Renewal and Revival at St. John’s, Roanoke, Virginia

Case Study
July 10, 2013
Kirk Hadaway

St. John's Episcopal Church is a historic parish, located in downtown Roanoke, Virginia, a few city blocks from the true central business district. It is quite visible, but not really an imposing presence overlooking a busy intersection. The building is stone with a slate roof, and appears to be a large, Early English-style parish or minster, more old country than new, with a large square Norman tower and a very wide and tall nave. Inside, however, the church is pure Victorian Gothic with soaring wooden arches, magnificent paneled ceilings and a tiled floor. The current church building was completed in 1892, soon after the railroad arrived in Roanoke and the population soared in what was once Big Lick, Virginia.

St. John's was always the largest Episcopal parish in Roanoke and is currently the largest parish in the Episcopal Diocese of Southwestern Virginia. During the last 23 years the membership of St. John's always exceeded 1,200 and average Sunday worship attendance ranged between 304 and 531. This parish is much larger than the norm among Episcopal churches nationally and it never declined to the point that closing seemed inevitable or likely—unlike so many other downtown parishes with large facilities.

The largest attendance in the recent history of St. John's occurred in the mid- to late-1990s, when average Sunday attendance exceeded 500 for several years. This high mark was during the tenure of Thomas O'Dell, who was rector from 1992 to 1999, a period that included the construction of a large new parish hall and educational/office wing. Attendance dipped somewhat in O'Dell's last year, however, and fell again to 357 during the two+ year interim that followed. When a new rector was called in 2002 attendance rebounded to 397. Unfortunately, this progress did not continue. Attendance dropped in 2003 to 356 and reached a new low of 304 the year after the rector was encouraged to resign. What happened is a familiar story. A strong congregation became embroiled in conflict. The conflict festered and members left and were not replaced.