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Mike sent this email as a result of two events: The deliberate and illegal misuse of the flowers he donated in memory of his mother, which w...

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.