January 2023
What do you hope the Episcopal Church will look like in 2050?

The Future Begins Today

I hope to see a lot from the church in 2050. By then, I really believe we will have broken out of our mid-20th century institutional mindset, embraced the way people engage their spiritual lives today and developed new models for innovative and sustainable religious practices and communities.

Ever since I began Free Range Priest in 2016, I have been inspired by the trailblazers finding new ways to bring God’s love to more people. Recently, I’ve joined in partnership with Dr. Courtney Cowart to create Hearts on Fire, an online platform of spiritual practices for ministry innovators.

Here’s what I see now, and what I hope to see in the church of 2050.

The institutional structure will be a fraction of what it is today

There’s no doubt in my mind. What is dying in the church today is its structure. We can’t keep propping up this system of church that consists mainly of board meetings, committees, programs, paid staff and ‘volunteers’ – and we don’t want to. And that is not to mention centralized denominational structures that are administration-heavy and spend way too much time bogged down in procedural activities (conventions and bylaws and required reports and gatherings).

This level of institutional expectation is too much to manage for most small churches (and most churches are small these days). We are already shaking it off and starting to focus more on giving pastoral and theological oversight in nimbler, more creative ways that let us focus more on spiritual practices and discipleship.

I look forward to this trend continuing and along with it the tearing down of denominational and congregational silos. Both can help us find ways to engage between and among different communities, including belonging to multiple congregations simultaneously as the norm for most people.

Spiritual practice will be more personal and more global

Something else that is already true is that people are seeking individualized spiritual experiences more than a set of religious tenets. They want to know how the story of God in the world relates to their own lives and what it means for their own challenges and celebrations. They are seeking spiritual teachers, spiritual engagement and spiritual partnership, and they are much less inclined to walk through the doors of a church. I already see those of us in ministry becoming more like ‘faith practitioners’, guiding those who seek a deeper knowledge of and relationship with God. A lot of this work happens online, and much of it is one on one.

At the same time, being Christian is all about community. And we’re finding community in new ways. Another way that technology continues to change the church is by allowing us to form true communities of worship and prayer that span great distances. From geography to theology to demographic and political distance, we can now be in community with just about anyone, anywhere.

So we’re both deeply personal and individual in our experience of church, and we’re connected to others from a wider array of backgrounds than ever. I definitely see this trend continuing and continuing to change the church of the future.

Entrepreneurial ministry will find a place in our communities

The future of church depends on getting honest and real about the future of sustainability – and that includes paying ministers in new ways. Stewardship, fundraising and nonprofit giving are not embraced by younger generations like they have been in the past, a fact that is evident in today’s church.

Along with that, older buildings need upkeep, and we no longer have enough people in our pews to sustain those buildings through traditional means of giving. Most congregations cannot afford full-time salary and benefits for clergy. The time has come to re-think money and ministry.

Already, we are seeing more entrepreneurial ministry – service-based spiritual care, education and faith practices like forgiveness, peaceful conversation and activism. Clergy and other ministers are working under task-based contracts with congregations rather than part-time service that seems more like full-time work with part-time pay. We’re finding ways to serve in multiple places and ways and still be in ministry, instead of taking the ‘bi-vocational’ route, which often means needing a secular job to make ends meet.

I think we’ll continue to see these trends, and we’ll see ministries of all kinds become thriving businesses that help connect others to the love of God in new and more sustainable ways. Like at the gym, we may pay subscriptions to join a facility (community), online or in person, where we spiritually ‘work out’, taking classes, making appointments with specialists and engaging with each other.

Worship and prayer will be free and open to all. New resources will be needed to sustain the practices and study of the faith.

I hope to see many of these things in the church of 2050, because I see so many of them today. We’re in the resurrection business after all, and this is just the beginning of the church being born again in the digital age. This is giving me hope as I meet more ministry innovators and hear the stories of those already engaged in the future of church.

The Rev. Cathie Caimano (‘Fr. Cathie’) is an Episcopal priest of over 20 years. She has served congregations in New York City, North Carolina and Kansas and served on Presiding Bishop Michael Curry's staff when he was the Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of North Carolina. Since 2016, she’s been a Free Range Priest, reimagining ministry in the digital age. Just weeks ago, in 2023, she launched a new online community: Hearts on Fire: Spiritual Practices for Ministry Innovators with co-founder Courtney Cowart, Th.D.

Cathie lives near Charlotte, North Carolina, with her husband and adorable great Dane. She gets all her best ideas while running.


This article is part of the January 2023 Vestry Papers issue on What do you hope the Episcopal Church will look like in 2050?