Liberal Episcopal Dioceses Face Serious Decline in Parochial Giving and Congregational Growth
By David W. Virtue
Liberal Episcopal dioceses across the country are facing serious decline in both parochial giving and congregational growth with little hope of reversal.
One diocese - Central Gulf Coast - is a barometer of the overall decline within The Episcopal Church.
Bishop Philip Duncan of the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast appointed a Blue Ribbon Commission. A report that was sent to VOL, urged a major overhaul of diocesan stewardship, along with a call to examine the structures and effectiveness of Diocesan staff in terms of responsiveness to the needs of congregations and much more.
The reason for the commission, according to Duncan, is two fold: A decline in parochial giving to the diocese and a parallel decline in congregational growth.
Duncan said, "While the population continues to explode throughout the Diocese and the average household income continues to increase we have not seen proportionate increases in numbers in many of our congregations."
The bishop has started a process to inform the clergy of his problem and to seek their support. He wants to conduct a Diocesan wide survey by sending letters to all communicants to elicit feedback about the diocese, asking that they channel their thoughts, concerns and ideas to their individual vestries.
Duncan added that he wants teams of two to meet individually with each rector or vicar and their vestry to discuss stewardship, evangelism and church growth. Once all the information has been collated, he wants them to meet individually with him and the Standing Committee to prepare a distilled report by February 2008. The bishop promises anonymity on all communications to him.
This diocese is not unusual with its declining fortunes. Dioceses like Newark, Pennsylvania and West Texas, to name a few, are in serious trouble with declining membership and closing parishes. Up to a third or more of parishes in the Dioceses of Pennsylvania and Newark will close within the next few years. In fact the sale of parishes has become a major source of income for bishops in failing dioceses.
The Diocese of Olympia, which comprises Western Washington congregations, reports that almost every parish has gone into decline in income during the past year. The fallout is felt in the pews and collection plates. It is so serious that The Rt. Rev. Nedi Rivera, bishop suffragan -- the second-ranking prelate in the Diocese of Olympia --– gave a revealing glance into diocesan finances at the "Walkabout" where she is a candidate for a new bishop. Elected in May 2004, Rivera was not paid while waiting to assume her duties. She received only a part-time salary during the last three months of the year.
The problems of the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast can be traced directly back to the loss of five orthodox parishes and seven clergy in 2000 when they left the Diocese and affiliated with the Anglican Mission in America (AMiA).
In an article I wrote in July 2004 entitled "The Deconstruction of a Diocese," The Rev. Dr. David McDowell-Fleming, a priest in the diocese for more than twenty years, said he knew what the problems in the diocese were. He even wrote a book on the crisis that hit the Diocese of Central Gulf Coast at that time. His words now strike a deeper chord. "When members and leaders of a denomination react defensively and respond with controlling management styles to enthusiastic expressions of piety and worship styles, consistently over a periods of time, they lay the groundwork for significant schismatic outbreaks in the life of that denomination."
The priest cited three areas of concern: Firstly, leadership in the church fails the gospel if it is dominated by the norms of management. Secondly, the spiritual experiences of the people of God are a life force to be nourished and guided, not suppressed. That is, the spiritual life must be led, not managed. Thirdly, when the predominant theme is that of suppression and control, schism may be the most natural outcome and indeed, a forerunner of a form of reformation.
"For twenty years the Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast was fueled by the inflammatory capacity for disharmony in the church community which led finally to the parishes and priests leaving," he wrote.
"What is significant is that for twenty years in the Diocese there was a residue of animosity towards a large group of congregations and priests who were charismatic," writes McDowell-Fleming who cited the actions of General Convention on voting for resolution D039 and the accusation of 'Neo-Fundamentalist' aimed at AMIA as fueling the problems."
The priest noted that Bishop Charles Duvall's predecessor, the Rt. Rev. George Murray, urged the various diocesan factions to keep communications open. "We won't always agree, but we surely can try to understand one another. And we need one another's ideas and opinions," McDowell-Fleming wrote at the time.
In the early 70s, a parallel dynamic took place within the new Diocese of the Central Coast. The bishop had a radical reputation for being an active civil rights activist, trying to forge a diocesan identity amongst strong rectors who refused to relinquish theirs. Part of this power struggle involved opposition to renewal movements.
The newly formed Diocese saw a convergence of the Anglo-Catholic and Charismatic traditions, which became the story of one church, the Episcopal Church in Destin, Florida.
Many of the rectors demonstrated an unwillingness to compromise their independence. "Structurally Anglican comprehensiveness became nothing more than obvious congregationalism. A significant Episcopal parish in Mobile had the nickname as the largest Presbyterian Church in Mobile."
Labels like "fundamentalist," "charismatic" along with the "authority of Holy Scripture" served to polarize the diocese. The word "historical" became an insult conveying intolerance, rigidity and an unwillingness to buy into the "politically correct."
Under Duncan Visionary leadership complete disappeared. The Diocese of the Central Gulf Coast that was highly resistant to Bishop Murray, under Bishop Duvall proved no more successful than his predecessor. At the end of Duvall's reign the constituency was ready to elect a maintainer without any conscious reflection as to the disaster that had resulted from similar decisions more than 20 years prior. He made sure that no resolutions were ever put forward that involved dissenting points of view. Stick with issues about HIV/AIDS where no one would dissent and all would be well. It was a foolish mistake.
The diocese which should have embraced leadership through constructive or adaptive change had chosen instead, management.
The chickens have come home to roost.
Duvall's successor, Philip Duncan, has not learned any lessons from history and seems destined to not only repeat them, but to drive his diocese downhill, perhaps into eventual oblivion.
Bishop Duncan talks about "stewardship, evangelism and church growth" as the remedies for his diocese. Money (stewardship) follows church growth, and church growth only occurs when evangelism and discipleship are being taught. The truth is Duncan's definition of evangelism is not biblical as it reflects Mrs. Katharine Jefferts Schori's Millennium Development Goals which have yet to prove they can make a single church grow.
Of course if you don't have a clear fix on what the gospel IS, and reduce the message to social activist ideals like Millennium Development Goals or some other socially or politically correct agenda, then folk will not show up in church to get a lecture they can read in the local newspaper. Why should they?
People want something that will change their lives, help them to grow spiritually, and make them better disciples of our Lord. They will not get that from the likes of Bishop Duncan or the vast majority of bishops in The Episcopal Church.
Duncan is looking for fixes in all the wrong places. Parishes that are growing in The Episcopal Church are clearly evangelical, some even charismatic, and a few Anglo-Catholic who have a very clear fix on what the message should be from the pulpit. Those that preach "another gospel" will, over time, wither and die. No exceptions.
If Bishop Duncan wants to jump start his diocese, perhaps he should ask the folk at ALPHA to come in and begin a parish-by-parish exposure to the basic biblical truths and the gospel message. He could invite serious British-born evangelist Canon Michael Green to speak to his diocesan priests about how to do it. Then and only then will the twin problems of declining congregations turn around and with it the money flow.
Just applying management strategies as ecclesiastical tourniquets will not stop the financial and parishioner hemorrhaging in the diocese.
Long gone are the days of controlling information and presenting a corporate image that everything is just peachy keen. Furthermore manipulating data, events and people with public relations strategies that allow individuals to work their personal agendas for significant social change not open for public discussion and challenge, is also a recipe for disaster.
In the end, the cycle of renewal/consolidation/ stagnation/deterioration have become the norm, wrote David McDowell-Fleming. "Bishop Duval tried to be a consolidator but he lacked an understanding or even an appreciation of the Charismatic Movement." These clergy who thus were marginalized in the process became the nucleus of the later movement that led to the deconstruction of the Diocese.
It would appear now that, under Duncan, the diocese has morphed from consolidation through stagnation to one of deterioration. The rot has set in. Duncan has no "word from the Lord" that will jump-start the diocese.
This is doubly ironic in that Bishop Duncan is also on the newly formed House of Bishops Task Force on Property Disputes which goes to show how bankrupt he is trying to seize properties as the people flee.
Either he must rediscover the gospel for himself, thereby hoping to excite his clergy and avert crisis, or face the inevitable consequences of his own bankrupt worldview. It is his diocese to lose.
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