At a loss

The most recent issue of The Christian Century includes an article in which news editor John Dart quotes C. Kirk Hadaway, our Church’s director of research, as saying we have suffered a “precipitous drop” in membership in the last three years.

The article says in part:

“[W]e were actually doing better than most other mainline denominations in the 1990s through 2002, with a few years of growth,” Hadaway told the Century. “So it is a precipitous drop in losing 36,000 in both 2003 and 2004, and now 42,000 in 2005.”

Half of the losses stemmed from parish conflicts over the 2003 Episcopal General Convention’s approval of the election of an openly gay bishop, V. Gene Robinson of New Hampshire, according to Hadaway.”

I’ve written before about the problems I perceive in the way in which our Church shares information with the people in the pews. In this instance, I think it would have been helpful to observe the principles of Damage Control 101. When you have bad news to report, you break the news yourself, you do it as quickly and completely as possible, and you do your best to explain why it happened.

It’s very strange to have the news come out as it did in this case, at a conference of the Religious Research Association, in connection with a paper on ‘Propagation, Proselytization, and Retention: Interpreting the Growth, Decline and Distribution of Religious Populations’ that Hadaway co-authored Penny Long Marler of Samford University. And from what I can tell, the information that Hadaway cites is still not available on the internet, which is also kind of odd.

Dart quotes James B. Lemler, the Church’s director of mission, as saying the losses “are not more than we expected.” Had we released this news ourselves, we could have offered something quite a bit more vigorous. Something along the lines of “We’ve made a painful choice for the sake of the Gospel, and as these numbers make clear, we have paid a price for doing so. That’s a common occurrence in the history of Christ’s Church. Our hope is that theme in Christian history. It is our hope that people who believe as we do that God calls us to include gay and are inspired by our choice will come…

I know there are people at the “home office” who understand media relations, but I don’t think they are being listened to.

Moving from back story to front, I’ve been perplexed by the response to the Century’s article by people whom I usually agree with. There’s been an attempt to downplay the significance of this development on the House of Bishop and Deputies list, which seems to me to be part of a pattern to minimize the importance of our continually declining membership. On one level this is understandable. In the midst of our current controversy, any sign of failing health in the Episcopal Church is attributed by partisan commentators to the election of Bishop Robinson. We, in turn, respond defensively saying that not only isn’t the consecration responsible for our membership problems (which is largely true if one accepts the inevitability of this one time hit we have taken) but we don’t actually have any membership problems (which is not true.)

We need to get past our defensiveness, and make a coherent, comprehensive response to the many forces that are slowly emptying our pews. We are “selling” the Gospel, the most valuable thing in the world, yet institutionally, we display neither urgency nor sophistication in our attempts to sell it.

Am I being unfair? Or are people as frustrated about efforts in this regard as I am?

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