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Episcopal Church In Dramatic Decline

Anne Stych

The Episcopal Church could disappear in the next generation unless things change dramatically, an expert on the denomination said in reaction to a parochial data report on 2019 attendance and giving released by the church. 

The yearly compilation of data from each parish within the denomination showed that although pledges and income edged upward last year, church membership continued to fall, as it has for four decades. 

“The overall picture is dire,” the Rev. Dwight Zscheile, an Episcopal priest and staff member at Luther Seminary in St. Paul, Minnesota, told the Episcopal News Service.

He said while it comes with “many caveats,” the 2019 the yearly compilation of data from each parish within the denomination “makes the picture clearer than ever: Even before Covid-19, The Episcopal Church’s days were numbered.” 

If trends continue, the denomination could disappear by 2050, he said. 

Membership in the Episcopal Church has declined by nearly half since the 1960s, from 3.4 million members to 1.8 million last year, according to the General Convention of the Episcopal Church.  However, attendance records show that barely a half-million people actually attend Episcopal churches on any given Sunday.

The decline in active members was about 2.29 percent last year, about the same as in 2018.

Average pledges and total pledge and plate income were up 1.7 percent, but Zscheile said fewer people giving more money is “not a sustainable trend over the long term.”

Fifteen percent of churches saw at least 10 percent growth in Sunday attendance over the preceding five years but 59 percent had lost at least 10 percent. Attendance declines were greatest in the Northeast and Upper Midwest.

The Episcopal Church plans to revamp the report — which has measured membership since 1880 and Sunday attendance since 1991— to only measure Sunday attendance from Jan. 1 to March 1 going forward. The survey also will ask narrative questions that allow parishes to identify less quantifiable ways that they serve members and their communities. 

But the Rev. Tom Ferguson, rector of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Sandwich, Massachusetts, told Episcopal News Service statistics like Sunday attendance are still important, and that the church should not use the open-ended questions as a way to justify the decline. 

“If you have tons of folks coming to your free laundry, that’s great. … But if you’re still losing 25 percent of your congregation, well, then in a few years, you’re just going to be a laundromat,” he said.

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Anne Stych
Anne Stych

Freelance writer, copy editor, proofreader and content manager. Science, technology, retail, etc. writer, ACBJ BizWomen.

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