Blogging “Blue”: Deputies’ committees

This is a fourth in a series of posts on the “Blue” Book for General Convention 2012. Previously, I blogged about the bishops’ committees. Next up is Anglican and International Peace with Justice Concerns. Please see my index of General Convention 2012 resolutions, with a summary of the 7WD position on them.

We come next to the House of Deputies Study Committee on Church Governance and Polity report. There’s no resolution, and the report itself will be published elsewhere. On a related note, the “Blue” Book incorrectly says that Forward Movement will be publishing the report. We did indeed have some discussions with the leadership of the House of Deputies, but for various reasons, we didn’t publish the material. At the time this report was due, I guess the folks who wrote it thought that we’d be doing the publishing. I did get a chance to read a draft of the report, and there’s much to discuss in it. I won’t say more until it’s public.

down graphA009: Fund the House of Deputies Committee on the State of the Church. Likely vote: YES.
Every three years, this committee of the House of Deputies issues a report on the state of the church. I’ll say more about this year’s report below. While I have a few quibbles here and there, I think the exercise of taking a good, hard look at ourselves is useful. This isn’t some bang-it-out-on-Word thing that you do in fifteen minutes. Their request of $30,000 seems reasonable.

A010: Non-Traditional Worshipping Communities and Quantifiable Measures of Mission. Likely vote: YES, but hoping for amendment.
Back in the old days, you could measure everything you need to know about a congregation on Sunday morning. Using the venerable parochial report form, congregations reported their average Sunday attendance, financial giving, and other metrics. This resolution calls for an expansion of what we measure, and it authorizes some changes in the parochial report form. Given that these metrics are designed to be used for the long haul for every single congregation in the Episcopal Church, and to be filled out by everyone from trained administrators to part-time clergy to random people who had the misfortune of opening the mail one day, it’s important to get this form right.

Why look at data other than Sunday morning? These days, more and more people work on Sundays. Kids have sports. While I am quite strong in my belief that Christians should get themselves to church on Sundays unless for good cause prevented (and I don’t think a sporting event ever qualifies as good cause), I am also aware that Sunday life is no longer an adequate measure of congregational vitality.

My one quibble is that “counting or estimating the number of people served by ministries such as schools, soup kitchens, food pantries and campus ministries” is necessarily the best thing to do. I’d rather have this resolution leave the details of what to measure to the committee who will be charged with figuring this out. For example, the number of volunteer hours spent serving those in need is more likely to be an accurate measure of congregational investment in a soup kitchen than the number of people served  at the kitchen (which is probably going to be a fictional number anyway). Why specify in this resolution what to measure? Why not let folks do some more thinking, pondering, conversing, and experimenting — and then let’s let them specify what to record. Let’s trust them to do a good job on the task at hand.

By the way, in 2003 Reggie McNeal wrote The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church. In that book, McNeal says congregations too often measure the wrong thing and compensate clergy based on the wrong thing. We focus, he says, on the things of empire (size of budget, number of members) rather than the things of the kingdom (number of hours volunteered by members of the congregation). It’s a good, thought-provoking read. I hope everyone on the committee designing the reporting data will read it.

Thoughts on the State of the Church report
I’m grateful to the committee for working hard on a thorough report. Lots of data here. To quote: “This State of the Church report emphasizes the need for the Church to find new and different ways to organize and function for ministry in a transformed environment.”

Unfortunately, the early part of the report focuses on governance at the expense of looking at congregational life. After a narrative introduction, the report begins with a section called “Who the Church is” which leads with

The Episcopal Church—like all mainline Christian churches—is a denomination undergoing transition. Technology has enabled the Church to operate and interact in new and unfamiliar ways. Face-to-face meetings are being replaced by web-based video conference calls, and a controlled-access extranet allows the various Committees, Commissions, Agencies and Boards (CCABs) to post and share messages, files, meetings, minutes, members, and budgets, which are then automatically archived.

The first sentence in that graf is spot on. But then the rest of the paragraph considers committees rather than congregations. I’d love it if when we thought of the Episcopal Church — especially in our conversations on structure — we began looking at local congregations and moved upward. One problem with starting at the top is that by the time we work our way down to the local level, our energy has waned.

Most of the report is a statistical look at the Episcopal Church over the last triennium. It is sobering reading. A few key points:

  • In the past ten years (2000-2010), attendance is down 23%. Membership is down 16%.
  • In the past five years, 17% of congregations grew at least 10%. 57% of our congregation declined at least 10%. Go that? Over half our congregations are imploding.
  • 68% of congregations have an average Sunday attendance less than 100.
  • We are considerably older than the U.S. population.
  • 72% of congregations are in “financial stress.” The smaller a congregation is, the more likely it is to be under stress.
  • Conflict is a major issue. Churches in conflict do not grow. Let me repeat that. Churches in conflict do not grow. 43% of congregations reported serious conflict over “the ordination of gay priests/bishops” and 28% over the priest’s leadership style. The first bit of conflict, in my experience, is usually caused or exacerbated by clergy. So we need to focus on clergy leadership and healthy relationships between congregations and their clergy.
  • From 2005 to 2010, we went from 7,155 congregations to 6,794 congregations.
  • Median average Sunday attendance has fallen to 65.
  • The survey makes much of social justice ministries (which is good). I didn’t see much about Bible Studies or prayer groups. Hmm.
  • More clergy now retire each year than we ordain.
  • In 2005, 35.6% of Episcopalians went to church on an average Sunday. In 2010 that fell to 33.7%. Older members? Less interest? A worrying trend.

Lots of data are presented, but there’s not much in the way of interpretation. This is understandable, because the group surely wants to let numbers speak for themselves. But I think we need to benefit from their insight — being so close to the data. Perhaps they see reasons for growth or decline? Maybe there are ways we can bolster some trends and reverse others.

More to the point: why do some congregations grow and other do not grow? The size of the congregation is a factor (the larger churches tend to be healthier). But are there others? Kind of clergy leadership? Systems of lay leadership? Theological bent? Programs offered? Liturgical style? Location? Physical plant?

Let me be clear: If we do not understand why we are heading toward the precipice, we cannot successfully change our course. We need to know why we are declining. We need to know why some congregations are thriving. We cannot operate blindly.

We need to understand what is happening, if we hope to have a future as a church.

I have some theories about all this, but I’d like a churchwide view. These folks have the data, and I’d like them to share their insights. Perhaps they will want to share observations outside their official report. I know of at least one publisher that would be glad to share their insights with the church. For that matter, I’ll be happy to have guest bloggers here on 7WD.

The decline of the Episcopal Church is completely reversible. In fact, it is a wake-up call that the status quo is not adequate to the needs of the world. So let’s fix that, shall we?

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4 Responses

  1. Laura says:

    I loves me some data, but my concerns on the Non-Traditional Worshiping Communities resolution are a) we will measure things that aren’t useful; b) measuring things doesn’t necessarily lead to any practical changes.

    I see the importance (long overdue) of noting ministries such as college chaplaincies, but I am dubious of the value of adding lots more detail and required numbers when so few people can accurately report the numbers that are required now.

    I would probably vote no on this. But then I’m more pessimistic than you are, Scott.

  2. Andrea says:

    I’m really grateful to you, Scott, for these blogs on the ‘blue/pink’ book. Your clarity, brevity, humor, and cutting to the chase is so helpful as I try to make sense and stay connected. I am shocked that the blue/pink book is actually interesting. That speaks, I think, to your genius as a writer! Keep going!

  3. Melody says:

    I might be with Laura on this one; I’m not sure that, other than things like college chaplaincies, we ought to add much to the parochial reports. I can just see parish administrators across the country trying to guess how many people their little food pantry has served a month. We’ll be getting inaccurate data, to say nothing of whether or not it is useful/helpful data.

    I found the report on the State of the Church totally fascinating. Like you, I was hoping for a little more insight into the whys of the decline, and would be interested to read more about some of those ideas (even if they’re hypotheses).

    I was also more than a little concerned about the data about priests retiring at a much faster rate than those being ordained. Even figuring for the decline in the church (which we’d love to reverse at some point), we are going to be at a critical point for clergy leadership in the next 10-15 years, when we have far fewer experienced priests than we have need. Bishops, Commissions on Ministry, and Seminaries need to be paying attention to this information now.

  4. Diana R. says:

    I would be concerned about the rate of clergy retirement if it was causing a bounty of full time employment opportunities for those newly ordained, but it isn’t. The number of positions for curates and assistants has dropped significantly due to the economic/membership woes in many faith communities; and the number of full time or almost full time positions has also fallen at the rector/vicar/priest-in-charge level. The number of unemployed and under-employed clergy is rising. The urging to be bi-vocational or “tent maker” clergy is saddening because much of the pastoral work with a faith community happens because the clergy are “handy” (available) at the right time and place.