collaboration is a work in progress that will only get better as more are involved.

The challenge for our shared future is to grow both in numbers and capacity but in our love for God and the work of the church.

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