Monday, September 9, 2019

Behind the Numbers

Since the 1990s, I've been keeping track and commenting on the trends in membership, attendance, and stewardship in TEC. If you haven't seen them, here is the big picture from the latest data taken from the 2018 Parochial Reports.

Membership is now 1,676,349 down 2.1% from last year.

BTW in 1965 our membership was 3.8 million. 

Attendance in 2018 was 533,206 down 4.2%  We didn't start keeping ASA until the 90s.

Decline in membership in the last 5 years was 10% and ASA decline in the last 5 years was 14%

Membership decline in the last 10 years was 19% and ASA decline during that time was 24% 

These are depressing and dismal numbers and it is not surprising that many of our current leaders do not wish to discuss this.  Over the years when I have written on the topic of decline, many leaders react negatively.  Decline is not a politically correct topic for either the staff at 815 or our Bishops. I like to respond that if you don’t like this decline then do something about it.

Good news is that still 20% of our congregations show at least a 10% growth in membership and ASA. This 20% number has remained about the same for the past 10 years. Put another way, 20% of our congregations have figured out how to have growth during a time when the denomination is in steady decline. They counter the often-spoken argument that “all mainline churches are in decline and there is nothing we can do about this because it is driven by demographics.” 

BTW, what can we learn from them? Lots, but no one in our denominational leadership seems to care. Sadly, many growing Episcopal congregations are seen and treated as outliers. 

40% of our congregations are experiencing serious decline of 10% or more a year. 

The remaining 40% are remaining somewhat stable.  This is an improvement from 10 years ago when 60% of our congregations were in steady decline.

Stewardship numbers are slightly up but allowing for inflation makes it flat.

If you don’t know, here are the historic general trends for TEC. Like all mainline denominations in the US, we experienced growth after the World War II (think baby boom!). Then, all mainline denominations started declining in 1965. I mark this as the beginning of the end of the Protestant Era. It certainly marked the end of mainline dominance in the Church in the U.S.

TEC has been in steady decline since 1965 with three exceptions. The first was six years of accelerated decline during and after the process that involved the vote allowing the ordination of women.

The second was a period of growth (we were the only mainline to do this) from 1995 to 2000. (Amazing how many of our leaders think that the Decade of Evangelism didn’t accomplish anything) 

The third was a major period of decline for the seven years following the consent to the ordination of Gene Robinson to be Bishop of New Hampshire. During this period, 80% of our congregations reported "major conflict".

Since Michael Curry was elected our PB, the decline has returned to its more historic steady number of about 1.5 to 2% a year.

You may want to ask how your congregation and diocese are doing compared to the trends of TEC as a whole?

Behind these numbers are some very important dynamics related to the size of our current congregations.  For example, the median average Sunday Worship Attendance is now 53.  In 2000, the median was 85.  So, the median dropped from the Pastoral Size Church to the Family Size.  This confirms other information and my experience that the number of congregations that can afford the services of a full-time ordained clergy has been in decline.  More congregations now have part-time, bi-vocational or retired clergy serving them.  This has overwhelming implications for seminaries, for deployment of clergy, and for the Church Pension Fund.  The CPF has been giving commentary on this for some time now. 

As for our larger congregations, the percent of congregations with an ASA of 300 or more is 4%.  This means that if your congregation has over 300 people on an average Sunday, it is in the top percentile of all our congregations.  

Now comes some commentary from me on the congregational dynamics.

First, isn’t it ironic that we no longer have a full-time staff person at 815 dealing either with congregational revitalization or small church ministries.  We have a few dioceses with such a person, but almost no urgency among denominational leadership.

Most dioceses deal with congregations that can no longer support a full-time clergy person by sending a priest in charge who works two to three days a week.  Sometimes a fuller package is provided by merging or coupling two smaller congregations together.  This, I believe is driven by necessity. 

Sadly, there is almost no training for clergy in this type ministry with how to grow these churches.  The strategy is to maintain them and as the numbers show, that isn’t working. And I know of no diocese that sends a full-time priest to such a situation with the intention that they turn it around and grow it to a larger size.  My intuition says that we don’t do this because our Diocesan Bishops don’t know how to do this.

Can smaller congregations learn the skills to evangelize, recruit new people, and form new Christians?  Of course, they can.  We have wonderful examples of this happening despite the strategy of Diocesan leaders.  We also have consultants like me that have the skills to help, but almost no funding or intentionality to make this happen.

My colleague John Wengrovius and I am now in the process of trying to find the funding to make such training and strategies available to churches that need it.  What I do wonder is this. If we find the funding are their any current leaders with the vision to use these resources?   If you are interested in helping with this project, let me know at 


  1. Hi on analysis...with one caveat. I am not really encouraged by those 20% showing 10% growth. We have a parish of approximate ASA of 400. If we grow even 5% in a year we are adding significant numbers and families. But it only take 5 people too add 10% to a congregation that worships with an ASA of 53. My suspicion is that dynamic is reflected...rather than a parish reporting growth of 10%...year after year after year. We are probably counting anomalies in small churches rather than true growth. More disturbing...we do not have a single "mega church" in the denomination. And our largest church slipped significantly last year in its ASA...inspite of hosting an amazing funeral for President Bush.

  2. + Claude Payne

    Kevin - You have blessed us with this piece, for until we openly name decline as a reality, we aren't encouraged to identify its root causes, let alone how to address them. This is is a healthy first step to finding ways for recovery.