Wednesday, July 22, 2009

When just a few people leave a small, aged church

You will hear the powers-that-be in the Episcopal Church (TEC) downplay news of people leaving.

The party line has been, "It's just a few malcontents."

Let's assume that's right (it isn't, but let's just play along.)

The reality is that even a few departures are deadly news for the majority of TEC congregations. TEC's own stats show that most congregations are a) numerically small, with less than 70 folks on a good day and b) aging, on average older than other denomination and certainly than the general public.

Given those realities (again, from TEC's own reports and stats), the loss of just a person or two can have a major impact:
  • + The loss of one major financial donor, by death or departure, can cripple the budget of a small church. It can be the difference between full- or part-time clergy, paid or volunteer secretary or music leader, hiring staff or keeping a building up to code for use.
  • + The loss of one major "doer" in a small or aged congregation means that some ministry will not be done, or not done well. No usher greets the visitors. Nobody makes coffee for fellowship time. Nobody has a strong enough voice to lead the hymns and they are mumbled. Nobody tries to do programs for the few kids or teens who might be left.
  • + The loss of one young person or family can devastate the morale of a small, aged congregation. There's no visible sign of a future for the church, and hope and any last bit of momentum evaporate.
  • + The loss of one lay leader can send a small church into disarray. Smaller churches generally have "patriarch/matriarch" figures who exercise leadership and maintain the congregation's culture. When such a figure departs, there is a time of confusion as the new leader is recognized (not by a formal process, but by an unstated sorting of relationships and responsibilities). But this assumes a pool of people from whom to draw the new leader and a culture that is poised to continue. TEC congregations that are aged, without a new generation to receive their culture or without a pool of leaders, will try to keep their doors open but will increasingly close down.

These are examples of what can happen when just one key person leaves a typical TEC church. It does not take much to imagine the impact of two, three, five or ten individuals or families walking away.


Anonymous said...

It is really devastating to read through the trash that was passed by GC2009-how can a serious person just ignore it and remain in TEC? Our rector tells us that you have to be at GC to really understand what they do. I suppose the same thing could have been said of the Nurnberg Rallies! Now, at least for me, the sign that says "The Episcopal Church Welcomes You" says "The Episcopal Church Was Yesterday".
Barry in the Ohio Valley

Jeffersonian said...

At the rate that TEC has been losing attending members, a parish of ~100 loses about three such persons each and every year. Mind you, these are attending members, not just padding on the membership roles.

What's left then attends the GC as part of the HoD delegation to throw yet more fuel on TEC's funeral pyre.

Robin_G_Jordan said...


Being "inclusive," trumps everything for TEC liberals, including survival of the church. The region of western Kentucky in which I live is largely rural and socially conservative. Episcopal churches grow slowly in Kentucky and have grown even more slowly in the last 30 years if they have grown at all. They are too Catholic, liturgical, and High Church in style of worship for Kentuckians who tend to be Protestant, evangelical, non-liturgical, and Low Church or charismatic in worshp style. In the past 30 years they have also become too liberal. In particular area of Kentucky there was at one time six Episcopal churches. Three were small in size and were yoked together with the same pastor serving all three congregations. Now there are only five churches Ted Gulick, the bishop of Kentucky/Ft. Worth appointed an openly lesbian deacon to pastor the three congregations. What they needed to turn around was someone who could build relationships with the community. Instead they got a pastor whose sexual orientation would be a significant obstacle to building relationships with a socially conservative community. Her appointment hastened the decline of the weakest of the three churches and it was forced to close its doors.

David Handy+ said...


Pardon me for asking, but in light of the fact you've freely disclosed on this blog, i.e., that a leading vestry member of your parish recently resigned and not just one, but three young families have left Good Shepherd because they couldn't stomach anymore being affiliated with such a sick denomination as the recent Gen Con has proven TEC to be, I suspect others besides me are wondering how much this post of yours reflects your own situation in Sioux Falls. I can easily imagine how demoralizing such devastating losses can be, in a church like yours.

You don't have to answer that, my friend. I'm mostly just emphathizing with you at this difficult time.

David Handy+

The young fogey said...

The original post is spot-on. My guess is TEC will go through a lot of this as more Middle American churchgoers, like the dioceses now ACNA, get fed up and leave one by one. You've got lots of little parishes, lots of which will close exactly for the reasons you give, and TEC will settle somewhere below a million members. Maybe it will out and out merge with relatively much bigger ELCA (the new church would be in both the Anglican Communion and Lutheran World Federation) with parishes keeping their old names, Episcopal or Lutheran, and customs... only one jump away from how things are now. But yeah, not having kids and skimming the odd liberal RC and burnt-out ex-evangelical don't work as a growth strategy.

jfmiller28 said...

I'm sorry to hear about some of the problems that congregations built around conservative social norms are having after general convention. I would like to offer up that congregations are also gaining new members and new leadership both lay and ordained because of these actions.

A recent Pew survey found that nearly three-in-four people 18 to 35 support the right of same-sex couple to marry. This is the age group that our Church is desperately in need of and whom we need to bring the Gospel to. For every church that will loose a member because of GC2009 there will be another that will gain one because of our publically stated acceptance.

This of course is not a basis for making theological decisions, but it does address the the argument made in this post that this was a poor decision merely because some will choose to leave the church over it.

As a reference to some of the statments above I would refer readers to David Kinnaman and Gabe Lyons book Unchristian: What a New Generation Really Thinks About Christianity ... and Why It Matters. BakerBooks:Grand Rapids, 2007.