Sometimes the news isn’t good. Sometimes negative trends that seem anomalous at first harden with time. When that happens, how do we learn from bad bad news without being crushed by it?
Feedback loops are vital to healthy churches. Changes in things like attendance and giving have something to teach us, if we listen. But those lessons are often layered and opaque, and if we file them too quickly into hard categories we might drain the bad news of its potential for transformation.
Last week the Episcopal Church’s statistics for 2017 revealed that as a church we continue a numerical decline. Though every church is different, last year ECUSA saw about 2.5% overall decline in attendance. Over 10 years the drop has been about 25%. Ouch.
How do we take news like that seriously without being crushed by it? Does acknowledging bad news foreclose on the possibility of something new happening?
I think we have to take bad news seriously, but do so without panicking. Deficits and empty pews can be painful but they can also be great teachers. Without question, cultural and demographic changes beyond our doors loom large. But our current contraction speaks also of our own reluctance, over generations, to receive mildly painful feedback and to do something about it in a timely manner.
Now the snowball has grown and we want to melt the ice, but we can’t do it all at once. It took several generations to get to this place. I expect it will take us a good number of years to get back out of it. It will take patience, but also a bit more practice in finding the medicine at the heart of bad news.
We can start by learning how to absorb painful feedback without getting into blame, defensiveness or denial. I like what Pema Chodran says about dealing with hard things: when faced with uncertainty, don’t indulge your fears and anxieties but don’t repress them either. Somewhere in between those paths are a productive way to start anew.
The changes are real, and in many ways have been painful. The temptation to wish them away has probably accelerated the loss; it is simply not true to suggest that “we are doing fine.” Yet it’s not true that “we are dying” either. Neither story is the whole story, yet each has something to teach.
Even the grimmest read of these statistics tells us that the 75% of us who are still here (actually, many of those are newly here and pretty excited about it) can be the foundation of renewed church, if we can have the courage to hear and respond to some difficult news along the way.