This post has been updated since this morning. 

Well, the latest statistics for the Episcopal Church were recently released thanks to the number cruncher par excellence, Dr. Kirk Hadaway. Let me express my gratitude to Dr. Hadaway for his time, attention, and discussion regarding these statistics. Other figures below were reported in the Blue Book for the 78th General Convention. What do they reveal about us? Look at the most recent five-year history of membership:

2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
Active Baptized Members 1,951,907 1,923,046 1,894,181 1,866,758 1,817,004
Net Change from Prior Year -54,436 -28,861 -28,865 -27,423 -49,754

And here is a summary of the most recent five-year history of average Sunday attendance (ASA):

2010 2011 2012 2013 2014
Total ASA 657,831 657,887 640,142 623,691 600,411
Net Change  from Prior Year -25,132 +56 -17,745 -16,451 -23,280

There are a couple of things to note about these figures.

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  • The years with the most losses due to departing dioceses were 2010 and 2014.
  • The increase in average Sunday attendance in 2011 is due to what Kirk Hadaway calls the “Christmas effect.” That is, Christmas Eve was on Sunday in 2011; thus, attendance at those services were included in ASA, adding almost a full Sunday to attendance figures. 

Change from 2013 to 2014

Let’s look at some other figures from the 2014 reports.

  • We had 69 fewer congregations file parochial reports. This represents the difference between the number of churches that did not file reports — due to closing, simple conflict, mergers, and non-filing — and the new churches that have filed due to new church plants, mergers, reestablished churches, and so on.
  • We lost nearly 50,000 baptized members.
  • Our average Sunday attendance decreased 23,000 from the previous year.
  • The Number of Congregations with 20 Members or Less increased by 16.
  • The Median Average Sunday Worship Attendance decreased from 61 to 60.
  • The average Pledge increased from $2,553 to $2,626. (However, if you account for the inflation rate, our effective giving decreased by .9%.)

To put some of these losses in perspective, in terms of membership, we lost the combined equivalent of the dioceses of Bethlehem, Central Pennsylvania, Delaware, Easton, Northwestern Pennsylvania, Southwestern Virginia, and West Virginia. Or (in Province IV) of Mississippi, Tennessee, and Western North Carolina. Or (in Province VII) of Arkansas, Fort Worth, Northwest Texas, Oklahoma, and West Missouri.

In terms of average Sunday attendance — actual people in our pews — we lost the equivalent of nearly all of Province VI. Or the equivalent of Chicago, Eastern Michigan, Eau Claire, Fond du Lac, Indianapolis, and Northern Indiana.

The net effect is that we have closed more churches than we have planted, losing our presence in many long-established communities. Overall, our churches continue to decrease in membership and attendance. Small churches generally are getting smaller, and larger churches are becoming fewer.

Change from 2010 to 2014

  • We lost 241 churches from 2010 to 2014, and average of 48 churches per year.
  • We lost over 189,000 members.
  • We lost over 82,000 in attendance.
  • Median average Sunday attendance went from 65 to 60.

Over this past five-year period, we lost the equivalent of the membership of the whole of Province 1. Similarly, in terms of average Sunday attendance, we lost the equivalent of all of Province 1 and half of Province 5. The overall loss is fairly consistent, taking into account the fact that losses in 2010 and 2014 were higher because of departing dioceses, and taking the “Christmas Effect” in 2011 on attendance.

What do these numbers not tell us?

We must note that raw numbers can be indicative of, but don’t tell us the full story of, health and vitality. These numbers don’t tell us about the number of people on whose lives our churches have had a significant impact: the number of hungry people fed, the number of people learning English as a second language, the number of people learning to read, the number of homebound and hospitalized who receive the Sacrament apart from Sunday worship, as well as prayers for healing and loving touches that are simply not quantifiable in a spread sheet.

Nor do these numbers tell the story of faithful lay people and clergy working hard in challenging places — by the way, every church and community is a challenging place to serve — and the unheralded sacrifice that these people give day in and day out simply aiming to be faithful to the God who is preeminently faithful. (C.S. Lewis reminds us in his Screwtape Letters that the greatest prayer warrior in the eyes of heaven may be the most unassuming and even physically unattractive person sitting in the pew.)

Also, on the surface, these statistics don’t in and of themselves tell us how much of these losses are attributed to the reorganizing dioceses and how much reflect the overall pattern of decline in our existing congregations and dioceses.

Finally, these numbers also do not tell us about the number of (now former) Episcopalians who have quietly slipped away from this church or any church. These are people whom Fr. Tony Clavier so eloquently described:

In time of need, they found their priest too busy attending meetings in support of a Cause to notice them, let alone give them a call, drop them an email, or, heaven forfend, visit them at home or even in hospital. Perhaps the parish leadership was too busy organizing church growth and evangelism to notice their absence. Thus, they’ve joined the ranks of the “unchurched,” usually described as unreachable, a statistic noted annually and spun out of mind.

What are we to make of these numbers?

Philip Jenkins, Distinguished Professor of History at Baylor University, wrote last year on the statistics for 2013: “Obviously, those rates are not going to carry on year after year, precisely as in the past decade or so. Sometimes they will be lower than that, sometimes higher.” Yikes, someone forgot to tell TEC that these “rates are not going to carry on year after year.” The decline has not abated.

First, it is clear that our membership losses continue to be consistent and chronic. There has thus far been no leveling off . At some point, these losses surely will level off, but that time is still not yet. The numbers suggest that we are still losing fewer people to dioceses departing than we are to people exiting their local Episcopal church.

Second, it is clear that our denominational leadership as a whole has neither acknowledged nor embraced any sense of urgency over our decline. Yes, there are pockets here and there who are calling us to change. Kirk Hadaway has highlighted examples of transformational churches. A vocal minority at the past General Convention led by the Rev. Canon Scott Gunn of Forward Movement highlighted the need for evangelism. However, for the most part, General Convention continued its don’t-upset-my-applecart-business-as-usual approach to governance. With regard to TREC, what started out as an opportunity for restructuring that would free up resources for mission and ministry turned into little more than window dressing. In Texas, we would call this “all hat and no cattle.”

Third, we must admit that our church is broken, terribly broken. We have been consumed — and continue to be consumed by the unholy trinity of Lawsuits, Legislation, and Liturgies. We need to admit that this trio is not the solution to our decline and may, in fact, be one of the reasons for it. We claim to be healing agents in the world when we can’t even be healing agents in our own Communion or our own Province. We must quit making excuses for our decline, citing the decline of the mainline denominations (our decline is worse), blaming the falling birth rate and increasing death rates of our members. Instead, we must look to our own complacency, our own conflicts, and our own self-focus as sins of which to repent.

Finally, we must look for real and substantive ways to free up resources for both our churches and our dioceses. If our local churches are not strong, our dioceses will not be strong. If our dioceses are not strong, our denomination will not be strong.

We need to see ourselves truly as a missionary society, not giving lip service to the idea but actually orienting our budget, training, and formation with that understanding in mind. We should re-orient our reorganizing dioceses as missionary dioceses, provide them with appropriate funding and an appropriate plan for self-sufficiency instead of strapping them with insufficient financial resources and loans that will be repaid once the lawsuits have been won. We need to have a real plan for struggling dioceses that balances their autonomy with a need for assistance that does not foster dependency.

Our denominational structure exists to serve the dioceses and local churches, not the other way around. We must put real resources into church planting that serves high growth areas as well as ethnic and language groups. We must free up more money for congregational development not less. We must train our clergy and lay leaders in best practices of congregational development, missionary preaching and strategies. And we must trust that local dioceses will do a better job with financial resources than the denominational structure, and that the local parish will do a better job with financial resources than the diocese.

Neal Michell’s other posts may be found here. The featured image was uploaded to Flickr by lendingmemo.com, and is licensed under Creative Commons. 

About The Author

The Rev. Prebendary Dr. Neal Michell was born in Dallas, Texas, and grew up in Garland. Until recently, he was Dean of St. Matthew’s Cathedral in Dallas.

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Marilynn Frederiksen

I was an active member of an Episcopal Church until a group within the parish fired the rector and subsequently fired the music director. The group has more power than the vestry. Where does that fit within God’s plan? And how does one deal with it?

Phillip Webster

Neal, I really respect your effort in this article. I find that much of what you highlight reflects truths that I have experienced. I wonder, with respect to your first point, whether there is another way to consider departures? Namely, you highlight that numerical losses in local episcopal churches as not being equivalent to persons joining departing dioceses. Some might consider this a field ripe for renewed connection. That might be true. However, could it be more likely that many persons are simply walking away from Anglicanism in general? I know many former Episcopalians who have gone to Rome or… Read more »

len sive

First, here’s what I wrote recently–The Episcopal Church wrongly thinks it can be all things to all people. Jesus wasn’t, neither can we be. Schori thinks God thinks like her rather than her trying to think like God. Schori is an idolater who betrayed her Lord. Her accomplices like Jim Jelinik,, whose ego is inversely proportionate to his faith,( he has no faith), think they are God Almighty. The calamitous decline in attendance is their fault. Such people sold their faith for a sex act, pure and simple.. So long as you have sex lauded over spirituality, the EC will… Read more »