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A special kind of healer is invoked when the church itself needs saving

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By Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, October 24, 2010

St. Augustine's was facing a death sentence.

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The little Episcopal church on the Southwest Washington waterfront had seen the signs. Since its founders proudly founded St. Augustine's as a racially integrated church in 1961, membership had wilted from 180 to 28. Key members passed away or moved. Paint peeled off the ceiling. Mold grew in the basement. The church couldn't pay its bills.

"It was literally dying," the Rev. Martha Clark said of her parish's state in 2007, when the regional bishop gave St. Augustine's three years to become self-sustaining or be shut down.

That's where Bob Gallagher came in. A former Episcopal priest, the gentle 60-year-old is a professional church savior, a consultant who travels the country trying to resuscitate houses of worship that are losing people and passion. With large swaths of organized religion in decline across the nation, Gallagher's dance card is full.

His initial meetings at St. Augustine's were emotional. He confronted people who had been focused on paying the mortgage with more wrenching questions: Do you really have a reason to be in this neighborhood, or could you move somewhere cheaper? What does it mean to be an Episcopalian? Could you merge with a church from another denomination? Do you agree on worship styles? Who are you?

"I remember being in tears," said Virginia Mathis, 64, a St. Augustine regular for 30 years. "He's pushy in a gentle way."

Wrestling with dramatic changes in how Americans practice their faith, many clergy members are willing to wait months to get guidance from Gallagher or someone like him. These consultants have become a small industry, roaming the country to challenge the definition of "church."

When they work with congregations, they put everything on the table - including whether the pastor and the church building are even necessary. Perhaps worshippers could meet in a movie theater instead. Or consider sharing a pastor with some other church. Or ditch their Sunday morning services for a time more people would find convenient.

Consultants routinely press their clients to stop being so fixated on their real estate, routines and rules. They argue that there are plenty of people who don't have any interest in sitting in pews and listening to sermons. The challenge is to come up with a way to engage them.

"The role of the church and the clergy is dying, but I think it needs to," says Tom Brackett, another minister and consultant who works on church development for the Episcopal Church. "The church doesn't have a mission. We are part of God's mission."

Some parts of organized religion are struggling more than others. Researchers see steeper declines in religious involvement among white Catholics, mainline Protestants and non-Orthodox Jews. But even in faiths that have been growing in numbers, such as nondenominational Christianity, experts say younger Americans are much more estranged from organized religion than young people were a few decades ago.

Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam argues in a new book, "American Grace," that organized religion is suffering - particularly among people in their 20s and 30s - from being too closely tied to divisive political issues, and that it will take decades for that association to wear off.


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