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The Growth and Decline of the Episcopal Church

The Growth and Decline of the Episcopal Church


By David W. Virtue DD
March 18, 2015

A 2014 survey of 762 Episcopal congregations (out of a sample of 1100) revealed that 45% of surveyed churches declined by 10% or more, while a small group of churches grew by at least 10%. Those congregations that plateaued experienced change in ASA (average Sunday attendance) of +5% to -7.4%.

These new facts on Episcopal Church growth and decline were assembled by Dr. C. Kirk Hadaway as part of an ecumenical/interfaith survey project.

Here are some of his findings:

• The Northeast and Midwest are much less hospitable environments for Episcopal churches. Both share population stability or even decline in some areas, but these characteristics are more endemic to the Midwest. Both areas are less "religious" than the South, particularly the Northeast. Unlike the West, the Northeast lacks a large religiously engaged subculture with many booming churches.

• Despite the tendency of new congregations to grow, the impact of these congregations on the level of attendance in the Episcopal Church is relatively small--simply because there are so few of them. The same is true for churches in newer suburbs (many of which are new or relatively new). There are very few of them as well.

• Much like other mainline denominations in the United States, the vast majority of Episcopal congregations are predominantly white (non- Hispanic/Latino) or "Anglo" (86%).As is also the case in all mainline denominations, pre-dominantly white churches are less likely to grow and more likely to decline. In the Episcopal Church, unlike most other mainline denominations, the growth profile of predominantly Black congregations resembles Anglo congregations. Only 17% of Black congregations are growing and only 18% of Anglo churches are growing.

• Predominantly Black congregations (which make up 5% of all Episcopal congregations) have some characteristics which might suggest greater growth possibilities (more lively worship; clearer purpose), they also tend to be older than Anglo churches (in terms of origin and members) and are less engaged in evangelism and recruitment, on average.

• 31% of Episcopal church members are age 65 and older, as compared to only 14% of the American public. By contrast, 26% of Americans are age 19 or younger, as compared to only 16% of Episcopalians.

• Episcopal Church members are older on average than the American public. The differences are greatest among the oldest and youngest age categories. Proportionately, there are many more persons age 65 or older and fewer children, youth and young adults than in the general population.

• The Episcopal Church has failed to retain many of the children of its members over the years.

• Overall, one quarter of Episcopal congregations have a membership that is 50% or more elderly (age 65+). In three quarters of Episcopal congregations, over half of the membership is age 50 or over.

• The larger the proportion of older people in the church, the less likely the church is to grow and the more likely it is to decline.

• Among Episcopal churches where over three quarters of members are age 50 or older, 68% are declining and only 8% are growing.

• Healthy congregations include a wide range of ages; but a congregation where most of the members are older tends to have a cluster of characteristics that inhibit growth. Not only are few, if any, children being born to members, but such congregations often lack a clear sense of mission and purpose, vibrant worship and involvement in recruitment and evangelism. They are also more likely to be small and to be located in rural areas and smaller towns.

• Over 60% of the churches that said they had some, a little or no emphasis on living out one's faith in daily life were in decline. Having such a basic emphasis did not guarantee growth, but lacking it nearly guaranteed decline or plateau.

• Congregations that are willing to change to meet new challenges also tend to be growing congregations. Most congregations believe that they are willing to change, which is somewhat surprising given the obvious resistance to living out one's faith in Daily Life. Only 7% of congregations that are unwilling to change and 11% of congregations that were unsure experienced growth in worship attendance.


• In prior surveys dealing with conflict in Episcopal congregations, the issue of ordaining gay or lesbian priests or Bishops was raised. In 2005 and in 2008, this was the most frequently cited source of conflict, by far. Since 2008, however, lingering conflict over this issue has become less frequent and less salient for congregations. So in 2014, a more generic reference to "actions of General Convention" was used.

• Congregations with no conflict (23% of Episcopal congregations) were least likely to be in decline. However, among churches with serious conflict, more than half were in decline. If a congregation had more than one area of serious conflict, decline was even more likely.

• Conflict over finances was the most frequently mentioned area of conflict. The priest's leadership style was the most frequently mentioned area of serious conflict and it was one of three areas of conflict most strongly associated with decline in worship attendance, along with how worship is conducted, and with the actions of General Convention.


• In general, the more worship services a congregation has, the more likely it is to have grown. Only 15% of churches with one Sunday service grew between 2009 and 2013, as compared to 38% of congregations with four or more services.

• In terms of the character of worship in Episcopal congregations, churches that describe their worship as "vibrant and engaging" were most likely to grow. This was also the case for churches that described their worship as "fun and joyful." There is a sense of life in the worship of growing churches that is less evident in most non-growing churches.

• Churches that have added a different type of service or that changed an existing service "a lot" in the past three years were much more likely to grow than churches which did not. Changing Worship, Growing Congregations change their services or only changed them somewhat.

• Among churches that never involve children, only 11% were growing and 74% were declining. Of course, in order to involve children and youth in worship, a congregation must have children present--and some congregations have few, if any children.

• Although "chaotic" sounds bad and somewhat non-Episcopalian, 24% of Episcopal congregations described their coffee hours as "chaotic" -- these congregations were more likely to be growing and less likely to be declining than any other type of congregation. A vitalized coffee hour is a tangible thing for a congregation to do that can help it develop a sense of community and draw new people into it.

• A much stronger association with growth can be found among churches that greet people warmly and individually before or during worship and that also make one or more efforts to contact the visitor after the service. The more types of contact a church uses to reinforce the greeting, the more likely it is to grow.

• In 2015, simply having a website is not rare or cutting-edge. The vast majority of congregations have web sites; for this reason, the relationship between simply having a site and growth is not very strong. The issue is whether the web site is regularly updated and whether more active means of electronic communication are used. The effect of technology for communication is cumulative. The more things are done by a church, the more it is likely to grow. A growing church will have both an active website and a related Facebook page.

• Growing churches emphasize Sunday school. In Episcopal churches, Sunday school typically involves the children, but not all Episcopal churches have a lot of children.

• One of the strongest correlates of growth comes from the emphasis a congregation places on adult religious formation. For churches where this activity is a specialty of the congregation, 36% are growing, as compared to only 6% of churches which do not have adult religious formation classes.

• Historically, the norm was for a congregation to have a full- time paid priest. In slightly over half of Episcopal congregations (56%), the traditional model is still present. However, as the median attendance of Episcopal congregations dropped and the costs of paying insurance and retirement benefits increased, more churches shifted to part-time clergy or rely on supply clergy or lay worship leaders.

• Decline was also widespread among churches with a solo part-time priest. These churches included congregations that shared a full time priest (but who was part-time in each of the congregations they served).

• The age of a congregation's priest is strongly related to growth and decline. Churches with priests age 49 and younger are most likely to grow, followed by churches with priests age 50-59.

• Calling a new priest can be problematic for many congregations. The majority of Episcopal congregations that called a new priest (not an interim) in 2013 or in the first half of 2014 were declining; slightly over half of congregations that called a priest in 2011 and 2012 were also declining.

• Decline is most likely when a congregation has no priest or only uses supply clergy (including long-term supply situations). Decline is also widespread among churches with interim priests and among churches where the new priest has been there one year or less.

• Correlations with growth were found for "effective preacher," "evangelistic," "hard worker" "knows how to get things done," and "is friendly and engaging." The lowest correlations with growth were found for "knows the Bible and theology," "cares about people," "good liturgist/worship leader," and "is a person of deep faith."


• Where there is a lot of rotation among lay leaders, growth is much more likely. Lack of rotation in the vestry, wardens and other leadership positions tends to overwork the leaders to the point where the church is mostly about committee work. It also leads to an insular, closed community that is difficult for newcomers to readily join.

• GROWTH AND DECLINE among Episcopal congregations. The possibilities for growth are better in the western states and the South and less likely in the Midwest and Northeast.

• Stronger than region, but also largely out of a congregation's immediate control, is the racial/ethnic composition of a congregation. Churches that are predominantly Hispanic or Asian, or that are multi-racial or multi-ethnic are more likely to experience growth than are predominantly white/Anglo and predominantly African-American or Black churches.

• Congregations with larger proportions of members age 50 and older are more likely to be in decline than churches with smaller proportions of members in this age group. Few Episcopal congregations are predominantly elderly, but a great many churches are primarily composed of persons in their 50s or older. Such congregations tend to be declining, irrespective of other influences on growth and decline in the congregation.


• Compared to other denominations, the impact of conflict was greater because conflict was more widespread as the Episcopal Church dealt with issues related to sexuality along with the usual congregational disputes over leadership, finances, worship and program. Conflicts over sexuality have greatly subsided and the overall level of conflict in the Church is much lower. Still, the presence of conflict remains an independent source of decline and a corresponding impediment to growth; but it is no longer the strongest correlate of attendance change among Episcopal congregations.

• In terms of congregational identity, the most important factor was a rating of the congregation as being "spiritually vital and alive."


Almost no mention was made of the content of what is preached from Episcopal church pulpits that is in any way life changing. While some churches were cited as "vital", some even "evangelistic" and "hard working" the sense of belonging to the community with common interests, fun stuff and extra curricula activities superseded any knowledge of growth in Christ, dealing with sin, the need for salvation and promise of eternal life, or even how life should be lived in the here and now. It is more important apparently to be part of a community of like-minded persons that could just as well be the Rotary or Country Club with a creed. One is more likely to find and experience change at an AA meeting where one has to radically deal with one's behavior than an Episcopal parish where the assumption is that you are a basically good person who needs an occasional touch up or refill.

Despite the winding down of sexuality issues, the damage done by Gene Robinson's consecration has been devastating to the Episcopal Church, the worst in its collective history, from which it has not recovered.

Equally clear is that few Episcopal congregations know how to reach out to Millennials with a message that is radically different from what they hear on a daily basis from the secular media. Railing on about racism, homophobia, Islamophobia, equality, the environment and feminist issues etc. does not fill church pews.

The words of St. John seem to me to touch the heart of the problem. Rev. 3: 14 "And unto the angel of the church of the Laodiceans write...I know thy works, that thou art neither cold nor hot: I would thou wert cold or hot. So then because thou art lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will spue thee out of my mouth. Because thou sayest, I am rich, and increased with goods, and have need of nothing; and knowest not that thou art wretched, and miserable, and poor, and blind, and naked."


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