My Objective for The Episcopal Church: To Grow by One

I got fired up after reading John Doerr’s book, “Measure What Matters”. He makes the case that businesses are more successful when they have a key objective and measurable results toward those objectives. In what was especially inspiring as a church leader, Doerr shows how the companies that use this simple tool the best are the ones that make their objectives difficult to accomplish. Great objectives require the entire operation to work together, to tear down silos and challenge everyone to rethink the way they look at everything.

We can do it!

Halfway through reading the book, my dream objective for The Episcopal Church dawned — to grow our Average Sunday Attendance by one.

This will be unpopular in many circles. I understand! Why measure attendance at all? Is worship attendance the only way to measure a church’s effectiveness? Why Sundays? Doesn’t the church do other important things all week long? There are really compelling arguments and movements underway to change the parochial report (the form each church must fill out every year, measuring membership, attendance and finances).

This essay is not to argue against that, but to point out that we must stop being satisfied with the trends that we are seeing. When will our decline start to matter? At what point will this demand our attention? Perhaps you’ve seen the tremendous young lady Greta Thunberg who is speaking out about climate change. Greta stood before a United Nations climate change summit and said, “you are not mature enough to tell it like it is….We have not come here to beg world leaders to care…we have come here to tell you that change is coming whether you like it or not.” For those willing to have it, Episcopalians need to take a mature look at where we are and make a plan.

We should focus on numbers because people matter to God. We should measure what matters and people matter. There is literally a book in the Bible called Numbers! To continue to do the work we are called to do, to be the witness that we are uniquely positioned to be in the American Christian landscape, we need more people and more money. To continue to have less people, less money, fewer clergy and fewer sustainable churches is not a reasonable path forward. As young Greta wisely points out, “we have to treat a crisis like a crisis.”

Let’s look at the numbers. Our parochial report data shows that from 2007–17 we’ve declined by 23.5% in Average Sunday attendance. There are now only 585,997 people coming to our churches each weekend. In the 1990’s our attendance held steady between 800,000 and 900,000. We even grew from 1994 to 2001. Imagine a person born and baptized in our church in 1990. Will it be that she gets her birthday blessing on her 30th birthday in a denomination that is half the size it was on her baptism? I don’t think that is a good thing. I don’t think we should stand for it and if we can do something about it we should!

What if we made our goal to grow by one? Simply to change the number from red to green? It would take a church-wide commitment the likes of which we are not seeing from any other mainline denomination. (We are not unique among the other American denominations — consider this article from Ed Stetzer in the Washington Post, where he says mainlines only have 23 Easters left!) From where I’m sitting, here are three big changes it would require:

1. We’d move from survival mode to mission mode. As I converse with diocesan Bishops and leaders across TEC, there is a genuine longing to move out of survival mode. Not every diocese is this way (let the reader please hear me!) but way too many of them are. The discussion and energy is around how to keep churches open and the scramble to put enough clergy in enough places to satisfy the desires of small congregations whose ability to pay for a full-time clergy passed long ago. I’ve talked with Bishops who are genuinely frustrated with the never-ending struggle just to keep things going. What are we consecrating these leaders to do? Do we want them to be apostolic or be confirmation machines and enablers of declining churches that will never look beyond their front doors?

The shift from survival mode to mission mode will require some difficult choices. Tears. Hurt. Misunderstandings. But it would also enliven and electrify the talent that God continually is sending us. There are extraordinary, bright, missional, dedicated and Spirit-filled young leaders that God is raising up. What is our church asking of them? To lead our annual meetings, sit in our committees and shop for vestments? May it never be! We need them to think, pray, start new ministries and lead us to be a church that people will want to come to! Mission mode will look different in different contexts. But let’s get to it — let’s call our Bishops be the Bishops God called them to be, let’s set our clergy loose to be bold and missional and let’s release our great lay leaders to transform our churches and the mission fields around them. Just think of how this would change the General Convention, diocesan and church budgets, the way we staff our institutions and the things we talk about when we gather. If we’re going down, what do you say we go down swinging?

2. We’d move from excuses to results. I get frustrated when I hear people (with a deep love for our church as it is, no doubt) offer the list of excuses for our continued decline. Here are some of the most frequent ones I hear: the losses we sustained over the bold stance we took on human sexuality (Bishop Robinson was consecrated in 2003), the change in the culture’s attitude toward church (why is it then, that there are examples of growing, dynamic churches in almost every mission field?) and that being true to our liturgical, theological and political sensibilities is more important than having a broad appeal (usually given by folks in churches committed to not inviting, welcoming and connecting their neighbors, many of whom would love a church just like theirs).

Here’s what I’m asking for. Can we try to grow? Have a talk about it? Agree that growing is better than declining? Stop being satisfied? Vestries need to hold clergy accountable, clergy hold Vestries accountable, Bishops hold churches accountable, and churches hold Bishops accountable. What do we need to grow by one as a denomination? Training? Money? More churches? Coaching? Let’s figure it out and go get it.

3. We’d move from hospice to entrepreneurship. A church-wide decision to grow by one would change who we are looking for as leaders, lay and ordained. It would change the way we educate and train them and the way Bishops, Commissions on Ministries and Transitional Officers do their work. As the Staff Officer for Church Planting, I can report to you that we have many more projects than ready clergy to lead them. Are we seeking and educating leaders for a church that no longer exists? Why would a thinking priest risk starting a new ministy when they can be better compensated and more comfortable in an existing church that will have no expectation for growth?

I have a special place in my heart for the terrific hospice nurses and chaplains that serve our communities. I’ve stood in awe as I’ve watched them do miraculous, magnificent work. We need them and metaphorically, our church needs them. There are churches that need to close and it will take a special, intentional and anointed type of leadership to do that well. But that can’t be all we have. Are we asking our leaders just to hold our hands and check our vitals as we die? If not, what shall we ask of them? We must look for leaders who have the ability to grow the churches that they serve: to lead, challenge, fundraise, persevere and think creatively. Let’s do what we have to do — change the ordination processes, revamp seminary curricula (I’ve met these folks and they are up for it!) and be willing to bend our systems to get the people we need to lead us.

By now, I’ve got some of you hollering “preach it!” and others of you exasperated. For the bits of this that are coming from my own self-righteousness, frustration and the distorted vision from the plank in my eye, I repent. Where this is coming from is my heart, where a deep love for my church abides. I’m convinced that we are an expression of American Christianity that millions are looking for. Do you believe this too? Let’s get this thing going and see if we can’t grow by one.