The Episcopal Church: What does healthy optimism look like?

Total Members of the Episcopal Church in 1966: 3,647,297
Total Members of the Episcopal Church in 2002: 2,320,221
Overall Episcopal Church Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) in 1997: 841,445
Overall Episcopal Church ASA in 2007: 727,822
Diocese of Olympia ASA in 1997: 12,820
Diocese of Olympia ASA in 2007: 10,735
(A very interesting statistic is that across a similar time period (93-03), Olympia actually gained 6,109 members - it is only attendance that is down, not membership! Here's the report)
87% of Episcopalians in 2008 were white.
28% of Episcopalians in 2008 were under age 35, compared to 48% in the US population.
27% were over age 65, compared to 13% of the total US population.

On Saturday the commission I work with held a workshop called "Seizing the Episcopal Moment: Emerging Cultures and Anglican Futures" featuring a couple of experts, Tom Sine and Barry Taylor, and a panel conversation with six young (by Episcopal standards) leaders in our Diocese that think of themselves as missioners in our emerging culture(s). The experts' conversation was about the distinctive gifts that Episcopalians have to offer the post-modern world, and the panel discussion was an attempt to point to concrete ways that we're engaging our local communities in creative ways.

The statistics above are well-known, at least in spirit, and many of them came up specifically at some point during the day. The awareness of declining numbers and funds seems to hang over just about everything that we do corporately as Episcopalians these days, and rightly so. Not that I'm into doom and gloom - I'm quite unflappably hopeful, actually. Our workshop on Saturday was an attempt to point towards some really hopeful possibilities for new life in the face of all of this decline. I love the Episcopal Church, and really think that it is the last best hope in American Christianity. But I also think we need to face a reality that has potential to hit us hard when that 27% of our population that's over 65 begins to give way to that 28% that are under 35, and when the new economic realities begin to set in.

Our panel consisted of Jon Myers, a church planter, Eliacin Rosario-Cruz and Alfredo Ferregrino, two Latino guys who are working to start new work among their peers, myself, Karen Ward, "Urban Abbess" at Church of the Apostles (COTA), and our Bishop, Greg Rickel. At one point in the conversation the question came up about how these 'emerging ministries' will be supported financially: a valid question and quite poignant as COTA is currently trying to sort out ways that they can become financially independent, Jon is trying to raise the necessary funds to do his work, Eliacin and Alfredo aren't being paid, and I'm working 50-60 hour weeks for $28K a year and no benefits. There is (almost) no culture in our diocese to support church planting, and there's been a slow but undeniable breakdown in the culture that previously prepared young leaders to, well, lead.

If I were more politically savvy, I would have said something pithy like "The question isn't how can we afford to support these new ministries. The question is how we can afford not to." Instead, I said (in paraphrase), "Yeah, that's a real problem. One of the issues we're facing as young leaders is that our generation probably isn't going to have the ability to support the structures and buildings that currently exist. Realistically, our numbers have been declining and there probably isn't going to be a big revival where 15 million people join the Episcopal Church in the next 20 years." I honestly didn't think that would be a controversial statement, but I got a palpably negative reaction from the crowd - gasps and head shaking and an impassioned final refutation that closed off the day. It caught me off guard; I honestly thought we were operating from the assumption that we're in a real crisis here at the confluence of declining overall population, declining giving, and greying churches housed in expensive-to-maintain structures. Almost every parish I know of is wrestling with problems related to this reality. Even my parish, St. Margaret's, which is one of the largest in the diocese and is located in one of the wealthiest areas in the country, is having to rent out our building and sell off chunks of land to pay its bills.

I don't know. Maybe I'm wrong, but personally it's not my biggest concern. The Anglican witness is a beautiful, vital thing and it will go forward in this country - maybe it will grow even with the coming emergent revivals. If priests (I) don't always have big nice sacristies in which to store their (my) fancy dresses, and if they (I) have to scrape together a living doing various kinds of paid work while serving as clergy, I'm confident that we (I)'ll survive. Personally, I secretly kind of like the idea that Episcopalians are going to have to learn to live on more of a shoestring. I'm all for a mixed community in the church, and I'll be happy if we get to the point where the establishment, old white man country club aura that still surrounds us in many ways becomes the exception rather than the norm. After all, it's hard to teach that 'preferential option for the poor' Gospel when we're worshipping in buildings that scream empire, ordination means an upper middle-class salary and a fantastic pension, and ordination to the episcopate can mean obscene salaries of up to $300K a year.

I really do like big paychecks and pretty old buildings and all, and I hope they don't go away, but I think we're on the cusp of a time when continuing the Episcopal Mission is going to mean getting our hands dirty again, and inviting people in who don't fit the traditional mold, which I find exciting. A relief, and a breath of fresh air, even if it means giving up some of the trappings of wealth, size and influence.


Unknown said…
Right. At what point do we stop serving the buildings and start serving the people of God. Are we waiting for the Kingdom to come to us or are we out there making the Kingdom happen here and now?

The one gift the Episcopal Church really has to offer is making honesty safe and actionable. That has been the heart of our social justice for our entire history.

Now we need to move beyond that to the new generation. How do we channel and empower the talents we have at hand today?
disasterarea said…
I honestly think you need to revisit your assumption that it's the buildings that take all the money. St Margaret's is hardly typical in that it went seriously sideways during a massive building program. My parish is one of the larger ones in the Diocese and the vast majority of our budget goes to salaries. I'll give you that maintaining the physical plant is a bit of a distraction, but it does come with a lot of potential for uses.

You can argue that we shouldn't have to pay people salaries, but it's pretty hard to keep anything organized without as staff of some sort. A viable, constructive alternative would be interesting to hear about.
Unknown said…
I've gotten quite a bit of push back on this one - I'm actually not personally poo-pooing buildings and/or paid staff. I think both are great, time tested ways to address specific needs related to the way religious communities should function, and I hope we continue to have them. They can quite often be the best use of funds in a given congregation or ministry.

To clarify what I'm trying to say in a crude simplification, if we have an infrastructure that's been built for 3.6 million members, and it is being supported by 2.3 million, unless we have a major influx of converts giving at levels similar to the past we're going to have to make some difficult decisions. Some of those are going to relate to how we utilize our existing infrastructure. I think we should be strategic about how we prepare for a future where we might well enter a significant population lull. I have real hope for the Episcopal Church, but I'm seriously concerned about the implications of generational population losses. I think we'll get the ship turned around, but it is a big ship.

Most of my thinking, by the way, is colored by my experience in a cultural situation somewhat different from our own in New Zealand, where the Anglicans are really in crisis, endowments are being spent down and material resources are a significant issue.