A lot of things seem to be more scarce. In our larger economy—jobs, as many people remain out of work. In the church, the things that seem to be scarce would at first blush seem almost legion. Money seems more scarce as diocesan, denominational, and church budgets shrink. Members seem scarce with the news that the average attendance on Sunday mornings in the Episcopal Church has shrunk an astonishing 23% in the past decade and official total membership dipped below two million.
This sense of scarcity can seem overwhelming at times, and can even breed a feelings of anxiety, or hopelessness, or sheer terror. The “proclaimers of scarcity” seem to be all around, from the blogosphere to the official reports of the Episcopal Church. I don’t necessarily hold this against these proclaimers; we need those who can accurately report on our current reality.
The question, it seems to me, is how we are influenced and what scarcity means.
Because scarcity is a funny thing: we only lament something that’s scarce if we privilege what we’re missing. Is anyone lamenting, say, the scarcity of smallpox or alien invasions? I would certainly hope not, since it would mean we somehow long for the devastation that would be brought by either (though sometimes I wonder if alien overlords could be any worse than some current options).
Do we truly lament the scarcity that we proclaim?
At first blush, this may seem heretical: what do you mean, we should be OK with declining numbers? That cutting budgets at the national, diocesan, and local levels is a good thing?
But that’s not what I mean: should we lament the categories they are based on? How should be influenced by those scarcities?
Our scarcity is numbers is based on a Christendom model of membership: a church has something you join, usually in its local franchise down the street, and attend, which includes, among others things, the right to vote at the annual meeting and have your child’s eventual wedding there without an extra fee. We have created a dizzying number of levels of membership: baptized members, communicants, communicants in good standing, confirmed communicants in good standing. We measure these members in different ways, from Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) to Others Active and so on. We love membership, with so many categories and so many ways to count. If we privilege it so much, no wonder we may lament its growing scarcity.
Yet what if we didn’t privilege that understanding? What if we broadened our what membership is? What if the church wasn’t something you joined? What if we measured with equal zeal lives changed, people transformed, communities reinvigorated?
I spent three years as a college chaplain. Sure, looking over the books, we had half the numbers participating in the chaplaincy than 25 years earlier. But I was astounded by those who were there: these young adults were all-in. We had no peripheral members. Did we have a scarcity or not?
Does our scarcity in funding come from privileging financial resources to fund and empower certain agencies and people—clergy, staff, dioceses, networks, and so on—to help do the mission we are called to do? What are were privileging here to lament its scarcity? Could we be privileging a certain way of understanding how finances relate to mission and ministry?
I was interviewing at a church to be their potential rector, and, after looking over their financial statement, told them I was amazed that this church was so dedicated to mission and outreach. For a church of their size, they had an enormous outreach line item. However, in conversations with them in person, I quickly realized it was because they considered the entirety of their diocesan assessment to be classified as “outreach,” and that they considered that the diocese “did” outreach for them. Is this sense of scarcity because we still operate from the notion that the way money can “do” ministry for us may be breaking down? Could we be called in a different way of understanding how we do the mission of the church?
Scarcity is something to fear only when we privilege what it is that’s scarce. May we have permission not only to stop being influenced by the proclaimers of scarcity, but also to see the opportunity in abundance. Christendom may be dead, but Christianity is not and never will be.
–The Very Rev. Thomas Ferguson, Dean, Bexley Hall