When 25,000 people are leaving through death and only 5,000 are being replaced through children who stick around – the end is near. I don’t think that it’s an exaggeration at all to believe that the Episcopalians will no longer exist by 2040…can a denomination continue when it has money but no people? That’s the future that may be facing the Episcopal Church. According to their finance office, the denomination has $400 million in trust, $11 billion in a pension plan for retired clergy, and another $4.5 billion in assets held at the parish and diocese level. To put it bluntly, money is not the issue.
Last November, I wrote a post for Religion in Public with the title, “The Data is Clear – Episcopalians are in Trouble.” In it, I used survey data to paint a portrait of a denomination that was on the brink of collapse. One of the most troubling things about the future of the Episcopal Church is that the average member is incredibly old. The modal age of an Episcopalian in 2019 was sixty-nine years old. With life expectancy around 80, we can easily expect at least a third of the current membership of the denomination to be gone in the next fifteen or twenty years. That’s problematic when membership has already been plummeting for decades.
But, I came across some data in the last few weeks that I just had to look at in more depth. Before I get into the graphs I have to give some serious kudos to the data team that works for the denomination. I have looked at the websites of all kinds of Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian and Catholic traditions over the last few years. The Episcopalians blow them all out of the water in terms of accessibility and ease of use. Don’t believe me? Well, they have an interactive dashboard of all their churches in the United States. You can sort based on a map, church size, or amount of offering. It’s incredible and can be accessed at this link.
Let’s get down to it, though. How many people actually attend an Episcopal church on an average Sunday? I grabbed a PDF of their membership reports from here and did some quick analysis of the national trends.
In 2009, 725,000 people attended an Episcopal church on an average weekend. According to their own data, the Episcopal Church has about 1.8 million baptized members. Thus, about 40% of members actually attend on a regular basis. That’s been declining steadily over the last decade. A typical year sees attendance dip by 25,000-35,000 people. That represents a 2-3% year-over-year decline. By 2019, the weekly attendance was 547,000. In percentage terms, the Episcopalians have seen their attendance drop by a quarter in just the last decade.
But, that doesn’t tell the whole story about the future of the Episcopalians. Churches need money to operate and on this measure there’s plenty of reasons to be optimistic. The Episcopalians calculate what they call “plate and pledge,” which is an accounting of not just money dropped in the offering plate, but also the amount that members have pledged to donate in the future. We can reasonably assume that not all pledged donations will eventually be collected, but it’s still a decent metric to gauge financial health.
There’s little reason to expect that the money is going to run out for the Episcopalians anytime soon. In fact, the total amount of plate and pledge has actually risen between 2014 and 2019. In 2014, the denomination received about 1.3 billion dollars from their members. By 2019 that had increased by about fifty million dollars. That’s surprising given that the overall attendance in the tradition has declined during that same time period.