Friday, May 15, 2009

I saw a disturbing statistic on the House of Bishops/Delegate list-serve today. It listed the Diocese of Central New York as one of the top ten dioceses to have had a drop in attendance over the past year. According to the parochial report statistics, the diocese has dropped 10.17 percent over the year 2006-2007. We are listed 9th from the bottom in percentage of attendance.

Now, most Episcopal dioceses have experienced a decrease in attendance. In fact there is not a single diocese in the USA that is experiencing growth with the exception of San Joachin which was experiencing a whole reorganization following the deposition of their bishop. The Latin American dioceses are growing by leaps and bounds, but that is to be expected as the Roman Catholic Church loses its dominance in those countries.

Now, I am not like those on the right who believe that attendance is the bell-weather of content with the Church. I believe that noting that nearly all mainline Protestant denomination are experiencing a downturn in attendance is important. Also, those locales which have experienced wide-spread unemployment or significant depopulation should show the marked drop in attendance. That most of our parishes cannot support full-time clergy should be of no surprise to us. We were told back in the ‘80’s that if a parish did not have an income of $250,000 we would not be able to sustain a full-time rector.

But I do not believe that the attendance has dropped because we cannot sustain ourselves as full-time, or because of liberal or conservative theological stances, or because we have a gay bishop in the Church. It is because on the whole, society does not have confidence that the Church can teach faith. They generally see in the Church an organization that has lost touch with reality, that the Church is more interested in preserving the institution than being there for people when they are in need.

A couple of cases in point: When the Southern Tier endured flooding three years ago, there was little or no attention given those who had lost their homes, their places of business or in some cases their livelihood. The was no wide-spread attention given by other parishes in the diocese—in many cases, parts of the diocese did not even know that the flooding had happened. Another incident was recently when a mass shooting captured the attention of the whole country because CNN arrived in Binghamton to broadcast it. There was no attention afforded those of us who lived here by any touch with the diocesan leadership or any concern from any clergy from the diocese. I am not even aware that any diocesan clergy attended or supported the Binghamton community at the city-wide services for hope and healing that other denominations held.

In contrast, before the siege was even over, a Lutheran congregation opened its doors to those who had been traumatized by the event. The Synod office had emailed all the clergy of the area that they were being held in prayer. I had emails from clergy all over NY assuring me and my congregation of their concern and care even though my congregation was 40 miles away.

As a diocese, we in CNY, do not seem to be able to do this. Even when we know that fellow clergy are ill, or bereaved, we don’t take the time to convey our concern. Somehow, somewhere we have lost the ability to support one another in our mission in Christ. When my mother died recently, I received condolences from only one member of the clergy (other than the bishop), a priest I have not yet met.

I do not believe that this disconnect is something new. I believe that we in Central NY have never been very good about supporting one another in our ministries. I believe that there has always been a sense of competition rather than collegiality among us. But whatever it is, we must learn how to do ministry with one another differently. It has been observed that our ability to proclaim Christ is seriously flawed—and more so than other dioceses in the Church.

This is not just the job of the clergy, but I do believe that we must be willing to start it. Parish leadership must be willing to look hard at the image that they are portraying in the name of Christ. The issue is not about stewardship. It isn’t about youth groups or communication. It is about whether we are going to care about one another or not.

1 comment:

klady said...

Yes, indeed. It's everyone's responsibility, but part of what seems to be lacking is a top-down understanding of and appreciation of what goes on with people on the parish level. That mixed with a long history of geographical and cultural isolation among not just Episcopal parishes but also among cities and communities throughout the area make it difficult for people to think to reach out as they should. Funny that some will take off to New Orleans or South America to do mission work but are not visibly and vigorously involved in efforts to help folks in their own backyard. I'm not saying that there is anything wrong with mission work outside the diocese (not at all), but... the mindset that is so worried about individual survival on both the parish and diocesan level is eating away at the spiritual health of us all. If this continues, what matter the loss of investment funds, pledges and assessments and crumbling buildings? We need to stop being fearful of both leadership, which is ready to cast blame on local parishes and clergy for demographic trends and offer little or no support to help them better work together through tough times, and of each other, fearing that if we reach out to others, we will be sapped of what little strength and vitality we have or, in the process, reveal our own weaknesses and fears in the face of others' problems.

Something's got to change....