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Beware the ecclesial fiscal cliff - Two Parts

Beware the ecclesial fiscal cliff - Two Parts

by George Clifford
http://www.episcopalcafe.com/daily/economics/beware_the_ecclesial_fiscal_cl.php
Dec. 29, 2012

Many, perhaps most, Christian congregations in the United States are approaching an ecclesial fiscal cliff. Unlike the expiring tax cuts and growing deficits that define the federal fiscal cliff, declining memberships and rising costs define the ecclesial fiscal cliff.

For specifics, consider The Episcopal Church (TEC). From 2007 through 2011 (the last year for which data is available), the number of parishes declined from 7055 to 6736 (6.5%), the number of Episcopalians declined from 2.1 to 1.9 million (9.1%), and average Sunday attendance declined from 727,822 to 657,887 (9.6%). The 2011 mean average Sunday attendance was 97; median average Sunday attendance was 65 (half of all congregations were above 65 and half below); and 68% of our congregations reported an average Sunday attendance of fewer than 100.

If those numbers are insufficiently grim, consider attendance in the context of finances.

The average pledge in 2011 was $2410. Optimistically assuming that a congregation's number of pledging units equals its average Sunday attendance, then the average income for Episcopal congregations in 2011 was $233,770. (Surprisingly, that assumption is not too far off the mark in terms of total income per congregation. In 2010 (last available year), average income per TEC congregation was $244,719.) For an Episcopal congregation whose average Sunday attendance was 67 (the median for TEC, with half of our congregations being larger and half-smaller), income from 67 pledgers who gave the denominational average would be $161,470. (All data from the TEC research office's website.)

What can $162,000 - or even $244,000 - in revenue support for an Episcopal congregation in 2012 or 2013? The diocesan asking is generally 10% or more of pledge income. A full-time priest can easily cost a congregation $100,000 in stipend, housing, pension, healthcare coverage, and any other benefits. Operating a building (utilities, insurance, cleaning, perhaps a mortgage) probably runs upward, and perhaps substantially upwards, of $30,000. Allowing for other items deemed essential (audits, music, religious education materials, etc.), an average sized congregation can quickly find itself in a position of having insufficient funds to operate in accordance with members' expectations.

Few congregations are average. Congregations with large endowments, significant sources of revenue other than giving (e.g., income from parking rentals or a school), or an unusually large percentage of above-average generous givers often have ample income. These affluent congregations, which I'm guessing might constitute 10% but certainly no more than 20% of all congregations, are TEC's equivalent of the nation's wealthiest 2%.

A growing number of congregations, perhaps already a plurality within TEC, are in the opposite position: their revenue is insufficient to pay the diocesan asking, fund a full-time priest, and properly maintain their physical plant. Deferred maintenance on the physical plant is perhaps the most common means of covering a revenue shortfall. Other options include spending endowment funds' principal, reneging on the diocesan asking, and eliminating perceived "essentials" (such as a paid musician, fresh religious education materials, etc.). Many congregations rely on several of these strategies.

Each year, the speed with which this ecclesial fiscal cliff approaches accelerates. Attendance declines, expenses increase, and options for covering financial shortfalls diminish. Episcopalians' average age, perhaps somewhere between 50 and 60, which portends growing numbers of losses from death, seems likely to compound the speed with which the ecclesial fiscal cliff drams near because TEC membership gains widely lag losses due to death and other causes.

I do not intend this essay to be an message of unrelenting gloom and impending doom. TEC has some thriving congregations that experience significant growth year after year. We live in a world full of hurting, hungry, empty people whose lives the Christian gospel and our ministries can transform.

Christmas is a season of expectant new beginnings. Persevering with business as usual is a dead end for TEC. Sadly, better management - a topic near and dear to my heart, as a visiting professor in a graduate school of business and public policy - is no panacea, not even a partial solution.

Correctly perceived, our ecclesial fiscal cliff can become a catalyst for a paradigm shift that, while preserving the gospel treasure, exchanges TEC's anachronistic earthen vessels for timelier, post-modern vessels. Among our dated earthen vessels are:
(1) Expensive investments in underutilized (generally, used only a few hours per week) buildings that are costly to operate and often poorly located to take advantage of current demographic trends;
(2) Increasingly unaffordable and underutilized full-time clergy (though their days may be full, they spend disproportionately little time doing that for which they were ordained (teaching, preaching, administration of the sacraments) and ever more time doing what is properly the ministry of the laity (most administration and most pastoral care);
(3) Music that though beloved by the few (I number myself in this group), feels to a majority of today's young adults like it belongs in another century (actually, much of it is two or more centuries old);
(4) Sixteenth century technology designed to empower congregants (i.e., printed materials including worship leaflets, the Book of Common Prayer, and hymnals) that now ironically places TEC firmly in the eighteenth century and seems unwelcoming to twenty-first century people accustomed to video and electronics;
(5) Theology framed in terms of Greek philosophy and first millennium debates that post-moderns neither understand nor appreciate.

Your enumeration and description of our dated earthen vessels probably varies from mine. That's okay. In our increasingly multi-cultural world, no one set of earthen vessels will suit everyone. People who seek uniformity will probably be happier in a Church such as the Roman Catholic Church or a fundamentalist sect that emphasizes conformity. Diversity of theological, liturgical, and organizational earthen vessels will proliferate in the coming decades. Some vessels will be tried and found wanting. Other vessels will serve well in a limited number of specific locations or contexts but not be adaptable for broader use. A few vessels may find wide use. Experimentation is the only heuristic for identifying the vessels that belong to each of those categories. This multiplicity of styles and patterns echoes the early church's practice. It was not until Christianity became the Roman Empire's official religion that a single set of earthen vessels emerged as the sanctioned norm. Creative experimentation will become one hallmark of good leadership.

Our historic Anglican ethos of inclusivity, pastoral concern, commitment to worship in the lingua franca, cultural sensitivity, theological diversity, and unity rooted in common prayer seems well suited for TEC to thrive in our post-modern twenty-first century world.

The promise of Advent - that God has not finished creating the world - offers hope and renewal for we who seek the transcendent mystery and wonder of God's presence in our lives, a presence that generations of Christians have celebrated annually in the feast of the Christ-child's birth. TEC needs leaders - our current Presiding Bishop and her successor, diocesan bishops, parish clergy, wardens, and vestry members - who inspire this hope in their preaching, teaching and ministries, motivating and empowering us to replace tired, archaic vessels with fresh ones better suited to this century. In such a Church, the impending ecclesial fiscal cliff, instead of signaling doom, will have become a force for renewal of both the Church and God's people.

*****

Further thoughts on the church's fiscal cliff

By George Clifford
January 14, 2013

My last contribution to the Daily Episcopalian, Beware the Ecclesial Fiscal Cliff, evoked considerable interest and comment. The comments seem to consist of four identifiable, sometimes intersecting, streams.

First, some responders do not seem to have grasped the severity of the problem I sought to describe. Yes, some congregations do great liturgy in traditional ways and are growing numerically. However, there are relatively few such congregations. The Episcopal Church (TEC), as a whole, is a denomination in which the majority of congregations are declining numerically while concurrently experiencing increasing financial struggles to pay full-time clergy and to maintain underutilized buildings. Those declines are facts, not assertions or hypotheses (cf. Beware the Ecclesial Fiscal Cliff for the data).

If doing traditional liturgy better - whether high or low, sung or said - were a panacea, then TEC would not find itself in this predicament. Traditional theology and Anglican emphases would have kept a majority of our congregations on a safe, healthy course. The minority of our congregations that are thriving will wisely stay their current course (though an unknown number of these congregations have already begun to reinvent themselves for the twenty-first century). Quite probably, a handful of other congregations have the resources and context in which adopting a similar course will bring renewal.

However, thriving traditional congregations are exceptions to the norm. They represent a great danger if they distract leadership - lay and clerical - from recognizing that for the preponderance of TEC congregations staying the course will result in certain shipwreck. Each year the shoals of empty pews and fiscal insolvency become visibly closer and more threatening. Furthermore, underutilized buildings and clergy constitute bad stewardship of the gifts that God's people have given (remember Jesus' parable of the talents).

Secondly, contrary to many comments, technology is neither the problem nor the solution. Technology is only a means to an end. The English Reformation built on the technology of its day (the printing press) to make the Bible and Book of Common Prayer more available to all. The twenty-first century Church should adopt contemporary technology as a means for achieving the same end, a point some commenters grasped. Additionally, the new technology can benefit the hearing and sight challenged, which I had not fully appreciated.

Crucially, focusing on arguments about the pros and cons of PowerPoint vs. tablets puts the proverbial cart before the horse. If anachronistic technology were the essential problem, congregations that adopted modern technology while retaining traditional liturgy and theology would consistently experience renewal. This does not happen. The problems are much deeper and more basic than a dated form of presentation.

Our liturgy and theology are themselves earthen vessels whose form and design date to previous centuries. The immanence of God's loving presence, which Jesus' followers recognized as so powerfully manifest in him, is not defined, inherently and perfectly, by Greek philosophical thought (some moderns, for example, find process philosophy a more useful vessel) or the Creeds (e.g., the subtle, once hotly contested, distinctions used to define Jesus' identity as God and human are irrelevant to, and ignored by, many in our post-modern world).

Many post-modern people hunger for a genuine spirituality. They seek a path that will lead them into a deeper relationship with God. They seek, often without realizing it, the treasure - the immanence of God's loving presence found in the Jesus' narrative - that the Church's earthen vessels hold. Unfortunately, our ecclesial vessels too often impede rather than aid access to that treasure. For example, why should our theology depend upon thought forms that pre-date Jesus? Why should our worship use seventeenth or eighteenth century music instead of contemporary music? Ironically, Martin Luther's hymns provoked ecclesial outrage in Luther's own day because they set religious verse to popular drinking tunes, exchanging dated earthen vessels for more contemporary ones.

Third, some of the comments to my last essay remarked upon the economic plight of clergy formed and educated for full-time ecclesial employment. TEC has a problem. Our seminaries continue to produce well-educated clergy, many with significant indebtedness, all having made considerable sacrifice to obtain an M.Div. degree, who are committed to serving a Church that has a diminishing need for their services.

Technological and cultural transitions frequently create economic hardship for employees of affected concerns. Perhaps the highest profile example of this are rust belt and garment industry workers who experienced economic hardship when employers closed antiquated facilities or moved factories to lower cost locations. TEC, and other Christian bodies, rightly support displaced workers and advocate that government and employers provide appropriate transition assistance.

We need to take similar steps to support and aid displaced clergy. Consolidating seminaries and rethinking M.Div. programs can help seminarians graduate debt free (see A word on our seminaries: Consolidate. in the Daily Episcopalian). Emphasizing to people entering the discernment process for ordination as a priest that opportunities for full-time ecclesial employment are diminishing is another important step. Bi-vocational and other, non-full-time forms of clergy deployment will become increasingly common.

Diocesan and congregational leaders should not expend all of a congregation's resources in usually futile last-ditch efforts to resuscitate an already deceased congregation. Instead, they should earmark sufficient resources to fund one or two years of secular education for the congregation's last full-time priest, preparing him/her for bi-vocational work or a new career. Second career clergy may require less assistance to resume a previous career. The Church repeatedly calls for secular employers to support displaced employees in this way. Practicing what we preach would both add credibility to our social witness and encourage our ordained leadership to speak and lead with refreshing boldness.

Fourth and finally, a few people who commented - some Episcopalians and some from other denominations facing their own impending ecclesial fiscal cliff - actually grasped my message. (I'd like to think that these few represent the "silent majority," i.e., readers who grasped my message, perhaps who even understood it and were taking action before they read my post.) The ecclesial fiscal cliff is real and we move alarmingly closer every year. In too many congregations, attendance declines annually while expenses inexorably increase.

Thankfully, we do not have to go over this cliff. Worn-out earthen vessels neither signify the death of God nor God having abandoned the Church. But choosing not to go over the cliff requires replacing the Church's tired, dated, though often familiar and well-loved (by me, among many others) earthen vessels. Otherwise, God will sing a new song and act in new ways to achieve God's purposes.

George Clifford is an ethicist and Priest Associate at the Church of the Nativity, Raleigh, NC.

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