With every release of parochial report data – the statistics on attendance, membership and finances that every parish in The Episcopal Church must submit yearly – a picture of the denomination’s future comes gradually into focus. It’s not a holistic depiction of the church’s health or success, and it comes with many caveats — it’s difficult to infer much from one set of data, and some statistics conflict with each other. But the release of the 2019 data makes the picture clearer than ever: Even before COVID-19, The Episcopal Church’s days were numbered.
“The overall picture is dire – not one of decline as much as demise within the next generation unless trends change significantly,” said the Rev. Dwight Zscheile, an expert in denominational decline and renewal. An Episcopal priest, Zscheile is vice president of innovation and associate professor of congregational mission and leadership at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota.
“At this rate, there will be no one in worship by around 2050 in the entire denomination,” Zscheile told Episcopal News Service.
The decline is, of course, nothing new. The Episcopal Church has seen declining membership, to varying degrees, since the 1960s, when it counted 3.4 million members. As of 2019, it had about 1.8 million. Membership is down 17.4% over the last 10 years.
After some fluctuation – including a period of stagnation and minor growth in the early 2000s –the statistics seem to have settled into a trajectory of steady, gradual decline.
“The trends are continuing,” said the Rev. Tom Ferguson, rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Sandwich, Massachusetts, who has blogged extensively about the church’s decline. “It does seem, at least from this data, to maybe have slowed down a bit, but we have no idea whether that’s a blip or whether that’s a trend.”
Across the church, the declines in average Sunday worship attendance have slowed slightly over the past few years, but a decline is still a decline, Zscheile says.
“This most recent report shows a slight moderation of the trend of decline in the past year, but overall the trajectory is clear,” he told ENS. “The Episcopal Church has lost a quarter of its worship attendees over the past decade.”
Across the church, year-over-year, the decline in active members was essentially unchanged at 2.29%. However, Sunday attendance did show some signs of slight improvement. Sunday attendance fell 2.55% from 2018 to 2019, compared to 4.5% from 2017 to 2018. And the percentage of churches that saw an increase in Sunday attendance year-over-year shot up from 24% to 32%, while the share of churches that had a decrease fell from 53% to 49%.
However, there are also signs of a trend toward disparity in the church when it comes to attendance, with more churches at either end of the spectrum and fewer in the middle. In 2018, 14% of churches saw at least 10% growth in Sunday attendance over the preceding five years, while 59% had lost at least 10%. For 2019, that gap widened to 15% versus 61%.
“It would be my hunch that the healthier churches are getting healthier and the unhealthier churches are getting unhealthier,” Ferguson said.
Declines continue to be strongest in the Northeast and Upper Midwest. Province I, which covers New England, saw the worst year-over-year attendance decline at 4.4%; in the Diocese of New Hampshire, it fell 15.6%, the worst of any diocese. The worst declines in active baptized members came from Wisconsin, where the small dioceses of Eau Claire and Fond du Lac lost 27% and 18.4% of their members, respectively.
Ferguson said those could be symptoms of larger demographic and social trends in the U.S.
“I think in the Northeast, it’s largely secularization, whereas I think in the Upper Midwest, it’s part of that population flight,” he said. “It’s really hard. The Upper Midwest is having a rough time demographically.”
Declines tend to be slower in the South and West, mirroring population trends, and some dioceses there saw minor growth. Dioceses outside the U.S. vary dramatically. Colombia, for example, showed the strongest growth in attendance and membership of any diocese, while Honduras is declining sharply.
The one bright spot in the data is the continued increase in pledge income. Despite declining membership and attendance, average pledges and total pledge and plate income were up; after a small drop from 2017 to 2018, total pledge and plate income increased 1.7% from 2018 to 2019, though that was slightly less than the rate of inflation.
However, even that presents a problem going forward, according to Zscheile.
“The fact that fewer people are giving more money is not a sustainable trend over the long term,” he said.
2019 will now be the last year of this particular iteration of the parochial report, the oldest continuous gathering of data by The Episcopal Church. With some adjustments in methodology and definitions, the report has measured membership since 1880 and Sunday attendance since 1991. Even before COVID-19, efforts were underway to redesign the parochial report, and the onset of the pandemic made that even more urgent. For 2020, parochial reports will only measure Sunday attendance from Jan. 1 to March 1 and include new narrative questions to help track “opportunities, innovations and challenges.” After 2020, the new permanent parochial report format may include additions or changes.
Church leaders have said that including narrative sections allows parishes to describe the less quantifiable ways in which they are serving God and their communities, and that membership and attendance numbers alone don’t paint a complete picture of the church.
“Churches are doing amazing stuff and facing some really incredible challenges,” the Rev. Chris Rankin-Williams, chair of the House of Deputies committee that has been working on revisions to the parochial report, told Executive Council on Oct. 10. “As a rector, my concern is not primarily with a report that tells me what happened but is something that the leaders of my church can use to make decisions for the future,” Rankin-Williams said.
Ferguson says that although numbers like Sunday attendance don’t tell us everything, they are important for assessing the reality of the church’s situation. He hopes that future reports don’t brush that aside.
“My real fear is, I don’t want a tool that just normalizes decline – which, frankly, I just see everywhere, this normalization of decline,” he told ENS.
“If you have tons of folks coming to your free laundry, that’s great. … But if you’re still losing 25% of your congregation, well, then in a few years, you’re just going to be a laundromat.”