A denomination is dying near you

The Episcopal Cafe had this headline a couple of weeks back, but it referred to the Presbyterian Church of the USA, from an article that appeared in Christian Century.

One of the comments on the Episcopal Cafe’s post pointed out that there had been many articles about the “dying church” in recent months on the Cafe.

There’s another one today, written by George Clifford. Clifford gives all of the statistics: the high percentage of over-60s in our pews and on our membership lists; the number of churches in small towns or rural areas where population is declining; the overall decline in Average Sunday Attendance.

But he also has some hopeful things to say, including this:

Yet, we in TEC have some cause for hope. The Episcopal congregations most likely to have experienced numerical growth in the past decade are large and very liberal congregations, according to the 2010 Faith Communities Today Survey.

Clifford argues that perhaps the most important key to growth is creating a vision and agenda for change, something we don’t work on very much. Instead, our attention seems focused on organizational and structural issues.

I read his piece shortly after reading the weekly email from the Alban Institute, which has some very similar things to say in an essay entitled Determining Ideal Board Size. The author, Susan Beaumont, begins with the observation that:

Effective boards in every size congregation must tend to three types of work: fiduciary (tending to the stewardship of tangible assets), strategic (working to set the congregation’s priorities and seeing that resources are being deployed in accordance with those priorities) and generative (problem framing and sense making about the shifting environment of the congregation).

The important takeaway from both her article and Clifford’s is the need for strategic and visionary thinking. We, clergy and lay leadership, often get so bogged down in the day-to-day running of the church, that we have no time or energy to think creatively about the future and how we need to change to meet the needs of a changing world.

“What’s a church’s economic worth?”

Thanks to the Call and Response blog, an article discussing a study that has attempted to assess the economic worth of 12 congregations in the Philadelphia area. Total estimated value: more than $50 million. Some of this is conjecture of course, like the $375 “for teaching social values” to a child. But some of it is real, like the economic impact of salaries, outreach efforts, and building repairs. The range in values for different churches is quite wide, from $1.4 million for a Presbyterian congregation (with an annual budget of $265,000) to $22.4 million for a Roman Catholic parish that has 7,000 congregants, a school, and a community center.

One of the study’s directors said:

The study shows the contribution of religious congregations “to be 20 to 30 times bigger than we knew,” said director Jaeger. It “will give congregations dozens of new ways to articulate their value, broaden their constituencies, and survive and grow.”

I wonder where Grace would come out? I wonder, too, whether attempts like this to quantify economic impact of a congregation do help “give congregations ways to articulate their value, broaden their constituencies, and survive and grow.”


Should churches do exit interviews?

Employers use them; businesses use them to find out why customers leave them; William Byron in this week’s America wonders whether churches should use them as well. He’s reflecting on responses to an earlier article he wrote for another Roman Catholic publication:

As a long-time writer of a biweekly column called “Looking Around” for Catholic News Service, I devoted a recent column to the exit interview idea and was inundated with responses from readers. Many indicated that they had been waiting to be asked why they left. The high response rate is all the more unusual because the column appears only in diocesan newspapers around the country. Evidently, respondents who claim to be no longer “in the boat” are still keeping in touch. Many of my respondents identified themselves as older persons.

He includes in this article a number of the responses he received; nothing too unexpected: the church’s teachings on contraception, women in the priesthood, end-of-life, and of course, the clergy sex abuse scandal. All of that is unique to the Roman Catholic Church. But there were other things, too.

They are soliciting feedback on America’s facebook page.

We might think about doing exit interviews ourselves. But what should we ask?

Reflections on visioning in the secular world

The City of Madison recently released a draft of its Downtown Plan, which is supposed to set the framework for the next twenty-five years of development. An overview of the current state of the planning process is available here.

The vision for the process is:

Downtown Madison will be a flourishing and visually exciting center for the arts, commerce, government and education. It will be a magnet for a diverse population working, living, visiting and enjoying an urban environment characterized by a sensitive blending of carefully preserved older structures, high-quality new construction, architectural gems and engaging public spaces– all working together and integrated with surrounding neighborhoods, parks and the transportation system to create a unique environment for the community, County and region. (Downtown Advisory Report, July 2004)

What strikes me in the documents that have been produced so far is in fact, the lack of vision and the lack of attention to larger cultural, economic, and environmental trends that may profoundly shape the next twenty-five years. For example, higher education is undergoing a transformation unlike anything seen before. The crisis of affordability and the rise of technology will undoubtedly affect the University of Wisconsin as it is affecting smaller schools across the country. But the current state of the downtown plan takes none of that into consideration. It seems to presuppose a stable environment in which Madison will grow and develop incrementally.

Having reflected on meetings in which the plan was discussed, and being involved presently in a great deal of thinking about the future of Grace Church, I’m struck by the different tones in the two processes. It may be simply because I’ve not heard the kind of dire warnings in the secular sphere that we know about in the church as a whole, and in particularly at Grace Church.

But to envision a future in twenty-five years means thinking outside the box in all kinds of ways. I’m reminded of the futuristic imagining of the future during the 60s–The Jetsons, for example. We’ve come to realize that much of that was silly, but at the same time, the technological advances and cultural changes that have occurred were unimaginable. To vision the future five years down the road is one thing. It’s going to look a good deal like it looks today. But twenty or twenty-five years in the future? Who can imagine? And how can you plan for it?

Tribal Church

I’ve been reading Tribal Church: Ministering to the Missing Generation by Carol Howard Merritt. According to Merritt:

A tribal church has certain characteristics. It understands and reaches out to the nomadic culture of young adults. This church responds to the gifts and needs of adults under forty by taking into account their physical, social, and spiritual circumstances. The term ‘tribal’ reflects (1) a gathering around a common cause, (2) a ministry shift to basic care, (3) the practice of spiritual traditions, and (4) a network of intergenerational encouragement. (p. 8)

I’ve read a lot of sociology of religion over the years and a great deal of congregational development material as well. I’ve rarely had the kind of “Eureka” moment I had while reading the following:

When a young person walks into a church, it’s a significant moment, because no one expects her to go and nothing pressures her to attend; instead, she enters the church looking for something. She searches for connection in her displacement: connection with God through spiritual practices, connection with her neighbors through an intergenerational community, and connection with the world through social justice outreach. (p. 17)

Having worked in a church in Boston in the 1980s, I already had sensed then that young adults were no longer coming to church (Of course, those young adults who didn’t come to church in the 80s are now in their 40s and 50s). It’s even more true today and much more true in Madison than it was in the South. But I had always interpreted it in negative terms–the only young adults who came to church were deeply needy (usually emotionally and psychologically). Merritt helped me to see that in a new way, as a wonderful possibility, as an attempt to make connection and reach out beyond themselves. She goes on in the book to talk about ways churches need to change to meet these needs and how pastors need to change as well.

We are doing some of this at Grace but we could do much more. We also need to change our expectations. She had some very interesting things to say about creating intergenerational community that involves people from across the lifespan and doesn’t segregate them out by age cohort.

Decline and decline

Two news items this week point to the difficulties facing Episcopal congregations in the twenty-first century. Kirk Hadaway reported to a meeting of the Executive Council of the Episcopal Church on the continuing decline in membership and Sunday attendance at Episcopal Churches. Overall membership declined from 2,285,143 in 2007 to 2,225,682 in 2008. Average Sunday attendance declined from 768,476 to 747,376.  Often that decline is attributed to the conflict over sexuality, but there are other issues involved.

Hadaway suggested that “if we’re going to turn this around — or at least turn around the decline — more attention needs to be paid to the things that result in growth, rather than to the broader cultural factors that are affecting our current patterns.” Those cultural factors include such things as an aging population with declining birthrates and an increase in the number of Americans who claim no religious affiliation.

“The base problem is the fact that so many of our churches don’t know why they’re there,” he said. “It’s a caretaker sort of ministry, which is good and helpful, but it’s a prescription for continuing decline.”

The full article is here, including links to more information.

One underlying reason for the decline in membership in the Episcopal Church, and indeed in all churches, is the declining involvement of young adults in organized religion. The Pew Report released its study of young adult spirituality which shows that of people aged 18-29, fully one in four are unaffiliated with any particular faith. Results of the survey are here.

Within the sobering statistics lie several interesting tidbits. In fact, although institutional affiliation is down, young adults continue to believe in God in high numbers and at least claim that they pray regularly. There is a long trend in American religion moving toward greater individualism and this survey probably captures another stage in that process.


I scheduled an evening Epiphany Eucharist today, just because I thought I should. If we were in a different location, we could do it up right with the burning of the greens and all; but I couldn’t imagine the logistics of a bonfire in the courtyard of a church on Capitol Square. Perhaps someone will come up with an alternative.

When Deacon Carol asked me how many people I expected I replied, maybe no one besides us. But in fact we had a total of 17, including some first-timers. I was thrilled. Sure, 17 is a small number, but we did almost no publicity, and no arm-twisting. It gives me hope that a weekday evening service might prove to be attractive. We will be trying a number of things in the coming months on Wednesday evenings, and I hope that by next year we will have a regular weeknight program.

What surprised me most was the percentage of young people in attendance; certainly more than half of those present tonight were under 40.

I’ve been ruminating on outreach to young adults. We attract our fair share of them without really providing any program targeted at them. I occasionally hear grumbling that young adults aren’t a demographic on which we should spend time and energy. Certainly, if one is interested in attracting people who will be long-time members and have a lot of financial assets they can donate, young adults aren’t worth the effort. But on the other hand, we provide community, fellowship, and a place for them to explore their faith during a difficult period of their lives. And truth be told, many sociological surveys have revealed that involvement in church is temporary even among older demographic cohorts–often five years at the outside.

We have an opportunity to reach to a huge population within just a few blocks of Grace. It seems to me that we ought to think about programs that might speak to people in their twenties and thirties, many of whom are searching for stability and meaning in their lives.

Congregational Development Oddities

New Rectors and Vicars in the Diocese of Milwaukee participate in Fresh Start, a nationwide program that seeks to help us make the transition into our new ministries. It’s a wonderful opportunity to develop relationships with other clergy in the diocese, to create camaraderie and to share experiences. But of course there is also programmatic stuff.

I have learned a great deal from congregational development gurus over the years and I’m a big fan of the Alban Institute but occasionally there are things that simply seem misguided or flat-out wrong. Today we did something that seemed very much the latter to me.

We were given two questions on which to plot our responses from 1-10. The first was a choice between “The only way to know God is in a one-on-one, direct relationship” and “The only way to know God is in the midst of God’s people.” So far so good.

The second set of alternatives was between “The end and purpose of life is so to live that I am reunited with God in my death” and “The end and purpose of life is to participate with brothers and sisters in building a human society of shalom, where peace and justice and love reign.”

The problem for me was the latter alternative. No mention of God there at all, and indeed in the graphic we later saw, that end of the axis was described as “secular.”

Now, I have no doubt that many people would have a problem with that second alternative. But the vision of the “Kingdom of God” articulated by Jesus was just that, a kingdom, reign, where God was present, and human community was also a crucial part. It may be that some clergy might be comfortable with a vision of a “human community of shalom” that excluded God, but I’m not sure why they would stay in the business.

The grid is from the work of Loren Mead. No doubt there is something in what he was trying to get at, but even in the examples he used, comparing Billy Graham and Martin Luther King, using MLK as someone who used the “secular style” seems to me misguided. King may have worked in the public  sphere, but his “style” and language were theological and religious.  The copyright date on the material is 1994, and I’m curious whether it reflects an different era.