Demography and time trends in membership in the Episcopal Church

By John B. Chilton

In 2004 C. Kirk Hadaway, Director of Research for The Episcopal Church Center published “Is the Episcopal Church Growing (or Declining)?” The title may suggest the report is trivial. It is not. First, it carefully documents membership in the Episcopal Church 1930-2002. Thus, we know we stand (circa 2002 at least). Second, Hadaway uses the report to point to a core fact behind the decline in the growth rate of the church: the demography of its members.

To answer the question posed by the title of the paper, Hadaway had to first develop a consistent time series for membership. (The period covered is 1930 to 2002.) Over several decades there had been changing formats in the annual Parochial Report that the national church administered to gather numbers on membership from parishes, and changing methods of using those reports to calculate total membership in the national church. (Further, non-domestic dioceses have not been included in membership numbers since 1985 so Hadaway’s series excludes them prior to 1986 as well (adding back in Hawaii and Alaska).) Much of the report is an account of how Hadaway identified and corrected for the changing definitions and formats. It makes for rather mind-numbing reading, but the careful documentation is absolutely essential if we are to have confidence in the time series, and whether it tells us anything about the changing state of the church over time.

The corrected membership time series shows that, like other mainline churches, the Episcopal Church grew rapidly during the post-World War II baby boom. But in the late fifties growth slowed and by the mid-sixties had turned negative. Hadaway summarizes (pp. 11-12, describing Figure 6 in the report):

The [growth] trend line for the Episcopal Church has tracked quite closely to other mainline denominations. Growth rates declined precipitously from the mid-1950s [2.5%] to the mid-1970s [negative 1.5% for the mainline as a whole] and then began to moderate. From 1950 to 1974 the only meaningful difference between the pattern for the Episcopal Church and other mainline denominations was that the Episcopal decline [negative 2 to 3 percent growth] was more severe during the early-1970s. … After bottoming out in the early 1970s, the Episcopal rate of membership decline began to improve greatly [between 0 and 1% decline annually] and by 1980 the loss rate was consistently better than the United Methodist Church and other mainline denominations. So even though the Episcopal Church has not seen consistent membership growth, we are not declining at the same rate as other mainline denominations—a state of affairs that has existed for over two decades.

Thus, over the decades of the eighties and nineties membership in the Episcopal was at virtual plateau. This plateau was obscured by the issues surrounding Parochial Reports and highlights the importance the work Hadaway did in resolving them to establish his time series. The decline over the sixties and seventies did not continue.

In Hadaway’s analysis the reasons for the decline have to do with demography, not theology or church growth strategy. Or, rather, where he would place emphasis in a church growth strategy is in broadening our constituency. The membership of the Episcopal Church has been predominantly white. And the birthrate among whites has declined substantially since the fifties. Hathaway finds (p. 13) “the association between [white birthrate and mainline membership growth] is so strong that it produces a correlation of .94 (0 being no relationship and 1.0 begin a perfect relationship). In statistical terms, 88% of the year to year variation in mainline membership can be explained by the birth rate.” (He finds the correlation .89 between white birthrate growth and member growth in the Episcopal Church.) Further (p. 16),

As noted earlier, all denominations—mainline and conservative—were affected adversely by social changes occurring in the 1960s and 1970s. However, mainline denominations were hit hardest by the changes because declines in the birth rate were much more severe among the more highly educated white population. (Among conservative Protestants and Mormons the birth rate remained much higher than for the mainline, insulating these groups from the full effect of declines in fertility).
and (p. 17)
The Episcopal Church has the highest proportion of members among mainline denominations who are college graduates and in households earning $75,000 or more. As a result, the birth rate among Episcopalians is much lower than the national average—and even lower than the population of non-Hispanic whites. A reasonable estimate, based on education and race, is approximately 1.5 children per woman (compared to the replacement level of 2.1) for Episcopalians.
Hathaway concludes (p. 17), “sustained growth is increasingly unlikely unless we begin to reach out beyond our historic constituency.”

Earlier I reviewed recent academic work on church membership trends in mainline and conservative churches. It echoes what Hadaway concludes about the Episcopal church demography. That work also suggests that mainline churches have lost another source of growth: dropouts from conservative churches. As I wrote,

It's a great irony that after differential birthrates, the second most important fact in explaining the rise of conservative membership relative to the mainline is that a portion of conservative youth that in the past would have converted to mainline in their adulthood now drop out of Christianity altogether.

This raises an interesting empirical question: is the Episcopal church an exception? How many of its new members come from other Christian denominations?

Next Monday, Part II: an examination of Hadaway’s “FACTS on Episcopal Church Growth.”

Dr. John B. Chilton is an economist at the American University of Sharjah (United Arab Emirates) specializing in applied game theory. In the summers he resides in Orkney Springs, Va., home of Shrine Mont Episcopal Conference Center of the Diocese of Virginia. He maintains two personal blogs, The Emirates Economist and New Virginia Church Man.

Comments (9)

I doubt that demography is the chief factor in the decline of membership in the Episcopal Church. Look around. The kids of present-day church members aren't following their parents in large numbers into the pews. From 1953 through about 1975, I was very active in church. (I worked in the 1960s for the Episcopal Book Club and the Church [of England] Press Office.) My wife was a life-long faithful Anglican who worked after our separation as parish secretary. None of our five children (now in their 30s) show any interest in religion, though they are constructively engaged in the world. Gary and I remain involved in religious dialogue (obviously), few of our associates are.

About a century after Darwin and textual criticism, we are finally living in a world of evidence and experience, not tradition and authority. In church, the music and the fellowship can be good, the story increasingly irrelevant. The church now is one (or several) organizations among many, religious and secular. Pluralism is the fact of the day. Membership in a church no longer offers a place in society or in heaven. It can offer a setting for meditation and community action (and music), but it's one amongst many.

Obviously, the religious impulse is strong. How best to offer it scope in a world of experience and evidence? Hierarchy and tradition may be holding us back.

Murdoch Matthew

Murdoch, it's not either/or, but both/and. When the birthrate is below replacement membership will fall even if 100% of children follow their parents (which has never been true) or you attract converts. But rate of following your parents in adulthood has fallen from what it was, as you point out.

That it has done so in conservative denominations also resonates with the reasons you give for this phenomenon.

I end with a question: Is the story irrelevant or misunderstood, or in need of a better telling to fit the context of today's world?


The statistics I don't see here are age demographics. Mainline churches have grown significantly older in the same time period that we've handed the conservatives our place as 60% of the general population.

A decisive negative factor impacting our ability to 'catch' young conservative church drop-outs has been our graying clergy. Not that older clergy can't minister to younger people, but for a whole generation and more our lack of young leadership and the aging cohort of clergy carried a message of generational irrelevance and worse.

As I recall reading Church Pension Fund annual reports, about age 35 (in 1982 when I was ten years ordained) I noticed I was the average age of Episcopal clergy. For the next twenty years of reports (to about 2002, aged 55) I stayed the average age of Episcopal clergy. Obviously I was getting older. But our church (along with other mainline churches) was systematically graying our leadership. Somewhere between 1975 and 1980 dioceses began refusing to sponsor recent college graduates preparation for ministry. Church-wide wisdom insisted church leaders had to have life experience in secular work (usually called 'the world' in this explanation).

Few of us were willing to acknowledge that this unprecedented change contained an implicit message for young people seeking to be active lay participants (and lay leaders as well) - "You have nothing to say to us. Your experience of God lacks authority among us. Come back when you think as we do." A whole generation and a half of young people got that message loud and clear.

Many dioceses matched that change with abandonment of college work, essentially denying the value of missionary outreach to young potential leaders seeking intellectually live faith. 'Let them find the nearby parish church,' was the refrain.

We've turned a corner. The age demographic in our seminaries is going back downward and our church will be richer for ordaining classes that include both young leaders and second-vocation older leaders, and at least some dioceses are recognizing that there is a very significant return on the expense of good college ministry.

But we're still paying the very high price on low investment in young people. This weekend, talking to my youngest son, a junior in college he wanted to know what to say to a friend of his who was appalled that his father is a priest. 'Religion means repression,' his friend said, 'Religious liberal is an oxymoron.' Regrettably, the overwhelmingly dominant religious voices this bright classmate has heard from his own generation have taught him well.


Well said. Very well said.

The graying of our clergy is mirrored in the graying of our congregations. And just look at photographs of our conventions. Grayer still? (I get the distinction impression that some delegates are reelected again and again.)

The perfect storm of graying of the congregations comes from: baby boom 50 years on, drop in birthrates below replacement starting in the sixties and seventies, _and_ the departure of many of our children from the church. It's interesting to me that we've not made ourselves relevant to our children (mine is now 25 and a church organist) merely by becoming more inclusive.

You and Murdoch offer good explanations of how we have turned off or turned away young people. I have to agree with you that the answer to regeneration of the church is not just by expanding from our natural constituency (Hadaway's recommendation), but by paying more attention to why we lose our children.

By the way, the statistics here aren't the end of the statistical story. More can be found in my earlier essay I linked to at the end. And more are to come next week.

Further thoughts. Correlating birthrates with membership explains too much over the period we are examining. The reason is that birthrate and apostasy are correlated over the same period. Ignoring the latter gives too much credit to the former.

What it means for the church is that it can make us complacent that slow growth is merely explained by low birthrates (which aren't a bad thing).

Further, the plateau in membership over the 80s and 90s masks the changing age composition of the church over those decades due to falling birthrates over the later half of the century and rising apostasy. The plateau never was a reason for complacency.

As noted, the period covered in the Hadaway study ends in 2002. I've just noticed that at Titus 1:9 they now have some graphics showing what's happened to membership since 2002. Take a look here,

Numbers on seminary trends just out (relates to Don Schell's comment),

John Chilton said, "I end with a question: Is the story irrelevant or misunderstood, or in need of a better telling to fit the context of today's world?"

My question -- What is the story?


A new study finds the same 1990s plateau in other denominations:
They use time use reports. Their data, and the plateau, extends up through 2006.

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