By Kirk Petersen

It’s a story that has played out many times.

A church’s membership dwindles over the years — perhaps the ethnic group the church was built around has mostly moved out of the neighborhood. The last few elderly parishioners — including some who were married in that building half a century ago — scrape together the money for a supply priest every Sunday, while the leak in the roof steadily gets worse. By the time the warden ceremonially hands the keys to the bishop, the outcome has been inevitable for years, the church’s bank account is drained, and the diocese inherits a worn-out building in need of significant repairs.

It doesn’t have to be that way. A church that has outlived its congregation can be closed with dignity, leaving an asset that can be sold in support of other ministries. But it’s a decision that traditionally has been left to the congregation itself. There will be more such closures as we emerge from the pandemic.

Over the years, some dioceses have made provisions for helping a congregation face reality. The Diocese of Washington is taking a three-pronged approach that also emphasizes revitalizing struggling parishes whenever possible:

  • Backed by a $1 million grant from the Lilly Endowment, the diocese this fall will launch a five-year “Tending Our Soil” program, where participating parishes will receive trained coaching monthly over a three-year course of “listening, reconnecting, discerning, cultivating, and celebrating as they build capacities for adaptive leadership.” Bishop of Washington Mariann Edgar Budde said “this funding will provide us the opportunity to take our next faithful steps toward building vital congregations that thrive in their own unique contexts as well as create, test, and refine a scalable plan that can be shared across the Church.”
  • Beginning in early 2020, a group of leaders from throughout the diocese developed “Vital Signs of Parish Health,” an assessment tool based on “seven key markers that indicate the relative health of a parish.”
  • And in April, the diocese adopted Canon 54, titled “Diocesan Stewardship and Parish Vitality.” The canon, which was overwhelmingly approved at an online convention, gives the diocese authority to make a formal assessment of a church’s viability, and then to take action up to and including the closure of a church.

Tending Our Soil

The Rev. Jenifer Gamber, the director of the diocese’s School for Christian Faith and Leadership, said 12 churches have committed to participating in the first Tending Our Soil cohort, a three-year commitment that will begin in September.

The participating congregations will be divided into four groups of three roughly comparable parishes, and each group will be assigned a coach, paid by the diocese, who has gone through the 60 hours of intensive coaching training required for certification by the International Coaching Federation. Coach training is provided by the Holmes Coaching Group, a Maryland-based consulting company.

Gamber, who has been certified and will be a coach, said the training focuses on skills such as asking “powerful questions,” “deep listening,” and leading people to reach clarity about complicated situations. Lay and clerical participants will learn leadership skills to help them revitalize their own parishes, meeting monthly (online or otherwise) with the same peers and coach for the three-year program.

Two more cohorts of 12 churches will begin in the fall of 2022 and 2023, with the goal of training 36 congregations. “You can do a lot with a million dollars,” Gamber said with a laugh, referring to the Lilly grant.

Vital Signs of Parish Health

This assessment tool was developed by the diocese with the help of the Unstuck Group, an Atlanta-based consultancy whose mission is to “help churches get unstuck.”

The Rev. Todd Thomas, whose title with the diocese is missioner for revitalization, worked with a committee from across the diocese to develop seven “Vital Signs of Parish Health“:

  • Compelling Mission & Vision
  • Clear Discipleship Path
  • Uplifting & Inviting Worship
  • Welcoming & Connecting Ministries
  • Blessing Our Community
  • Faithful Financial Practices
  • Inspiring & Capable Leadership

These seven markers are supported by a group of 15 metrics intended to provide data for the seven markers. Some of the metrics are more easily quantified than others. There’s the familiar ASA (average Sunday attendance) and number of pledge units, but also things like “average parish age vs. community” and “percentage of the parish in faith formation.”

It’s easy to get overwhelmed by seven markers and 15 metrics, but Thomas said: “We don’t expect anyone to take on seven different aspects of vitality with their whole energy, but where is the most opportunity? Maybe find that one [aspect] that the Spirit is really pushing and nudging to take to the next level.”

The tool is intended to give parishes a fighting chance to revitalize themselves before they reach the level of distress described at the top of this article.

Canon 54

The canon titled “Diocesan Stewardship and Parish Vitality” was the most controversial of the three efforts, to the extent that Bishop Budde called a special convention in April for the sole purpose of debating and voting on Canon 54.

The convention was the closing element of a months-long effort to build support for the new canon. “This is about our responsibility to each other as Christians across the Diocese of Washington,” said the Rev. Andrew Walter, canon to the ordinary of the diocese, which has more than 80 congregations in the District of Columbia and four counties in southern Maryland.

A diocesan canon is a legally enforceable document, and some of the language is stark. The statement of purpose says the canon is intended to enable the diocese to “make a determination of whether the long-term viability of a parish as a self-sustaining entity furthering the mission of the Episcopal Church is in jeopardy to the extent that Diocesan oversight or intervention is necessary.”

A summary document prepared before the vote explains that after a lengthy assessment process, “Diocesan Council may recommend further action that would include, but is not limited to: counseling for the parish and its leadership; a change in clergy or lay leadership of the parish; assumption of parish assets and operations by the Diocese; a change in parish status; a merger of two or more parishes; and, closing a parish.”

Nobody relishes the idea of the diocese forcing the closure of a church, and the canon drew some opposition. “It gives bishops the opportunity to interfere in parishes,” said the Rev. Timothy Cole, rector of Christ Church in Georgetown, who spoke against the canon. “I just wanted to try to guard against that.”

Actually, the bishop’s role under the canon is limited to accepting or rejecting the recommendations of the Diocesan Council. The Bishop of Washington, currently the Rt. Rev. Mariann Edgar Budde, cannot take any action against the wishes of a parish in the absence of a recommendation from the council.

The canon provides that a “health and vitality assessment” can be initiated by request of the bishop, Standing Committee, or a member of Diocesan Council. The parish being assessed is required to cooperate by speaking with the assessment committee and providing access to the parish’s books and records.

The leadership of the parish is entitled to participate in the process, and more safeguards were added by amendment at the six-hour special convention. One amendment entitles the parish being assessed to designate one clerical and one lay member of the assessment committee itself. There is what amounts to an appeal process, where the parish has the opportunity to respond to any recommendation.

Another amendment provides that the parish itself may request an assessment, and Walter said he believes a couple of parishes are actively considering doing so, although no formal assessments have yet begun. Cole said these amendments “considerably alleviated” his concerns, but did not entirely eliminate them.

The Rev. Greg Syler, the rector of two suburban Maryland churches that are seven miles apart, was a member of the team that researched and drafted the canon. He said the group was surprised to find that many dioceses have similar provisions, and the Washington canon was modeled most closely after the Diocese of Chicago’s provisions for “distressed parishes.” (The drafters of the Washington canon deliberately avoided terms like “distressed” and “imperiled,” Syler said.)

The team held eight listening sessions in the eight geographic regions of the diocese, Syler said, gathering input and responding to concerns. The preparation paid off at the convention, he said, as there were only 13 votes against the canon — and 201 votes in favor.

The diocese hopes to be able to reach hard decisions through negotiation rather than by diocesan fiat, but Syler said it is important for the diocese to have a mechanism for intervening if necessary. “Not having that canon creates this wildly congregationalist polity that completely flies in the face of Episcopal/Anglican ecclesiology,” he said

“I think the Diocese of Washington is to be commended for this discernment and this vision,” said the Rt. Rev. Sean Rowe, a bishop who leads two adjacent Rust Belt dioceses in Pennsylvania and New York, and has given a great deal of thought to church governance. “Dioceses need to be rethinking what the relationships are, between the congregations themselves and with the dioceses.”

The Diocese of Washington is a partner of the Living Church.