Means of Grace, Hope of Glory


Follow up on St. Paul’s: Growth and Decline

It’s been almost two weeks since we shared the article on growth and decline.

We had promised a follow up. Here it is. 

There are three segments:

            -Responses received


            -Our reflections

Responses received

We’re trying to provide an accurate impression of the range of responses without covering every comment or quoting people.  We were especially struck by, and appreciative of how, responders mostly avoided blame and defensiveness—that can sometimes be difficult and it’s a hopeful sign of capacity for meaningful conversation. 

Most people were appreciative of the article and the attempt to begin a conversation. There was a mixed response regarding finding fault—some agreed with us that fault finding wasn’t useful, others found fault with one or the other of the rectors, though that was generally limited to some specific areas. One found fault with us. There was general affirmation of the article’s position that dealing with the issues belongs to all of us, not just the clergy.

We were surprised by one type of response that came from most (but not all) of those who had read the article and took the time to write or have a long conversation: Hurt. For some the hurt was in the past, and for some it was more recent. All of those responses, though, were thoughtful, full of love for the parish, and often touching in their vulnerability. In a variety of ways, some people wrote of their hurt—being rejected or not accepted, not having their needs heard or addressed, and not being allowed to offer their vocation and gifts in the community. One wrote of talking with two people who had left and their dissatisfaction with things. Two wrote of how the analysis confirmed their own sense of things.

A few long-termers offered insights grounded in their many years at St. Paul’s. One especially liked Fr. Campbell’s “Five Apes” story as a way of understanding parish culture. The “acceptance” issue mentioned above was seen by one person as being long standing in the parish. Another noted there being high attendance with another rector some years ago and a fall off when he left. So, is there a pattern of some sort? One noted that the parish didn’t have a history of being rector driven and another that rectors had made it a point to accept the Anglo-Catholicism of our tradition while rejecting any form of clericalism. There was also some recognition of a broader base of skilled leaders not being formed along the way

From some we heard a sense of resignation, but those responders had all decided they were staying in the parish. There was too much they loved, e.g., liturgy and the music of liturgy, friendships, community, and roots. And there was fatalism and submission, patience and fortitude. There was mention of a lack of energy in the parish.

A couple of people wanted to attribute all the decline to forces outside the parish’s control. They thought that the parish needs a serious conversation about these matters but they wondered if there was some other way to get at it. They didn’t have anything specific in mind about what that way might be.

Overall the comments about what caused the growth and decline were congruent with what we had written but with interesting “takes” and some nuance on the history. Some placed an emphasis in a different place than us. 

A few commented on how the decline begins just after Mother Melissa leaves. One thought there was an over-focus on the rector’s personality involved for some of those people—that the parish in itself wasn’t enough to hold them.

Some noted the rector’s agitation. Some thought it an overreaction and misreading of the article. 

People offered thoughts about what we need to do now—have the conversation, create a new path, build upon our existing strengths, create slow growth, etc.

Some seemed pessimistic about being able to face into this, others less so noting that we have beat the trend before. People’s love for Saint Paul’s comes through again and again. 


On the Sunday after the article was published there were two responses from those in positions of authority. In the sermon we heard the implication that a concern about “numbers” was choosing death and was church killing. It was brief and only those who had read at least some of the article would have caught the meaning. At both coffee hours there was an announcement with comments along these lines—no one requested it, we don’t know how many people have seen the paper, it wasn’t reviewed by anyone in authority, etc.  On Friday the rector and vestry sent an e-mail to everyone on the parish list. They said, “[that they] did not request the creation of this document, nor have an opportunity to review or discuss it prior to publication, nor approve of its contents or its publication. … We believe the document is not only an inaccurate picture of our community and its leaders, but also may be harmful to the fabric of our common life and ministry together.”

Our reflections (just a few of them)

As said above, the number of people noting their hurt was a surprise. Our approach to addressing that would be a structured, thorough, respectful and timely, parish wide conversation. It was rather clear to us that a number of people have not felt heard in earlier attempts to speak about this with parish leaders, past and present. We’d caution that this doesn’t mean that leaders have been ill intended, unwilling or unable. There are many reasons in a parish system why such matters get missed.

In doing this we've recalled story of the blind men and the elephant. They each touched a different part of the elephant--the tusk, the side, a leg. "The moral of the parable is that humans have a tendency to claim absolute truth based on their limited, subjective experience as they ignore other people's limited, subjective experiences which may be equally true." What we have touched in the article is just one piece of St. Paul's life. The parable on Wikipedia

Our writing is a form of independent journalism with professional analysis. As with earlier articles on St. Paul’s it wasn’t approved or reviewed by those in positions of authority. Our practice is that in our books and blog postings we don’t submit articles to others asking for their approval or allow them to edit the material. We do, however, invite people to offer facts we may be unaware of and alternative assumptions and viewpoints. We also encourage others to help us expand our own frames of reference and gain insight into our blind areas. All that might well change our perspective.

We think that what is needed is not a conversation about our article, but a conversation about what the article is about. The beginning point isn’t: What do you make of what Michelle and Robert wrote? Rather it’s more along the lines of: What do you want Saint Paul’s to be in the coming years? What are the gifts that God has given the parish? How might we build upon them? Enhance them? How might we share them with others? What is our blindside? How might that be understood and healed? We know others would add to these questions.  

We continue to hope that parish leaders will lead us into the needed conversation and engage a path of reconciliation and de-escalation. We continue to take responsibility for our own views and actions and welcome conversation with anyone who believes we have made misstatements. If we’ve been clumsy about some of it, we are sorry. We believe that what Christian communities most need is that “perfect love which casts out fear”—it’s a love that is founded on truth and compassion, willingness to stand together in difficult times, and openness to repentance, forgiveness, and continuing to move forward together. 


Michelle Heyne, OA and Robert Gallagher, OA


Background articles

The Church's Way of Reconciliation and Forgiveness    

 Bonding: Priest & People    

Transitions in Parish Size: Part one

Transitions in parish Size: Part two

Conversations parishes need to have: Three Things 



Transitions in parish size: Part two

Adapting parish practice to growth or decline

The parish needs to live in the size it now is. We need to wear clothes that fit.  

When a parish grows there will be a need to increase coordination, routines and standard practices, formal communication and decision-making processes. That’s not just about parish churches. It’s basic organizational behavior.

The size of an organization will impact how these basic tasks are addressed. For example: Very small parishes are more likely to have informal ways of including new people. The greetings are more likely to be one-on-one; the information on culture communicated more by stories and over time; and so on.

Leaders are wise to allow this organic process to just happen. I remember not being so wise. I was the young, new vicar in a tiny urban parish. I decided to have a series of small group social gatherings to get to know people. I had heard how well it worked in other places. The new priest becomes more familiar with more people more quickly. It also may help build new relationships among the members. Makes sense—right!

One Sunday I began to test out the idea with people at coffee hour. Toward the end of coffee hour Rose came up to me (she was 80 years old, very short, had worn black since her husband died many years before, and was loved and trusted in the parish). Rose said, "About these groups. [pause] Don't worry, Father, we'll get to know you." So, no groups! It was a good idea that fit another size parish and another culture. Rose acknowledged my need, but was signaling to me how it would be addressed in this parish. 

Clergy carry ideas that worked in their last parish, or in the pages of a book, into their current parish. That’s inevitable. But that’s where leadership skill comes in. Some understanding of size issues, a feel for the culture of the new parish and its community, a bit of knowledge about group behavior, and a few facilitation skills allow the priest to adapt to the parish’s size. 

If you’re a priest with good skills for one-on-one pastoral care and communication that’s a wonderful ability to have. It will serve you in any size parish. In a smaller parish it will be useful in many situations. In a larger parish it will fit some situations but can’t effectively be used as a primary form of communication and listening. For that you need skills in large group listening and decision-making processes. Using skills that work well in one situation but don’t fit the current situation will cause frustration and resignation in the parish system. It will also mean that the priest is spending time and energy in an inefficient manner. Not so much of a problem in smaller parishes but a considerable problem in a large parish.

Or maybe you’re a priest who likes to keep his fingers in all the pies. You have good ideas and enjoy being directly involved in the action. But if this is a large parish, once again, you’re using your time and energy inefficiently. I’d add that in any size parish you may undermine people’s self-confidence and cause some to pull back from volunteering. Many people don’t like being micro-managed.

All this relates to the question we started with—“Does your parish have an optimum size that periodically reverts to the mean?” I think it does, unless leaders effectively engage the size transition with behaviors that fit. In which case they may be able to stabilize the parish at the new size.  If clergy don't adapt their personal behaviors and the parish’s communal practices to the parish’s size, that will probably impact both the parish climate and size. Keep using small parish methods in a large parish and you may find the parish shrinking. 

Managing anxiety in the parish system

Significant size changes will set off anxiety in the parish system. People may both want to talk about it and to avoid talking about it. It is a core responsibility of parish leaders to manage that anxiety. That means engagement rather than avoidance or suppression.

The conversation has already begun. If your parish has been experiencing either a lot of growth or a significant decline, the conversation has already begun.  People are talking about it—in coffee hour, out in the parking lot, at Dinners for Eight, and in homes at breakfast. Some people may approach the priest or a vestry member and mention their concern. Occasionally one will speak with a vestry member or someone with a blog will write about it. The conversation has already begun. The only question is whether the parish leadership will grab hold of it. Will the rector and wardens move to suppress the conversation or give it shape?

It’s usually true that parish leaders can shut down these conversations. People will generally defer to those in positions of authority. But those in such positions need to learn to ask themselves how to best serve the parish rather than their own anxiety or ego.

Failure to skillfully engage such matters will cause the system to either become depressed and resigned or erupt in some disturbing way. Many leaders will, in practice, opt for a depressed parish instead of an agitated parish. Understandable but mistaken!

If leaders find what’s happening hurtful and displeasing that’s also understandable. But it is in such moments that leaders either rise to the occasion or fail to fulfill their basic responsibilities. Any instinct to suppress the voices of concern needs to be set aside. It’s time for wisdom and emotional intelligence. If you’re a leader and what is being said, or how it’s being said, makes you angry—put on your adult! What’s needed is de-escalation and engagement. Not doubling-down or attempts to control.

Manage the anxiety by maintaining a non-anxious presence and creating an effective process for a parish conversation.

Thoughts on needed conversations

Here I’m trying to suggest direction and examples, not be comprehensive; I assume you will add in your own ideas.

At a national level we could use some serious exploration of how in an increasingly diverse nation we are trying, but generally failing, to reach beyond the predominantly white ethnic base of the Episcopal Church. We might also look at how we have been closing churches—from 7,200 churches in 2004 to 6,447 in 2017—and wonder if that’s been a mistake in many (some) cases.  Or how is it that 3 million identify as Episcopalians and our recorded baptized membership in 2018 was 1,835,931? And then there’s the big one—how to address the increasing non-religious population? How do we better incorporate people already in the pew into our ethos and thereby inoculate them? And how do we speak to people unfamiliar with any Christian viewpoint? And, how do we not confuse those two tasks? Where’s today’s C.S. Lewis?

In our dioceses let’s look at how to help parish churches have the conversations they need to have. Help them do an analysis of the growth and decline issues and dynamics in their parish.

Parishes can begin with two issues: 1) Do we think that the world would be better off if more people were Christians in the Anglican/Episcopal tradition? If the answer is “no,” we can relax. If “yes” then we have some work to do—how might people best be drawn into our parish? How to explore the parish culture and related practices that affect whether people want to come and stay? What is an organic form of evangelization that fits our culture and ethos? And 2) What is needed to have a stable and sustainable parish life? We need to run the numbers. Being pragmatic is part of “true religion.”

For the parish to engage such matters it needs to have the conversation. And our tendency is to avoid having the conversation.  We avoid it for at least two reasons. First, many, maybe most, parishes have poor conflict management skills. We are not good at talking honestly and respectfully about hard matters. Members may think “we should have this discussion” but step aside from raising difficult matters because they sense that the parish won’t handle it well. The tendency to have a conflict averse culture may in part be because of the temperament of core leaders and members. But in many cases, it’s because we are uncertain about how to manage group conversations on challenging issues.  We can learn how to do that.


       MORE – a PDF – “Parish Size: Categories, Dynamics, and Issues”

       Transitions in parish size: part one


Transitions in parish size

Does a parish have an optimum size

One of the most interesting questions I’ve heard recently is, “Does a parish have an optimum size that periodically reverts to the mean?”

Some years ago, I conducted an exercise at a parish meeting. I started with an overview of Doug Walrath’s size categories. Here’s a PDF of that.

The model is still very useful though you’ll need to translate a bit. For example, he wrote it before web pages, so he writes about print communications. You’ll also need to translate it into Episcopal Church culture and language.

Walrath was a sociologist and an ordained leader in the Reformed Church. He offered categories useful across denominational lines: Very Small (Ave Sunday Attendance -under 50), Small (ASA 40-100), Middle-sized (ASA 75-200), Moderately Large (ASA 150-400), and Very Large ASA over 350).  The numbers had a range and overlapped. Doug’s approach involved considering the characteristics.

On a sheet of newsprint, I wrote up a set of numbers—50 – 75 - 100 -125 – 150 – 175 – 200 – 225 - 250. People came forward and placed a mark to indicate the average Sunday attendance they wanted the parish to have. They averaged at 150 ASA -- 25 said 150, 15 said 125, and 15 said 175. One person said 225.

It gave everyone a sense of the collective mind of the parish. It cut through fears about what others thought. Now they knew that no one was okay with the current size (89 ASA). They also knew that they had a common mind on the issue. Many had worried that the parish would have to merge. The financial picture was tight. They wanted a full-time rector, the sense that they knew others in the parish, and could manage financially.

Martin Thornton, priest and pastoral theologian, thought that Anglicans had a mental image of the right sized parish church. He thought it rose out of hundreds of years of experience. My take on the image goes like this—A parish was domestic and familiar. It was home. It had a priest that stayed for quite a time and got to know people. And people got to know the priest. Priest and people had worked out a way to live together in harmony and faithfulness. They had bonded. The church wasn’t large or very small. It was just right. It allowed for vibrant liturgy, good pastoral care, a feeling of being known and accepted, and roots.

I think that’s what that parish was saying in the exercise. That’s what 150 ASA was about. It felt “right” to people.

But when you begin to grow you don’t really have control over what happens. You do all the right things—pay attention to visitors, incorporate newcomers, and so on. And sometimes you don’t grow. And sometimes you grow more than you wanted. In either of those cases you then had a responsibility to live where you were not where your imagination had been. And that is hard to do.

So, “Does a parish have an optimum size that periodically reverts to the mean?” I think the answer is yes; unless leaders and members effectively adapt practices to the new size. In the field of Organization Development, we talk about “the natural tendency of organizations to be in a constant state of equilibrium—there are always forces driving change and there are always forces restraining change. These operate together to mostly maintain the status quo.” (M. Heyne)  In order to stabilize a parish (always just for a time) at a new state of equilibrium there’s a need to change the forces involved. The communication system, leadership skills, and pattern of interaction among members will all need to shift.

A few considerations

I’ll explore how we think about the size issue (numbers or people?), how it’s hard to talk about decline, having an adequate incorporation process, the question of a priest’s competencies and how they fit with the size of the parish, and the conversations we need at the national, diocesan, and parish levels, and how parish leaders can take the parish into a defensive direction or an open, graceful direction. 

Numbers or People?

There’s a chart on the Living Church’s web site showing the Episcopal Church’s continuing decline in attendance and membership along with a stable income pattern.  The pattern for the Diocese of Olympia looks much the same. It’s a slow decline. But it adds up. The national average Sunday attendance has dropped 24.7% from 2008-2018. In the mid 1960s our membership was around 3.4 million people. In 2018 it’s 1,835,931.

David Goodhew wrote an article in Covenant a few days ago. “The Episcopal Church shrank in the 1980s and ’90s by a number of measures, but the pace picked up from around 2000. The pace of decline increased markedly again between 2005 and 2010. Since 2010, it has continued to decline: at a slower pace than 2005-10, but faster than 2000-05. In other words, things are not be quite as bad as they were in 2005-10, but they are bad.” He ended with this, “Numbers are not everything, but the virtue of hard data is that it makes churches face tough questions.”

That last may be wishful thinking. He says, “It makes churches face tough questions.” That hard data should get us to face into difficult issues is true for me. My observation is that we have become skilled at avoiding that conversation at all levels of the church. Parishioners are uncertain how to do it. Parish leaders are often defensive and either ignore the data or shut down conversations that begin by discounting the data or attacking those offering their thinking.

David Paulsen wrote an article from the Episcopal News Service on the decline—"Episcopal Church’s parochial report numbers fuel discussion of decline and rebirth." What struck me about the article was the lack of serious analysis of how we got ourselves into this place. Some people had a favorite solution but solutions without analysis is daydreaming.  There was also a national staff person who tried to fog over the issue by saying how much we’ve grown in other ways (which may be true and worth noting unless you’re using it to avoid the conversation in front of you)

It’s been common in recent years for a segment of the church to discount the importance of the declines in attendance and membership. Often those doing that point to other worthy measures of Christian action. Sometimes the discounting takes a nasty turn.  I recently heard a sermon that implied that to concern yourself with numbers (e.g., average Sunday attendance, membership) was to choose death over life and be a church killer.

Such sentiments are an attempt to shut down a needed conversation, cruel and unworthy of Christian leaders, and callous in regard to all those people who were once part of our Eucharistic communities and have moved on. Yet, as mistaken as such action may be, I think its rooted in fear. Fear of not knowing how to have these conversations, fear of people being hurt and blamed, fear of not being in control, and fear of high-level conflict. And fear is often connected to a sense that there’s not enough love among us to handle this.

There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. (1 John 4:18) 

Hard to have the needed conversation

It is difficult to help a parish community discuss declining numbers without things drifting into blame and defense dynamics. It requires significant competence in group process and decision-making to help such discussions stay with trying to understand what’s happened, what factors are involved, and what we want to do going forward.

Here’s an example of why it’s so difficult. I had been consulting with the parish for about a year. I arrived on one Sunday to participate in the Eucharist and then facilitate a vestry discussion. I was kneeling in a pew, praying before the service began. A woman, call her Kate, slid in beside me and started talking. She wanted to welcome me, tell me how glad they were that I was visiting, and give me a basket filled with a mug, some candy and lots of literature about the parish. I was polite, thanked her and returned to my preparation. After the Eucharist I went into the coffee hour and was surrounded by five vestry members. They wanted to talk with me about Kate’s behavior. They had for some time thought that her approach was intrusive and probably somewhat annoying. Not really helping people feel welcome. I confirmed their impression. Then I asked, “Have you spoken to her about this?”  You know the answer. They didn’t know how to have the conversation. So, Kate had continued doing her thing. And they, the parish leaders believed that visitors were not returning because the that initial exchange. In fact, they found it difficult getting visitors to come to coffee hour.

It may help

It may help to keep two things in mind. The numbers are people. When there’s growth that seems too much, too fast—these are people, brothers and sisters in Christ. When there’s decline and people leave, for reasons other than death or moving, they have been with us in the Holy Eucharist, they are part of us. Their human dignity matters to us.

These may be the lost sheep in Jesus’ parable (Matthew 18:12-14, Luke 15:3-7). The one lost sheep is of such value to the shepherd that he leaves the other ninety-nine to go find the lost one. Or maybe you’d be helped by the story of the prodigal son (Luke 15:11-32). The son that has gone off and wasted his life. He returns home ready to beg to be admitted. His father on seeing him runs out to him, has compassion, and hugs and kisses the son. And as the son begins to apologize, the father has him clothed and orders that a feast be prepared—"for this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found!”

There was a piece of research done many years ago that suggested that if a parish reached out to people who had left within six months there was a good chance of their returning. And that after six months they would have settled into new Sunday routines. But if we fear talking about people drifting away because it might upset some in the parish, we will lose the opportunity to bring people back into the Eucharistic community.

Conversations: humility and courage

These conversations can be well done. It takes some humility and courage, but parish leaders can shape fruitful discussions around difficult issues such as growth and decline.

But won’t there be people blaming others? Blaming the rector, the wardens other members? Yes, you’ll probably have some of that. Some will refuse to be involved. You’ll have to manage some anger and frustration, especially if you’ve side-stepped the issue for a long time. So, you need to invite people to be honest and kind and to avoid blaming or defending. Invite people to share, “What’s your experience?” “What factors do you see in the decline/growth?” “How can we improve things going forward?”

Here’s what I’ve heard in such conversations over the years, especially when there’s been a decline. Some will express concern about people who are gone. A few will get into sharing their take on factors that are involved—The forces external to the parish and within the parish. If they deal with the internal factors in a non-accusatory and professional manner it will usually be well received. Often, you’ll hear talk about their perception of the parish climate—lack of energy, fearful, suppression of people taking initiative, feelings of resignation. Though it is hard work to find a way to address how Kate welcomes visitors. It’s especially tricky to say anything about leaders, especially if they are liked by most of the congregation. If the leaders mishandle it, they go into defense mode. If leaders turn defensive, most people will hear the message—"don’t say anything without permission!”

These conversations seem to open up much more personal stuff. People can be very vulnerable. They talk about being hurt, not accepted for most of their time in the parish, being micro-managed by clergy, fearful to say something at parish meetings. They also talk about their love for the parish and often about how they want to help the leaders. And almost always they say how glad they are to be able to talk about these things.


 Transitions in parish size: Part two


Bonding: Priest & People

When I was on the Bishop’s staff in Connecticut, many years ago, I had oversight of the 21 or so parishes receiving financial aid from the diocese. I also was responsible for offering consulting services and training resources to all the parishes in the diocese. I traveled a lot

After a few years I began to notice a pattern. About 3 years into being a rector or vicar, for the first time, many of these priests would begin to talk about leaving. Some said, “I’ve run out of tricks” – as in programs to offer and interesting sermons to preach. Others would talk about being tired, worn out. Occasionally the word “burnout” would be used. There were a few cases in which the priest had left another parish after 4 years or so.

There was a pattern. In fact, there was also a theory about the pattern I was seeing. I first ran into the theory as a group process lab trainer with MATC (Mid Atlantic Training Committee). It was a way of understanding group development; phases groups moved through or got stuck in because they couldn’t move through. One aspect of the theory was about the phases of the relationship between the participants and trainer. The central issues and dynamics were the same between members and a leader, employees and a manger, a Marine squad and its NCO, and parishioners and their priest.

Then I came across an article by Warner White in an Alban Institute publication, “Should I Leave?”  Fr. White looked at the phases of the priest - parish community relationship from the beginning to maturity. The mix of all these resources helped me develop my own framework.

The phases

I think there are three broad phases in the initial relationship between priest and parish community.

Inflated hopes (years 1 – 2)– Also called “the honeymoon.” The priest tells us how glad he is to be at Saint Mary’s and what a special place it is. We tell the priest we are delighted with his arrival and certain he will provide what we need for this next step on our journey. The focus is on the positive. We give one another the benefit of the doubt. We allow for mistakes. We excuse errors. We don't really accept each other. Not yet. We don't know each other well enough to do that. Not yet.

Disappointment (years 3 – 4)– The priest discovers what wasn’t acknowledged in the parish profile or maybe the profile said the parish wanted something but that wasn't really true for most people in the parish. The congregation learns what the priest meant when she spoke of an occasional bump in the road in her previous positions.   Both realize what questions they failed to ask in the interviews. Rubs develop in the relationship. The tentacles of those rubs were usually visible in the previous phase.  In some cases the word “disappointment” is too strong for what we experience. Maybe it’s a series of small let downs. But it becomes clear that the honeymoon is over and a state of contentment and fulfillment hasn’t yet arrived.

Realistic Expectations and Relationship (years 4 – 6 and after) – A time of mutual respect and mature stability. We know much more of one another now. We have come to a point of realism about what we expect and acceptance of each other’s human limitations. This phase is the result of hard work around the spiritual and emotional dynamics experienced in the earlier phase. The earlier disappointments were adequately worked through.


The dynamics

The dynamics seemed to be these - There is no avoiding the phases. The priest and the parish community may move through the phases more or less quickly. A phase may take a year or two more in some cases. Some parishes get stuck in a phase, e.g. disappointment that never gets worked through, or maybe staying on a pretend honeymoon. Parishes that are conflict prone or conflict averse may have a more difficult time moving toward a realistic and mature relationship. 

Parishes may cycle back to earlier stages -- there may be times of regression when the parish community and/or key lay leaders and/or the priest are experiencing a period of high anxiety, threat or helplessness. This recycling back might  bring deeper insight, increased emotional maturity, and closer bonds or a deeper form of being stuck. 


In time I pulled some of those pieces together into my own version of the phases. Here’s a PDF of that Bonding: Priest and Community   


New life

The Bishop looked at what we were experiencing and decided on a policy. A priest was expected to stay in place five years, and preferably seven years. If they were having a difficult time, we would help them explore what was going on and how they might come at things differently. And if they insisted on leaving they needed to know that they wouldn’t get another placement in that diocese and might also not receive a recommendation if they went to another diocese.

We wanted them to see that when the question, “Should I leave?” came to them, it was really an invitation to grow. It was time to "go" Benedictine--be stable, listen and obey, then see what new life began to emerge. Of course, for that to work, a critical mass of the parish community, including those most at odds with the priest, would have to engage the same process - stability, obedience, them conversion of life. But for the most part, the priest was the one who would have to take the most initiative.

What we discovered was that most priests were able to do that. They developed new ways to engage the parish community. They prayed. They found humility and courage and persistence that they didn’t know was available. God is merciful.

Give thanks to the God of heaven, *
    for his mercy endures for ever.



Saint Paul’s Parish, Seattle: Growth & Decline

Follow up on St. Paul's Growth and Decline (Feast of the Holy Cross 9/14/19)

As promised we've posted an article on responses received, events, and our reflections.  You can find that here. 

An act of offering: This is our contribution to the conversation in our parish and in other parishes around the issues and dynamics of growth and decline. It's a piece of independent journalism. It's not an "official" parish document. No one asked for it. No one got to approve it or remove material that made them uncomfortable. We aren't functioning as consultants in our own parish (usually a bad idea). But like everyone else in the Eucharistic community we offer our gifts. We lay them upon the altar for God to use as God decides. 

 We hope to hear from more of you -- what do you think are the factors involved in growth & decline? Are there facts we have wrong? Let us know. Are there assumptions or characterizations you see differently? We'd be glad to hear from you. What do you think might be fruitful ways forward?

Our hope is that parish leaders will use it as one small part of a larger parish dialogue. Such dialogue, and the pursuit of truth, never harms a Christian community. The fruits are in the response. When engaged with an open heart other views and the related dialogue can enrich a community.When responded to defensively it can decrease trust and make people afraid to offer views that may differ from the leaders.


We’ve reported on the life and ministry of Saint Paul’s over the years. It’s mostly been about the extraordinary growth of the parish and the transition period from one rector to another.

This posting is about the process of growth and decline between 2005 and now.

We will explore factors that may have contributed to both the parish’s growth and decline. We’ll come at that task in our usual manner with a mixed approach drawing on the fields of organization development and ascetical and pastoral theology and practice.

Our hope is that those who read this will offer intercession for St. Paul’s; hold us on your heart before God. We also hope this will stimulate those not from St. Paul’s to better understand the issues and dynamics of their own parish and to approach the difficulties of their parishes with generosity and prayer. Those who are from St. Paul’s are invited to allow this article to stimulate their own thinking and prayer. Where our choice of words or ideas does seem quite right, we hope you’ll offer your thinking to us and parish leaders. When we have missed some important element of the story, we hope you’ll add it in.

There are two elements to this.

A paper presenting our hypotheses about the parish’s growth and decline. 

               Here’s that PDF - Saint Paul's Parish, Seattle: Growth & Decline

Also, below are a series of PDFs and links. Those at the top are theories, models, people and issues that are mentioned in the paper. Those that follow are background resources on the parish, mostly earlier blog postings.



You may find this paper helpful in understanding our approach. Understanding from Within: Working with Religious Systems, Heyne & Gallagher  It's a piece we wrote in 2015 for the OD Practitioner, a professional journal of the Organization Development Network. The paper offers an overview of how organization development (OD) came to be used in religious systems, especially in the Episcopal Church. It goes on to discuss how the "secular" resources of OD were modified to better fit their use in the church. The paper  includes a discussion of how St. Paul's used the knowledge and methods of OD beginning in 2005. 


Theories, models, people and issues that are mentioned in the paper, by section

The issue we face

Order of the Ascension       Website

About Michelle Heyne, OA & Robert Gallagher, OA     Webpage

Contextual Issues        A PDF


Why the growth - decline?

Action research      A PDF       A web page


Related to 2005 - 2013

Appreciative stance & behavior     AI Fact Sheet     A worksheet for the parish   Web page

       Rob Voyle’s “Creating Sustainable Change through Incarnational Leadership” (About St. Paul's)

       Three Approaches to Planned Change   Voyles' Clergy Leadership Institute

Liturgical Presence Booklet and related     

            web page (for booklet-go down to "The Ministers of the Altar")

John Orens’ “The Anglo Catholic Vision”   PDF 

SWOT Analysis   webpage 1      webpage 2     worksheet PDF

Christian Proficiency by Martian Thornton   web site for book     An excerpt


Training programs         Church Development Institute     College for Congregational Development                                                                        Organization Development Certificate 

Pastoral theology models     Renewal-Apostolate Cycle   Shape of the Parish 


Parish Size: Issues & Dynamics      A PDF - issues & dynamics    Doug Walrath size chart

          A PDF of the Average Sunday Attendance of Seattle parishes

          "Transitions in Parish Size"

Development of the 5:00 mass     Praying at the Edges      Gallagher notes      GTS article

      CJN - from hostility to hospitality 


Related to the interim period 2014-15

Parish Profile 2014    a PDF

Holy Cow! Consulting and the CAT survey   website 


Related to 2015 - 2019

Intervention Theory - C. Argyris       PDF       Argyris webpage

Organizational culture      webpage   Changing culture PDF

Conflict avoidance        A web page   

Bonding: Priest & People    A web page

What we can best influence 

St. Paul's - a future    web page

The Benedictine Promise     PDF-dynamics of parish   PDF-Spiritual Life 

Loving Critics       PDF-one page overview     John Gardner's remarks

Daily Office     web page (links to resources at bottom of the posting)

Anglo Catholic tradition and social issues    PDF-Ken Leech     PDF-Orens    PDF-inner city

       The Renewal of Catholic Spirituality-Leech

Means of Grace, Hope of Glory - Parish Development Blog    web page    

The Church's Way of Reconciliation and Forgiveness     web page


Background resources on Saint Paul's Parish

Saint Paul's Parish  website


From 2011

The Hospitality of God     webpage   The book has a chapter on St. Paul's


From 2013

These are blog postings from 2013. They look at the growth in spiritual vitality and attendance. The first report centers on the visit of two bishops in 2010. 

 “But it was at St. Paul’s Seattle that we experienced most fully the power of shared gesture for building up a sense of the body of Christ and of a community intent on God.” They then described the liturgy and then asked themselves a question, “What was special about this worship?”

They noted that it was fundamentally “familiar” and “conventional” and went on to share three elements that “contributed to its being a stunning and moving experience.” First, “a deep spirituality of engagement by the entire congregation.” Second, it was carefully choreographed and rehearsed, yet it did not feel precious or stilted; the whole liturgy was a beautiful dance.” Third, “the non-verbal participation by the entire congregation” referring to acts of mutual reverence that had the effect of “creating a sense of a community engaged in something entirely corporate and significant for them.”

The other reports explore the process by which the revitalization took place.



From 2014

A look at common issues and dynamics in the search process. In retrospect its possible to see a few places where what happened during the search process had an impact on growth and decline.


From 2015


Understanding from Within: Working with Religious Systems, Heyne & Gallagher  An article in the OD Practitioner, a professional journal of the Organization Development Network. The paper includes a discussion of how St. Paul's used the knowledge and methods of OD,


From 2018

Thoughts on how the parish could take bolder action in protecting its institutional life and making use of its resources. 


From 2019


A presentation by the Rt. Rev. Melissa Skelton on her work at Saint Paul’s  A very useful overview of how Mother Melissa approached the revitalization and growth of St. Paul's beginning in 2005. You may find that it helps in understanding both the actions taken, and the mostly effective place of her temperament, in the development work at St. Paul's. You may also notice that a small part of that included a rather hard edge as she describes taking punitive action against a priest associate and against the parish's treasurer at the time she arrived at the parish. A decade after the events describes, Melissa seems to take pride in actions that many priests might be embarrassed about. The treasurer is not named but was in fact Michelle Heyne, the co-author of this paper. The truth is that Michelle cleaned up a huge mess and made it possible to present the new rector with an accurate picture of the parish's financial troubles. 


Books and a web page: organization development and ascetical and pastoral theology and practice

This is the reading list for Associates of the Order of the Ascension 

The History of Parish Development in the Episcopal Church