January 2011
Healthy Practices

The End to 'Business as Usual'

ECF Vital Practices hosted a live chat with Tom Ehrich, author of "The End to 'Business as Usual'" on Wednesday, Jan 19. A transcript of that live chat can be found here

Many vestry members start out with three assumptions:

  • Their job is to run the congregation
  • Their goal is to keep longtime members happy.
  • From work and home, they already have the skills they need to do vestry work.

Not one of assumptions is accurate. And our own history proves it.

Imagine the year 1965 – ancient history for some, and yet a critical year, because this is when church leaders failed to see the future breaking in and thereby started the Episcopal Church on a 45-year slide that has shrunk our national membership from 3.5 million to 2 million.

Until vestry members stop trying to run churches and turn their attention to discerning the future and anticipating its requirements and opportunities, that slide will continue. Already, one-half to two-thirds of Episcopal congregations teeter on the brink of non-viability.

If vestries had been paying attention to the marketplace in 1965, they would have seen that Baby Boomers were starting to graduate from high school and leave home, and the easy growth of the post-War era was ending.

If vestries had paid attention to metrics and organization development, they would have asked, how will we recruit new members to replace those leaving home? How will we hold on to their parents? What does the future look like as families change?

If vestries had studied suburbanization, shopping malls, consolidated schools, early signs of the “big box” store, and Interstate highways, they would have seen that the business model they knew – neighborhood parishes opening for worship on Sunday – was passing away. They would have asked if churches could expect to be exempt from market forces that were transforming every other institution.

American life was changing. Mainline churches were fighting bitterly over a few changes – such as changing roles for women, a desire for contemporary idiom in worship, an insurgent laity wanting power, and changing attitudes toward homosexuality – but ignoring other changes that would end up having far greater impact on church health.

The result – experienced by all seven mainline denominations – was collapse: a relentless slide in membership, participation and giving that began in 1965 and continues to this day. A denomination that had grown from just over 1 million baptized members in 1925 to 3.5 million in 1965 now began to decline, until membership sank to 2 million at present.

Key metric: market share. From 1925 to 1965, the Episcopal Church claimed a consistent 1.6% to 1.7% of the US population. Today our share is just 0.68%, not even half of what it was. If we had held our own, we would be a denomination of 5 million, not 2 million.

As it happened, vestries didn't see the missing, didn't ask enough questions about cultural shifts, didn't think strategically, and didn't anticipate a future beyond the next 12-month budget. Vestries became embroiled in the day-to-day operations of parishes. The future was left to fend for itself. Leaders clung to magical thinking: just keep making Sunday morning better and better, and some day people will return. Not happening.

The result: one-half to two-thirds of our congregations are close to dying, our average age is 65, young adults and young families take their religious interests elsewhere, and many leadership circles are setting their sights no higher than survival.

I believe the time is right for us to move forward. The stars are aligning. There is growing interest in progressive Christianity. We have diversity to offer and, for the most part, have moved beyond fascination with the wealthy. We are far more nimble than we were.

But for a better future to happen, vestries need to recognize that business-as-usual is over. Over the next two to three years, vestries need to undertake six radical shifts in how they operate.

  1. Vestries need to stop running churches. Leave that to staff and lay volunteers. A healthy organization needs a leadership cadre that sees its charge as the future and its task as strategic thinking. In a corporation, that would be the board of directors. In an Episcopal congregation, it's the vestry. In partnership with the clergy, vestries need to study how successful congregations are thinking about their futures.
  2. Vestries need to take risks and make a radical commitment to change, including moving away from Sunday morning as the primary locus of ministry. They need to invest aggressively in technology. The “over-my-dead-body” attitude toward change that prevailed in the tumultuous 1970s and 1980s needs to stop. If longtime leaders can't imagine a future beyond what they know, they need to step aside.
  3. Vestries need to understand how churches work – not in the “golden era” that a few always remember, but today. We need methodologies that are better suited to this era. We need to ask how others have been growing churches of all sizes while we were declining.
  4. Vestries need to become savvy about church systems. Too many vestry members believe their life skills and job skills are readily transferable to the church setting. In fact, vestry duty is unlike other work.
  5. Vestries need to insist on sophisticated, consistent and accurate metrics. Everything that went astray in the 1960s and beyond could have been seen and dealt with if we had just had better metrics. The Episcopal Church Parochial Report is barely a starting point.
  6. Vestries need to listen to the marketplace, the broader context in which the congregation operates. I read three dozen market-based reports every day and am impressed with how much good data and trend spotting are available. Listen to people's needs.

If vestries stepped back from day-to-day operations, took on entrepreneurial attitudes, learned from others, got smart about church dynamics, made a radical and informed commitment to engaging a changing world, and stopped blaming the recession, they could turn this decline around quickly and set a new growth era in motion.

Business as usual will sink us.

Tom Ehrich is a writer, church consultant and pastor. In 1993 Tom founded Journey Publishing Company, which evolved and expanded into Morning Walk Media Inc. in 2007.

Through Morning Walk Media, Tom writes a nationally syndicated newspaper column on faith and ethics for Religion News Service and a column on Multichannel Church for "Presbyterian Outlook." He publishes daily and weekly writings, and writes books such as "With Scripture as my Compass" (Abingdon Press, 2004), "Just Wondering, Jesus: 100 Questions People Want to Ask," (Morehouse Publishing, 2005) and "Church Wellness" (Morehouse division of Church Publishing Inc., 2008).

Through the Church Wellness Project, Tom provides educational materials and consulting on how to nurture healthy congregations by applying "best practices" in critical areas that determine health. Clients include congregations and judicatories around the US and Canada.

This article is part of the January 2011 Vestry Papers issue on Healthy Practices