"then wilt thou not be loath to leave this Paradise, but shalt possess a paradise within thee, happier far. Let us descend now therefore from this top of speculation; for the hour precise exacts our parting hence" Paradise Lost, Book XII, lines585-590

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

And where from here?

The Episcopal diocese of West Virginia was established 140 years ago, about ten years after the state established its separate identity during the Civil War.  And the diocese has 68 congregations, 3/4 of which were founded before 1900.  Like most places, West Virginia has changed significantly since 1900.  The 20th century saw a boom in coal and railroads as energy resources buried almost everywhere under the state was dug up and shipped off.  Coal mining and railroads were once huge, sprawling industries and extremely labor intensive and so people flooded into West Virginia and towns sprouted up and fortunes were made.

And though a great deal of coal is still mined here, it is not anything like as labor intensive as it once was and neither is rail-roading.  So it turns out that all those little coal camp hamlets and the bigger towns that arose to serve their needs from doctors to movie theaters aren't quite the thriving places they once were.  Exhibit A is the city of Welch in McDowell county at the south end of the state.  In 1950, 100,000 people called McDowell county home and Welch was a bustling place.  Today 22,000 people live there and Welch is a much quieter place.

All of which is a prelude to asking, if we were to start from scratch establishing the Episcopal Church in West Virginia, would we build something that looks the church we have now?  My guess is, probably not.
The image below is taken from an amazing project called the Census Dotmap which aims to show the location of every single person in America.  As you can see, West Virginia has only a few clusters of people.
To locate our churches we would need to know about how many people are needed to support an old-fashioned Episcopal parish (probably about 100 households)and how much of the population can we attract to an Episcopal Church (historically, 1-2%). This would suggest to me that you need at least 10,000 people and probably more like 20,000.  West Virginia has 13 "metro-areas" with more than 20,000 people.  If we built a church for every 20,000 people in those areas we would build 40 or so parishes.  If we were smart though, we'd shoot for a couple of really big congregations in the largest metro areas, which would leave us probably more like 25-30 parishes.  Remember, we have 68 now.

I think the other thing we would do is to develop those parishes with a much greater sense of responsibility to the whole diocese, so that some large portion of their revenue would be directed towards support of ministry centers in the many small towns where we didn't build a parish.  What if we could attract 5% of the population though?  Well, now we're talking about needing roughly 5000 people to make a viable parish.  These are the places where would focus our efforts as a diocese to evangelize and do mission.

I think that to some extent, our desire to recreate the English vision of a parish and a gentleman in every village of the land has meant that we only ever have one goal - a full, self-supporting parish - for our ministry expansion efforts.  I think we can be more creative than that and be ok with letting go of that vision where the population just won't support it but where the progressive Christian tradition at peace with human knowledge championed by the Episcopal church would be an important beacon of hope is needed.  I also think we won't ever reinvigorate this diocese without being willing to let go of the old vision and be ready to go where the people are now and not try to cling to where they were a century ago.

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