Anglican Watch

Zombie churches and decline: AW predictions about the coming parochial report results

Zombie churches

Anglican Watch (AW) has been reviewing data relating to parochial report results, and we are increasingly confident that we have a good feel for the reports coming within the next few weeks. So, we will venture out on a limb and share our predictions for the data and related issues, including the burgeoning population of zombie churches. (More on the rise of zombie churches in a moment.)

TLD, we expect many of the changes brought about by COVID are here to stay. The pandemic was an accelerant, shifting existing trends forward in time. Thus, growing churches grew faster, while declining churches lurched closer to closure.

Attendance-wise, we do not expect another 40 percent decline, as we saw in the 2021 data. But we believe the decline rate will remain higher than pre-pandemic, with 10-15 percent declines in many churches and dioceses. Look for total Average Weekly Attendance (AWA) to drop through the 300,000 floor.

Money-wise, we expect slight increases in overall giving, but inadequate to keep pace with elevated inflation. Thus, church finances continue to erode, albeit slower than attendance.

True to form, we’ll see happy-clappy out of some quarters as folks praise lower rates of decline and increased giving–even as they ignore the essential data, which is that the church is imploding on all fronts.

We also expect a growing trend favoring churches and dioceses with resources.

Thus, Massachusetts, Virginia and other relatively well-heeled dioceses will strengthen their ministries, improve mission integrity, and focus on measurable outcomes versus amorphous programs like “healing across differences,” which we have yet to see actually happen. (Amusingly, the dioceses that deploy this rhetoric are among the worst when it comes to actually doing this.)

Other, smaller dioceses, far more numerous and already strapped for cash and people, lack the resources to do much besides wring their hands, talk about mergers, and hope for the best. Think Easton, Maryland, the Michigan dioceses, Northeast Pennsylvania, Pennsylvania…the list goes on.

AW also forecasts a wave of attrition among small parishes. With 90 percent of all parishes having an AWA of 100 or less, and more than 500 parishes having AWA of 10 or less, we’re on the cusp of a surge of church closures. 

And while decline is not inevitable, numbers from ACNA make clear that it’s a problematic trend to reverse. For example, Quincy, already declining before the property litigation, continues its decline even now that the litigation is over and the churches in question sit outside the Episcopal Church.

Meanwhile, we are seeing a coming zombie apocalypse of Episcopal parishes that have died, but continue to stagger around, neither fully alive nor entirely dead.

Saddled with costly, energy-inefficient buildings and 10 or fewer active members, these churches are one major repair or parishioner death away from closing their physical plant. They don’t even have enough energy left to care about spiritual life, even as they desparately seek enough fresh blood to keep going. (As an aside, nothing worse than traveling, showing up at one of these zombie parishes, and discovering no one bothered to show up that Sunday. Or maybe there is, and it’s actually attending worship in one of these churches.)

Responding to these changes will take several forms. Some, like the wildly inept Chicago diocese, will resort to back-room shenanigans as they gear up to sell cathedrals and wrest control of parishes with substantial endowments. (Folks at St. Chrysostom’s: are your ears burning?)

Others will take a more nuanced approach, recognize that churches are not buildings and jettison costly, Victorian and Edwardian heaps, replete with arsenic- and lead-based paint and heaps of asbestos-laden pipe insulation. Instead, they will share space with ELCA, PCUSA, and other friendly denominations or go virtual, using rented space as needed.

Along with major shifts in the denomination’s real estate portfolio, AW also forecasts changes in staffing. Along with the ever-popular topics of bivocational and non-stipendiary clergy, we are fast seeing the disappearance of full-time parish lay positions. 

Indeed, many churches in decline are creating the illusion of full staffing by hiring numerous part-time staff, paying them miserably, and getting what they can from them during their often brief tenure with the church. 

AW has issues with this approach. Many full-time parish staff know that a huge part of their ministry is caring for parishioners by offering a friendly place to visit, to shelter from the worries of the world, and to know that they are loved and cared for. Developing this ministry takes time, focus, and longevity.

Part-time staff, however, often lacking health and retirement benefits, of necessity must focus on getting the work done in the few hours they are at work. As a result, there’s little room for the “soft side” of ministry. And churches get what they pay for–a warm body with mediocre skills and motivation that is biding its time until the next job. That’s no way to run a church, and it’s the worst of all worlds for employees—no health insurance or benefits, but too much income to receive public assistance. In other words, in most cases it’s unethical.

Speaking of social issues, we predict burgeoning recognition that the church cannot continue to bloviate about global warming while clinging frantically to ancient and energy-inefficient diocesan headquarters, cathedrals, and that monument to mid-century modern, church headquarters, aka 815. 

Relatedly, the implosion of the Florida diocesan conference center makes clear that many peripheral ministries will fall by the wayside in the next few years. There’s only so much money to go around, and church leaders are increasingly recognizing the church cannot be all things to all people, even as it throws cash in all directions. 

Nor can dioceses fit round pegs in square holes. We often see discussions like, “How can we make Shrine Mont work?” even as people vote with their feet (and dollars) and make clear they’re not interested in the answer.

These memorials to the military/industrial quasi-state church also reflect a disconnect between where people hang out today — in cyberspace — and where they hung out in the 1970s, which was in buildings.

And we expect to see a growing recognition that the denomination is far from poor, with plenty of assets available for growth and mission. But deploying these resources will require focus and a shift away from the endless churn of doing church versus being church.

As part of this, we predict more parishes and dioceses will move to zero- and priority-based budgeting instead of the current iterative approach. Doing so will allow the church to direct resources towards missional priorities versus the unspoken assumption that everyone ought to get something.

Additionally, we predict that successful parishes and dioceses will move towards more significant financial and operational transparency. 

Gone are the days when donors “trust the system” and mindlessly pour money into the black box, as an all-powerful rector or bishop and his executive committee decide behind closed doors what measures will come to a vote by a rubber-stamp vestry.

Nor are church members willing to treat a blended budget as adequate, in which salaries and other details hide amidst a sea of church babble.  

Most Episcopalians are willing to pay for competent, hard-working clergy and bishops. But the days when clergy pull down six-figure salaries, spend a month at the beach, and hang out in their offices, even as they gripe about the need for self-care, are fast coming to a close. 

Anglican Watch also expects we will see a move away from what we kiddingly call the Imperial Episcopacy. Gone are the days when the bishop rolls through in full regalia, carrying a crozier and making the sign of the cross to impress the little people. 

Successful bishops instead will focus on service to their dioceses, caring for members, and working towards health and wholeness, versus sitting in splendid silence in their increasingly shabby diocesan offices and attending endless meetings.

Part of this will be a move away from an us-versus-them mentality, in which critics are regarded as enemies. Instead, savvy bishops will seek advice from detractors and critics, even as they recognize that the opposite of love isn’t hate–it’s indifference. And with large swathes of America indifferent to organized religion, many will reevaluate their dualistic approach to the world around them.

Lastly, look for increased pressure to address church ethics and clergy discipline. For far too long, the denomination has been living in a Madmen-era time warp, in which the only things that count as abuse involve sex, children, and money–and maybe not even then. 

Nor are church members interested in a denomination where narcissistic bishops don’t want to get involved.

Instead, as illustrated by the Houghland and Singh debacles, we see a church no longer so flush with cash that it can brush off abuse and carry on business as usual. Episcopal entities that survive what one author terms The Great Dechurching will recognize these issues, take them seriously, and address them promptly. 

Thus, the church will no longer lag behind for-profits in operational ethics but instead try to take a leadership role on these issues.

Meanwhile, Halloween is coming, so watch out for those zombies.


  1. I think I have a better idea. Why not shut down the entire national branch of the church. In their own meeting they admit they have no ideas, and it will be up to local churches anyway. Don’t replace curry and instead shut down all non-essential actions, sell all the expensive 2nd avenue/ mayo house accommodations. Give all the money towards causes that actually help those in need. If you’re focused on helping the community, you might even see someone under 70 in an episcopal church. The last person that I think would ever feel at home in this awful organization is Jesus Christ himself.

    1. The funny thing is that the average person in the pews would notice zero change. Despite the enormous sums of cash the national church pulls in, the only benefit most people get is an occaisonal glance at Episcopal News Service. Which, as much as I like folks there, is usually nothing more than a smattering of feel-good and human interest stories.

      1. Honestly, for the life of me, I can’t think of anything meaningful the national church does. It’s not even old, it’s just a corporate structure that somehow claims deeds to every church. It’s filled with the most self-important people who want to apologize for slavery when their organization has become a safe heaven for groomers and predators. The Methodist watched this and many did not sign up for the same scheme. Plus, Episcopal News Service doesn’t dare allow comments.

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