Annual Meeting 2013 ~ Small Seeds: Desperately Needed Growth

My good friend over at Kindism has been writing somewhat about The Mother Church’s “Church Alive” initiative. This initiative seeks to deal with a pressing issue within the Christian Science Church, and that is rapidly dwindling membership. Now, it is well known by anyone familiar with Christian Science that the Church does not publish the numbers of members, but any examination of data that is available indicates a church in steep and increasing decline. It is estimated that the peak was reached somewhere between the late 1930s – mid 1950s, approximately, and the decline has been rapid since then. However, this post isn’t really about that subject, per se, but more about a very obvious (to me) reflection of this decline–the fact that this year, Annual Meeting was held exclusively on-line. The theme was “Small Seeds…Vital Growth”. I’ve modified that slightly for the title of this post.

I did not watch Annual Meeting live–I was at work that day–I need to pay my rent and utilities, and I happen to just like my job a lot, and the clients we help appreciate it when I come to work too. I do remember pausing for a moment that day and remembering how, back in the day when I did work at The Mother Church many years ago, Annual Meeting was crazy time. I’m so glad those days are over. I can say that I have never logged in to watch Annual Meeting since I left Boston, and definitely not since I left Christian Science, and that includes one year when I wasn’t working and could have watched it. No, the Monday after the first Sunday in June passes quite uneventfully for me these days. This year, I was occupied by some scintillating spreadsheets, statistics reports, and client files.

I have, however, in the interests of research for this post, and to be honest, morbid curiosity, scanned through the re-broadcast which is currently up on the ChristianScience.com website. If you have a burning need to watch for yourself, click here.

First impression: I enjoyed the organ prelude. I always loved listening to the organ in the Extension of the Mother Church when I was living and working in Boston. Nice shots of the organ, the church dome, and the organist playing a piece I’ve heard often on that organ, and it sounded great. However, no shots of what I figure were empty pews. Since Annual Meeting was held on-line, nobody crowded into the Extension this year–except probably a few camera and tech folks who shot the video. By the way, in the 10 years I worked at the Mother Church, and attended each and every Annual Meeting, the Extension was never completely filled to capacity–close one or two years (2002 when the Mary Baker Eddy Library opened, and the giant 2003 extravaganza, simulcast at massive expense from Boston and Berlin, Germany). You would never know that by watching the webcasts of Annual Meetings past. I believe at one time, the Extension seated 5,000, and it was reduced to around the 3,000 or so that it is now sometime in the 1950s. Only the Sunday morning church services are held there now, and I never saw more than perhaps 100 or so at a regular (non-Annual Meeting) Sunday service in the years I was there. It was always sadly empty. Even the much smaller (800 person capacity) Original Edifice was never filled for Wednesday evening testimony meetings, and in the latter years I was living there, they even closed the balcony in there, and still couldn’t fill the lower area, which seats around 300 I think. I’d say on a good Wednesday evening you might see 60 or so people, many of whom were employees of the Church.

Going into the “meat” of the meeting, cut (or sort of rough pan of the camera) to the Boardroom, where the only folks required to be at Annual Meeting* are seated–the Officers of The Mother Church. They are a group of largely older folks (50+), but not as old as your average branch church membership–most of these folks haven’t hit 75 yet, and most are under 60. I think one of the Board members might be closer to {gasp} my youthful mid-40’s age. Noticeable to me, was the fact that all of the faces, except one, were white. Not a lot of racial diversity here, or in much of the Christian Science church outside of Africa for that matter. Yes, it’s a very white church. It always has been. Until about the 1950s thereabouts, practitioners’ race was listed in their Journal listings, and my alma mater, Principia College did not admit students who were not white. It’s a little inconvenient history that the Church and the “culture” of Christian Science would like to forget about.

First off, and this is just a personal thing for me, the Board member who introduces and acts as sort of the “emcee” has an almost sickeningly saccharine mannerism about him. It’s a very Christian Science-y sort of mannerism and I’ve always felt this sort of thing to be quite fake. The fake happy “CS pasted smile” as I have sometimes called it. Even when I was in the faith, I couldn’t stand it–I sometimes called folks like this the “happy happy God is love” folks. Oh how I had to just grit my teeth, quell my desire to slap them upside the head, and play through it sometimes. But hey, I’m also one of those people who hates mornings, (until I’ve had my coffee–and even then it’s no guarantee), can’t stand happy morning people, and I’m a huge fan of Grumpy Cat. Read my blog for awhile and you’ll see that my humour tends on the dry to dark and sarcastic side.

I let the video run for a bit, but Mr. Saccharine Smile was a bit too much for me to take, so I skipped forward to one of the first live via Skype inserts, which is what they used for some of the “reports from the field” (a required element of Annual Meeting). The report was from a church in Victoria, British Columbia (yay Canada, eh?). Immediate impression: with maybe one exception, only one person appeared to be under 75 years of age, and she was the hostess. The folks in the background were uniformly elderly, mostly white-haired, and white. Canada, by the way, is a very multi-racial country, but you wouldn’t know it if you stepped into a Christian Science church here (if you can find one, that is).

The whole video of Annual Meeting is around 95 minutes long, and I honestly have no desire to look at the whole thing and Mr. Saccharine Smile would make me want to throw my laptop at the wall eventually, so I clicked through randomly. A few other Skype inserts from what looked to be a church somewhere in the United States (mostly older white folks again)–all talking about growth (need for it, and perceived growth). Few to no non-white faces until you got to reports from various churches and groups in Africa, and a segment that I didn’t expect–a woman in Johannesburg, South Africa who runs community outreach from a Christian Science church there–I didn’t watch the whole thing, but what I saw was touching, she is having a very positive effect on some very vulnerable members of that community and performing a hugely vital service to them. This is something my experience in Christian Science would lead me to never expect. Perhaps the Church is opening up and realizing that this world out here is real after all–there are real problems, and “boots on the ground” do more than prayers and platitudes. I offer a caveat here and that is that this is a church in South Africa, and I’ve noticed one thing: Christian Scientists outside of the United States are generally (but not universally) more progressive in their outlooks on most issues, including the use of medical treatment. For examples of how social conservatism grips much of the Christian Science movement in the United States, look no further than the current controversy surrounding the fact that Principia does not admit students who are openly homosexual. My friend at Kindism has written a number of posts about this issue and other things about Principia.

Overall, I heard some of the same messages, and the same conversations I heard year in and year out when I was toiling away as a dutiful worker at the Mother Church and as a long-suffering branch church member. Growth, how to achieve it, what can be done, and the persistent denial that overall, growth really isn’t happening. Yes, probably it is in certain places, most notably in countries in western Africa, but overall, you cannot deny that the Christian Science Church is contracting overall. They’re desperate to be relevant. They’re desperate to survive. They will for awhile. The Treasurer reports funds on-hand of over US $600 million–large growth over previous years. It’s a tidy sum. Properly managed, it will last for quite a long time. Also, as branch churches in North America, Europe, and Australia continue to shut down, that valuable real estate will go to the Mother Ship.  However (I do use that word a lot), a large chunk of the recent financial growth can be attributed to the leasing out of unused office space on the expansive campus in Boston. It isn’t from growth in the field. The Mother Church is a starving animal that is essentially feeding on itself.

I also did a quick scan through the Annual Meeting Twitter feed, which is also posted. I scrolled through several entries, and there are quite a few…from a few people. I counted up around perhaps 80 – 100 or so individuals, not including posts from Twitter accounts obviously connected to the Mother Church. If I took out people I know who work at the Mother Church, you could knock it down another 20 or so. Not huge numbers, if you ask me, considering that this is supposed to be a worldwide event. I do not know how many people would have viewed this year’s Annual Meeting. If I was to hazard an educated guess, I’d probably say 10,000. I’d be amazed if it was much more.

The folks over there in Boston can say all they want that this year’s Annual Meeting was an experiment to give everyone a front-row seat at Annual Meeting, no matter where they are, and that may be true, but I firmly believe the real reason is cost. In the past, Annual Meeting was a massive extravaganza with events and workshops sometimes stretching to a week or more, travel to exotic locations worldwide to film field reports; and people flown in from not only all corners of the United States, but from some far reaches of the world to conduct workshops. None of that stuff comes cheap. The 2003 party in Boston and Berlin was a massive logistical and financial undertaking. The days of big budgets are long gone, and I think never to return. Even in the latter days I was in Boston, they scaled things back significantly, and the last Annual Meeting I was there, I don’t recall anything much other than maybe one or two workshops outside of Annual Meeting itself. Small seeds, and I think that’s all there is going to be.

____________________

The only people required to be at Annual Meeting are the officers of The Mother Church: Pastor Emeritus, President, First Reader, Second Reader, Treasurer, Clerk, and the Christian Science Board of Directors (Manual of The Mother Church, Article XIII, Section 1). The Pastor Emeritus is Mary Baker Eddy, who suffered from a belief of death in 1910; so, I’m not sure how she is able to make it, but she is always the first one announced as one of the officers. Back in the day, I always thought that was weird. Now, I just think it’s creepy. I didn’t see one of the ubiquitous portraits of her in the background, although, they are frequent throughout many of the office spaces, and interestingly, at some people’s desks. In the hallways was one thing, but I thought it was just plain weird to have one at your desk. I guess I’m just too normal–I only had a picture at my desk of me and my girlfriend at the time from some outing we went on.

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3 thoughts on “Annual Meeting 2013 ~ Small Seeds: Desperately Needed Growth

  1. Pingback: a Church Dispirited and Prayers for Prosperity | kindism

  2. A little note…I changed the title of this post to “…Desperately Needed Growth” from “…Vitally Needed Growth”. Just had to interject a little more of my likably sarcastic humour into this post.

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