Sunday, September 4, 2011

A Little More about Who We Are

by Bruce Robison
Rector, St. Andrew’s, Highland Park, Pittsburgh

I would begin a first contribution in this space with a word of appreciation to the Nomination Committee of our Episcopal Diocese of Pittsburgh for the good work they have done in preparing our Diocesan Profile. It will be, I think, an excellent introduction to the life of our diocese for those who may be considering an invitation to be in the mix of the discernment that will lead to the election of our next bishop.

As Lionel and I have said in developing this space, the Profile also may be and should be a great catalyst for those of us here in the diocese who will be participating in this process not as nominees but as electors. It is vitally important that we have among ourselves, prayerfully and respectfully, a full and robust and out-in-the-open conversation about who we are, about how God is calling us to live, to minister, to grow—and about what is of value to us as we begin to consider the character and personality and particular gifts that we would hope to find in our next bishop.

In all that, I hope to be an occasional contributor to “Our Pittsburgh Diocese”—and I hope as well that there will be many contributions along the way, from many different contributors, to reflect the rich diversity of background and perspective and experience in our diocesan community.

And so I would begin here to say that two of the sections that caught my attention right away as I looked through the Profile are found on pages 11 and 12: “Our Diocese Today” and “The Clergy of the Diocese.” Two sections mostly statistical but I think compelling, fascinating, and well worth highlighting and pondering as we move forward together.

We talk about the numbers of parishes in our diocese, and about the numbers of clergy, and it is helpful to think about what this all really means “in real life,” about the state of things as they are. Church statistics are always a little slippery, to be sure, but they can be helpful as well, at least in a broad-brush way to communicate a feel for what things are like.

One traditional Episcopalian way to think about the settled ministry of a diocese is to think about parishes that are served full-time by priests compensated “at or above” the diocesan minimum compensation/benefits guidelines for full-time clergy.

In the old days, if a congregation couldn’t support a full-time priest at the diocesan minimum and pay full diocesan assessment, that congregation would be a “Mission” rather than a “Parish.”

In any event, while we don’t use that vocabulary here in Pittsburgh anymore, we would note that there were 13 priests fitting this definition at the time of the publication of the Profile, nearly half of whom (6) served in our three largest parishes. (The departure of Nate Rugh for Los Angeles this past summer would I think move the numbers—so we would say there are now 12 priests serving and compensated at full-time levels in the diocese, 5 of whom serve the three largest congregations.)

Another somewhat informal but familiar metric to assess congregational vitality in the Episcopal Church suggests that in terms of human and financial resources, congregations can reasonably attain and maintain a level of pastoral stability with an “average Sunday attendance” (ASA) of about 100 and a “normal operating income” of about $150,000. A full-time priest, somebody to play the organ on Sunday, maybe a part-time secretary or sexton, the ordinary infrastructure expenses, insurance, utilities, repairs and maintenance, and of course the inevitable diocesan assessment.

The statistics reported in the Diocesan Journal at our 2010 Diocesan Convention would indicate that there were in the Diocese of Pittsburgh, in 2009, 7 congregations reporting attendance and operating income above both these baseline figures—Calvary East Liberty, St. Paul’s Mount Lebanon, Christ North Hills, St. Michael’s Ligonier, St. Andrew’s Highland Park, St. Thomas Oakmont, and St. Stephen’s Mckeesport. (And we would note that while 2010 diocesan statistics have not yet been published, St. Stephen’s Mckeesport would no longer be counted in the group.) Three additional parishes—Brentwood, Franklin Park, and Homewood—reported 2009 income above $150,000, but ASA below 100. There is another small handful of parishes where the numbers in one category or the other are “close,” but not quite to the 100/$150K measures.

Approximately 1/3rd of our congregations reported for 2009 average Sunday attendance under 50, and about the same number report normal operating income under $50,000.

And finally, to note: the Profile reports, on page 11, that “the diocese spans 11 counties in Southwestern Pennsylvania.” Of the 32 active congregations, though, it should be noted that more than half, 19, are in Allegheny County, 4 are in Westmorland County, 2 in Indiana County, 2 in Cambria County, 1 in Washington, 1 in Armstrong, and 1 in Somerset. In 4 of our 11 counties (Beaver, Butler, Fayette, and Greene) there is at the moment no Episcopal Church presence. To a considerable extent, of course, we would explain this by noting that following the division of the diocese in 2008, a number of “previously Episcopalian” congregations in these counties are now affiliated with the Anglican Diocese. But we do want to be sure that we’re all looking at the same map when we talk about who we are.

I want to highlight these kinds of general statistics not to be in any sense negative, but to be clear about just where it is that we are right now. We’re a pretty small diocese—2,500 or so people in Church on an average Sunday morning, and about half of those in 6 congregations or so and the other half spread out over the remaining 26.

With all that, this brief conclusion. I personally believe that there is significant opportunity for growth in many ways here in our diocese. We have some extraordinary human and material resources in our midst, and a lot of wonderful, creative, gifted people, lay and clergy.

But I have said to friends sometimes that I believe our next bishop should be a Jackson Kemper or a William Kipp—a true “missionary bishop" like those heroes of the 19th century Episcopal Church, riding on horseback from mission station to mission station along the frontier, gathering small clusters of folk together for Word and Sacrament—in church basements, perhaps, and sometimes in living rooms or coffee shops, putting things together in new and creative ways, on a shoestring—and developing in a patient and steady way over the next decade or so the human and material infrastructure we will need here for the future life and work of the Church.

Certainly not the kind of bishop who might try to focus attention thematically through staff and committees and various forms of corporate bureaucratic structure around the humming busyness of a diocesan office with “big visions” and complicated programs and a focus on systems management—but rather somebody who “gets” and even loves what life and ministry is like in small parishes without much money at hand, one who would spend most of his or her time out in the field, sleeves rolled-up, hands dirty, in a patient, steady ministry, “one-on-one,” of encouragement and evangelism and pastoral care.

So, here then: a first contribution to the conversation. Looking forward to reading more!


  1. An excellent post by Father Robison, which should call us to a point of sobriety. One thing I have noticed over the past two decades is just how easy it is to tear apart churches, and how fragile and difficult positive growth can be. I believe the constant beating, from the right, has driven away a lot of mainstream Episcopalians. I saw this at the Cathedral, which was constantly in play by the manipulating powers in charge after the retirement of George Werner. Clearly the conservatives (and Trinity Seminary?) have had no numeric victory in Pittsburgh. I wonder if things will be any different now. It's a pretty big charge, to rebuild after such devastation at the institutional level.

  2. Peter,

    You have the distinction of being the first to post a comment on Our Pittsburgh Diocese. Thanks for taking the plunge.

    In the future, please conform to our comment guidelines, which are intended to make our conversation as transparent as possible. Include your full name and parish in any comments.

  3. I, too was distressed by the statistics in the Diocesan Profile. Our next bishop will have a big job to accomplish. Even some of our churches we think of as major churches in the diocese are living on the edge and need to grow to secure their future.

    Lionel Deimel
    St. Paul’s, Mt. Lebanon

  4. I think it's very helpful to keep the 'genteel poverty' of the parishes, and therefore of the diocese, in mind during the search process. Whether the endowments may be used to alleviate either is not something the profile would deal with, presumably because the next bishop will want to be part of the decision-making process about that.

    But we also need to be realistic about how much a new bishop can do about these things; it seems to me that there is very little a bishop can do to attract new members to a parish. Perhaps if I knew more about how Kemper and Kip achieved what they did I'd feel differently, but our next bishop's role is more likely to be that of an encourager of parish mission than that of the missionary himself, I think. But I agree that that encouragement needs to be given in the kitchens and fellowship halls and rector's offices of the parishes, not in glossy newsletters and impassioned speeches at diocesan convention.

  5. I should have made it clear I was referring to the diocesan endowments in the above comment. Sorry.

  6. By the way, I didn't see a box to check if I wanted to receive e-mail notification of follow-up comments. It would be helpful if one of those could be added to the blog.

  7. Philip,

    Below the text box for entering comments, there is a link that says “Subscribe by email.” Clicking on this link is how you get e-mail notification for comments on a particular post.

    Lionel Deimel
    St. Paul’s, Mt. Lebanon

  8. Phil,

    I agree in general with your point. But I would just say that in my experience financial resources can generally help healthy congregations "build on success," they generally don't do much in the long run for unhealthy congregations. And in fact, sometimes financial resources allow bad habits and unhealthy situations to continue in ways that can be quite destructive.

    When I look at diocesan and parish financial statements it seems to me that we do indeed have some real opportunity. But both on parish and diocesan levels there isn't enough by a long shot to do "everything." We'll need some careful, long-term mission planning and a focused sense of strategic discipline. One of the things those 19th century guys like Kemper and Kip had was the ability to take the long view--and the patience to build infrastructure.

    On the other point, I agree that the ability of the bishop to build congregations through his or her personal evangelistic efforts is probably quite limited. I don't believe I've ever met someone who told me that he joined the local parish because the bishop was such an effective preacher.

    But I do believe it's important to see that in a diocese of our size and situation that the bishop will need to be a real flesh-and-blood person. Not so much someone who manages by spreadsheet, but one who is as you say in church basements for potluck suppers and with the clergy and lay leadership of the diocese in the places where they live and work. Hands on, in person, and with a winsome, articulate enthusiasm for the gospel of our Lord and the life and ministry of the church.

    Bruce Robison
    St. Andrew's, Highland Park, Pittsburgh

  9. Lionel--my name is apparent from my ID, but not my parish (Christ Church, Indiana). How did you and Bruce+ get your parish names included with your signature? --I very much agree with what Bruce+ defines as a "missionary bishop"--someone who "is able to take the long view and has the patience to build infrastructure." As the song in _Music Man_ says, "you gotta know the territory" if "sales"--or in our case, evangelizing (seen as the strengthening and spread of the faith through the building and encouraging of parishes on a one-on-one basis, which involves a lot of listening and remembering) --is going to happen.

  10. Another question. When do you check the box "subscribe by e-mail"? I "posted comment," planning to check the box after that, but didn't get a chance to. --Experiment: I "subscribed" and that seemed to work. Now I'll "post comment."

  11. Celinda,

    There's nothing fancy about getting one’s name and parish below a comment. After you’ve typed your comment, just hit Enter twice, your name, Enter again, and your parish. As for subscribing by e-mail, you will be sent complete posts approximately once a day. It’s something of a daily digest.

    Lionel Deimel
    St. Paul’s, Mt. Lebanon

  12. Coming from an outlying parish, I very much appreciate these words of Fr. Robison's about the sort of bishop we need:
    "Certainly not the kind of bishop who might try to focus attention thematically through staff and committees and various forms of corporate bureaucratic structure around the humming busyness of a diocesan office with “big visions” and complicated programs and a focus on systems management—but rather somebody who “gets” and even loves what life and ministry is like in small parishes without much money at hand, one who would spend most of his or her time out in the field, sleeves rolled-up, hands dirty, in a patient, steady ministry, “one-on-one,” of encouragement and evangelism and pastoral care." Bishop Johnson gave a great example of this when he came out and talked to our vestry early in his ministry here. They had been discouraged, and he gave them--through the warmth of his own commitment, and obvious caring about them even though he had only just met them--and through the information he gave them--enthusiasm and hope for the future.

    Celinda Scott
    Christ Church, Indiana


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