Rector's Ramblings November 8, 2017
I am in Chicago for a few days this week, attending a small conference of Episcopal Rectors and Deans of “Leading Edge Congregations.” That’s not my name for it, but the name assigned by the Consortium of Endowed Episcopal Parishes (CEEP), the group that has organized the meeting. Christ Church has been a member of CEEP for at least five or six years now. CEEP was started about twenty years ago (I think) to pull together larger, more complex Episcopal parish leadership in order to foster shared learning and ideas about how best to manage and grow the ministries in our settings. As you would guess, small church ministry is very different from large church ministry, and parishes with resources function differently than those who struggle with resources.
CEEP uses endowment size to regulate membership, although that has changed a bit over time. Over the last ten years, the annual conferences, the main event for CEEP, so to speak, have grown and have begun to include a diluted range of parish types. That’s not all bad, and I’m not criticizing it at all. But, at a recent CEEP conference (which I did not attend) some of the leaders of large, complex parishes voiced a desire for a peer-specific gathering to help think through the commonalities of our types of parishes. So, I received an invitation earlier this year and decided to attend.
We have to be careful, because some elevate large parishes in a way that diminishes smaller or medium sized congregations. Let me pause here and suggest that yes, we are considered a large Episcopal congregation, although we are on the lower end of the large spectrum. Our congregation size, worship attendance, annual budget, staff, endowment, and a few other measures place us in that category, although some in our parish still think of Christ Church as a small, country parish. We are not. In our diocese, there are two congregations larger than ours, one in Savannah and one in Augusta. And even at that, I’m not sure any of them have as many services or two campuses to care for, as we do. (Land and buildings are a blessing, and yet they also have their challenges!) So, we’re a “larger”, “complex” parish, but that doesn’t make us a better parish than many others by default – just different.
When I say our size and complexity doesn’t make us better, I mean it. We may be seen in some circles as being a more prestigious congregation, which is a function of the breadth of our programs, which often require larger staff sizes and necessitates greater funding. Some look at parishes like ours and assume everything is cupcakes and unicorns, because we have large budgets. Granted, while we are blessed with resources, we also have a lot of expenses. Old buildings, two worship spaces, many services, many parishioners – all of the care and ministry associated with those realities means we aren’t looking at ways to spend leftover money. On the contrary, if you pay attention at the annual meeting in January, you’ll find that our annual budget, while large, is also very “tight.” Year after year, we scour the spreadsheets to trim and adjust the budget so that we can fund what is most important to us.
Looking at the financials is an inaccurate measure of a parish’s true value, just as looking only at attendance can similarly distort the true picture of a congregation. Although it is harder to quantify, and therefore harder to list on a report to the diocese or the National Church, the better indicator of a parish’s health and vitality is to look at what it’s doing. How does the parish raise up its members and help them deepen their spiritual life? What is the character of their worship and the music? How is the parish reaching out to its community in service? These are all much more faithful ways of determining if a parish is doing the things it is called to do. Simply having members and money does not a Gospel outpost make! So, all of this is said in order to be very careful when we speak about our large, complex parish, with its growing membership, two worship spaces, and some of the other elements we celebrate. To be sure, relative to size and budget, many congregations are simply amazing places, led by amazing people, doing amazing ministry. We are all called into ministry in our own contexts, using our own unique gifts.
So, here I sit in Chicago waiting for this conference of “Leading Edge Congregations” leaders to begin. I’m not foolish enough to think that the title of our meeting is as special as it sounds. We’re not the “only” leading edge parishes, the name just makes for a faster registration process when recruiting attendees! But, there is probably something to it in the end analysis, too, despite my semantic judiciousness. Because we are large and complex, we are able to do some things that other parishes may not be able to do. Not all parishes can pull off X Church, for example. Nor do they have the synergy that comes with a multi-clergy, multi-staff environment, which allows for sharing and developing ideas and plans. Christ Church is a bit of a resource congregation in our region, sharing some of what we’ve learned and do, not only with other congregations in our denomination, but also with our ecumenical friends. We literally help out local Episcopal congregations with preaching and celebrating from time to time because we can. Another benefit of being large is that we have a deep bench of talented lay leaders we can pull from without (hopefully) burning people out. We are not the only ones bucking attendance trends, and yet that is a part of our reality, too.
And of course, one of the things I’ve learned about parishes like ours is that yes, endowments help enable creative and mission-oriented ministry. Why? Because a well-managed endowment like ours means we have options when we are called to do something that would otherwise be unattainable. Our endowment draw is limited in its use, to certain categories of things like capital needs, mission work, and programming, which allows us to try new things and get ahead of a growth phase. It’s not used for the electric bill or office supplies and the like. Endowment also helps smooth out the bumps in the economy, so that we are not subjected to “bad years” the way some parishes are. When things get lean, a parish without adequate savings or an endowment tends to cut the things that allow for growth and expanded ministry, in order to cover the fixed costs. Churches in survival mode are often distracted from the work they are uniquely situated for. Even the church struggles with the model of scarcity, or not having enough. In some places, it’s actually the norm.
The Episcopal Church did a study some years ago and learned that congregations with healthy, well-managed endowments tended to buck national trends of decline and had a much higher likelihood of long term viability. It’s not rocket science, but it was an important reinforcement of what church leaders have been taught for years. Many churches have begun endowments and planned giving programs, as a result. In the long run, the church is better off because of it; more and more parishes find that they have stability and an assurance that they can answer God’s call more readily and consistently. With a caveat. Smaller churches that are only keeping their doors open because of an endowment are the ones that turn into museums. Endowment funds, like all parish resources must be used to further the mission of the parish, not its survival.
Endowments are supplements to a parish’s mission-based budget. They are not, or at least should not be, the foundation of a budget, but capstone. Endowments that aren’t used on regular operating expenses are the ideal, which means healthy annual giving is a must. We are blessed at Christ Church to have seen steady increases in annual giving in recent years, which allow us to focus on doing the important work of sharing the gospel and reaching new populations. Annual giving, planned giving to endowments, and capital giving for special projects all work together to allow churches (and any institution) to answer God’s call and fulfill their mission.
In the next few months, you’ll hear about a planned giving program at Christ Church. We want to protect and grow our endowment so that we can continue to do the work God calls us to do. Part of that is inviting regular gifts to the endowment, a practice that has fallen away in recent years. While many of us remember educational institutions or other charities in our estate planning, fewer and fewer are remembering the church in their wills. In large part, it’s because we haven’t done a good job teaching about planned giving or inviting the gifts. We’re going to change that.
Many years ago Anson Dodge made arrangements to endow Christ Church and the Dodge Home for Boys because the mission of those institutions mattered to him. Christ Church is still going strong, and we’re still fulfilling his mission through the Dodge Fund all these years later. Today we all share the stewardship of this glorious congregation and answer the call to ensure she can continue her ministry into the future; more generations of children being raised in the faith, another hundred years of weekly worship; countless lives touched and changed by the outreach that pours out from us. No church is perfect, but we can all be faithful. That’s what really distinguishes “better” churches from other churches. I can’t say we’re “leading edge” for sure, but as long as we keep answering the call, we’ll be leading the Church somewhere God wants us to go.
Gracious Father, we pray for thy holy Catholic Church. Fill it with all truth, in all truth with all peace. Where it is corrupt, purify it; where it is in error, direct it; where in any thing it is amiss, reform it. Where it is right, strengthen it; where it is in want, provide for it; where it is divided, reunite it; for the sake of Jesus Christ thy Son our Savior. Amen.