Committee 8: Congregational vitality & data-driven initiatives

church with sunrise or sunset and large tree

It’s time to look at resolutions assigned to the committee on Congregational vitality & data-driven initiatives. It’s telling that there are just five resolutions on congregational vitality but at least 36 resolutions in which the Episcopal Church tells other people what to do in terms of public policy. In the year before the pandemic (2019), the Episcopal Church saw a 24% decline in average Sunday attendance over the previous ten years. For the most recently available statistical year (2022), the ten-year attendance pattern shows a stunning 44% decline. You’d think maybe congregational vitality would be a bit more of a priority with numbers like those.

Alas, we will spend almost no time at this General Convention talking about how well we are doing at fulfilling the Great Commission. At least this committee, along with a couple of others, creates an opportunity for us to consider how well we are doing at the main job Jesus gave us in the church. Without further ado, let’s look at these resolutions.

 

A044 Develop Sustainable Congregational Revitalization Ministries. Full text. Likely vote: YES, if amended.

Right out of the gate, this resolution supports the idea of congregational vitality as “seeking not to restore past glories, but to move into the new callings of our loving, liberating, life-giving God.” I don’t much love supporting and affirming things, but there is so little attention paid to the literal point of the church among all our resolutions that I can’t help but be delighted here. The resolution also calls us “to prioritize commitment to mission and evangelism engaging under-represented groups, including youth and young adults, disabled persons, members of LGBTQIA communities, BIPOC communities, poor and working-class people, people with a high-school diploma or less, and/or people with little or no church background or involvement.” The mention of poor and working-class people, along with those who have less formal education, is especially needed in our church because I don’t think we talk much about these groups as priorities in our evangelistic efforts.

The fundamental aim of the resolution is to launch a revitalization effort to the tune of $500,000, with some specific ideas and targets: engage bishops in defining vitality, learn what’s working, translation of materials, support church-wide or local staff to oversee this work, and provision of leadership coaching and mentoring. This seems like a good set of projects at a reasonable cost. My concern is that these folks may be starting from scratch, and it’s easy for a good deal of resources to be consumed by overhead. I suspect the funds could be used more efficiently if the whole sum was made as a block grant to a non-profit, parachurch organization, or even a diocese already doing this work. Then a lot of the infrastructure would be in place, and the money could go right to work. There’s no explanation with this resolution (GRRRRRR!!!), so I have no idea who the proposers are imagining uses this money. I’d like to see some specificity around who carries out this work, exactly. The resolution mentions an advisory group, but a dozen volunteers aren’t going to be able to carry out a project of this scale, though they can certainly advise!

DISCLOSURE: Forward Movement does work like this, and it has occurred to me that we could carry this out. But others could do this, and I only want the best use of the funds. Since we all labor in the same vineyard, there’s no competition. Just wanted to gesture toward a potential elephant in the room as I write this. I will be delighted if another parachurch organization, a diocese, or some other clearly identified entity takes on this work.

 

A067 Rebranding the Parochial Report. Full text. Likely vote: NO.

For those who don’t know, the parochial report is an annual report of various data required of all congregations. These data allow us to see the state of our church in attendance, finances, formation, and other measures. There are three problems with the current parochial report. First, many people just don’t like the numbers that are being reported. That’s like being mad at your doctor because they tell you about your high blood pressure. Second, many clergy find the report onerous to complete. In those parishes with adequate skills and resources in administration, the report is quite easy to complete. It becomes difficult because some congregations are less administratively organized. I don’t say that in judgment; as a church we generally have not provided much administrative support and training to congregations, which would be especially helpful in smaller and under-resourced congregations. Third, there is no agreement on what’s important to measure, because we don’t have an articulated strategy for the Episcopal Church.

In response to all this, this resolution asks for the “rebranding” of the parochial report. If we gave it a new name and a fancy logo, it would still suffer from the above three problems. The resolution also commends people to pay attention to the data and gather data outside the report. Yes, we should already be doing these things; we don’t need a resolution to tell us this. And the resolution, without mentioning the state of the church committee (which has the canonical mandate to oversee the report), says that the General Convention Office “refine the parochial report form by asking better, more precise, and fewer questions.” Well, yes, fine. But without agreed-upon priorities, what even is “better” in this case?

As an aside, the committee on the state of the church is a House of Deputies committee. For such important work, this should probably be a joint Standing Commission, so that we can involve bishops in this work, as well as deputies.

 

A158 Addressing Church Decline and Fostering Church Revitalization. Full text. Likely vote: YES, if amended.

As you know, if you’ve been reading this series, I don’t love “mandates” without accountability, because they get widely ignored. If something’s important enough to mandate, it’s important enough to put some teeth on it and some penalties for non-compliance or rewards for compliance.

I kind of love the first resolve here, which directs “every diocese which has experienced a decline in Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) between 2013 and 2022 to submit a report to the Secretary of the General Convention by June 30, 2025 that includes (1) a straight-line forecast of ASA for the following decade; (2) the diocese’s efforts to halt or reverse the decline in ASA and other membership statistics, if any; and (3) all quantitative data on the efficacy of those efforts.” That would be every single diocese in the Episcopal Church.

This is critical, because we don’t talk about our decline in constructive ways. Either people brush it off as unimportant, or we treat it as inevitable, or we simply ignore it. But decline is a crucial indicator of our health in disciple-making and it is reversible. We need to pay attention to why we are declining, and when we see growth, to what is yielding fruit. My suggestion is that if we really want this to happen, make the diocesan assessment 1% or 2% higher for dioceses who do not submit their vitality report on time.

The resolution also asks for all the reports to be published in full, for all to see. This is excellent. We might learn some things from each other. There’s one resolve that needs to be amended for this to work: “That a clearing-house of resources to address decline and foster church revitalization be created by December 31, 2025.” That passive-voice construction makes clear that no one has been assigned to do this. The resolution needs to specify who is creating the clearing house. Perhaps this work is why the authors of the resolution ask for $100,000 — to pay a consultant? The explanation doesn’t really make this clear.

So I will heartily support this resolution if there is clear accountability, both for who is doing the work and in the requirement that dioceses submit their reports.

 

D024 Recommending Use of Episcopal Camps and Conference Centers. Full text. Likely vote: NO.

In its entirety, this resolution resolves, “That the 81st General Convention recommends for The Episcopal Church and Episcopal entities to utilize Episcopal Conference Centers when gathering for events, whenever possible.” I love Episcopal conference centers, and I personally have encouraged folks to hold meetings at them when possible. We at Forward Movement have done this ourselves. My objection to this resolution is that it won’t do much. Will someone looking for a meeting venue search the digital archives of the Episcopal Church to see if any resolutions have ever recommended particular venues? While I support the aim of this resolution, there are better ways to encourage the use of Episcopal conference centers — PR, endorsements, organic marketing, and so on. We must wean ourselves from all the commending, endorsing, recommending, condemning, and urging that we love to do.

 

D044 Task Force on Church Property Development. Full text. Likely vote: NO.

If passed, this resolution would create one of the 21 task forces contemplated by the resolutions heading to General Convention. The new task force created here would “(1) collect information and resources useful to churches and dioceses considering redevelopment, including success stories from around the church (2) identify any gaps in the information available and hurdles to redevelopment, (3) make recommendations on how to leverage existing church property and financial assets to further the work of mission and ministry, including congregational redevelopment, church planting, and evangelism, and (4) propose or establish a group, network, or para-church organization that can assist churches in future efforts.” That’s all worthy work, but I wonder if the Episcopal Church Building Fund or Trinity Wall Street or the Episcopal Parish Network, all mentioned in the resolution, could simply take on this work without creating another task force, which adds overhead, consumes resources, and delays action. The resolution asks for $30,000. That’s not much money in the overall scheme of things, but it all adds up. Perhaps instead, Executive Council or DFMS could simply make a small block grant to one of the named parachurch organizations or to a congregation to pull together a small team to get this done quickly. In other words, I support the work, but I think the method proposed here will take longer and cost more than just getting right to it.

Image by Lars Nissen from Pixabay

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