Episcopalians have yet to hit bottom in their downward membership spiral that began in the early 2000s.
Updated statistics made available today by the Episcopal Church General Convention Office show a denomination continuing a sustained decline in 2016 to 1,745,156 domestic members. The U.S.-based denomination shed 34,179 members, a decline of 1.9 percent, while attendance losses were relatively limited compared to previous years, declining 9,327, down 1.6 percent. A net 37 parishes closed, bringing the denominational total to 6,473 congregations.
Among dioceses facing the largest declines is Eastern Michigan, which dropped 14.7 percent from 5,888 down to 5,022 members (-866). The diocese also saw a 3.5 percent drop in Average Sunday Attendance (ASA), down to 1,922 attendees.
The diocese’s past bishop, Todd Ousley, recently joined the staff of Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael Curry to serve as bishop for pastoral development after 16 years serving in Michigan. In a letter to the diocese, the local standing committee wrote about its decision to pursue a provisional bishop rather than seek a new diocesan bishop to replace Ousley.
The committee cited among manifold reasons, “budget realities, decreasing and emerging populations, and cultural trends away from church-attendance and religious life.”
The nearby Diocese of Western Michigan also took a sizeable hit, dropping 10.4 percent from 9,675 down to 8,668 members (-1,007). The diocese also saw a 4 percent drop in ASA, down to 3,491 attendees.
Domestic dioceses posting large membership declines include Virgin Islands (-10%), Georgia (-7.5%), New Hampshire (-6%), Vermont (-6.4%), Albany (-5.1%), New Jersey (-6.1%), Western New York (-10.6%), Central Pennsylvania (-5.6%), Milwaukee (-6.9%), Fond Du Lac (-5.3%), Iowa (-8.5%), Northwest Texas (-8.6%) and Spokane (-8.1%).
Episcopal Church officials have been aware of the negative trend lines for some time. In March, Bishop Maryann Budde of the Diocese of Washington gave a sermon at the spring House of Bishops meeting in which she broached the subject of ongoing decline.
“I live in a perpetual state of holy urgency about the spiritual health and ministry capacity of the congregations I serve and those I hope to establish on my watch,” Budde shared with her Episcopal colleagues. “Looking deeply at the trends and internal realities of each [congregation], only 12 of them, at most, are on a path of sustainability and growth; another 12-15, at the other extreme, are in precipitous decline—most of them in our most vulnerable or rapidly transitioning neighborhoods or communities. The rest, despite working as hard as they can, will most likely be, without some intervention or significant change, almost exactly where they are now 10 years from now in terms of size and capacity for ministry–this in a part of the country that is experiencing significant population growth and where other expressions of the Christian faith are thriving. I can’t bring myself to count the number of congregations I cannot, in good conscience, recommend to those who are seeking a vibrant expression of Christian community.”
In a reference to Presiding Bishop Curry’s embrace of the language of “the Jesus Movement,” Budde provocatively offered, “There’s no doubt in my mind that the Jesus Movement is alive and well in the Diocese of Washington. I cannot say the same about the Episcopal branch of the Jesus Movement in all of its expressions.”
While the Diocese of Washington lost more than 1,000 members in 2016, its relatively large size meant it only shed 2.6 percent of members, and nudged up attendance of 1.8 percent.
Among those congregations facing precipitous decline in Budde’s diocese is the congregation of retired Bishop Gene Robinson, who famously contributed to the Episcopal Church schism with his consecration as an openly partnered gay man to be Bishop of New Hampshire. Robinson has served several years now as “Bishop-in-residence” at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in the Dupont Circle neighborhood of Washington, D.C., where he relocated as a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, a liberal think tank. Robinson’s parish will, as part of a property redevelopment, feature an eponymous chapel that he has proposed be a pilgrimage site for youth who identify as LGBT.
St. Thomas has declined precipitously in the past five years, shrinking from 350 to 140 members (-60%) and from a weekly attendance of 150 down to 75 (-50%). The congregation’s priest-in-charge, Alex Dyer, cited the ongoing construction of a new church sanctuary and a major purge of the parish membership rolls as contributing factors to the congregation’s diminished size. Asked about the decline in attendance, Dyer commented via Twitter “ASA is one measure. @StThomasDC is one of the most best parishes I have served. Check back in 5 years and the story will be different.”
The population of the District of Columbia has grown 16 percent from 2006-2016.
Among those dioceses posting growth in 2016 were the Episcopal Church in South Carolina (5.2%), Delaware (2.2%), Western Kansas (2.1%), San Joaquin (8.5%). Attendance rose in Northwestern Pennsylvania (4.9%), Pittsburgh (3%), Nebraska (3.5%), Fort Worth (2.3%) and Northwest Texas (7%).
Attendance dropped precipitously in Connecticut (-4.9%), Albany (-6.1%), Newark (-4.7%), Virgin Islands (-10.7%), Bethlehem (-6.5%), Easton (-4.3%), West Virginia (-6%), Kentucky (-4.9%), Lexington (-4.3%), Milwaukee (-4.2%), Northern Indiana (-7.4%), Iowa (-5.9%), Kansas (-4.9%), Alaska (18.8%), Arizona (-5.5%), and Utah (-4%).
The denomination continues to see church size shrink, with the average Episcopal parish attracting 57 worshipers on a Sunday, down from an average of 64 in 2012. 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 58 percent of congregations experiencing decline of 10% or greater in the past five years. In contrast, only 16 percent of congregations grew their attendance by 10 percent in the same time span.
Unlike previous years, the 2016 table of statistics does not offer new data on marriages, baptisms or funerals. This report will be updated if and when that data is made available.
Reprinted with the author’s permission from Juicy Ecumenism.