Skip to comments.TN: Episcopal Diocese is one of fastest-growing in U.S.
Posted on 03/14/2006 11:43:56 AM PST by sionnsar
Adam Waltenbaugh, 32, remembers the first time he visited St. Francis Episcopal Church in Goodlettsville after a friend invited him.
"I found something I didn't know I was missing," said Waltenbaugh, who was raised in the Church of Christ. "It resonated with me. The history, the tradition and the biblical foundation."
Today, Waltenbaugh, his wife, Kim, and their daughter, Emma, are among 50 individuals who've joined the nearly 3-year-old church. It is the sixth of seven new congregations started in the last 11 years in the Episcopal Diocese of Tennessee, which is recognized as one of the fastest-growing dioceses in the Episcopal Church USA over the last dozen years.
A big part of that growth came from establishing new congregations - a process commonly called "church planting."
Bishop Bertram Nelson Herlong, who is retiring later this year, has led the Nashville-based diocese for the past 12½ years. The diocese now has more than 16,000 baptized members, up from 12,000 in 1994, Herlong said.
"When I came to Tennessee, we hadn't started a new congregation in 13 years," said Herlong, who challenged the diocese about 11 years ago to start a new congregation each year through 2006.
The diocese's average Sunday attendance, influenced by new parishes as well as increases in attendance at existing churches, contributed to the diocese's growth rate, said the Rev. Keith Brown, a Fresno, Calif.-based management and trends consultant who works with dioceses throughout the United States.
"If we look at Bishop Herlong's 12-year episcopate, average Sunday attendance grew nearly35%, a rate of attendance growth higher than any of the 99 domestic dioceses in the Episcopal Church," Brown said. "This rate of growth, as well as the number of new church plants, is even more remarkable compared to the many larger dioceses.
"There is no question, in my mind, that the Diocese of Tennessee has a legitimate claim to be called the fastest growing," Brown said.
The Diocese of Tennessee, the state's oldest Episcopal diocese, is composed of 51 congregations in a region that extends to the Tennessee River in the west to atop the Cumberland Plateau in the east. The state was divided into three dioceses in the 1980s.
"Our growth here in the diocese is in terms of percentage, not in total numbers," said the Rev. Chris Findley, vicar of St. Francis. "For instance, the Diocese of Texas has an incredible church planting program and last I heard they led the denomination in sheer numbers."
The diocese's church planting includes hiring new priests to help plan and lead the new churches such as Findley, a former Army officer who moved his family to Middle Tennessee straight out of seminary in Pittsburgh.
This is happening in the Midstate as some mainline denominations report fewer young people entering the ministry and replacing retiring clerics. Three years ago, the Episcopal Church's Church Pension Group reported that the Episcopal Church could experience a clergy shortage in 10 years if the number of ordinations to the priesthood did not increase - but so far the diocese here has had no trouble finding new priests.
The Diocese of Tennessee has been one of two dioceses nationally to have an increase in average Sunday attendance since the denomination's General Convention of 2003, when the national church ordained the first openly gay bishop and authorized the blessing of same-sex unions.
This intensified an existing struggle of governance within the 77 million-member Anglican Communion. Several U.S. parishes severed ties with ECUSA.
Also, during Herlong's tenure, membership declines plagued the major mainline Protestant denominations.
"Almost all the mainline denominations have experienced declines in the last 10 to 20 to 30 years," said the Rev. Timothy Jones, senior associate rector at St. George's Episcopal Church in Nashville and author of The Next American Spirituality with co-author and pollster George Gallup Jr. "We've had sustained and steady growth. Most dioceses are declining in growth. We've been a wonderful, striking exception to that."
To date, seven parishes have been established with plans for an eighth one.
"We have not found a location and we are looking for a priest," Herlong said, adding that the church analyzes prospective church sites using the same data used by fast-food giant McDonald's.
"We are looking for rapidly growing areas," he said. "The demographics tell us not only who lives there now but it gives us 5-, 10-, 15-year projections."
About a dozen years ago, the first area in which the diocese looked to locate a new church was Williamson County, one of the nation's wealthiest and fastest-growing counties.
The Rev. Randy Dunnavant, rectorof Church of the Good Shepherd in Brentwood, recalls how his church started on June 4, 1995, with 30 people. Today, there are more than 700 members and the church is in the middle of a $2 million building expansion project.
Herlong tapped Dunnavant to establish the church where most of the new members were recent transplants to Middle Tennessee or converts to the Episcopal Church.
"We knew that there were already over 100 local households attending other Episcopal churches," he said. "We wanted to give an opportunity to people in the community who did not have a church home. This parish was planned for by all the neighboring parishes. All the neighboring parishes had a hand in picking the location and identifying the need."
When asked whether the new church pulled Episcopalians from area churches, he said many of the founding members volunteered to come from other parishes to help the new church get on its feet.
"Excitement is contagious," he said. "The churches that surround us have also grown. I think planting new churches infuses a whole denomination with growth and excitement."
Herlong said he wanted to have a strong, growing diocese that reaches individuals who have never attended a church before, as well as Christians unaffiliated with any local churches.
So he began outlining long-range plans he called "big, holy, audacious goals" with other local Episcopal leaders to enliven the diocese in areas that included youth work, church giving, missions, Christian education and evangelism.
"There are a lot of Episcopalians out there who don't know it yet," said Herlong, drawing chuckles as he spoke during an evangelism and congregational seminar last week in Nashville. "About 35% to 50% of the people have no religion at all and we don't have to worry about stealing sheep from the Methodists or the Baptists. While we are growing, our mission is not just about church growth. If you're doing your job, the church will grow. We don't convert people. All we do is provide opportunities to bring them to Christ."
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