Church Pension Group’s ‘centennial conversations’ begin dialogue

October 25, 2017

[Episcopal News Service – New York, New York] The implications of declines in church-going and the aging trend of people who do go to church do not all have to be gloom and doom. Instread, they can prompt Episcopalians to be agents of change in the church and in the world.

That was the hopeful message heard by people participating in the first of four Insights & Ideas events, held in recognition of the Church Pension Group’s 100 years service to the Episcopal Church. The so-called “Centennial Conversation,” held at St. Bartholomew’s Church in Manhattan, featured two panels of experts, as well as interaction with audience members.

“Some see the aging of the church as the gasp of a great church. I just don’t see that at all,” said the Rt. Rev. Clifton Daniel III, acting/interim dean at the Cathedral Church of St. John the Divine, New York. “I don’t think we need to worry about the death of forms and shapes and ministries that it’s taken. The church is going on.”

Daniel said the church is “being challenged both by culture and our own numbers to reimagine how we go about doing church, how we go about diaconal, priestly and episcopal ministry.”

“Through all that the Pension Fund has been a stream of support and encouragement,” he said.

Daniel was responding to the statistics and anecdotal evidence offered in the first panel: “The Demographics of a Changing Church” examined demographics, deployment and compensation trends impacting the church now and in the future.

Mark Chaves, professor of sociology, religious studies and divinity at Duke University, outlined seven of what he said were many possible trends with which to tell the story of American religion in the 21st century. He listed the following trends, reflecting the full spectrum of faiths and denominations:

Declining average congregational size
Chaves said the average number of “regular participants” in congregations stood at 80 in 1998 and is now down to 70.

Clergy working fewer hours
Six percent of all clergy were employed part time in 1998, and now 15 percent are. Part-time employment is defined as working less than 35 hours a week.

Greater concentration of churchgoers in the country’s largest congregations
The largest 7 percent of the country’s congregations (defined as having 400 members or more) contain half of all churchgoers, one third of all ministers employed full time and two-thirds of all those employed part-time. Chaves said this trend, which is “intensifying,” began around 1975 and hasn’t yet peaked. Members of these large congregations tend to give less money and participate in fewer church activities, he said. The large congregations are attracting members from medium-size congregations, not from outside of the church, he said. Congregations with less than 100 members are also growing, according to Chaves.

Greater ethnic diversity in predominantly white congregations
The number of completely white congregations accounted for 25 percent of the total number of congregations in 1998 but has since declined to 11 percent. There are few of what Chaves called “deeply diverse” congregations but rather many white congregations with a “smattering” of other ethnicities. This trend, he said, “has staying power” whose implications are worth pondering. Even in congregations with those “smatterings” are changed by the membership of non-white congregants, he said. “Church works differently and preachers preach differently,” Chaves said.

Aging of both clergy and congregants
Only one third of all churchgoers belong to congregations with clergy who are younger than 50, according to Chaves. Meanwhile, the number of congregants who were older than 60 has increased from 29 percent in 1998 to 37 percent now. And whereas 30 percent were younger than 35 in 1998, that rate has declined to 25 percent.

Greater gender inclusion
While Chaves said there is evidence of more congregations being open to being led by women, only 11 percent have female clergy leaders.

Greater sexual orientation inclusion
This trend tends to reflect cultural changes, Chaves said. That reflection includes variation across denominations.

The data Chaves presented come from the National Congregational Survey, which has been ongoing since 1998.

Matthew Price, CPG senior vice president for research and data, discussed how the Episcopal Church’s demographics fit into the picture Chaves painted. In 1967, when CPG celebrated its 50th anniversary, the so-called “traditional model” for clergy leadership was the norm, Price suggested. Clergy were employed full time by a single Episcopal Church employer. He rarely had his service interrupted and always saw his salary increase. Once he retired, he rarely did regular work in the church.

Today, only 58 percent of clergy now fit into that model, Price said, but 44 percent wish that they could take advantage of the aspects of that traditional model. Instead, they work with in a model that typically features part-time work for multiple church employers along with some employment outside the church. Many clergy have their ministerial service interrupted for many different reasons. Their compensation does not necessarily increase over time, and many clerics continue to work after their retirement.

In fact, 58 percent of retired clergy younger than 72 still serve in come capacity, and 95 percent of retired vocational deacons do the same, Price said. “For many parishes, this is a lifeline,” he added.

Ian S. Markham, dean and president of Virginia Theological Seminary, said 88 percent of VTS Master of Divinity graduates over the last five years have found jobs centered in the more traditional model of ministry Price described. The average age of its class is now 32, which is a decline from recent years. The graduates VTS sends to the church, he said, have “energy and passion.”

“And they believe in the church; they’re impressed with the Episcopal Church,” he added. “I think they will make a difference over the next 30 years.”

So, he said, while the school does not seem to have a placement problem, it does have a recruitment problem, which he attributed in part to a vicious cycle of stories of decline that prompt some people to reject the possibility of a career in the church. That rejection can, in turn, add more stories of decline.

The second panel, titled “Investing for Positive Impact,” discussed ways in which CPG invests some of its money to achieve measurable social and environmental impacts alongside competitive financial returns. Speaking on that issue were Casey C. Clark, Glenmede Corp. director of sustainable and impact investing; Michele Giddens, co-founder, Bridges Fund Management; Meredith Jenkins, Trinity Church Wall Street chief investment officer; Solomon Owayda, founding partner, Mozaic Capital; and Alan Snoddy, managing director, Church Pension Fund.

Participants were encouraged to think about how they, too, can invest in ways that bring a good financial return while doing good in the world. That goal of “doing good in the world,” Giddens suggested, can come by way of investing to encourage change as well as the more traditional goal of socially responsible investing, of refusing to invest in business perceived to harm people and the world. Examples would be tobacco companies and weapons manufacturing.

Mary Kate Wold, CPG’s chief executive officer and president who moderated both discussions, also noted that, when needed, the fund advocates for “better behavior” by businesses in which it invests – by means of shareholder resolutions and, sometimes, “just a constant badgering that may go on for years.” It tries to convince companies why CPG’s stances that are aligned with the Episcopal Church’s values are also good business decisions.

Clark of Glenmede commended the efforts that Wold described, saying if every investor made decisions that echoed what CPG did, “there would be enormous impact.”

And Giddens of Bridges Fund Management said such investing philosophies are still a minority school of thought “and there’s still a lot of to fight for.” CPG’s investment decisions, she said, especially in the arena of socially responsible investing, serve as a signal to other investors, encouraging them to take the same steps.

This video was shown during the second session as an illustration of CPG’s social responsible investing efforts.

Additional Issues and Insights events will take place in Minneapolis (Nov. 3), Houston (Jan. 24) and San Francisco (Feb. 7). The conversations are especially meant for clergy and those who serve the Episcopal Church professionally, wardens and vestry members, according to a press release. Each event will follow the same pattern as the New York one, with the two panel discussions.

About CPG

Canon I.8 of the Episcopal Church’s Constitution and Canons (page 41 here) authorizes the Church Pension Fund provide retirement, health, and life insurance benefits to clergy and lay employees of the Episcopal Church. With approximately $13 billion in assets, CPF and its affiliated companies are known collectively the Church Pension Group. CPG also offers property and casualty insurance as well as book and music publishing, including the official worship materials of the Episcopal Church such as The Book of Common Prayer and The Hymnal 1982

— The Rev. Mary Frances Schjonberg is interim managing editor of the Episcopal News Service.

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