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.