Right Rev. Mariann Budde reaching out for a more vital Episcopal Church

On meeting her, you’d hope so. Bright-eyed, string-bean skinny and 52 years old, Budde (pronounced bud-EE) has the athletic bearing and viselike handshake of your high school lacrosse coach. She is unapologetically liberal, and the way she answers hot-button questions — “I’m in favor of gay marriage, always have been. At this point it’s a no-brainer” — is bracing after decades of public squabbling and tepid rhetoric on such matters from church leaders.

But Budde, who was installed last month as the ninth bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Washington, faces a tough road. After a decade of schism within the church and broad disillusionment with mainline Protestantism in general, membership in the Episcopal Church in America — the denomination of FDR and George Herbert Walker Bush, the throne of high WASP-dom — has fallen on hard times.

Recent polls put Episcopalians in America at fewer than 2 million, which means that there are numerically more Jews, more Muslims and more Mormons in this country than there are Episcopalians. Washington, one of the largest and most visible dioceses in the country, has not suffered the same radical attrition as elsewhere; still, membership has stagnated for the past 10 years at about 40,000 members in 88 congregations.

“We got so fascinated with ourselves that the world just sped by us,” Budde said. “We’re like a boutique. We’re the most inclusive church in the world that’s the tiniest church in Christendom. . . . I’m not interested in being the leader of a boutique church.”

Budde was hired because she’s good at growing churches. She was for nearly 20 years the minister of St. John’s in Minneapolis, and during that time, she tripled Sunday attendance to 300 each week and more than doubled church membership to 750. Her intention is to do the same in Washington but on a much larger scale.

Inspired by the books and seminars of Rick Warren, the evangelical mega-pastor who teaches Christians how to grow their churches, Budde plans to focus on providing a meaningful experience of Jesus for the greatest number of people. She will reach out to the folks who aren’t finding satisfaction in churches elsewhere: gays, women and young adults, as well as lapsed Roman Catholics and disenchanted evangelicals.

To lure these seekers, she will direct the greater part of her personal energy and the diocese’s $3.6 million budget to the seemingly banal aspects of congregational life — worship, Sunday school, adult education, the music ministry and repairs to the elevator. These are the things, she believes, that matter to people.

Episcopal churches across the country are empty but for their big-hearted leaders, Budde says. It’s all well and good to want to serve God and help the poor, “but if we don’t get bigger, then everything we want to do is compromised by the fact that we’re so weak.”

On the advice of a public relations consultant, Budde has also decided to concentrate her visible activism on just two issues so as not to be pulled in too many directions. The first, she has decided, is immigration reform. She’s still making up her mind about the second. “Part of my problem just now is, where do I start?” she said with a grin. “Where do I start? There’s so much to do!”

Budde has a reputation for straight talk, but a cradle Episcopalian might wish she were a little less transparent. For at the end of an hour-long conversation in her office, I finally posed the question I’d come to ask. In the last analysis, who really cares if the Episcopal Church is headed for extinction? There are all kinds of vital and vibrant religious movements at work in America today. Why does the Episcopal Church matter? Budde answered earnestly.

“The complete answer,” she said, “is I don’t know if it matters. Does God really care? But then I realize that I really care. And I think of all the people in my world who also really care. I wouldn’t be a Christian without them.”

Armed with her talents and convictions, then, Budde will try to create a bigger, broader church. And one of two things will happen. Either: “In five years, you’ll thank us.” Or: “I may fail. We may fail at this.”