Thursday, March 20, 2014

Only 50 closures a year? I don't believe that.

By Julia Groom

It’s no secret. The Episcopal Church has been in decline since we peaked in the 1960’s. About 50 Episcopal churches are now closing each year. For most parishes, what felt like a pinch in the budget, now feels like a punch. Yet we’ve been SO slow to change.

Remember the March of Dimes? They were founded to eradicate polio. When that happened they had to either fold or find a new focus that was relevant to their core beliefs. They chose the latter. Their new purpose is to eliminate birth defects.

The Episcopal Church Building Fund (ECBF) asked diocesan staff what they needed to help congregations thrive in this new culture. They responded ‘we want to brainstorm with the best of them, learn how others are finding solutions.’ So, for the past four years the ECBF has offered a national symposium, Buildings for a New Tomorrow (BNFT). We’ve learned the best practices for closing and merging congregations, how to drastically reduce energy costs, and ways to raise revenue through some very novel ways of using church buildings. We keep finding innovators who have something new to offer.

This year the focus has expanded to include the land. The keynote speaker, Ron Finley, has been described as the “eco-lutionary Gangsta Gardener of South Central LA.” He is well known for challenging the city government to allow growing produce in the parkway strip between curbs and sidewalks. He’ll waste no time with folks who are just fascinated by chatting. You are invited to bring your shovel and “Let’s plant some sh*t”, which is the theme for this year’s symposium (in Fort Lauderdale, April 28-30). Check out his TED Talk or featured articles in “Spirit”—the magazine of Southwest and AirTran airlines, as well as in The New York Times. His appearance at BFNT has been underwritten by Church Insurance, of the Church Pension Group.

We don’t have all the answers, that’s why have brought others to the table. The Anglicans in Canada will be coming to teach. A huge contingent from the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) will be attending. We are so excited to be starting new partnerships with the Evangelical Lutheran Church in American and the United Church of Christ, both of whom are funding this year’s event.

I’m stunned at how quickly this response has gelled from other church leaders. It just shows that our work crosses denominational lines. All churches are facing the same challenges. Our energy is fully focused on creating creative chaos so new solutions can emerge.

Bonnie Anderson, the former president of the House of Deputies, is offering her wisdom from serving as senior warden of her parish in Pontiac, Michigan. That economically depressed city is described as “the town for sale” since many public buildings are available for purchase and the challenges to her parish are daunting. Bonnie will “Light Lay People’s Pants on Fire,” a passion of her ministry.

I’m grateful that so many people across the Episcopal Church, and now our ecumenical and international partners, are moving the Church forward. You can see some of what has been offered last year at the symposium and check out our agenda for April’s gathering.  [Moving the church forward would be repenting of  unbiblical innovations and returning to the Gospel of the New Testament.  ed.]

I’m willing to bet you’ll be inspired if you join us. Some self-described cynics have told us past symposia have given them hope. This year looks even better.

Julia Groom is president of the Episcopal Church Building Fund which is based in Richmond, Virginia. She may be reached at

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