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2019 Parochial Report Data Show Continued Decline in Attendance

2019 Parochial Report Data Show Continued Decline in Attendance

In a sobering report released this week, the data from the 2019 parochial reports (submitted annually by each parish church, and which include data on average attendance and giving) paint a picture of a continued steady decline. From 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.

However, the news is not all bad, as giving has trended upward in recent years.

The ENS article adds that the 2020 version of the parochial report will count the “Average Sunday Attendance” statistic only from January 1 – March 1, to account for the pandemic’s effect on in-person worship attendance. It will also include a narrative section where parishes will be able to describe their “opportunities, innovations, and challenges.”

The full results of the 2019 parochial reports are available on the General Convention website.



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Eric Bonetti

What’s compelling about this story is not the numbers, which have been a downward trend for year. Instead the real news is the church’s lack of a meaningful response. WereTEC a for-profit, the numbers would be an all-hands-to-battle-stations call, and heads would roll in the c-suite. But instead, the church continues to dither, with the most recent HOB meeting unable even to come to closure on virtual consecration. But if the church does not get its act together, and darned quick, there will be so few church members left that the only way to consecrate the elements on a Sunday will be virtual, so it won’t matter.

The silence is deafening. Quit bloviating about the issue and DO a SOMETHING!

Paula Haenchen

In 2018, RenewalWorks, a part of Forward Movement, released the findings of a massive survey of Episcopal Churches. The resulting data categorized four different parish profiles that in many ways echo the story found in our annual parochial reports.

The report’s core implication is that the clergy are unable to meet the spiritual (not pastoral, my words) needs of their congregations. Here is a quote from that report: “Until parishioners are comfortable in basic beliefs and value a personal relationship with Christ, an ability to evangelize may be diminished.” And, although I applaud the Presiding Bishop’s WAY OF LOVE movement, I fear that evangelism cannot grow our Church if Episcopalians lack the grounding in a spiritual maturity on which to support their testimony. With all the emphasis of bringing new people into our Church (reporting adult baptisms and confirmations), I challenge the Church to look at how many of those individuals continue in their commitment five years later. The seeds may fall onto the Church, but we are failing to provide fertile ground.

The report further states: “The spiritual leadership provided by clergy may be the most important factor in the spiritual growth of congregants. That is why the ministry of RenewalWorks is increasingly focused on the heart of the leader, encouraging clergy to deepen their own spiritual lives and answer the call to grow as disciples. They can’t give what they don’t have themselves.” Discipling our people needs to be the most important goal. A strong spiritual maturity provides deeper meaning to the Eucharist and genuine Christian love and fellowship among congregants.

Originally, RenewalWorks closed its report with a plea focusing on strengthening the clergy as a spiritual guide and role-model; instead, they have been limited to offering workshops for lay people. So, I hazard a guess that this goal of changing the clerical style to leading their congregations into a deeper spiritual maturity was either seen as too daunting or too political.

Admittedly, my statements and opinions are gross generalizations, but backed with RenewalWorks research and the Annual Parochial Report. For further insights, I refer you to Forward Movement’s RenewalWorks webpage. The Report Summary page holds a link to the full report of the findings.

Thank you for allowing me to share.

Bruce Cornely

This is a very difficult subject. Having grown up as a Methodist I was thoroughly grounded in the Spiritual aspects of the church. Our pastor was British and his influence was felt in worship Sunday mornings were, for the most part, Morning Prayer without canticles, but with formality including great hymns from the Anglican heritage, but contained in The Methodist Hymnal (1935) and sermons were topically appropriate for Spiritual growth. Fortunately, we were not bound by or to the Lectionary which, to me, relieves the clergy of actually considering the Spiritual needs of the congregation and saying something clever about the Gospel of the Day. Very often sermons were preached in series. If you want people to return, give them something to anticipate.

Sunday evenings were time for “gospel teaching and worship” and, though not as well-attended at Sunday morning worship, Sunday evenings were exciting, up-beat Spiritually (no drums or guitars!) but traditional gospel hymns from the Cokesbury Hymnal (all stanzas!)

Again, the Lectionary was not involved. The preachers preached and kept us on a regular diet of Spiritual food and, as well, sermon series were often preached. Attendance was regular.

My Methodist years trained me well for the shift to the Episcopal Church my junior year in high school. I was immediately disappointed that prescribed readings in BCP28 seemed to inhibit the spontanaity and much of the Spirituality from sermons. Gospel stories were basically retold in several different ways with occasional linking to everyday life. I didn’t care because the attraction for me was the formal worship style which made me feel close to God and in His presence for praise and prayer. My need for “learning” was satisfied in classes.

Speaking of classes…. in Confirmation class we were TAUGHT about the Episcopal Church and its worship ways, as well as history. We were prepared to make the commitment to BECOME Episcopalians and not encouraged to bring our past with us to put our personal mark on the church. My greatest sadness for the Episcopal Church is that it seems to be so busy becoming everything to everyone that it has forgotten WHO it is or WHAT it is. I believe that the greatest benefit the church can offer to its flock is stability and predictability. Randomness and excessive spontenaity which overrides tradition results in confusion, and as a clergy friend said, “we have something to offend everyone.” If people are offended, they are very likely going to stop coming. Thus far, the church does not seem to grasp this concept.

I miss regular Sunday morning worship in church, but after almost 30 years of witnessing the confusion I’ve learned to live without it. I have my BCP28 and Hymnal1940 (also 82) for my own personal daily worship and prayer. As well, I have St. Thomas NYC’s webcasts of worshipful worship. Sermons tend to be more Spiritual and thus helpful, despite the Lectionary.

Last Sunday’s worship centered around Psalm 23, and the message of “walking through the valley of the shadow of death” emphasized remembering the good in my past, and being comforted by the assurance that God, who created the goodness, would restore the goodness, and that it is with His rod and staff that I am comforted. He leads, I follow (with the occasional prod from the staff), and I’m assured that there are green pastures ahead.

I truly miss the Episcopal Church and wish it would “come back.” However, if that is going to happen seminaries are going to have to start provided churches with shepherdly priests rather than CEO’s. Granted, a few still escape with their Spirituality and calling intact.

Regarding evangelism, a much neglected evangelistic tool is the parish website which, for the most part seems to be full of words and pictures of the “fun stuff.” When people are looking for a church to attend they are generally looking for a building in which to worship. It is very disappointing to me to visit a website of an historic or architecturally significant parish and find no pictures of the building’s interior or exterior to invite people to visit. To quote and old saying “talk (words) is cheap!”

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