Frank admissions about Episcopal Church demographic woes are rare, so it is good to pay heed when a church official speaks with candor.
The bishop of the Diocese of Eastern Michigan, Todd Ousley, recently addressed his diocesan convention on November 11 in Gaylord, Michigan, noting that some parishes in his Lower Peninsula diocese are facing economic scarcity and demographic decline:
“Within the Diocese of Eastern Michigan, these past ten years have seen a decline in membership and Average Sunday Attendance. We are now 45 congregations on our way very quickly to 43. Annual congregational giving has declined making financial viability increasingly difficult for an increasing number of congregations. Our population continues to decline and Michigan demographics show us growing older while losing our young to opportunities in other parts of the country,” Ousley reported. “The reality of our communities and our churches is one that ought make all of us pause.”
The diocese has indeed been hard-hit, losing 28% of members and 36% of attendees from 2005-2015, a rate of decline that surpasses the national denomination. Marriages and baptisms have taken a bigger hit, with the former down 63%, while children’s baptisms were down 47 percent and adult baptisms down 62%.
Ousley categorized his flock as “people of hope in a culture of fear,” with a nod to results of the recent U.S. presidential election:
“The notion that we are ‘in a culture of fear’ is even clearer to me today than it was just four days ago. Much of what drove the U.S. electorate and what informs us within this diocese is fear — fear of the unknown, fear of death, fear of change, fear of financial instability, and fear that the Church may not be there for us at the most important moments of our lives. Yet, in the midst of all this fear we remain a people of hope.”
At the same time as he acknowledges difficulties in the diocese, Ousley seems unwilling to repent from unbiblical innovations that have driven many from Episcopal Church pews. In asserting that church members “live that hope by growing our capacity and willingness to confront issues of justice” the bishop recommits himself to a politicized agenda. Ousley marks the nationwide redefinition of marriage and the enactment of same-sex marriage rites in the Episcopal Church, while celebrating “community organizing” that has “drawn national attention to the devastating effects of environmental racism and systemic injustice.” Even if that doesn’t improve the diocese’s prospects, Ousley is okay with that:
“Our attendance may not increase, our finances may not increase, our challenges will not go away, but by truly listening to one another, we are seeking and serving Christ in one another and loving our neighbor as ourselves.”
Ousley salutes the “creative” decision by three parishes in St. Clair County to close their individual congregations and merge into a single church. The bishop also highlights “experimentation with models of ministry that move us beyond the safety and certainty of traditional models” and cheers “willingness to explore beyond canonical boundaries in eucharistic communities with only occasional clergy leadership” – a model that has fared poorly in the tiny neighboring diocese of Northern Michigan.
“Today, we live and move and have our being in a world characterized by division, destructive rhetoric, demonizing of the other and callous disregard for those whose opinions differ,” Ousley assessed, circling back to the beginning of his address by noting “a period of deep and holy listening to one another.”
It might be wise if he included listening to the thousands who have disappeared from Episcopal Church pews in Michigan during his time of leadership there.