In Search of Growth

By Kirk Petersen

Every active Episcopalian knows that churches have been closing. The number of Episcopal congregations in the United States has declined every year for the past decade: from 7,095 in 2006 to 6,510 in 2015, a drop of more than 8 percent. Membership in the Episcopal Church, like membership in other mainline denominations, has declined by almost half since the high point in the 1960s.

But at the same time, new Episcopal churches are being born, some of them in new formats designed in response to a changing society. The new churches are outnumbered by closures, but these “church plantings” have the potential to restock and reinvigorate the church.

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Recognizing this, the Episcopal Church has been steadily devoting more resources to support the planting of new churches. The church’s “chief gardening officer” is the Rev. Thomas Brackett, whose formal title is staff officer for new church starts and missional initiatives.

“For 33 years of my ordained life I have been planting churches on my own, from house churches to megachurches to campus ministry — all different expressions of new ministry,” Brackett said.

Brackett joined the Episcopal Church Center’s staff in 2008 to work on ministry redevelopment, a role that in practice overlapped with church planting, because it created new beginnings and new formats for struggling churches. General Convention voted in 2012 to spend $2 million in the next triennium for direct support of new churches. Brackett’s job description shifted from redevelopment to church planting.

From 2013 through 2015, “we disbursed $2 million, and we started learning from our early failures and successes, so we could redefine it and do even better next time,” he said. “We’re matching their local funds. This gives us the opportunity to not only partner with them, but also really learn with and from what they’re doing.”

At General Convention in 2015, the big news was the first-ballot election of Michael Curry as presiding bishop. Curry surged into office pledging to be the church’s “chief evangelism officer.” He reclaimed the term Jesus Movement from the 1960s counter-culture, and diligently began applying it to the staid Episcopal Church.

With much less fanfare, the convention also voted to nearly triple the budget for church planting — which tied in nicely with Curry’s themes of evangelism, grassroots energy, and new ways of doing church. The budget for direct support of new churches rose from $2 million to $3 million. Convention created a new $2.8 million budget to develop an infrastructure to support church planting throughout the church.

“It’s clearly a shift away from being just a flow-through funding source to actually sustaining a movement,” Brackett said. He explained that the church-planting infrastructure includes:

  • Adding the Rev. Michael Michie of the Diocese of Dallas as a full-time staff member devoted solely to church planting
  • Digitizing and cataloguing all of the training materials used for church planting
  • Creating a network of coaches who can assess the needs of local leadership
  • Creating a webpage for each new ministry, to provide local leaders with a vehicle for sharing milestones, pictures and video, and 90-day progress updates on local project management
  • Monthly videoconference sessions for spiritual sustenance, coaching, and training
  • Hosting a three-day church-planting boot camp

The proceedings of that boot camp will be made available online.

Michie has served most recently as rector of St. Andrew’s in McKinney, Texas — a church he planted in 2005, which has grown to an average Sunday attendance of more than 300.

With the 2012 funding, the church supported nearly 40 new ministries, and Brackett expects that number to rise to 50 or 55 in the current triennium. “Those are just the ones we’ve funded. Then we’ve got double that who we’re supporting with partnership and wisdom and resources aside from funding.”

Many of these new ministries do not meet in buildings with tall steeples or slate roofs. They may happen in houses, on college campuses, or in other unconventional settings. They are not necessarily led by paid clergy. Brackett is a strong believer in house churches. Early in his career he helped start a network of house churches, eventually serving as the only paid employee supporting 36 such ministries.

Metrics such as average Sunday attendance and plate and pledge do not mean much in this context.

“We may say, yeah, we had three soccer-match Eucharist services on Sunday morning, where we took the Eucharist to the families whose kids were playing soccer. And we had 190 people receive Communion” on the sidelines, he said. “And then we took Communion to parents waiting in the school pickup lines five days this week after school — we walked from car to car, we offered prayers and blessings. … Now some of them are getting out of their cars and getting there early while they’re waiting for their kids. These are all real-life stories.”

Brackett emphasized that numerical growth is not his primary objective. “We do church planting for the sake of partnering with what the Spirit is up to in the world, not so much for the sake of reversing decline.”

For 100 years, he said, missional leaders have been able to rally around the idea that “God has a mission, and sometimes that mission includes the church.”

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