Monday, October 15, 2012

Excess ecclesiastical infrastructure


In 1960, the Episcopal Church had more than 3.4 million members. By 2012, that number had shrunk to 2.1 million, a decrease of 38%. Yet the Episcopal Church has slightly increased the number of its dioceses. This move is counterintuitive.

To simplify the math, presume that the Episcopal Church has had a constant number of dioceses, 100 in 1960 and 2012. In 1960, each diocese would have had approximately 34,000 members (in fact, dioceses vary widely in number of members). Maintaining that average per diocese would translate into 38 fewer dioceses in 2012

Dioceses with fewer members have the potential advantages of experiencing a greater sense of community and increased interaction with their bishop.

However, the reality is that fewer members do not mean proportionally fewer congregations. Thus, the decrease in membership represents a double fiscal burden: little decrease in building maintenance and operating costs and little, if any, decrease (indeed more likely an increase because of rising healthcare insurance costs) in the diocesan operating budgets.

In other words, 38% fewer members fund an institutional structure that once accommodated 3.4 million members instead of today’s 2.1 million members. Of course, agreeing with the macro analysis is easy. The real obstacle to institutional realignment – both realignment driven by declining numbers and by changing culture – is that few people want to close their parish or eliminate their diocese. The real commitment of Episcopalians is to an institution rather than to mission.

Concurrently, the number of Americans who report no religious affiliation has climbed to 20% of the population. Some of these people believe in God, even pray daily. Many openly identify as an atheist or agnostic. This trend means that the decline in Episcopalians is not about to reverse. The Episcopal Church does not need to preserve its excess capacity (underutilized infrastructure) for a surge in new members that lies just over the horizon. Decades of declining numbers provides ample evidence that the path to renewal and growth does not lie along the trajectory of preserving ecclesiastical infrastructure, a conclusion that Venice (and, in varying degrees, much of Europe) with its plethora of expensive, ornate church buildings and dearth of worshipers reinforces.

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