Ecclesiastical dieting for better health

Approximately 70% of the U.S. population is overweight or obese. Similarly, The Episcopal Church (TEC) after decades of declining attendance and membership is organizationally overweight or even obese. The sooner TEC diets, the greater the probability of TEC returning to ecclesiastical health and vitality.

TEC can lose weight. A prior Ethical Musings post examined the episcopacy. In that article, I advocated reducing the number of dioceses to better serve TEC’s declining number of congregations. This essay identifies ways TEC’s congregations (a category that includes both parishes and missions) can improve their organizational health by shedding unhealthy burdens of excess programs, staff and facilities.

Corporate worship constitutes the programmatic and spiritual heart of most Episcopal congregations. I have served a congregation that needed to add a third Sunday morning service to accommodate the growing number of worshippers because of limited parking. I have also served congregations with two Sunday morning services held in naves that could accommodate three or four times their combined peak Sunday attendance.

New congregations invariably begin with a single Sunday worship service. A congregation adds a service when seating or parking ceases to accommodate attendees. Unfortunately, one unintended result of adding a service is that attendees at each service quickly evolve distinct identities based upon their preference for a particular time or style (silent or sung, Rite I or II, etc.). Those separate identities then take precedence over identity as members of the larger congregation. Consequently, congregations continue to offer multiple Sunday services even after the disappearance of the original reason for those services.

Fragmentation of congregational unity is perhaps the most visible cost of unnecessary Sunday services. Clergy while conducting a service are unavailable for pastoral conversations, teaching, or other ministries. Volunteer time is wasted on marginally beneficial, duplicative activities such as needing two sets of ushers and lectors. Multiple services may increase the cost of utilities, janitorial services, and bulletin preparation/printing if each service has its own leaflet.

Small savings in small congregations may have an outsize impact on growth and mission as well as aid in balancing budgets. Although consolidating Sunday services is frequently contentious and may result in losing a few regular attendees, potential gains usually exceed costs. Surveys consistently suggest that newcomers tend to seek thriving, larger congregations instead of inwardly focused, small congregations.

Concomitantly, many congregations can realize gains from eliminating some special services and other programming. Neither Scripture nor tradition dictates that every congregation offer a nearly identical schedule of worship and programs. Instead, reasoned cost-benefit analysis can point the way to shedding the excess weight of once important, now superfluous services and programs. Illustratively, in some small congregations, an early Christmas Eve family service and a Christmas Day service designed for the elderly who do not like to drive after dark may better meet needs than the diffusion of effort and attendees entailed in also offering Midnight Mass. Likewise, not all congregations need a Sunday School, a program initiated in the nineteenth century to teach reading and writing to children whose parents could not afford to send a child to school. Additionally, congregations can reap savings at little or no cost by eliminating any service or program that exists primarily to satisfy the clergy’s needs or wants.

Congregations, by prudentially retrenching the number and variety of worship services and other programming, will reduce the amount of staff time required to support the remaining services and programs. This will permit cutting the hours of part-time musicians, sextons, educators, and secretarial help and/or boosting their compensation. Few small congregations need or realistically can afford a secretary, by whatever title the position has, i.e., parish administrator, operations manager, etc. Mobile phones, ubiquitous word processing skills (who can graduate from college, let alone seminary, without word processing skills?), online liturgical resources, and other twenty-first century technology allow priests to perform those duties about as quickly and efficiently as coordinating and supervising another person’s completion of the tasks. Many non-ecclesial organizations have already streamlined their operations by eliminating similar positions. Contracting with human resource and accounting firms may generate significant savings over employing a bookkeeper to perform those functions.

Most importantly, congregations should closely examine their need for clergy. Estimates vary, but congregations with an average Sunday attendance under 150, and probably under 200, do not require a full-time priest. Compensation for a priest is usually a congregation’s largest budget item. Congregations may want to share a priest with another congregation (made more feasible by reducing the number of worship services), call a bi-vocational priest, or call a non-stipendiary priest. An intriguing and innovative possibility is for a diocese to pay all seminary tuition, fees and living expenses for a candidate for holy orders with the mutual agreement that the person will return to the diocese for ten years of ministry in a bi-vocational or non-stipendiary setting. A payback of 200 to 300% over ten years in lower costs for clergy makes the high up-front cost an attractive investment. This scheme may prove especially attractive to individuals pursuing ordination as a second career. This proposal will never be the complete solution to educating mid-career clergy but may be one element of a mosaic of solutions.

Clergy compensation too often saps congregational funds better spent on other ministries and missions. The answer is not to cut clergy compensation for those serving small and mid-size congregations. The answer is to rethink how best to deploy clergy and the hallmark(s) of “successful” congregations. At a minimum, the hallmark of a “successful” congregation is a congregation vitally engaged in loving God, one another, and their neighbors.

The prevalent view that having a full-time priest is a (arguably, the) hallmark of a “successful” congregation is anachronistic. TEC is not an established church that must have a priest in every parish. Furthermore, TEC congregations lack geographic boundaries. People, including clergy, generally commute by vehicle and communicate electronically. Meetings, for example, occur by videoconference with increasing frequency. Religion’s cultural marginalization is diminishing expectations for clergy participation in community and civic events. Distinguishing parishes from missions based upon the former’s ability to pay a full-time priest reinforces the mistaken perception that “successful” congregations must employ a full-time priest.

Finally, TEC can reap great benefits from reducing the property it owns. Too often, most of the resources small congregations have – money and volunteers – are devoted to a losing struggle to support a priest and maintain aging buildings crippled by deferred maintenance. Few small congregations attract the visionary, charismatic leaders who are catalysts for numerical and spiritual growth. Allowing small congregations to fritter away scarce resources on their few remaining souls neither honors God nor best serves God’s people.

The unhealthy congregational mentality that permeates TEC complicates implementing this strategy. Congregations tend to view themselves as largely independent entities. Many congregations ignore TEC’s connectional polity and property rights. The courts have upheld those property rights in a flurry of recent court cases filed by various schismatic groups.

A relative handful of small congregations have a strong missionary justification. For example, some serve isolated constituencies, though the number of such congregations diminishes as TEC establishes full communion the ELCA and other denominations.

More commonly, small congregations result from changing demographics such as changing urban neighborhoods and the depopulation of rural areas and small towns. These demographic shifts have also caused a clergy distribution problem: too many priests hear a call to urban and suburban areas; too few hear a call to rural areas and small towns.

Meanwhile, newer suburbs and revitalized urban areas may lack an Episcopal congregation (or a congregation of a denominations with which TEC is in full communion). Proactive bishops and dioceses will identify dying congregations. Then, instead of futile life support efforts which are extremely unlikely to reverse that prognosis, they may close the congregation, sell its underutilized property, and redeploy the funds to establish new church plants in under-served areas, even if that means transferring assets from one diocese to another. This process, painful as it may be, is arguably more faithful to the intent of the donors whose gifts paid for those properties and will most probably best advance God’s work.

Losing weight is rarely easy. The habits and values that prevent weight loss are deeply ingrained. Yet, by almost any measure, TEC is overweight, burdened with too many small congregations, many of them in the wrong location, and most of them doing little more than struggling to survive. God calls us to be and do better. God calls TEC to renewing its commitment to following the way of love, honest examination of our stewardship, and then to take the painful yet essential steps to better align our resources with the world’s current needs while never forgetting any part of the faithful remnants in small churches. God wants and deserves our best effort. Then and only then can we, with the author of I Timothy, say that we fought the good fight and, with Paul, say that we raced to win.


Anonymous said…
One problem I see in this Diocese, speaking anonymously, is that much of the excess property is found in small towns where there are no potential buyers of real estate... towns with no economic future, towns that are aging or even depopulating. The Episcopal congregation in such a town might be closing first, but the Methodist, Baptist, Pentecostal, etc congregations are right behind. Collectively there are a glut of church properties on the market, just as there's a glut of abandoned gasoline stations, food markets, etc.

Until this week there might have been a way forward in these small towns for shrinking Methodist and Episcopal congregations to come together… but I suspect the decision of the UMC General Conference has blocked TEC-UMC full communion.
Anonymous said…
Our congregation has tried twice to move to a bi-vocational or shared priest but we were shot down by the Diocese. In about 2003, I was on a search committee and we asked the Diocese if we could consider a part-time or shared priest (ASA at that time was in the 40's), and were told "The Diocese really, really doesn't like this." My husband was on a search committee about 10 years ago and asked the same question, and was told by a diocesan spokesperson, "You wouldn't want to do anything like that!" Now the Diocese (Utah) wants us to move toward self-sufficiency but this is unlikely with an ASA in the low 60's. We have a different bishop now and he may be more open to a shared priest or bi-vocational one, but at the moment when have a full-time priest who does one service a week.
George Clifford said…
Too often TEC, along with other Protestant denominations, acts as if the Church exists to support clergy. I applaud what your congregation attempted to do. Perhaps the time has come to push back against diocesan recommendations and preferences. Ultimately, the power lies with the congregation that pays the bills, regardless of formal and informal structures.

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