The Rev. Canon Dr. Michael Barlowe, Executive Officer of General Convention, has announced that data from the 2016 Parochial Reports of the Episcopal Church is now available. Canon Barlowe noted, “The 2016 data reflects a continuation of recent trends, although rates of decline in such key figures as Average Sunday Attendance have decreased.” He also observed, “Overall, congregational income through pledges and other offerings has remained constant,” even as overall number of congregants has decreased.
You can find the reports on the General Convention website here.
Total Membership has declined by 11,833 to 1,917,182 and Average Sunday Attendance has dropped by 12,995 to 601,246.
27 Dioceses reported growth in members. These were led by Honduras which reported a doubling of membership (actually 121%) to 43,060. Curiously, they also reported a 28% decline in Average Sunday Attendance. The report also shows that 31 of the 110 dioceses reported growth in Average Sunday Attendance (ASA). Among those showing increases in membership and attendance were Pittsburgh and San Joaquin, which have been in recovery from the schisms which saw their former bishops lead a majority of members of those dioceses out of the Episcopal church to form the Anglican Church in North America.
There do not appear to be large regional variations in ASA or membership changes domestically, though the southern provinces (IV and VII) had smaller percentage declines than average.
Every Province saw reductions in ASA. Province IX saw the largest decrease by percent with a 16.3% drop. This was led by significant declines in Honduras (-28.2%) and Ecuador-Littoral (-33.1%). Province III (mid-Atlantic) saw the smallest percentage of decline with a 0.6% drop, followed closely by Province VII at -0.7% (Province VII is the lower Mississippi and Missouri River basins).
Though the church has seen these kinds of declines for more than a decade, the rate of decline has slowed. This is part of a broader change across American culture that has seen religious affiliation and participation decline across almost all Christian bodies.
Diocesan level statistics though don’t tell the whole story. Even in dioceses that have seen overall decline, there are individual parishes that are growing (and in growing dioceses, there are parishes in decline). For example, we looked closely at two dioceses, Vermont and West Tennessee. Vermont stood out in Province 1 with 2.2% growth in ASA. Looking at each parish in that diocese we see that a majority (19) have seen some increase, while 14 remain essentially unchanged and 13 showed lowered attendance. So in this diocese, the growth of the majority more than made up for the losses in only a third of the parishes across the diocese.
Looking at West Tennessee, as we might expect, we see the opposite. Here slightly more than half of the parishes reporting reported reduced ASA. But even here, 25% of the parishes showed growth.
Further analysis would be needed to uncover the details behind each of these declining parishes. In some cases, it is likely due to declining populations, too many parishes in a small area, leadership transitions, etc. The important takeaway is that decline is not the universal experience of Episcopalians. In fact, the stats show that 36% of parishes showed growth in ASA over the previous years with 16% having shown growth of 10% or more in the past five years.
The clear takeaway from this report should be that terminal decline is not our future, but certainly consolidation is. We should be looking at these growing parishes, especially the ones showing growth over a period of years more closely to understand the dynamics at play and promulgate lessons learned to help other parishes achieve growth and sustainability.