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Q&A Context, analysis on Church membership statistics

[Episcopal News Service]  To gain added perspective on current church membership, ENS Deputy Director Jan Nunley conducted the following Q&A interview with the Episcopal Church’s director of research, Dr. Kirk Hadaway, and its director of congregational development, the Rev. Charles Fulton. 

ENS: Essentially all U.S. mainline denominations have posted membership declines in recent years. What do the 2003 figures say about membership and attendance in the Episcopal Church today?

Kirk Hadaway: We have a nearly 36,000-person decline in membership and a decline of almost 24,000 in average Sunday worship attendance.

ENS: How does that stack up against previous years?

Kirk Hadaway: In 2002 the decline was only 8,000, and prior to that it was actually some growth in a couple of years, and minimal decline, maybe a thousand or less, in a couple of other years. It’s the largest decline we’ve experienced since the late 1980s.

ENS: What do these numbers tell you?

Kirk Hadaway: I think we have been somewhat complacent over the last number of years, because the data were basically flat. That is, we were on a statistical plateau in membership and on a slight increase in attendance for a number of years—which led to some optimism and even some comparison to other mainline denominations that were doing much worse. And then in 2002 we saw the start of a decline both in attendance and membership. We hoped that was a one-year blip, but in 2003 the decline continued and in fact got worse. A sobering reality when we had hoped to continue to grow, not to accelerate the decline.

Charles Fulton: We were basically plateaued for 10 years, and in life cycle theory that means it’s time to redefine the ministry — meaning that your basic vision probably holds but you just have to say what’s new that we didn’t expect when we first decided to implement that vision, and fold that new information into the new vision and go on into a new growth cycle. That’s not hard work. Four questions will do it: “What did you start out to do? What have you accomplished? What’s new today that you didn’t know about when you started? Where would you like to be in three to five years?”A good healthy discussion will produce change when you’re plateaued. A plateau means you’ve fulfilled enough of your vision, you’ve got the return you’re going to get on it, and if you take the new information in you can get a better result out of that vision. When the conversation about 2020 first came about, I rejoiced, because I thought we were doing exactly the right thing at exactly the right time, and timing is the key thing in the life cycle. What would work yesterday won’t produce any change today. The timing was a gift. Now we’re at a point where we’re not plateaued, we have a two-year negative trend, which in life cycle is a decline. Intervening in stability is fairly easy; intervening in decline is more difficult. It’s not a matter of taking your old vision and folding in some new information. The new information challenges the vision, who you are, and how you do it. You have to let go of some stuff. You get to keep some of your mission but there’s going to be enough change that it’s going to be perceived by members of the congregation as loss instead of just new ideas. And Episcopalians don’t do loss well. We add very well; we don’t subtract, multiply or divide well.

ENS: Is the data reliable?

Kirk Hadaway: The data are as good or better than any other denomination. In fact our response rate is really higher than anybody else—we have 94% of the churches that respond. We have confidence in the attendance data; the membership data are somewhat less reliable. The main thing is to look at the trend, the pattern, even though there are embedded errors in the data, and we do a lot of error-checking procedures now, so today they’re more reliable than they ever have been. In addition, the data are now online, and we think that helps with the accuracy because people realize that it’s there and they can check the statistics against what they know. The accessibility has improved the reliability of the information and will continue to do so.

ENS: The trend was across the board—all the provinces show a decline?

Kirk Hadaway: This year the provinces were more consistent in terms of the trend than in previous years. The Sunbelt, over the previous 10 years, has experienced more growth than other parts of the Episcopal Church due to population dynamics and migration, new church development, and so forth. But even though there are some variations among provinces and dioceses, it is a fairly consistent pattern of loss. We can’t ignore the timing of the decline and some people will speculate about the influence of the last General Convention on this. We should remind people, however, that the decline began a year prior to General Convention—86 dioceses declined in average Sunday attendance in 2002 and 87, only one more, in 2003.

Charles Fulton: If it’s related to one event, that can be dealt with and we’ll get beyond it. If it’s a systemic, life cycle issue, it will be harder to turn it around, and it will require a kind of radical leadership that we don’t really encourage right now. Resurrection follows death—it does not follow denial.

ENS: Are the “hot button” issues a factor, though?

Charles Fulton: Even the decision to decide on these issues is not made locally. That comes out of General Convention, and the people that do General Convention tend to be the same people, though that’s shifted in the last few years. The issues do resonate locally, but most people in congregations are never going to have to deal with the issues locally. It’s a fairly abstract thing. But what it will take to turn decline around—they’re going to have [to be reminded of] it Sunday after Sunday. It is hard, and it is costly. And when there’s systemic decline, you’re always looking for a scapegoat, an excuse. That’s part of the pathology. The good news is, where there’s an excuse, there’s always an opportunity. Read the Gospels—they’re always telling Jesus there isn’t enough, and Jesus’ answer is, “What do you have?” That’s enough.

ENS: A recent study by the University of Chicago said the Protestant majority in the U.S. is “fading.” Is that part of what you are seeing in this report?

Kirk Hadaway: You can’t look at this information abstracted from what’s happening in the culture and to other mainline denominations. The mainline Protestant share of American religion has been declining, and that’s been tied primarily to the birth rate and also the fact that there’s been a reduction in what’s been called “upward switching”—people from lower-status denominations becoming more affluent and joining denominations more in line with their improved social status. But primarily it’s the fact that more educated, affluent people have had fewer children.

ENS: And the mainline churches aren’t evangelizing those populations where the birthrate is growing.

Kirk Hadaway: We have been at an advantage among other mainline denominations because our rate of retention has been higher, and we have been more successful in recruiting the unchurched—that is, people who are lapsed in other denominations or had no prior religious background—because, it’s been thought, of our spirituality, our liturgy and its accessibility.

Charles Fulton: And our pastoral care. We’re often the ones that will do the wedding for the couple who can’t agree on a church, or we’ll baptize the kids. The Pastoral Offices have been a tool for evangelism. It has to do with our accepting, nonjudgmental approach.

Kirk Hadaway: But you can’t escape these broader cultural influences that are happening to all American denominations. There has been a big decline in the birth rate among white, highly educated Americans, the rate of retention has dropped somewhat for the Episcopal Church, and also the degree to which we’re losing more and more to the ranks of the “nones”—the disaffiliated population, which has affected all denominations, but the mainline more than anybody else. If we remain a white, upper middle-class denomination, we’re not going to grow. There’s just not a big enough supply of those people around, and that’s spread out among all denominations. We’re going to have to reach out beyond our traditional constituency, to the part of the population that not only doesn’t go to church but doesn’t see themselves as church-goers or affiliated with any faith community. There’s been a decrease in joining in general. We’ve had a number of denominations that have in recent years had declines in membership but increases in attendance. One of the interesting factors about the “nones” is that an increasing proportion of them attend church from time to time, but they just don’t consider themselves to have any particular denominational or church affiliation. Religion has become a pastime, to participate in when one feels a need to do so.

Charles Fulton: The bread-and-butter of mainline denominations, what we really do offer people, is belonging. And that’s not what the church at its truest offers people, just to belong. You can belong a lot of places. Younger generations belong to their generational cohort in a much stronger way than older generations ever belonged to church.

 ENS: Sociologist Wade Clark Roof refers to present-day spiritual seekers as “tourists” but never pilgrims.”

Charles Fulton: Congregations are notorious for talking about the growth of a decade ago as “the newcomers.” If that’s not branding them as tourists…!The context in which we formed our assumptions of ministry was that the world was already churched, and our “big hairy audacious goal” was 2 percent of the population and that was enough. But all those assumptions are gone. We know how to look at the world as it is; we need to do it.

Kirk Hadaway: We say that we want transformed lives, but we’re more comfortable with “conformed” lives.

ENS: What about the pull of the new non-denominational megachurches?

Charles Fulton: I don’t feel the need to judge those places as inferior. I give them credit—they’re reaching some people that nobody else is reaching. Some of what I’ve heard from people who live in the shadow of Willow Creek is that it produces a lot of good members for mainline denominations! They enter there, and when they get ready for a little more structure, a little more depth or whatever, they check out the Episcopal Church. One of the principles of life that I remind myself of is that the enemy of a ministry is never another ministry, and the enemy of growth is not another congregation. We’re afraid of competition, but what I’m concerned about is people that don’t go to church at all… figures show that on a given Sunday only 21% of the population of the United States is in church.

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