March 9, 2021

Get there faster? (or back to a slow decline?)

Optimism is high, and vaccines are rolling out. President Biden recently changed his tune, moving forward the timeline to have sufficient Covid vaccines for all American adults by the end of May. The forecast looks good for a lot of American cultural life. Maybe even for Christian churches and religious gatherings?

Maybe. Maybe not. That’s hard to tell at this point, although any increase in in-person numbers would be a welcome sign. How many will return? And how soon? How often? Will we get back to our pre-Covid numbers? When? Has a pandemic unalterably shifted people’s sense of time and connection, and in what ways?

Lots of this will be a “wait and see…”

Here’s the truth: even if every single congregation in The Episcopal Church returns swiftly to its pre-Covid numbers, that’ll still be a drop from where we’ve been. Our numbers have already been trending downward for generations. That’s just a statistical fact. Given that, most Episcopalians were likely looking at two scenarios. One group was hoping for a gentle decline, a smooth landing so that no one would experience too much turbulence (“most of my friends aren’t here anymore, but at least you three are…”). The other group, a minority from what I can tell, was plotting a great big dramatic interruption – such that our numbers would be rattled and start moving up.

This, alone, may be one of the most beguiling aspects of the pandemic: we’ll be so grateful that anyone comes back to in-person worship, post-Covid. Church leaders will rejoice that people are back. In October, compare your numbers to where they were in October 2019, and I bet they’ll be less. Some will say, and understandably so: Why are you raining on our parade? Why not be happy that this awful virus is impacting fewer people and we’re able to take our vacations again?

Look, I am very happy that we’ll soon be on the other side of this pandemic. I’m delighted that people will be able to travel and hug one another again.

That doesn’t stop me from hoping that this experience will enable all of us to accept and embrace remarkable adaptations that all Episcopal churches in every diocese and region and community will need to make. I’d like to think, especially, that our more established, primarily well-resourced membership base will hold the reins a bit more gently. I hope that we look back on this year (plus) as one great unplanned-but-nevertheless-welcome interruption – interrupting everything we once thought was so incredibly important, telling us that we don’t need to hold on so tightly any longer.

Let’s talk about slow decline. Recently, I pulled up a worksheet I’d developed a few years ago about the Episcopal churches in my particular region – Southern Maryland in the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, a network of 22, now 21 parishes. Between 2005 and 2015:

  • Total number of Episcopalians in the region dropped from 0.2% to 0.16%
  • Pledge and plate giving dropped 20%
  • Overall clergy compensation fell 33%
  • There were fewer worship opportunities throughout the region: 14% fewer celebrations of the Holy Eucharist; 29% fewer Eucharists in total, not limited to Sundays
  • Number of total baptized members dropped 24%
  • Average Sunday Attendance went down 40%
  • 493 fewer pledging units, a loss of 34%
  • Total number of clergypersons went down 16% and, for the first time in that decade, 13% of the congregations reported that they did not have an incumbent clergyperson at all

Add to these numbers this one more astonishing reality: Southern Maryland in the Episcopal Diocese of Washington – one rather small region in one diocese -- has more baptized members than the entire membership of 18 Dioceses in The Episcopal Church, 11 of which are in the United States! I’m sure these trendlines were only drawn out further between 2016-’19 and dramatically accentuated last year.

We’ve been declining, for sure, but it’s been so slow and measured and, yes, without too much turbulence that it’s felt okay. So you lost a midweek Holy Eucharist. You still had Sunday. So your full-time rector retired and you could only afford a half-time priest. Fine, you still had someone. So you have fewer pledging units than 5 years ago. Just trim expenses where you can; you’ll be fine. I don’t mean to imply that these shifts have been altogether terrible. In fact, the whole process has been good: slow, easy, nice.

So what now? Can we call the question now? Do we want to get back to that slow decline? Or is it time to get to the future faster?

Let’s do what we need to do with the resources we have now to learn about our neighborhoods and communities. Will we now embrace fresh expressions of our ancient tradition? Will we have that conversation about sharing human resources, including raising up regional clergy teams to not only serve our congregations but also bless our communities? Will we move more things to a shared ‘back office’ such as payroll and bookkeeping – geez, maybe even a shared copy machine – so that we condense redundant expenses and free up our people to do more ministry? Will we leverage some of our faulty, fixed assets – those buildings that aren’t moving the needle on the church’s mission anyway? Will we pool our resources and invest the capital in such a way that generates funds for a new youth director? Faith formation leader? Community developer?

What type of future do you wish to return?