From The Living Church:
By Neal O. Michell
“That’s one of the great joys I’ve had in my first six months, getting to travel and see the health and vitality that exists in this church,’’ she told a crowd of about 300 at Christ Episcopal Church. “I know it’s not always what you read in the newspaper or hear on the news, but it’s true.’’
—The Most Rev. Katharine Jefferts Schori
Thus our Presiding Bishop seeks to assure the people in the pews of The Episcopal Church that all is well. Isn’t that what a leader is supposed to do within an organization during a time of difficulty? Be a non-anxious presence?
After all, there is much good ministry and mission going on in Episcopal churches day in and day out. If we could just get the word out about all the good ministry that is going on in The Episcopal Church, people would realize that we really are doing quite well.
What’s wrong with this picture? What is wrong with this picture is that it is not the complete picture.
Max DePree, author of Leadership Jazz and Leadership is an Art, says that the first task of the leader is to define reality. The problem with this quote from our Presiding Bishop—and she has said much the same thing in several venues—is that although there are places of health and vitality in The Episcopal Church, this assessment amounts to no more than happy talk.
What is “happy talk”? John Kotter, professor of leadership at Harvard Business School, says that too much happy talk from senior leaders can lull everyone into a sense of complacency. Mr. Kotter states that the failure of leaders to establish a (healthy) sense of urgency is one of several reasons that organizations fail.
A survey of The Episcopal Church taken a couple of years ago, “Faith Communities Today,” asked congregations to complete a survey which asked questions similar to those found on the parochial reports. When the compilers of the survey compared the completed surveys with those of that congregation’s parochial reports, it was determined that the survey results contradicted the parochial report data. Only those churches that were growing 10 percent or more per year “told the truth.” The vast majority of churches reported that they were doing better than their parochial reports indicated. Happy talk.
The task of the leader of an organization in a time of crisis is two-fold: to be a non-anxious presence, and to develop a sense of urgency. A look at the baptized membership and average Sunday attendance in The Episcopal Church indicates that we are a denomination in decline. Here are the figures from the last 10 years:
1996: 875,400 ASA, 2.366 million baptized members
1997: 838,048 ASA, 2.339 million baptized members
1998: 822,923 ASA, 2.318 million baptized members
1999: 919,405 ASA, 2.297 million baptized members
2000: 908,971 ASA, 2.319 million baptized members
2001: 846,640 ASA, 2.317 million baptized members
2002: 860,686 ASA, 2.320 million baptized members
2003: 823,017 ASA, 2.284 million baptized members
2004: 795,765 ASA, 2.248 million baptized members
2005: 787,271 ASA, 2.205 million baptized members
These numbers indicate that we are a denomination that is growing smaller. Say what you will about the health and vitality of various churches, the overall direction of our statistics indicates a church that is declining . . . precipitously. Evidently fewer and fewer people want what we have to offer. Since 1999 our average Sunday attendance has shrunk by 132,134 persons per Sunday, or nearly 15 percent. In other words, in the past six years we have lost the equivalent of nearly everyone in the pews of our churches in Provinces 6 and 7 combined!
So what is the reason for our decline? Is it the conflict over human sexuality? A declining birth rate? An aging membership? Lack of evangelism? Conflict in the denomination? Whatever the reasons, these numbers indicate a crisis that our leadership is ignoring and refuses to address. Our leaders tell us that it is only a few churches that are leaving, and that there are only a few disgruntled members that are unhappy with the direction of The Episcopal Church and that there is much health and vitality in our denomination.
The reality is that our denomination is in severe decline. That decline preceded the 2003 General Convention vote to approve the consecration of Canon V. Gene Robinson as the Bishop Coadjutor of New Hampshire.
Is there much health and vitality in many of our churches? Yes. Is our denomination healthy and vital? No. Anything to the contrary is simply happy talk. ❏
The Rev. Canon Neal O. Michell is canon for strategic development in the Diocese of Dallas.
The Reader's Viewpoint article does not necessarily represent the editorial opinion of The Living Church or its board of directors.
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