Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Micro or mini. . .

No, this is not about skirts or cars but about dioceses (districts, synods, or whatever you name the geographical divisions of a church body).  With the decline in numbers of members has come an even more precipitous decline in the numbers of those actually active -- in church on Sunday.  The actual proportion of members who attend has diminished regularly over the years and even more so in the wake of the pandemic.  Even before Covid, it was becoming harder and harder to justify the layers of management in church bodies.  As congregations decline in size and as resources are used locally more and more to simply stay alive, the pressures upon the structures of regional and national jurisdictions will have to change.  One obvious change would be to make larger dioceses.

Rome may not quite be there yet but the Episcopal Church long ago passed the point of viability for some of its smaller dioceses.  In contrast to the growing areas of Anglicanism in the Global South, western bishops more often lead "micro-dioceses" where the total attendance of the parishes in those diocese numbers less than 5,000 and often less than 1,000.  While it looks nice to have so many bishops in a procession, the cost of maintaining those many bishops is rapidly approaching the point where nobody will be able to afford the pageantry.  Where Africa may routinely boast 75% of their membership in worship on a Sunday, the western jurisdictions often hover around 10%.

Lutherans are not far behind.  Although the LCMS has a leaner structure than the ELCA, we are also at a point where the contrast between large districts of 150-175,000 people and the smallest districts (New England and New Jersey) of 10-15,000 people is harder than ever to explain economically.  Neither of these take into account the actual numbers of folks in church in those districts -- typically 20-30% of the actual number of baptized members.  In the ELCA the smallest synod has 30 congregations and the largest 300.  I have not been able to locate actual numbers of members for the ELCA synods but I am sure the numbers are bleaker than what is typically thought.

At some point these churches will have to decide.  Either the solution lies in merging smaller jurisdictions with larger and continuing the same overhead spread over more people or keeping these divisions small and instead serving them with a part-time bishop/district president.  I am an advocate for smaller groups with at best a full-time administrative assistant and part-time bishop/district president with the programs and resources for specific areas (like schools) functioning regionally.  There are really only a couple of essential duties for the episcopal office (no matter the nomenclature), roster and ecclesiastical supervision.  The supervision is, in part, already shared with deans or circuit visitors so I find no reason why this would not work.  But it probably will never be given a chance because perceptions drive what we do even more than facts.  The larger geographic units will not want to dilute their influence by dividing up into 5-6 smaller units and the smaller units want to keep up with the Joneses.  So the real future probably lies in continuing the structures we already have until we border on bankruptcy.  That is a sad justification for the use of resources that could better be used where they might actually do some good.

While I am writing this as Missouri Synod Lutheran, you can apply my comments to the state of most non-Roman Catholic jurisdictions in America.  Remember, mileage may vary.  In any case, membership not in worship regularly may not be the best value to use when deciding on the right structure.

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