Vestry Retreat Season: Lessons about Church Vitality

It is the season for vestry retreats across the Diocese and I hope the issue of church vitality will be on every Vestry‘s agenda.  Part of my wrap-up work in phase one of our Diocesan Church Growth Program has been to prepare some slides for use in these Vestry Retreats to guide the discussion.

Thanks to Kathy Wills for the great ‘forward together’ stewardship graphic being used at St. Timothy’s this year.

Before your vestry retreat go to the national church website and download the Diocesan and congregation charts about your own membership, average Sunday attendance and pledge unit statistics and take them to your retreat.

If your congregation wants help from the Executive Council of the Diocese of California in planning your own course of action to address the church vitality and growth potential in your congregation please call ANY member of the Executive Council.  We have church growth and revenue growth team members ready and willing to work with any congregation that seeks our help.

So far 30 congregations across the Diocese of California have responded to Bishop Marc’s call to action to develop a church vitality action plan, participate in the Diocesan webinars and programs and get every member of your congregation involved in something that calls them to be the Body of Christ.

Peace be with you!

Guarding the Vision of the Church’s Future

“Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keeps the law, happy is he.” Proverbs 29:18

Where there is no vision, the people perish seems plainly clear. But the second part of the verse about keeping the law could also be translated as guarding the direction of the vision, then the word happy literally means blessed. So, people perish when there is no vision, but those that guard the direction of the vision are blessed.

For the past five months the Bishop and Executive Council, of which I am a member, have been engaged in a process of discernment about the future of the Episcopal Diocese of California.  That discernment is focused on whether the church will grow or die.  I know, to say the church is dying is a shocking and provocative use of words.  But how else can you describe a nearly twenty year trend of steady average decline in membership, average Sunday attendance and pledging of -3.3% per year.

At that -3.3% per year rate of decline the church shrinks by 50% every decade.

In August 2011 when Bishop Marc Andrus came to the Executive Council of the Diocese of California and asked for our help to breathe new vitality into the church and get the congregations growing again, he did not tell us how to do it—he just said we need to do this!

Sitting around that Council table we all understood the existential threat we face.

Fast forward nearly six months after study, prayer and consultations across the Diocese.  The church growth program sought to raise the awareness of the clergy and laity to this problem by naming it, talking often about it, asking questions about why this is happening and challenging the lay leaders across the congregations to take up the challenge of getting the church growing again.

We held four workshops focused on church attendance and membership growth.  We held a workshop on revenue growth challenges.  We went to each of the six deaneries of the Diocese to name the problem and ask each congregation to commit to working on a proactive plan of their own they will beginning to implement in 2012 to set clear and measurable church vitality and growth goals.

Today more than 30 of the 80 congregations in the Diocese have committed to participation in the Bishop’s church vitality challenge by participating in monthly webinars, develop action plans and sharing the results of their efforts with others.

It turns out that “sharing” is harder than it should be.

The traditional church model is built around small parishes.  When we wanted to grow the church we simply built a new church assuming if we did the people would come and for generations they did come.  But much has changed in the world and in the way the world affects our lives.  Today we depend more on technology to communicate in our fast paced, mobile society.  The church is not the common meeting place it once was for communities.

The Good News is we still want Jesus in our lives.  We still want to give our kids a solid faith foundation.  We still want to be in community with others.  We still want to be surrounded by people who accept us as we are, and support us in our times of need, and pray with us and for us.  We still want to serve others.  And we still want the church to make this possible for us and to be there for us.

But as with the rest of the institutions that touch our lives we also expect the church to ‘keep up’ with changing times and walk our journey of faith with us as we pray, learn, worship and serve others.

The Good News in our discernment process is that the problem of church decline is not a failure of faith on the part of the people, it is a failure of the institutions and methods of the church to grow with us, change with us, be in community with us—as we are TODAY—and where we are going TOMORROW.

How do we get the church growing again and breath new vitality into the old bones of the institution? The answers have been right in front of us all the time.  God has been whispering the knowledge of what to do in our hearts for a long time—the words just have not traveled to our ears and head so we can turn them into action.

What do I mean?

The Church is the Living Body of Christ entrusted to the People who Love and Serve the Lord.  It is our responsibility as members of the Body of Christ to do the work God has given us to do.  All we have to do to get the church growing again is get up out of the pews and quit going through the motions. Bishop Marc’s call to each congregation to “get with it, people” is all the permission we need to empower our actions.  Talk to your neighbors and find ways that work for your congregation to throw open the doors and invite the community to join you.  Reach out to those in need and be the Body of Christ for them.

Empowering the People to Act means the Institutions of the Church Must Support Them.  Waiting for direction from the Bishop and Clergy is not the answer for people who already are empowered to do God’s work.  We can’t ‘delegate up’ the job God has given us to do. He expects us to do His work in the vineyard ourselves.  It may be more than coincidence that the steady decline in the church membership, attendance and pledging parallels the growth in the professional staff of the church.  Most congregations still are small enough that they can only afford a priest.  The rest of the work of the congregation gets done when its members roll up their sleeves and get it done.  Part of the decline of church membership and attendance may be a perception that showing up does not make a difference.  Until every person counts and the absence of any member is noticed, the church is just a routine and not a community we feel called to.  That is the challenge for every congregation—make every person count, make them feel indispensible to the Body of Christ because to Christ every person is loved unconditionally.

Investing in Our Community Faith Journey Together.  Increasingly the tedious ways we ‘do church’ turn us off because in the rest of our lives we use technology, build and nurture community, and share information that lives into our values and goals.  The church must get with the technology program if it wants the people to work in the vineyard.

  • WE NEED NEW TOOLS FOR WORKING TOGETHER COLLABORATIVELY. I repeat my observation that the single most empowering thing we have learned from the church growth program action planning phase is that the Diocese of California NEEDS a social collaboration system on line that encourages us, empowers us, supports us to break out of our congregational silos and work together across congregations, across deaneries, across ministry programs to do God’s work.   We need more than a wall on FaceBook and Twitter.  We need virtual work spaces to share idea, hold meetings, share information.  We need one common place to go for church information not a thousand sites we must remember.
  • NEW WAYS TO DO BIBLE STUDY.  In our church growth program we learned about The Restoration Project, a wonderful small group ministry focused on Bible study.  And we learned about YouVersion, an online program that connects small Bible study groups around the world.  If the Diocese created ONE social network where we could go to access these and scores of other prayer, study and support programs and services think how much easier it would be to BE IN COMMUNITY WITH EACH OTHER.
  • NEW WAYS TO DO OUTREACH. We need new ways to design, support and do outreach such as the way sites like Volunteer Marin or to allow people to directly support outreach projects across the Diocese.

You can find more ideas on the church growth program homepage for how technologies that we use in our personal and business lives every day can e adapted to meet the needs of the church to breathe new vitality into our institutions, throw open the doors to new people eager to find their way on their spiritual journey and get people involved in doing God’s work in the vineyard that will change the lives of those they touch and help them find Christ in their hearts where he’s been all along.

You don’t need permission—just do it!

Nielsen Study of Optimism and Opportunity for Women

I have not written much about our 20/20 Vision process lately.

It has been dormant while St. Timothy’s searches for a new rector believing that whoever God calls to be the shepherd of our flock should be an active participant in framing our parish vision for the future.

But that should not stop us from research and examination of useful information when that 20/20 Vision process picks up again hopefully next year.

So here is a good news story to keep your attention focused on our 20/20 prize.

Nielsen is out with a very interesting new study of the attitudes of women.  What makes this study useful for our work in the Church Growth Program is the breakdown of the data from the survey results across ethnic and other demographic lines that make it a good resource for planning mission and ministry programs.

We’re learning from the 2010 Census data about the profound changes in demographics reshaping our country.  Those changes are not just ethnic they are also being reshaped by the changing role of women in the workplace and in our society.  Hispanics are the fastest growing ethnic group and their attitudes about optimism and opportunity will have major impacts on media, retail and manufacturers now and in the years ahead—and provide lessons about of message of hope and opportunity for an optimistic role for woman in the Episcopal Church.

The Nielsen study offers good news for our mission and ministry work in the vineyard over the next year working congregation by congregation to help each devise a church vitality and growth strategy that works for them.  Its focus on attitudes about optimism and opportunity are very important benchmarks for our church vitality and growth work ahead.

So what are the headlines from this Nielsen study?

  • Optimism was highest among African American and Hispanic women, especially how they viewed the opportunities they have had compared with those of their mothers.
  • Women of today are not only optimistic for themselves, they expect their daughters to have more opportunity than they do.
  • American women are heavy users of technology – even if they aren’t early adopters. Women of all ethnicities use media in similar ways, with one key exception: smartphones. Just 33 percent of Caucasian women have a smartphone in their household, compared to penetration rates in the 60s for women of other ethnicities.

I recommend this Nielsen Report to you:  Women of Tomorrow: U.S. Multicultural Insights.

Growing the Church is about Community

Growing the church again after years of slow steady decline in membership, attendance and pledge support is a challenge facing every mainline denomination.  For the Episcopal Church in the United States the decline has been a steady -3.3% per year in the key metrics.  For the Diocese of California, the implications of this are profound.

At that current rate of decline, DioCal will have one-half the pledge units (<5000) in 2022 than it had at the beginning of this new millennium in 2000.  Similar reductions in membership and average Sunday attendance are forecast and the result is that the Episcopal Church faces an existential threat to its relevance let alone it vitality.

The reasons for decline are varied ranging from changing demographics, changes in our religious traditions as secularization pushes faith out of the public square, our schools and many other places.  And there are the self-inflicted wounds of churches who still believe they have a monopoly on people’s religious faith experiences and act like lords rather than worshipping our Lord.  Then there are the seemingly endless conflicts of church politics, religious strife and other bad press that make church—every church— seem less inviting, less safe, less home.

This is a message of renewal not dispair

The church has a big problem, but it also has the Holy Spirit calling us to put aside these burdens and follow our own Great Commission to go out there and make disciples of all the nations—starting with our neighbors. This is not a message we hear very much in the Episcopal Church because we have not had a theological tradition of being evangelists.  Instead our congregations are often silos that shelter us from an outside world we fear rather than unite us with a wider community we should embrace. The fact of church decline is testimony that this strategy is not working.  That we are coming to recognize church decline as the #1 problem facing the church today is the Hold Spirit at work guiding us to fix it.

Over the past several months, the diocese of California has been working in the vineyard trying to assess this problem of church decline right here in the Diocese of California and listening for God to show us what we can do to fix this problem.

This is what we are hearing in the Church Growth Program:

  1. Help me discover Jesus in my life and support me on my personal faith journey.
  2. Help me give my kids a good faith foundation that will guide their lives.
  3. Give me options to pray, worship and serve others on my terms, in my time available.
  4. Help me be in community with others who share my faith and welcome me as I am.
  5. Spare me from church politics and the hassles that get in the way of my faith journey.

These simple yet powerful messages are the hope of the church.  They symbolize the deep spiritual faith of people who love God and seek Christ but often see church hierarchy and bureaucracy as out of touch and in the way just as Jesus found the Pharisees in his own time.

The lesson is The Good News is still good news and people still want to hear it. The graphic above is a new way to see church the way we are—-in community with each other.  This is a simple —and far from complete representation of two growth opportunities for the Diocese of California waiting for us to discover ways to meet them.  In East Contra Costa and Southern Alameda amazing changes are taking place.  The rapid growth of new communities in the last boom market followed by the rapid halt to that growth in the current recession and slow recovery is transforming the Diocese of California demographically, geographically, and economically.  Yet the Episcopal Church has a fragmented and weak presence in these new centers for Diocesan growth.

How will we respond?

That is the big question and the big answer to our church growth problem.  God has laid before us a canvas rich in multicultural and ethnic diversity.  The current economic hardships see people hungry for a community of faith where they can find hope, renewal, support and love when they need it most.  The question for the church is—are we going to sit in our congregational silos and wait for all these people to find us—or are we going to reach out and invite them to be part of our communities of faith?

Growing the church is about growing community—and being in community.  It is Jesus calling us to live into our own Great Commission as disciples invites others to join us.  To do God’s work we have to put aside some of the old ways of the church that divide us, separate us from our mission in the vineyard and remember that we are sisters and brothers of the body of Christ.

On October 15th at St. Clare’s Episcopal Church in Pleasanton, the membership growth team workshop will focus on the Dougherty Valley growth opportunities for church growth brainstorming with St. Clare’s, St. Bartholomew’s and St. Timothy’s members about new ways to ‘do church’ and build community to be the Body of Christ in truth as well as in name.  Join us 9am to noon.

Lessons on Church Marketing

Robb Harrell is a Lutheran Pastor in Florida and he writes a very interesting blog called Praying with Evagrius.  A recent post was on the subject of church marketing and getting your message right.  It is a good read and I recommend it to you

I’m now involved in the Diocese of California Church Growth Program and issues to marketing and communications are front and center as a strategy for getting the church growing again by broadening the base and reaching out to the unchurched and underserved.

But what is the church message? 

Father Robb offers some good advice to consider:

“About once a week or so I get a postcard from some local mega church advertising their programs or sermon series. These programs and sermon series are supposedly meant to meet the needs of the consumer. There is one problem with this approach: I don’t think people really know what their own needs are.

Let me say it one more time with clarity: I don’t think most people know what they need. Yet we have an entire church marketing machine that is based on fulfilling consumer needs. The trickle-down effect of this is that smaller mainline churches feel the need to compete with such efforts as a matter of survival. We begin to ask what people want out of church instead of asking what people need from the church.

I was watching Religion and Ethics Newsweekly a couple of weeks ago when they interviewed Eugene Peterson, who is a retired Presbyterian pastor and prolific author. In the course of the interview, Peterson said, “The minute the church and pastors start saying what do people want and then giving it to them, we betray our calling. We’re called to have people follow Jesus. We’re called to have people learn how to forgive their enemies. We’re called to show people that there is a way of life which has meaning beyond their salary or beyond how good they look.”

I was really struck by the statement. The prophet Jeremiah (as translated by Peterson in The Message) says that, “The heart is hopelessly dark and deceitful, a puzzle that no one can figure out.” How can we structure the church on the basis of what the human heart desires when we know that the human heart is capable of deceit? The truth is that this following of Jesus and forgiving of enemies is hard stuff. Who wants to do hard stuff?

Thomas Merton once said that the world is in need of a revolution, one that only Christianity can provide. Churches need to better discern who they are and what their core message happens to be before entering the fray of engagement with the world and culture around them. So often churches become nothing more than a reflection of the culture around them rather than a threat of revolution.”

Lessons of Church Decline and Renewal

The Episcopal Church is not the only mainline protestant denomination with declining membership.  It is a disease as common as the common cold. But it is going to take more than clever ads trying to attract disaffected Roman Catholics to get the church growing again.

But so far, the mainline churches have not found a remedy for the disease.  Is the church boring?  It is relevant in the lives of the faithful? These are questions being asked, but we know from greeting newcomers that there still is a yearning to find a way to have Christ in our lives.  We still feel the call of parents of young children seeking to  give them a solid Christian foundation upon which to grow and develop lifetime values.  We still feel the need for solace and renewal in the voice of one who has lost a spouse or child.  We hear the pleas of those who are lonely, sick, troubled, and adrift.  There is a yearning for spiritual healing, renewal, community and hope that can not be found anywhere else.  The job of the church and each of us as part of the Body of Christ is to give it to them! This is the mission of the church today and tomorrow as it has been for a millennium.

Stopping the decline in church membership and attendance is not about abandoning the values of the church or its caring for the faithful.  It is about finding news ways to connect with them, to reach out to them, to be with them in a world of constant change. It is making them feel loved not just welcomed.  It is asking them to help us not just show up and watch.  We become the Body of Christ by being busy doing God’s work not just sitting there each Sunday transferring body heat to the wood pews.

News reports surface regularly of more bad news about the decline in church membership, average Sunday attendance and participation.  The latest from the Southern Baptists with the message to quit denying reality and wake up, people! The story in the Baptist Press by Ed Stetzer is from a guy who knows a thing or two about church growth and church planting.  His prescription is a mixture of doing more of everything the Southern Baptists have done:

  1. A need for mission deo to get out there and do God’s work in the vineyard
  2. A need for diversity
  3. A need for a new generation
  4. A need for renewal in church planting.

The article is plaintive and sad because even though Stetzer is talking about growing the church his prescription is more recommendations on trying home remedies that have not yet cured his patient.  You can’t just go through the motions.

“We don’t change until the pain of staying the same grows greater than the pain of change. May the truth break our hearts, drive us to our knees and compel us into the mission.”

In an equally pessimistic blog post by Jay Vorhees, a pastor in a declining United Methodist congregation, he laments that each day he hopes for a kind of Lazarus miracle that will somehow result in the Holy spirit breathing new life into a failed body.  He says he tries to tell his congregation the truth but often they don’t want to hear it.

These two examples are part of the reason churches are ‘in a rut’ today.  We don’t want to come to church to be depressed.  These examples focus on the past not the future.  They see things that are bad not the joy in the church.  They relate to people in the ways of yesterday not the ways of today or the aspirations for a joyful tomorrow.  For them things happening are depressing.

The church is about joy!

Contrast these first two examples with a paper written by a young Presbyterian pastor on social media policies and his own experience when his congregation told him it would not buy him a smart phone.

“When I graduated from a Presbyterian seminary and took my first position as a part-time pastor in a small rural church, I expected my days of heavy social media use would soon end. Before I arrived, the congregation rejected my request for a smart-phone, and when I finally did move into my office I found a large stack of ancient cassette tapes on my desk. Surely my days of frequent networking on Twitter, Facebook, and blogs were over. Surely I would soon experience the loneliness many rural pastors feel, disconnected from their colleagues due to geography and lack of communication. But, to my surprise and joy, I was dead wrong.

Within a few months of beginning my time as pastor at a small rural church, I had found a supportive and very helpful community on Twitter with which I interacted daily. I explored Facebook groups and several online chat platforms with ministry colleagues. My blog became a valuable ministry tool for conversation and collaboration. Even a status update on Facebook could bring comments of support and encouragement (e.g. a book suggestion, a website recommendation, a word of caution or calm, even a prayer). I also found, to my surprise, that my congregation had a Facebook page of its own that I could update and use to connect to those in our community (Facebook, 2010). Furthermore, as I continued my practice of blogging on the church, ministry, and contemporary issues, as well as posting any sermons I preached, I slowly found that members of my congregation enjoyed reading my blog — and especially consulting the sermons they heard on Sunday mornings. Though they would rarely comment on posts online, many members have told me in person that they peruse my website often. In person, then, we discuss my blog posts or the comment of another read posted online.”

Do you feel the difference in tone and the sense of optimism rather than pessimism in the voice of Pastor Adam Copeland.  Maybe he was just young and not yet grounded in the ways of the established church.  Maybe he didn’t realize he was not supposed to adapt the technology and social media customs he acquired in college to his work as a pastor.

But a funny thing happened in a stogy old congregation resistant to change—-Adam connected with the people in the pews in ways they could scarcely have imagined.  He got to know them, and they him.  They bonded and worked together and prayed together—isn’t that what church is supposed to be about?

The technology did not change the church.  It changed the attitudes of the people about the value and meaning and potential of the church for their lives.  And that makes all the difference.

Census 2010 clues for Growing the Church

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A key issue facing the Episcopal Church, the Diocese of California and St. Timothy’s is the long, slow decline in the membership of the mainline Protestant religions. The Episcopal Church of the US has about 2 million members, down 3% or 50,000 members from 2008 to 2009.

Average Sunday Attendance in the Diocese of California has declined since 1988

In January 2000, parishes of the Diocese of California had average Sunday attendance of 10, 994 people and 9,686 pledge units.  By January 2011 average Sunday attendance (ASA) has fallen to 8,169 people and pledge units were down to 7,047.  Despite these declines, total Diocesan pledge income grew from $14.0 million in 2000 to $18.2 million in 2008 before the recession but since has fallen to $16.4 million in 2011.  The growth in the average pledge across the Diocese, just as at St. Timothy’s masked the big problem—the Episcopal Church is not growing!

If these trends of ASA decline of -3.3% per year and average pledge income decline of -2.6% per year continue, by 2020 ASA will fall to 6,096 people (down 45% from 2000), 5,259 pledge units (down 46% from 2000) and total expected pledges of $13.1 million (down 28% from 2008 and 6% lower than 2000 levels).

St. Timothy’s 20/20 Vision Goal is to Buck the Trend and Grow the Church

Our 20/20 Vision goals to be a welcoming parish open to all and to live into the mission work of the church by doubling the parish pledge base and participation by the year 2020 are serious challenges to these long term membership trends. To buck the trend requires that St. Timothy’s and other congregations reach out to the unchurched and underserved, collaborate with the Diocese and work with other congregations to attract the faithful in order to achieving the 20/20 Vision goals.

Growing the Church is one of the biggest challenges awaiting our new Rector.

The 2010 census results have profound implications for the church and powerfully align with the 20/20 Vision goals St. Timothy’s Vestry has set. In 2003 during the 50th anniversary year, the Vestry affirmed our unbroken chain of faith in the call in 1953 by Bishop Shires to ‘plant a mission congregation down the road in the San Ramon Valley. Rector Hodgkin of St. Paul’s Walnut Creek responded to that call and one month later formed St. Timothy’s mission and a Vicar was named. Surely God’s hand was at work in that speedy response to the call.

What does the 2010 Census mean for church growth?

  • Census 2010 tells the story of our growing cultural diversity. Our best opportunities for growth are to welcome our neighbors to worship with us. Both Hispanic and Asian segments of the population are the fastest growing over the past ten years and in California no one racial group will be the majority in our shared future. If the Episcopal Church is to grow it must find ways to welcome and incorporate people of many cultures here at home just as the church does across the Anglican Communion.
  • Census 2010 tells us our population is getting older, having fewer kids and Bay Area growth has slowed and not just because of the recession. The 5.4 percent Bay Area growth is the smallest net growth since the 1930’s. Oakland lost 2.2 percent of its population since 2000. Danville is the heart of the fastest growing county in the Bay Area. We should continue to be attractive as a place to live, work and worship especially with continued change in the demographic make-up of our market service area.
  • But Contra Costa County grew10.6%–faster than any of the nine Bay Area counties and is now the ninth largest county in California with over 1 million people out of a total Bay Area population of 7.15 million with a 5.4 percent growth since 2000.  San Francisco grew by 3.7 percent.
  • Who will serve the new growth in our Dougherty Valley backyard if not us?  Bishop Marc Andrus asked St. Timothy’s to work with St. Clare’s in Dublin Pleasanton and St. Bartholomew’s in Livermore to assess the mission and ministry needs of the Dougherty Valley area all three parishes serve. More than 25,000 homes will be built in the area and between our three churches we can welcome many families seeking a new parish home. Our job is to help them discover us.

St. Timothy’s is well positioned for growth. Our parish is in the “sweet spot” of growth in the nine county Bay Area and we have a solid, thriving parish foundation from which to grow for the future.  But we must have a social networking, communications and marketing strategy as diverse as the communities we have the opportunity to serve.