January 2013
Vital Vestries

Rethink Congregations

We go to church there, but we don’t live there….

Spending the first 18 months of my retirement from seminary teaching doing clergy supply in parishes in the Dioceses of New York, Long Island, and Connecticut, I hear this more and more.

During this time, I became acutely aware of things that at some level I have known and taught about for decades. Many of the parishes in which I have served as a supply priest are very near or contiguous to one another. Most of them, to one degree or another, share similar problems: declining membership; rising costs; too frequent changes in clergy; deferred maintenance of buildings and grounds; stalled stewardship efforts; halting efforts in putting on a Sunday School or holding on to or attracting a critical mass of children and youth; a very significant number of both very active and completely homebound members over seventy-five; a relative paucity of members under forty; a shortage of people with an earnest desire for the church to be a force mission, outreach, and evangelism in the community; and a stated desire to SURVIVE.

How does the pattern of parishioners’ residence impact our understanding of and health of our congregations? My findings/observations include:

  1. Today – in many regions of the country - where one resides has almost nothing to do with where one attends church. Most people drive to church or use public transportation. The vast majority can and do choose from many ecclesiastical destinations. In urban settings, where people might actually walk to church, frequently there is more than one Episcopal Church within reasonable walking distance.
  2. In urban, suburban, and even some rural settings, it is not unusual for worshippers to have driven past - or have been in close proximity to - anywhere from one to four or even more Episcopal churches. In more urban settings where worshippers may walk or take public transportation to church, the number of non-destination Episcopal churches along the way may actually rise to a two digit number.
  3. Though we often speak or read about destination, niche, or program-sized congregations which may have a particular panache for drawing attendees from a large catchment area, such adjectives do not actually apply to most Episcopal churches.
  4. A significant number of current congregants formerly attended one or more nearby Episcopal churches. Reasons for changing parishes appear to include: a recent period of high level conflict in a parish; disappointment with the pastoral care received or not received in some personal crisis; dissatisfaction with particular clergy as leaders, pastors, preachers, liturgists, or people; or a desire for types of programs or ministries not found in every congregation, e.g. attraction to a particular priest or preacher; a more sophisticated music program in Sunday worship; existence of a viable and attractive Sunday School; opportunities to spearhead or volunteer in outreach ministries; the availability of youth ministries; the presence of worthwhile adult education programs; handicapped accessibility; adequate safe parking; or a proclivity for a particular liturgical style.
  5. There is often a serious disconnect between where people live, where they work, and where they go to church. They may have limited personal, spiritual, or even geographical connection to the actual physical community in which the church they attend is located.
  6. Often there is a parallel disconnect between the practical, spiritual, and missional needs of the local community where the church is located, and the vision and practical resources of those who actually worship in that church.
  7. Parishes often have long-standing antipathies to other Episcopal parishes in their area. These may be rooted in history, class, race or ethnicity, personalities, or earlier geographic realities. Today congregations and individuals frequently cling to those antipathies even when they have no idea what their origins may have been.
  8. Neighboring clergy are often reluctant to share parish programs, their own spiritual needs and resources, or true collegiality because they understand that they are competing for the same market share of a declining denominational presence in a larger area.
  9. In an era of mainline denominational decline, the growth of non-denominational churches, and a marked decrease in denominational loyalty, market share competition also seems to have produced a decline in ecumenical cooperation and collaboration at the congregational and community levels. This is the case even though in some places shared worship, shared buildings, shared clergy, and collaborative chaplaincies and outreach programs are happening with a considerable degree of success. In particular, the “Call to Common Mission” has enabled some genuine cooperation between Episcopal and Evangelical Lutheran congregations. With full inter-communion on the horizon with the United Methodists, there may be possibilities for collaboration with those and other church in the future.
  10. In an era when more and more parishes are only able to employ part-time or Sunday-only supply clergy, and when some parishes are not able to afford housing for clergy in the communities where the church is actually located, there has emerged a much diminished sense of clergy being one of the anchoring connections between the church and its mission in relationship to its building’s geographical location within a particular village, town, or city. Not only do the parishioners drive in for church, so do the clergy, with both sometimes leaving almost as soon as the coffee hour is ended – or even before it has ended.

I believe only diocesan, regional, and ecumenical leadership and intervention in these ecclesiastical realities has any hope of addressing – indeed breaking – this self-perpetuating cycle of decline. The future of the church undoubtedly rests on the possibility of new visions of mission and ministry, fewer church buildings, more collaborative parishes, more flexible and cooperative clergy, and more ecumenical partnerships. This does not appear to be happening at the local grassroots level to any significant degree in most communities.

For parish clergy and lay leaders who might wish to explore the relevance of my observations for their own parishes, and their mission and ministry, I offer some possible action steps:

  1. Do a zip code analysis of the parish directory or address list. Ask to what extent the parish membership is rooted in the actual community where the church building is located.
  2. Consider getting a detailed housing map, not just of the town or city in which the church is located, but of the whole region. Mount the map on a bulletin board, and then, using pushpins, mark where members of the congregation live and where they work. It is not unusual for some congregants to live in one community, commute to work in a second community, and attend church in a third. It is also useful to somehow account for snowbird members who leave every winter, and vacationers who regularly attend for some segment of every year. In noting the potential for children’s, youth, and family ministry initiatives, it is sometimes helpful to note how many different school districts are represented among the children and youth of the parish.
  3. And then add to that parish map, pins of other colors locating the additional Episcopal Churches in the area, and other denominational congregations which may be perceived as competitors for members or which may be contributors to your own parish rolls, e.g. ex-Roman Catholics looking for remarriage after divorce or for a more open attitude towards contemporary social issues.
  4. Examine federal, state, and local census and other demographic data to determine what sorts of growth or retrenchment or taking place in the communities that contribute members to the parish.
  5. Take walking and driving tours of the actual community where the church building is located. Take note of sights, sounds, and smells. What languages are spoken? What ethnic food stores or restaurants are on offer? Inquire what is happening to housing stock: who is moving in or moving out? Is the downtown of that community vibrant, nearly abandoned, or somewhere in between?
  6. Consider interviewing people on the street in the neighborhood of the church building. You might want to ask them questions like: Have you ever heard of the Episcopal Church? Do you know if there is an Episcopal Church is this neighborhood/community? Are your spiritual or religious needs being addressed in this community? Are there needs for community outreach, social ministry, or spiritual nurture that are not being met in this area?
  7. Conduct an inventory of the parish’s actual current engagement with mission and outreach in the particular community in which it is located, as well as more regional expressions of mission and outreach.

Out of this exploratory process might come new ideas and new visions for what might make a church relevant and mission-driven within the community or region where it is located. The vestry and other parish leaders might consider the implications and practicalities of implementing those new ideas about and visions for the future ministry of the congregation.

The Rev. William A. Doubleday serves as priest-in-charge at St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Mount Kisco, NY. He spent 25 years as a professor of Pastoral Theology at The General Theological Seminary (1986-2005) and at Bexley Hall (2005-2011) where he taught courses in congregational leadership and in Canon. Before accepting the position at St. Mark’s Bill stayed very busy with supply work and guest preaching; he continues his work with adult education and diocesan training programs.


This article is part of the January 2013 Vestry Papers issue on Vital Vestries