In many ways, the 78th General Convention is nothing if not a convention about church growth. This designation may sound strange to deputies with paperless binders full of canonical amendments on structural minutiae and theological treatises on same-sex marriages and the proper channels to allow the Episcopal Church to perform them. Yet both of these items, as well as a number of other issues being discussed are, at heart, about church growth.
The sad reality is that our beloved Church is in the midst of sharp numerical decline. The House of Deputies State of the Church reports a 24% decrease in average Sunday attendance churchwide over the past ten years. The recognition of our problems prompted a unanimous decision in Indianapolis to commission the Task Force for Reimagining the Episcopal Church (TREC). We knew then, and we know now, that we have to do something. This convention has an opportunity to decide what. The proposals fall into three general categories.
The first category is a large set of resolutions designed to remove barriers to church growth by making our church structures more effective. Most of the TREC proposals and the numerous structural proposals from various committees, commission agencies and boards (CCABs), provinces, and other groups are designed toward this end. (Disclaimer: I am part of a group that has written a number of resolutions published on EpiscopalResurrection.org and am the proposer of two structural resolutions.) Nobody believes that restructuring is the only answer. But just like a plant might need to be repotted if it is going to grow, the church may need to clarify staff positions, examine the utility dioceses and provinces, and streamline how we do business if we expect to get the right amount of sun and rain. These resolutions will be considered mostly on their practical merits. Will their proposed changes really accomplish what they hope to accomplish?
The second category of resolutions proposes revisions to our theology and practice in order to remove barriers to church growth and evangelism. One of these resolutions is C023, which would allow unbaptized persons to receive communion in certain circumstances. A number of resolutions deal with marriage equality. Marriage equality is seen as a matter of justice, but it also opens doors to those unable to be married in other traditions and removes a barrier to evangelizing younger people who generally have a more progressive attitude towards marriage. The debate on these matters will likely be framed more in terms of theology and identity than of practical implications. Whatever we do in these areas, however, will have a concrete effect on church growth, probably more helpful in some parts of the church and more problematic in others.
The third category of church growth resolutions are direct proposals for church growth and evangelism. These initiatives all have potential to bear good fruit, and the primary debate about them is likely to center on how to find funding to undertake as many as possible. Here is a brief rundown on some of the proposals.
The last General Convention established Mission Enterprise Zones. In 2013 and 2014 the Episcopal Church distributed 38 grants totaling roughly $1.7 million. With local matches, this meant that about $3.5 million was dedicated to creative new missionary outposts of our church. These grants ranged from planting a church among the Hmong community in Minneapolis to a coffee shop with a church in Alabama to the multi-cultural rejuvenation of a Hawaiian preaching station. At least two resolutions this year propose continuing and expanding Mission Enterprise Zones.
One resolution proposes creating a capacity to plant churches. With a goal of 50 new church plants this triennium, D005 would put in place a variety of necessary supports that would allow the church to begin a church-planting pipeline. Components of this vision include grants to create three seminary faculty positions on church planting, development of an Episcopal church planting training program, recruitment and training of church planters (including $1 million to develop and implement bilingual and bicultural leaders for Latino/Hispanic ministries), staff support, and direct support for church plants. Dioceses receiving church planting grants would be expected to contribute matching funds.
Another groundbreaking resolution proposes that we use a significant portion of our current communications budget to launch a digital evangelism effort. The Rev. Jake Dell, manager of digital marketing and advertising sales for the Episcopal Church, undertook a beta test with the Diocese of New York and Forward Movement that targeted people who asked significant questions about faith and spirituality online and worked to connect them with a local Episcopal priest. This resolution would allow a full-scale launch of that initial work. Components include developing editorial content to answer real-life questions, funding advertising to attract and build an audience, and creating the capacity to connect people asking questions with local ministries. This project doesn’t create virtual communities, but uses sophisticated Internet expertise to connect hurting people who are seeking answers online with the church in their community.
One other resolution, D009, recognizes that church growth involves not only new congregations and initiatives, but also the revitalization of existing ones. It proposes to create a network of regional church revitalization consultants that can help local congregations, as well as providing training opportunities for clergy and lay leaders. The resolution also establishes a Congregational Revitalization Venture Fund to make grants to existing congregations, with special attention given to congregations reaching out to underrepresented populations.
Accomplishing any of these proposals will require not only the support of convention, but also the prayer of the church and the creativity and sharpened pencils of PB&F—the Program, Budget and Finance Committee.
The Rev. Adam Trambley, clergy deputy from the Diocese of Northwestern Pennsylvania, is rector of St. John’s Church in Sharon, Pennsylvania.