Do Not Go Gentle: The TREC Report, Part One

First things first – let’s give thanks for the work of the intrepid souls on TREC, who have labored long and hard to learn about the issues facing the church, and to figure out how to address them. I have been plenty critical of TREC’s work in the past, but I do appreciate their work and their love for this church. I even appreciate much of what they have recommended.

doctor_patientThe problem is – and this is a common problem in the church – that they are better at diagnosis than at treatment. They are absolutely spot-on with their recognition of some of the problems facing the church. And their prescription that we need to “Follow Jesus, into the neighborhood, traveling lightly” is truly inspiring.

Let’s take a look at the problems TREC is trying to address. Two research reports recently released by TEC’s Research guru Kirk Hadaway highlight the issues: Domestic Fast Facts 2009-2013 and  Episcopal Congregations Overview 2014.  Membership is falling, attendance is falling, the median attendance at an Episcopal congregation is 61. These are not sustainable numbers. At the same time, we are closing many churches and failing to plant new ones. According to data that Kirk Hadaway gave me, in 2012 we had a net loss of 69 congregations; that same year, there were only three new congregations (filing parochial reports) across all of TEC.   And if you look at the Episcopal Congregations Overview for 2014, the problem is thrown into stark relief when you see the racial/ethnic composition of TEC: 87% White non-Hispanic, 6% Black or African American, 3.6% Hispanic/Latino, 1.3% Asian/Pacific Islander, 0.9% Native American, 1.3% Multi-Racial. This in a country where Whites will soon be a minority and where Hispanic/Latinos will soon be more than 30% of the population. We Episcopalians are older than the American population, too. I don’t have to rehearse all this stuff – you can see for yourself, and probably already have.

Given the stunning situation of decline we find ourselves in, I guess our church has two choices: we can Go gentle into that good night (as Dylan Thomas would say), or we can Rage, rage, against the dying of the light. Me, I’m not ready to give up the ghost yet.

bedside-mannerjpgWhat worries me is TREC’s apparent prognosis. They don’t name it specifically in the report, but many of their recommendations seem to be aimed at providing palliative care for a patient that has entered a long, slow, inevitable decline. What do you do with a church that is dying? You make arrangements for clergy to find other ways to make a living, you think of non-church ways to use the buildings to keep them open a bit longer, you try to find ways to provide pensions for people who can’t actually make a living in the church, you try to get seminaries to educate people for less money with more practical skills they can use elsewhere, you ask dioceses to consolidate, you discourage parishes from spending down their endowments in hopes that some future generation will find more productive uses for the money. And maybe, in addition to all that, you find ways to make governance more efficient.

These are all good things to think about, and some of them are inevitable. But I’m a church planter, and I look at things differently. I think we should not be restructuring for decline. I think we should be restructuring for growth.

If we actually wanted to revive the church, we would be looking at ways, not to manage decline, but to spark new life. We would be prioritizing evangelism and planting new congregations of every kind. We would be proposing to create a school for church planters and for bicultural/bilingual missionaries. We would be urging and training bishops and Commissions on Ministry to approve for ordination, not the folks that they would like to see at their bedside when they breathe their last, but the folks that both inspire and alarm them with new, risky ideas for reaching new people. We would be encouraging congregations with buildings not just to provide them for community use (always a good thing), but also to use them to plant congregations that actually do reach new kinds of people in their neighborhoods with the good news of Christ, in culturally relevant ways. We would be looking at our church-wide budget (the lever that moves the church, as my friend Frank Logue says) to strip away deadweight that does not encourage these priorities, and putting our resources behind life-giving ministries instead. We would be saying, yes, there are buildings and congregations in declining areas that have no hope of revival, and we would be making tough decisions and considering how to use those assets (or the money we could get for them) to reach new people. We would develop leaders for and pour money into youth and campus ministries. We would believe that Christ is not through working in our church yet.

By the way, TREC agrees with me, I think. They said very similar things on page 4 of their report (along with a very kind shout-out to the Acts 8 Moment, a grassroots network of which I am a founder and board member). They seem to agree with what I am saying in concept, but in their concrete recommendations they revert to managing decline.

I wish TREC had focused instead on sparking new life. It’s almost Christmas. Let’s not talk about decline and death. Let’s talk about new birth, new life, and how Christ is continually coming into our world.

Next Post: A look at the specific recommendations.


18 thoughts on “Do Not Go Gentle: The TREC Report, Part One

    • Yeah, their actual recommendations for how to manage decline aren’t bad. There’s just a lot more to be done, and a whole refocusing on growth needed, in my opinion. Their introduction said so, inspiringly, but their actual recommendations didn’t get it done. That’s okay – it’s the rest of the church’s turn to step up.

  1. Having watched the change in TEC for the last 40 years, the push to be “relevant” has actually manifested as ‘change to be more like the world’. With no gospel to preach except “inclusiveness” and denying the virgin birth, the resurrection and salvation through repentance and conversion, it is no wonder that God has given up on them. He will find more missionary folk to bring the pagan and secular to Him. TEC has the facilities and money but no belief. We planted a new Anglican parish over 30 years ago, acquired a suitable building and grew the congregation; we are about to break ground on a new building and to evangelize the new neighborhood. As a cradle Episcopalian, it broke my heart to leave in 1975 but in so doing the Lord opened a new path to build His Church. When Holy Baptism became just an initiation into the local congregation rather than spiritual regeneration I knew it was time for me to leave.

    • Hmm, Frederick, I am glad your parish is growing and doing the Lord’s work. So is mine – a new Episcopal parish planted in 2006, now a full program-size parish in a new building and working to evangelize the neighborhood. Lots of us do believe the ancient doctrines of the church, including me. Advent Blessings to you and your congregation.

  2. Reminded at my time at Apple in the mid nineties when the stock was selling for $4 and the executives couldn’t sell the company to anyone even at that price. Well vision and courage took the assets that were there and refocused them into something else. Time to Think Different and be more of who we are

  3. Pingback: RT @susansnook: Why are we managing for decline in… | The Richard W. Hendricks Experience

  4. It is important to remember that TEC is not a unified, cohesive entity, but rather a collection of dioceses, each of which will move and respond (or not) in its own way. I agree with Scott Gunn’s comment and your response, but getting the whole church to “step up” is not an orderly, verger-led procession. It may be that some autonomy has to be given up in order to achieve that goal. Will that happen?

    • Agreed – and I’m not sure the whole church will respond together, or that anyone will be willing to give up autonomy. We’ve acted like a confederation for so long that a reversal would be unexpected. But if we can start a movement in some or many dioceses, we will have achieved something very important.

      • TEC, like many an enterprise, is lacking in leadership. The difference between management and leadership is huge. While 815 is busy spending millions on lawsuits against member parishes and offering hideously expensive conventions, etc., the membership continues to decline. No amount of money or control will build the church or convert one person. Conversion will lead to growth because the converted will be on fire to bring the Good News to others; this commitment is what builds the church. Resource wasting conferences where “program” is the desired outcome will not bring one soul to Jesus. A 5 or 10 year plan will produce only more conferences, small group meetings, hours of email and printing of reams of proposals…all to no avail except to make the participants feel good about themselves and “how much they have done for the church”. There is only one real question: what have I done today to further the Gospel and to reach one person for Christ?

  5. I think TREC’s goal is to rage against the dying of the light, just as yours is, and mine. We may not agree on the details (I will have more to say on bivocational priests and networks myself) but depending on how we engage it, the TREC report can be a step toward future vitality. If we engage the proposals with a “we have to manage decline” mindset, then that’s what will occur – leading to more decline. But I think there are ways to engage these proposals with the mindset of “we have to lay a strong foundation for growth” and I hope that’s what was intended by the writers.

    It is striking to me that this is by far the most-shared post about the TREC report. More people are going to come to their conclusions about the report by reading this post than any other single document, given how viral it has gone. I would hate for people to conclude that TREC was trying to hasten the church into an early grave based on this blog post, and dismiss the report entirely as a consequence. I know that’s beyond your capacity to control, but it is within my capacity to name – thus, the comment :-)…

    • Nurya, my friend, I calls ’em as I sees ’em. Actually I do think TREC made some very good suggestions. They just stopped halfway there. Consolidation is necessary, saying “no” to things that aren’t working is necessary, I have no quibble with that – and I will say so, in later posts. It’s just that they stopped short of the promise of their inspiring introduction. Once we’ve consolidated, where is the plan for renewal? How are we to follow Jesus into the neighborhood, traveling lightly? I think there are ways to do this, even ways to encourage it church-wide through legislation and wise budgeting, and I hope we do it, and don’t just settle for consolidation.

      As to this post being widely shared, the only thing I can speculate is that somehow it struck a nerve. People are ready to see the church being renewed, and they are tired of settling for less. Me too – I want to see the church fulfill its potential, and follow Jesus, and preach the gospel. We have an amazing church, and I believe we can do it.

    • Thanks for your comments, Charles. I also went to a non-traditional seminary for two years before finishing my third year at CDSP (I did receive an M.Div.). These opportunities are necessary because of people’s family situations, I believe, and the education I received was sound. I have no problem with looking at alternate models for forming clergy. I do think that the bivocational model is something a few clergy are called to, and can be very effective in the right context. But I don’t believe it’s the wave of the future in the church. I think that if we are looking to grow and reach new people with the gospel, we need full-time leaders – that is, if a church is to grow above family size (70 ASA). The photo you show of a church plant in a living room shows about the size a church in a living room can grow – to about the number of people that will fit on the couches. That’s great for that church – but if we want the church to grow, we have to think about ways to reach higher numbers of people. Believe me, as a church planter, I think about this stuff all the time. I think TREC made some good suggestions, but they didn’t go far enough. They made suggestions for how we need to retrench, but I think it is up to the rest of us to make suggestions for how to reverse our decline, and reach new people with the gospel of Jesus Christ.

  6. When I challenged the bishops on the TREC at the September meeting, as to why their recommendations were “technical” and not “adaptive”, Sean Rowe replied that they were trying to give the church the tools to make those adaptive changes. Thus their recommendations do not go in the direction that you, Susan, and I were hoping for.

    That said, you are absolutely right: we need to plant new congregations. Having successfully done it both as priest and bishop, I know how difficult that is. But we are our own worst enemy when it comes to starting new churches. That is the single biggest adaptive challenge we face.

    Meanwhile, outside the US, the overseas dioceses are moving on. I argue that the Foreign mission should, indeed must, encourage and strengthen the Domestic mission. See

    A joyous Christmastide to you and yours, and keep on raging against the dying of the light!
    Pierre Whalon

    • Thank you, Bishop Whalon, for your moving reflection. I do think there are some things missing from the TREC recommendations, which I will write more about soon. I am glad to hear about the inspiring example of the Episcopal church in our non-U.S. dioceses. Thank you for your faithful ministry!

  7. Pingback: Study documents for the TREC resolutions | Episcopal Cafe

  8. Pingback: Pray a New Church into Being | A Good and Joyful Thing

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