The first set of full-year data, reflecting the effect of COVID on the Episcopal Church, has been released. As expected, the numbers are dire. Even worse, official commentary about the numbers is misleading.
- Reporting parishes and missions declined by 62 for the year, from 6,356 in 2020 to 6,294 in 2021.
- The rate of loss of active members declined slightly. In 2020 the denomination shed 61,243 members. In 2021, it lost 56,314 members.
- As of 2021, the church has lost 20 percent of its active membership over a ten-year period.
- Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) declined from 458,179 in 2020 to 292,851 in 2021.
- While the church has lost 20 percent of its active membership over a ten-year period, it lost 54 percent of its ASA during the same period of time.
- 568 congregations have an ASA of 10 or fewer, a sharp increase from the previous year.
- The percentage of parishes with an ASA of 100 or fewer rose from 75% to 90% in the course of one year.
- While church officials make much of the fact that the average pledge increased in 2021, the 3.3 percent increase was offset by a 4.4 percent decline in 2020. Moreover, inflation further eroded this, resulting in a decline in actual pledge income.
- Similarly, a 8.3 percent increase in 2021 operating income, largely due to the performance of church investments, was offset by a 4.6 percent decline in operating income the prior year. Additionally, annualized inflation of 4.7 percent in 2021 resulted in a net decline in church-wide income.
- Church-wide, there were 23,741 burials in 2021, while total baptisms and receptions into the denomination totaled 20,499, representing approximately 14% more burials than new members. 18,739 burials were performed in 2020.
- The total number of baptisms for the year amount to 1 percent of total church membership. Burials amount to 1.4 percent of total membership.
- Marriages declined from a 2013 total of 10,394 to 4,592 in 2021, an almost 56 percent decline.
Tying it together
To be fair, anecdotal evidence suggests that giving, in particular, has improved since 2021. And we recognize the need for church officials to be positive and to provide context, including the fact that most of the mainline churches are facing similar declines.
That said, these numbers are not just cause for concern. They are indicia that the Episcopal Church is in a dire way. And while Episcopal beliefs are consistent with overall perspectives of persons in the U.S., this appears to be doing nothing to offset decline.
Thus, when church officials point out that the rate of decline is consistent with that of other mainline denomination, we have to ask: Why is the church not growing? Why is loving, liberating, and life-giving not drawing people in?
Indeed, not only are new people not coming in, but the continuing exodus of members is far greater than that caused by death. Episcopalians continue to vote with their feet.
In 2021, the denomination lost 56,314 members, but only 23,741 of these were via death. (Nor is there a one-to-one correlation in this area—the number of burials includes family members and others who may not have actually been members.)
There’s also a worrying barometer right behind the scenes. Churches often are reluctant to purge members from the rolls. So while total membership over the past ten years has declined by 20 percent, ASA has dropped by a staggering total during the same period of 54 percent. In other words, there are a lot of people on the books who just aren’t that interested.
Anglican Watch also notes that even with the funds that pour into the denomination, we see little in the way of outcomes.
Indeed, there is a lot of time spent holding meetings and issuing reports, and very little time actually building the Kingdom of God.
When we parse the numbers — as Susan Snook has done with excellent insight — we see that a small portion of the denomination’s budget goes to its stated priorities. In the 2017 triennium, the initial budget proposal reflected evangelism efforts at 2.6 percent of total expenses. The cost for the church’s stated three current priorities of evangelism, racial justice and reconciliation and creation care account for less than 10 percent of the budget.
Where does the other 90 percent go?
Primarily to overhead, with sharp increases in the expenses of the office of the Presiding Bishop and governance, including auditing. That’s ironic, because internal controls and procedures in the church have historically been shoddy. Transparency is also minimal—it was only recently that members learned that the loan to rehab the church headquarters building was an internal loan, versus one to a commercial bank. That’s a relief, given rising interest rates, but the underlying secrecy is a recipe for trouble.
Speaking of, the ongoing decision to hang onto the fusty old heap that is HQ, aka 815, bespeaks a milquetoast approach to change. With all the empty church real estate out there, and plenty more coming, there is no good reason not to offload the building, set people up to work remotely, and hold meetings at St. John the Divine or other spaces with plenty of room.
As for the claims that the costs are offset by leasing out unused space, those are questionable. Most of the tenants appear to be related entities that were previously leasing space elsewhere, despite the surplus of space in TEC. Thus, the baseline question remains: Do any of those involved need to be renting? Or could they go green and go virtual?
Nor does the church avoid the temptation to spend money it doesn’t have. As of 2017, it had been routinely dipping here and there into short-term reserves, leaving the total perilously low at $2.3 million. Best practices would require at least $9.5 million on hand.
Bottom line, the church is in a dire way.
It must shift from maintaining the status quo to embracing change; raising up new leaders; acting with integrity; and being church, versus doing church.
As it stands, the church loses an average of 18.8% of its membership annually.
Yet when was the last time we heard of a church reaching out to former members and inviting them back? Or finding out why the left? Or even caring about the fact that almost 1 in 5 active members leaves every year? Most churches just drone on, doing the same old, same old. Haven’t seen Mrs. Smith in a while. Oh well.
And if Anglican Watch could recommend just one change, it would be this: Act with integrity.
From that flow the other improvements the church needs to make, including focusing on mission, acting with urgency, demonstrating accountability, and trying to recover the tens of thousands of people who used to be active in the church, but have turned their backs and walked away.
Without those changes, we are watching the church as we know it move into the final stages of life.
The Episcopal Church, we fear, is terminally ill.
The fastest way to leave TEC is to do something that should be joyous: Serve on a vestry or committee. 66 percent act like assholes.
No the fastest way to leave is have parents who are Episcopalian. The church deserves its death and no one is going to shed a tear. They’ve got all the time in the world to apologize for the churches behavior 100 years ago but won’t talk to their kids who left about the abuse that happened 15 years ago. One of the last bishop conferences the main point of discussion was could the unbaptized receive the full magic of communion. This shows two things: the religious reallly have nothing left to contribute to a modern world, they are totally clueless about how their church is in free fall
That too. My experience is that bullies abound in TEC churches, including the mean girl games that most folks outgrew in 9th grade.
One of the most amusing was the day a former senior warden, Lisa Medley, rolled past. She had just left Sunday services, saw me, and stopped to give me the double middle finger. And then folks like her cannot figure out why the church is emptying. Obviously, the bit about “respect the dignity of every human being” lasted for roughly 1,000 feet down the road.
Anyway, happy Thanksgiving, buddy.
A lot is our fault, as clergy. When priests make it all about them, people get the wrong message. I can count on one hand the priests I know who genuinely are in it for the right reasons.
It also is important not to underestimate the harm narcissists cause. Beware the charming priest who seems too good to be true. He is.