Showing posts with label church decline. Show all posts
Showing posts with label church decline. Show all posts

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Polls Show Continuing Declines in Organized Religion; Trends Spell Trouble for Grace Church

The most recent Gallup poll results are out, and they confirm what Americans already know, which is that organized religion is in precipitous decline in the US. The grim news, which cuts across denominations and faith traditions, spells rough times ahead for Grace Episcopal, aka Planet Malm. Prospects probably are not much better for the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia.

According to Gallup, in the past 20 years the percentage of Americans with no formal church affiliation has more than doubled, from 8 percent to 19 percent. The number of respondents saying they are unsure, or who refused to respond, doubled during that time, from 2 percent to 4 percent. Other polls back this conclusion, with one revealing that only 2 percent of Americans in 1955 claimed no religion, but one in five now having no religion.

Moreover, one in four Americans never attend church, while fully one half of Americans report that they want clergy to have only limited involvement in their lives. And almost 2/3 of Americans distrust church, with confidence in church hitting an all-time low

That contrasts starkly with the clericalism of St. Dysfunction, with its absurdly overpaid and underproductive clergy. I mean, in what other job can you make $200K a year, spend a month at the beach every year, and operate almost entirely without oversight? Nor am I aware of Bob Malm ever volunteering at a homeless shelter, personally serving the needy, or even gracing Thanksgiving dinner at the church (a practice that has ended since I left the parish) with his presence? (Pun intended.)

It’s also true that church conflict, left unaddressed, can fester for decades to come, harming the church for generations. Given that Dysfunctional Bob manipulated perceptions of parishioners at multiple levels, particularly apropos this conflict, it will be very difficult for members of the church to recognize and address the problems facing the parish.

Nor is the diocese likely to be much help. Every bit as squirrelly as Dysfunctional Bob, we’re talking about a diocese that actually is willing to say in writing that perjury doesn’t count as long as it doesn’t result in conviction. And Melissa Hollerith’s connections to the very upper echelons of the Episcopal Church suggests that her perspective on such matters is unlikely to receive any criticism from the hierarchy. In other words, the only thing the Episcopal church appears to be good at is litigation, and ironically enough, that is almost always predicated on church canons — the very canons the church ignores when it so chooses.

One closing observation: As a priest in DioVA once said to me, “May God help whoever comes after Bob Malm. It surely won’t be pretty.”

That’s spot-on. If Grace Church is to survive, it must shift from its culture of clericalism and idol worship of its rector. Yet Grace is highly resistant to change, and members will turn on each other if they believe their prerogatives are threatened. To make matters worse, the heart of the problem with Dysfunctional Bob and Sugarland Chiow is that they have taught parishioners all the wrong ways to resolve conflict. In short, Grace is wedded to a self-destructive approach to conflict resolution that all but guarantees the continued decline of the church.

As things unfurl in the coming months, it will be interesting to see how the handful of real Christians at Planet Malm respond to things, and if their views are treated with respect.

Sunday, May 6, 2018

The Shocking Decline of Grace Church

One of the myths perpetuated by Bob Malm is that Grace Church is holding steady in terms of membership and finances. The reality, however, is far different.

When Bob first came to Grace Church, roughly at the same time I graduated from law school, the population of Alexandria was 111,198 per the US Census Bureau. Today, the city’s population is 160,035, representing an almost 44 percent increase. During that time, the parish has not increased by a similar percentage, but rather has continued its slow decline. Thus, when membership is correlated with local population, it is clear that the church has lost “market share” by roughly 50 percent during Bob’s tenure.

Attendance similarly is down. While some of the numbers for attendance at divine worship in years prior to Bob’s arrival are suspect, there can be little doubt that attendance is down sharply over time. Indeed, some early reports suggest that Easter and Christmas worship often topped 1000 persons, a number that seems improbable given the small size of the nave. There can be little doubt, however, that the numbers far exceeded those of today, when average Sunday attendance (ASA), a key measure of congregational health, runs about 275. Moreover, the sharp decline in ASA since 2015, roughly 31%, does not bode well for the church. This speaks to the value that people perceive in the opportunities for community, fellowship, and worship that the church provides.

Similarly, total pledges have dropped precipitously during the last five years, from $890,000 to about $780,000, a decrease of more than 12 percent.

Meanwhile, the relatively constant budget, which has been subsidized by gifts of appreciated stock, as well as increased reliance on the relatively modest trust fund, masks an ongoing decline in purchase power. Assuming, for example, a steady budget from 2007 to 2017, inflation during that time results in a 15.41% decline in financial capacity. Similarly, a steady budget from 1989 to 2017 results in an almost 50 percent decline in purchasing power.

Even more alarming is the precipitous decline in pledging units. From its recent high of 340 pledging units, the parish has seen the number plummet to roughly 220, a drop of 35.29%. This, I believe, is attributable to Bob’s having stayed far too long as rector, as well as the deleterious effects of conflict in the parish, including my own dust-up with Bob. (Too often, Bob models behavior that says it’s okay to engage in inappropriate conduct. But I digress.)

Compounding matters is the disparate giving of young couples and newer members versus long-term members. Several families, all long-time members, give very generously to the parish, offsetting declines in giving from other quarters. Eventually, however, these families will no longer be able to support the parish at these levels, which will result in an abrupt decline in revenue. With budgets already perilously thin, any decrease in revenue would prove painful, to put it mildly.

Similarly, committed members of the church have stepped up their giving in recent years in an effort to offset the parish’s flagging fortunes. As a result, the average annual pledge now is $3,300, but there are signs that people are fast maxing out. Thus, continuing declines in acquisition of new members, together with natural attrition of existing members, spell a perfect storm in the making. This will be exacerbated when, sometime in the next 5 years, Bob packs it in and retires. While the fresh air will ultimately good for the parish, in the near-term his departure will result in additional declines in attendance and revenue.

There’s another wrinkle in all of this, which is that, when Bob does head off to Jekyll Island, the parish will have to learn how to fully function within the Episcopal tradition. For example, the canons require that the vestry elect the executive committee; it may not be appointed by the rector. (Sorry, folks, a thumbs-up vote is not an election, unless you’re in Cuba. And maybe not even then.) So, there will be a period of adjustment as people learn to live into the tradition of representative democracy envisioned in Episcopal polity.

Of course, people will also have to unlearn Bob’s focus on the same ol’, same ol’. The world changes and evolves, yet very little except the organ and choir loft has changed within the church since 1994. Yet any organization that cannot change with the times is doomed to die. Nero may have fiddled while Rome burned, but Bob ran, hung out at the beach, and played golf.

The bottom line: Grace Church is in a period of sharp decline that likely will become a perfect storm during the next five years. This paradigm is exacerbated by the church’s reluctance to look the issue in the eye, to engage in strategic planning, and to ask the question, “What’s next?” Or, as the old saying in organizational consulting goes, “If you don’t know where you’re headed, you’ll surely get there.” If it is to survive, the church will need to radically transform itself from a 1970’s vintage model predicated on clericalism to a model that reflects the realities of the 21st century.

It may well be that the parish will not be successful in making this transition.

Monday, April 30, 2018

The Episcopal Church in Decline: 22 Easters to Go

Watching the declining fortunes of Grace Church, I became curious: Just how bad is The Episcopal Church’s (TEC) decline? Turns out, it’s not the worst among mainline churches, but it’s close.

According to a 2017 study published in The Living Church, found here, from 1980 to 2015, TEC lost one-third of its membership. Even more troubling, however, are other data, which show that baptisms dropped by almost 50% during that time. More troubling yet is the number of marriages, which fell by 75 percent during the same period. Thus, bellwethers of future church health are particularly grim for TEC.

That assessment is echoed in an article in the Washington Post from Easter 2017, found here. That article, titled, “If it doesn’t stem its decline, mainline Protestantism has just 23 Easters left,” helps bring immediacy to the rapid decline of the organized Christian faith in the US. The author then goes on to discuss the need for a “resurrection moment,” in which Christianity re-emerges with renewed vigor.

To all of this, I would add my own observations, which include the fact that The Episcopal Church is woefully out of step with the times. Bullying is no longer acceptable in public schools, and it’s illegal here in Virginia. Yet it’s fine, both at Grace Church and within the Episcopal Diocese of Virginia. In fact, the diocese has told me repeatedly that it does not consider such issues to be of “weighty importance to the ministry of the church.” That’s right—what is illegal in public schools is okay in The Episcopal Church.

Similarly, it is illegal to retaliate against a whistleblower at publicly traded companies. In TEC, however, it’s perfectly acceptable. Again, I have that in writing.

What does that mean for Grace Church? I think the answers are clear:

  • The Episcopal Church as a whole will become increasingly irrelevant.
  • Within that context, Grace church will continue its sharp decline, despite the efforts of long-term parishioners to shore up its increasingly shaky finances.
  • Future rectors of the parish are unlikely to fill the same sort of role as does Bob Malm. The days of a six-figure salary and a couple months’ leave every year don’t even exist at most Episcopal churches any more, and those of us who have not had a vacation in years have trouble justifying subsidizing a rector who spends a month every year at the beach. Nor are folks likely to invest much time or effort if they know that the rector can, as Bob Malm has tried to do in my case, unilaterally terminate membership in the church. Further, future rectors will be expected to lead by example—that means volunteering at the homeless shelter, helping at the food pantry, and going to Haiti. That’s right—living out your faith won’t just be for the “little people” any more.
  • Twenty-somethings see right through Bob’s antics when it comes to his claims that I am “dysfunctional” and have allegedly made terroristic threats. Those sorts of fun and games are exactly the reason so many avoid church in the first place.
  • Parishioners will increasingly question the carrying costs of Grace Episcopal School. Consider the current HVAC project. Not only does it rely heavily on the same consultants who implemented the current condensing boilers (a much too high-end solution for the church, and one that has been poorly maintained since implementation), but $1.2 million later, the nave will still have no meaningful improvements to its HVAC. That’s right—it will still be too hot during summer services, meaning that the organ will still be out of tune. And there’s still no humidity control, which also is essential for keeping the organ functioning properly.
A few months ago, I would have told you that I think Grace church will most likely pull through. In light of the events of the past few months, I now would say it is unlikely to do so.

Of course, by the time Grace Church does implode, Bob Malm will have been hanging out at the beach for a number of years. TEC still has one of the best pension plans out there, and Bob will get to ride that gravy train going forward. In some ways, that’s sad, because it seems that Bob has very few sincere religious beliefs. As more than one person has said to me, “For Bob, it’s just a job”

Meanwhile, it’s one Easter down, 22 to go.