Convention to the Local Church: Work out your own salvation (2024)

Convention to the Local Church: Work out your own salvationJune 26, 2024Frederick Schmidt

So, way down at the end an article dealing with other, more important issues at the General Convention, The Living Church reported on a conversation that evidently occupied the closing moments of yesterday’s meeting of the House of Bishops. It’s worth including a description of that afterthought in its entirety:

Approving a church revitalization study

The bishops also passed a resolution aimed at supporting congregational revitalization, citing “trends of decline and diminished capacity” in the Episcopal Church.

Resolution A044 creates groups charged with identifying best practices and resources to aid churches and dioceses in their redevelopment and finding ways to leverage church property in redevelopment, planting, and evangelism efforts, among other tasks. It was recommended by the Congregational Vitality and Data-Driven Initiatives Committee.

The Rt. Rev. Mariann Budde, Bishop of Washington and chair of the committee, said young deputies have brought a greater sense of urgency to the issue of church decline.

“Many are leading congregations that they fear are dying. They are hungry for sources of hope, strategies that work, connection with other people doing this work, and there was great puzzlement as to why this is not a greater priority,” Budde said.

“If we as a church do not prioritize the health and vitality of our churches and diocese and help to effectively resource them, all of our efforts to be faithful to God’s mission in every other realm will continue to falter,” she added.

The resolution proposes using funds already allocated for congregational vitality and data-driven initiatives and redirecting funds from short-term reserves to carry out the work, if needed.

“We’re not asking for a budget; we’re not asking for a staff person. We are asking for leadership to work with the resources that we have to do this work,” Budde said.

The Rt. Rev. Ruth Woodliff-Stanley of South Carolina spoke in support of the proposal.

“As the bishop of a reorganizing diocese, I give great thanks for the work of your committee,” she said. “It is the right format, it’s dynamic, it’s the right way to go about this, in my opinion. I am grateful and ready to work.”

“We’re talking about this all the time. What we’re not doing is bringing it to the center of our conversation as the gathered House of Bishops,” said the Rt. Rev. Megan Traquair of Northern California in support of the resolution. “I believe that this is exactly the work that we are called to do, and it is time to bring conversations from the margins into the center.”

I’ve talked about the issue of congregational vitality and it’s absence from our denominational conversations before. And, I have always hoped that I was overlooking some grand strategy for planting, building, and revitalizing churches that was already at work in our Church. But this article confirms that my worst fears were completely justified and, in fact, the House of Bishops knows it.

Yes, there is a committee working on the subject of revitalization. Yes, there are at least two bishops, who – thankfully – are focused on the issue, and they are begging the House to pay attention. One should be thankful for that and for them.

BUT what is clear is that the bishops did need to plead for the House’s attention. That was evident in their reference to clergy who don’t understand why revitalization is not a priority.

It is also clear that the work of reaching out to parishes with information on best practices will only begin at the end of this Convention (assuming it is approved), and that for now, information gathering is all that will on offer from the Convention.

Furthermore – at the risk of sounding like an ingrate – there are other problems with this news:

One, crowd sourcing information on building congregational vitality is just the most basic work that can be done. Those of us who have been preoccupied with the health of a congregation and flagging denominational numbers have already been engaged in that task.

If you read widely, there is a great deal of useful information available that can enhance the growth and life of a congregation. Sadly, of course, many of those ideas are not original to our own denomination, not because other churches pander to our culture — though some of them do — but also because they place priority on that task and the Holy Spirit works where people are listening. We haven’t been.

However, you need to shed your prejudices about other traditions and, especially, non-denoms. You have to read critically because they have their own problems and deficiencies — especially in the areas of building community, spiritual formation, and pastoral care. And you need to have the imagination to translate those efforts for own ecclesial context. It can be done and it can be productive. But you don’t wait.

A second problem with the news from Convention is that this baseline strategy is what will govern the next triennium. That’s it, information gathering on best practices for three years. Three years.

Three years of the most basic work, despite the fact that our decline in numbers began in 1959, when we had 3.5 million members. Despite the fact that we lost a million members between 1959 and the mid-1990s, leaving us with 2.5 million members. Despite the fact that by 2010 we were below 2 million members. Despite the fact that according to our own numbers in 2022 we dropped just below 1.6 million, down 21% from 2013.Anddespite the fact that “average Sunday attendance in the past decade is down 43% to 373,000 in 2022. Our Sunday attendance now declines 3% a year and “at least a third of the current membership of the denomination [will] be gone in the next fifteen or twenty years.” But we are going to take three years of that time gathering information on best practices.

The third problem with the news from Convention is that the task of revitalizing congregations will be done without staffing and without a budget. Instead, the committee will rely “if needed” (?!) “on redirecting funds from short-term reserves to carry out the work.”

I am not a fan of our denominational bureaucracy, precisely because work of this kind is not a priority, and the national church’s budget makes my head swim, especially when you look at the declining numbers of the church and the number of parishes that struggle to pay assessments. But no one – absolutely no one – who has ever provided leadership for any kind of organization is blind to this one, simple truth: Budgets are mission statements, and if an organization isn’t spending money on it, it isn’t a priority.

So, when the Convention is done pronouncing on climate change, foreign policy, Prayerbook revision, and leadership selection, we might want to ask, “Where does nurturing life in the body of Christ rank in our long line of mission imperatives?” But don’t hold your breath waiting for an answer. To paraphrase a line from Paul, that I am well aware he didn’t have in mind when he wrote it, “Work out your own salvation,” because no one else will be coming to help.

Convention to the Local Church: Work out your own salvation (2024)

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