January 2017
Vestry Leadership

New Leadership for a Changing Church

We all have seen the numbers and they are sobering. Active membership throughout the domestic Episcopal Church declined by 2.1% from 2014 to 2015 with a 19% drop over a ten-year period. Even more alarming, Average Sunday Worship Attendance (ASA) declined 3.4% in one year and 26% over the past decade. Some say that the Episcopal Church is in a death spiral and that unless circumstances change dramatically we will eventually cease to exist. Others argue that it’s not about numbers and that the vitality of the Church should be based on mission and not membership or worship attendance. Both points of view are valid. If the mission of the Church, according to the Book of Common Prayer, is to restore all people to God and each other in Christ, we do need a critical mass of faithful and active Episcopalians to carry on this important work of discipleship.

What does this mean for church leaders? Whether your membership and ASA is up or down, vestries need to act now and make sound decisions about their future. This means being open to change, adapting to new environments and most importantly, engaging in conversations about how to not just survive but be useful and thrive. Where will your congregation be in the Episcopal Church of the future?

Changing trends and what they reveal

While numbers are important, trends are much more significant because they give us important clues about what we need to do now in order to ensure the Church of the future. One key trend is the decline in the percentage of U.S. adults who describe themselves as Christian and the jump in the percentage of Americans who are religiously unaffiliated – categorizing themselves as atheist, agnostic or nothing in particular. How can the Episcopal Church reach out to this critical category known as “nones”? There are also internal trends worth noting, including a growing number of congregations with part-time, bi-vocational or non-stipendiary clergy. Only 55% of priests in the domestic church are classified as serving full-time in one church. Clergy formation and training are also changing with more individuals choosing alternatives to the traditional three-year residential seminary. Demographic trends indicate an increasingly aging white membership with glimmers of growth in the Latino and Asian-American communities. Finally, dioceses and parishes of some of our most beloved and historic Episcopal institutions continue to face financial challenges that threaten their viability and sustainability.

So what does this mean for the Episcopal Church of the future? In short, we need to realistically address these numbers and trends and focus on mission and discipleship with clarity and consistency – a strategy that can lead to stabilization if not growth. We need to create innovative and flexible systems and structures that will help us transition to a very different church in a very different world. We need to maintain the rich traditions of the Anglican/Episcopal Church while addressing the spiritual longing and the sacramental needs of a very different constituency. And drawing on the leadership of Presiding Bishop Michael Curry, we need to operationalize what it means to be the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement.

An Episcopal Church reborn

I firmly believe that the Episcopal Church is not going to die because we provide a profound, unique and much needed expression of Christianity in a deeply fragmented and broken world. I also believe that our incarnational theology and our inherent spirit of resilience will enable us to face the challenges of what it means to be church with confidence and grace. That being said, the Episcopal Church of the future will look very different than what we experience today. With God’s help, we can create a mission-focused and Christ-centered network that is nimble, contextual, relevant and responsive. And while it will be smaller, the impact of this new Episcopal Church may be even greater. On the other hand, if we dismiss the numbers, ignore the trends and conduct business as usual, the Episcopal Church is doomed for extinction or, even worse, irrelevance.

This new model of the Episcopal Church is not going to happen on its own. It will require committed lay and clergy leaders working together to bring about this necessary process of transformation and renewal. And it begins with the vestry - that group of elected representatives of the congregation who, in partnership with the rector or priest-in-charge, is responsible for the missional, spiritual, strategic and fiduciary aspects of our local faith communities. We need to ensure that through thoughtful and prayerful discernment, we identify potential vestry members who have the vision, courage and capacity to lead our congregations through a period of significant transition and change. We also need collaborative clergy leaders who have the ability to inspire, empower and partner with their vestries to confront and embrace these changing circumstances. It is this team – clergy and lay leaders, that need to make difficult decisions at this present time to ensure that the Episcopal Church remains relevant and inspiring in the days to come.

Looking to the future

With effective leadership teams in place, especially at the congregational level, here are some of my hopes for the Episcopal Church of the future:

  • The Episcopal Church will actively empower our constituents to become disciples, make disciples, and engage in God’s mission in the world. We will also embrace the growing diversity of the country and enhance our commitment to social justice. This means that congregational leaders will have to engage in the ongoing process of visioning and planning – to discern who they are and what God is calling them to do.
  • There will be fewer but better-resourced traditional parishes (i.e., a building with a full time priest). These congregations will be structured to support a variety of smaller faith communities including groups that meet in homes, pubs and other places or who are involved in specific ministries or activities such as feeding programs or school-based supports. These Episcopal and sometimes ecumenical networks will be facilitated by a collaborative leadership team of both lay and clergy, paid and volunteer professionals with expertise in various areas including worship, Christian formation, pastoral care outreach and administration. While historic and architecturally significant buildings may be restored and maintained, most church properties will be flexible, multi-purposed spaces serving a wide variety of community needs.
  • Dioceses will be restructured and reorganized for maximum scope and efficiency using evolving technology to connect - with local constituencies. While we will still have bishops, they will be fewer in number with clearly delineated roles as chief pastors and spiritual leaders rather than administrators and disciplinarians. These other tasks will be delegated to people with specialized expertise in these areas. The process for allocating financial and human resources at both the diocesan and congregational levels will be based on measurable impacts and not just filling holes in the budget.
  • The Episcopal Church will be in “full communion” with many more denominations and will utilize these ecumenical partnerships for enhanced mission opportunities and shared resources.
  • Our current governance structures will be streamlined to meet the missional, strategic and financial needs of this new model of church. The new generation of stewards and philanthropists will support impactful programs but not bureaucracies or overhead expenses that are perceived to be unnecessary or duplicative. But, we must begin now – by committing ourselves at all levels of the Church to grow, revitalize, engage in mission, adapt to change and prepare for the future. Now is the time to recruit, train and empower new leaders who will motivate excellence and inspire extraordinary outcomes. Our greatest enemy is inertia. We need a sense of urgency. There is a lot of work to do and we are running out of time. The future is now. Let us embrace it with faith, hope, and joy.

Donald V. Romanik is president of the Episcopal Church Foundation. He is a strong advocate and proponent of lay leadership and the ministry of all the baptized and frequently writes and speaks on topics relating to leadership and resource development for Episcopal communities of faith.

An earlier version of this article, Is the Episcopal Church Destined for Extinction?, orignially appeared in the Fall 2016 issue of The Episcopal New Yorker.

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This article is part of the January 2017 Vestry Papers issue on Vestry Leadership