MICHIGAN: Plan proposed to revitalize diocese

October 15, 2008

Faced with declining church attendance and dwindling income, the Diocese of Michigan is set to launch a plan aimed at revitalizing the "diocesan household." At the core of the plan is an effort to determine the best way to invest a remarkable resource to bring about growth and vitality: the Extended Ministries Fund (EMF), which includes a bequest to the diocese given 15 years ago and worth more than $9 million today.

Delegates to Michigan's 174th annual convention, meeting October 24-25 in Dearborn, will entertain a proposal from the Diocesan Council and the Extended Ministries Fund Task Force II that calls for spending up to $325,000 from the principal of the EMF to fund the first phase of planning for a project designed to promote ministry and growth. A series of open forums leading up to convention got underway on October 8. The task force has been at work since November 2007 soliciting input from people throughout the diocese "regarding the development of a plan for the best use of the EMF" and has completed statistical research on church attendance and giving trends. Facing stark realitiesIn its proposal, the task force notes that "the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan is in steep decline." Charts included in the document reveal that average Sunday attendance has declined by 22% since 2000. During the same time period "pledge and plate revenues" for all congregations combined has decreased by approximately $2 million, when adjusted for inflation. The proposal also notes that since 1995, the annual diocesan budget has been dependent on a draw from the "appreciated value and investment income" of the EMF. In 2007 that draw amounted to 36% of the revenue in the budget. Tithes and offerings from congregations amounted to only 57% of the budget that same year. The task force reported that the diocesan budget has been "cut substantially" over the past several years, including a reduction in staff. It said it concurs with its predecessor body (the EMF Task Force I) that "further budget cuts would cripple diocesan operations irrevocably." "If we choose to take a hatchet to program, I believe we are admitting defeat, and we need to be honest and say so," Bishop Wendell Gibbs told the diocesan council in September. "Our other choice is to step into the future emboldened by the plan put before us by the Extended Ministries Fund Task Force. By making use now of the resources left to us by our forbearers we have a unique opportunity to discern and respond to the call God has for this diocesan community." "This is a pretty bold plan to deal with a serious challenge that this diocese faces," said David Clifford, a member of the task force and a parishioner at the Church of St. Clare of Assisi, Ann Arbor. Josephine Powell, a member of the diocesan council and a parishioner at Christ Church, Detroit, said the task force's proposal "represents an opportunity of hope." "We want to be a greater light in the world and this is a tool for getting there." Specifically, the proposal for the first phase of the project has been designed to "listen, learn, analyze data and develop a second phase for action and implementation." The first phase will invite diocesan-wide comment on four key concepts: "Revitalize the diocese through a coordinated strategy to grow congregations and generate enthusiasm and financial support for our diocesan mission. "Design a plan to realign our buildings and physical presence with our mission, as part of financial revitalization and preparing for more effective ministry." (The goal would be to match building size and function with congregation size while reducing overhead.) "Foster widespread understanding of, and respect and appreciation for the work of diocesan staff in congregations throughout the diocese. "Inspire confidence within the household that funds contributed through the diocesan assessment are used with the greatest possible efficiency and dedication to the purpose for which they are intended. The majority of the money in the Extended Ministries Fund came from a bequest by Ruth Harvey, a life-long member of Christ Church, Detroit. In a 2006 feature in The Record, the Diocese of Michigan's newspaper, editor Herb Gunn said that Harvey never married and "led a simple life, living with her mother until she was over 50 years old." He explained that in the later years of her life, Harvey relied on a trust fund and probably had no idea what her estate was worth. Her last will and testament stipulated that $10,000 would be left to Christ Church and the balance should go to the Diocese of Michigan. Ruth Harvey died in the spring of 1993 and the will was carried out. The "balance" to the Diocese of Michigan totaled $8,759,000. Even though 25% of the fund went to the Diocese of Eastern Michigan when it was established in 1995, the value of the funds remaining with the Diocese of Michigan today totals just in excess of $9 million. The funds that the 2008 convention will be asked to approve will be used to pay for temporary staff to carry out the first phase of the project, for survey development and execution, and to engage consultants in the areas of communication, physical plant development and congregational development. A faith-filled responseThe Extended Ministries Task Force's proposal concludes by stating that the Diocese of Michigan faces a "serious challenge." "We are experiencing decline in members, attendance and revenues," the proposal says. "We are drawing down our assets and depleting some of our assets. The only faith-filled response is to make bold decisions to invest in places and congregations where signs of vitality are strong. It will require courage, prayer and faith. It will require a more deliberate commitment than we, as a household, have ever dared to make. And most of all, it will require God's blessing and divine guidance as we seek to do his will." -- Joe Bjordal is Episcopal Life Media correspondent in the dioceses of Provinces V and VI. Herb Gunn, editor of The Record, the newspaper of the Episcopal Diocese of Michigan, contributed to this story.