from Stand Firm by Greg Griffith
Bishop Stacy Sauls of Lexington says something very odd in his address to the diocesan convention:
I refuse—refuse—to write 63% of our congregations and 27% of our people off as insignificant. Their ministries matter. It is this 63% of our congregations that often represent the only viable alternative to fundamentalism in their communities and the only connection between faith and social ministry in their communities and the only place where some people we exist to serve could possibly find a church home where they might not be judged because of sexual orientation or because they have AIDS or because they are single or because they are divorced or because they do not see Charles Darwin as the enemy of God. It is this 27% of our people who live out their ministries in that part of our Diocese where the witness of being an Episcopalian is the hardest to make, and it is a witness they make on behalf of all of us and for which they deserve our support.
That's just a weird - but not completely unpredictable - characterization of the Episcopal Church as Christianity's lone bastion of sanity and truth in a world teeming with ignorant fundamentalists. The more interesting question is why it's in his address at all. The answer is in these paragraphs:
The median clergy compensation in The Episcopal Church nationally is $64,500. With pension and standard insurance benefits, the total cost to a congregation for a median-level priest is between $82,000 and $94,000. That means that a median-level priest is beyond the reach of 22 of our 35 congregations, those with annual incomes less than $150,000 per year. That means that the existing free-market system of clergy placement, unless we think differently and do something differently, will likely, in time, choke the life out of 63% of our congregations, which serve 27% of our people.
Over the course of the last year, one Episcopal seminary has closed. Another has sold a large part of its campus. Another has closed one of its two campuses and moved into a facility in partnership with another denomination. At least one other is in very real financial distress and may have to close. This is not only a phenomenon of The Episcopal Church. We are finding as the Church that the denominational residential seminary model, by which the vast majority of our current clergy were trained, is something we can no longer afford. It is passing away before our eyes.
The other 11 congregations of the 22 I mentioned most at risk in need of something new have annual incomes between $50,000 and $150,000. Generally speaking, these churches have the resources to support some sort of stipendiary clergy but nowhere near what is necessary to compete for clergy in the free-market system. Here is another startling reality. Of those 11, six are currently seeking priests-six.
Sauls paints an accurately grim financial picture of Episcopal seminaries, and of the challenges facing many smaller Episcopal parishes in attracting and keeping quality priests, but as most Prophets of the New Thing in TEC today, he completely misses the reason for the illness or the prescription that would cure it.
Episcopal Divinity School (the seminary he refers to as having sold a third of its buildings) and other failing seminaries - Seabury-Western comes immediately to mind - were not given as gifts some large number of buildings and large amounts of land that they never needed, and which only now the struggling economy has exposed as unsustainable liabilities. At one time these facilities were needed, and were able to be supported.
The answer to why this is happening is not the suddenly poor economy; sound institutions can weather more than a few quarters of stagnant-to-poor economic performance. Neither has the collapse of liberal Episcopal seminaries been a recent development; the ones that have closed or are on the brink have been seeing their fortunes decline for years and years.
The answer is simply that there aren't enough seminarians.
The reason more seminarians aren't being sent to liberal seminaries is because - as Sauls points out - so many Episcopal parishes are so small, they're barely able to keep a full-time priest on staff, much less support someone who, in most cases, will never come back to serve that parish.
The reason so many liberal Episcopal parishes are so small is that they are trying to sell a product no one wants to buy. They have abandoned the Gospel of Jesus Christ, replaced it with a gospel of social justice informed by fringe-left politics, and in gutting the true Gospel of its message - usually directly or by implication denying Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior - have removed all incentive for anyone to show up at their churches at all, especially young people, who if they were attracted to what Sauls was selling, might at least represent financial relief just over the horizon. But this poor spiritual "product" is why the Episcopal Church as a whole (evidently writ small in the Diocese of Lexington), has an age structure that, to say the least, does not bode well for the future.
The simple fact of the matter is that if the average membership of Episcopal parishes were larger, they would have more income. With more income, they would be able to support more seminarians. With more seminarians, seminaries wouldn't be in the financial mess they're in now. This assumes responsible administration of resources, such as a proper balance of staff to students, no wasteful spending, etc., to which I can't speak but I'm willing to give them the benefit of the doubt.
Does Sauls have a plan to address the clergy crisis? Well, yes and no:
Our baptismal theology suggests that laypeople have been the right model all along. It is part, I am convinced, of the new thing God is bringing to be. Accordingly, I have asked the Commission on Ministry to work with me to create such a formation program, one that prepares people to serve our Church as volunteers, to train laypeople in the ministry of the laity and to train some to become deacons and priests. Our existing Deacons’ School is working well. What we need now is a school for forming priests similarly. To serve our churches in the future - at least some of them, and in our case most of them - we are going to have to raise up clergy who have another way to earn a living besides being a priest and are willing to use it. I propose that this can be done without sacrificing the value that we place on having an educated clergy.
Where is Sauls going with this idea? Mutual ministry? The priesthood as a moonlighting opportunity? I'm not really sure, but if I'm in the Diocese of Lexington, I'm not exactly reassured about not sacrificing the quality of clerics I can expect to help run my church.
And it's not just the clergy order Sauls sounds the alarm on. It looks like the diocesan camp/retreat center is on life-support and trending critical:
I tell you quite honestly, we cannot afford the way we are doing our camping ministry now. As I have reported to you, during the previous five years preceding our last Convention, we have spent $248,000 of income primarily from congregational assessments and $254,000 of unrestricted endowment assets to cover the Cathedral Domain’s operating losses. In 2008, we used another $72,000. Since our last convention, we have not made the progress we needed to make to preserve this important asset of our Diocese. Last year in my convention address, I told you that unless we did something differently we had less than ten years before we would no longer be able to afford to keep the Cathedral Domain open. We did not do things differently. It turns out that I was overly optimistic, economic collapse has decreased the value of our reserves, and that we have wasted a year. I want you to hear me say in total candor, that at the current rate of loss, we have less than five years left.
In the face of overwhelming evidence that the more "inclusive" the Episcopal Church gets, the smaller it becomes, Bishop Sauls proposes doubling down on the exact agenda that has made the Episcopal Church the laughingstock of organized Christianity, and brought his diocese to the edge of financial ruin:
As to beginning a process that would produce a draft liturgical rite to be considered for blessing same sex relationships, the analysis I apply is primarily pastoral. I believe that such rites would be helpful tools in some congregations to support people of good faith and good will in living holy lives. Having a draft of a rite to look at, in my opinion, would also help us do the theology we need to do to address this issue and would contribute to the dialogue the Communion has long promised to have. Though it will also probably be misinterpreted by some, the conversation we have promised to have, the theological work we have been asked to do, and the pastoral obligations I feel toward our gay and lesbian members, lead me to intend to vote in favor of such an action.
Observe what Sauls has done in this address: He trots out all manner of diversions, red-herrings and false causes: The economy, the environment, racism... then lays out about as distressing a financial picture as can be described. Then he proposes, as a series of fixes, having priests hold second jobs (translation: paychecks that are larger and more reliable than those they can expect from their parishes); lowering parishes' expenditures by luring laypeople into "volunteering" in ways previously thought of as perhaps improper or at least unnecessary; and brewing up an even higher-octane version of the exact same rotgut that's laid his diocese low.