Episcopal Church Continues Uninterrupted Decline

Declines in Episcopal Church membership continue a downward spiral that began in the early 2000s. Updated statistics made available this week by the Episcopal Church Office of Research show a denomination continuing a gradual, uninterrupted decline in 2015. The U.S.-based denomination shed 37,669 members in 2015, a decline of -2.1 percent, while attendance declined -20,631, down -3.4 percent. A net 43 parishes closed, bringing the denominational total to 6,510 congregations.

The pattern is consistent with past years, in which dioceses in New England, the Rust Belt and predominantly rural areas post sharp declines, while dioceses in the South either retain their numbers or decline at a more gradual rate.

Episcopal Church officials, including former Presiding Bishop Katharine Jefferts Schori — who completed a nine-year term in office in late 2015 — have predicted that decline would level off after years of internal dispute and the departure of dioceses, congregations and individual members. While there were no major congregational departures in 2015, the denomination still exceeded its baseline rate of decline of approximately 28,000 members a year by a substantial margin. Presiding Bishop Michael Curry has struck an optimistic tone, encouraging the church to embrace its role in “the Jesus Movement” even as he seeks to address a workplace culture marked by “fear, mistrust and resentment” at the church’s national headquarters.

Curry’s own Diocese of North Carolina, which had mostly escaped membership decline in the past 15 years, aided by a booming state population, experienced a -0.9 percent drop in membership and a -4.8 percent drop in attendance in 2015. The diocese has seen its average attendance drop -14.7 percent since 2005.

Dioceses posting large membership declines include New York (-9.6%), Central New York (-5.1%), Newark (-6.1%), Maryland (-7.1%), Iowa (-7.6%), Eastern Michigan (-5.6%), Michigan (-6.4%), Missouri (-6.8%), South Dakota (-7.1%), Western Kansas (-6.7%) and Navajo Missions (-11.9%). Several overseas jurisdictions also posted large membership losses, including Ecuador-Central (-35.6%), Taiwan (-7.6%), and the Convocation of American Churches in Europe (-21.4%). More than half of the membership decline in the Episcopal Diocese of New York (-5,682 members) appears to have originated from St. Bartholomew’s Church in Manhattan, where the parish purged nearly 3,500 inactive members from its rolls.

A handful of dioceses posted gains, including Central Florida (+0.7%), Easton (+0.4%), Lexington (+1.7%), Upper South Carolina (+1.0%), Eau Claire (+1.6%), North Dakota (+1.1%), Montana (+0.4%), Oklahoma (+0.6%), Eastern Oregon (+1.1%), Hawaii (+1.1%) and Nevada (+2.8%). The church’s “renewing” dioceses, which are rebuilding after a majority of their members departed the Episcopal Church, continue to be a mixed bag: Fort Worth posted a gain of 57 members (+1.2%) and the Episcopal Church in South Carolina grew 319 members (+5%) while Pittsburgh dropped 28 members (-0.3%) and San Joaquin posted a decline of 147 members (-6.9%) (the tiny remaining Episcopal Diocese of Quincy, Illinois was absorbed into the Diocese of Chicago).

In attendance, dioceses posting large declines include Connecticut (-7.6%), Albany (-7.5%), Central New York (-6.5%), Churches in Europe (-9.6%), New York (-6.3%), Virgin Islands (-6.6%), Western New York (-10.6%), Maryland (-6.9%), Central Gulf Coast (-6.3%), Fond Du Lac (-9.7%) and Ohio (-6%). The church’s smallest domestic normal diocese by attendance continues to be Northern Michigan, which declined -6.7% to 475 attendees on an average Sunday. Most internal provinces (regional groupings of dioceses) did not have a single diocese report any attendance growth, with only dioceses in Province III and Province XIII reporting any gains with U.S. dioceses. Those dioceses reporting attendance growth include Central Florida (+0.2%), Lexington (+3.1%), the Episcopal Church in South Carolina (+3.5%), Alaska (+2.3%), Arizona (+0.4%), Hawaii (+2.1%), Nevada (+3.4%) and Utah (+3.4%).

The denomination continues to see church size shrink, with the average Episcopal parish attracting 58 worshipers on a Sunday, down from an average of 65 in 2011. Similarly, 71 percent of the denomination’s churches have an attendance of fewer than 100 persons, while less than 4 percent attract 300 or more. The trend lines do not bode well for the future, with 55 percent of congregations experiencing decline of 10% or greater in the past five years. In contrast, only 18 percent of congregations grew their attendance by 10 percent in the same time span. As a whole, the denomination has experienced a 26 percent drop in attendance since 2005.

Reprinted with permission of the author from Juicy Ecumenism.

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