Signs of hope in 2016 TEC stats

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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.

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TJ (Thomas) McMahon
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TJ (Thomas) McMahon

One wonders how much Christmas falling on a Sunday in 2016 impacted the ASA stats. This used to be cited in the reports as the "Christmas effect", but no mention of it in the recent press releases. The last time it happened was 2011, and that year appeared as an increase, but resumed the downward trend the following year.
On Honduras, I know the diocese has been working in recent years with the indigenous peoples of the region, and I wonder if the large increase might be due to conversion of a large group, sometime near the end of 2016 (so that it would be reflected in membership numbers, but not ASA, for 2016). Many people seem to write this off as a statistical anomaly or counting error. But strikes me it would be worth investigating, because would not want to dismiss successful evangelism. Has anyone had contact with the diocese to get more precise info on the numbers?

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David Clark
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David Clark

I'm not sure these metrics are capturing what I'd personally be more interested in knowing. I suggest metrics that capture how many new Christians are included in the numbers, not just sheep moving from one pasture to another or lamps being born. I'm also interested in what the congregations are doing in terms of ministry, not just facility maintenance or building or internally focused activities. I know some small churches doing some fantastic outreach ministries. We need to capture the kind and focus of the growing churches, as well as what the small churches are doing well. What you measure will get optimized.

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Ann Fontaine
Member

I too would like to see something that analyzes this idea. In Wyoming many churches are in the midst of high Mormon populations -- little chance of growing due to shrinking towns, but fantastic ministries by the whole congregation. The other thing that would be interesting would be of the churches that are growing. What are the common threads. Enthusiastic healthy (emotionally) leadership, attention to including kids in the real worship, Clergy and Laity out in the community. Solid worship (does not have to be spectacular or trendy) but well done. These are some things I notice.

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Cynthia Katsarelis
Member

It would be very good to see those statistics. I'm a parishioner in one of the growing churches. We are in a downtown of a growing city. Our parish has been welcoming to LGBT people for decades. We have worked hard on our families and youth programs and now have a lot of children and young families. The young parents are thrilled to raise their children in a "non bigoted" atmosphere. And they do seem to have lots of gay "uncles and aunts"... Our parish is involved in local outreach ministry, especially to the homeless, and beyond. Our worship comes from our Anglo-Catholic heritage and we have exquisite liturgy and music. We've had female leadership for a long time, something like 30 years. I haven't had time to digest the latest report. The one I read a few years back described growing parishes as urban, suburban, and liberal, in regions that are growing demographically. That's us.

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Daniel Francis
Guest

Yeah....this doesn't seem like a very positive report, I don't see good news here. Consider, that if the Episcopal Church membership were 1% of the US population, we'd have 3.1 million members. We're currently half of that. It will take years of growth before we can say anything positive about growth in The Episcopal Church.

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wm (Bill) Paul
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wm (Bill) Paul

I don't know. I would not be, based on these statistics, so quick to agree what the "clear takeaway" is, especially with the average age of parishioners in most parishes. My reason for not despairing is in the gospel, in Christ. I also think that alarmism prevents the thoughtful, steady, persistent kind of work we need to do. Having said all that, I would walk right up to the line that divides alarm and concern and stand just on the side of the latter, that is, massive concern and would (as I am in my congregation) interrogate and refashion every utterance and practice in light of the NT and best practices. I would not be as self-assured as this post seems to be

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Prof Christopher Seitz
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Prof Christopher Seitz

Looks like from 26% drop, the newest drop was just 25%.

Now about 500K ASA for the entire TEC throughout the USA.

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