Saturday, October 18, 2014

"But I'm Not Dead Yet." Another Response to Another Dying Church Story.

Bring out your dead!   The Episcopal Church has released the final tabulated results of the 2013 Parochial Reports.  I'm commenting primarily for my friends at Trinity Episcopal Church in Indianapolis, but there are points here that are relevant everywhere.  The trend lines in this report are mirrored not only in all the mainstream Protestant denominations; it's been an issue in the Catholic Church for two generations and now even the evangelical congregations that grew throughout the 1980s and 1990s are experiencing a decline in numbers.

Bring out your dead!  As a denomination, the Episcopal Church is down to 6,622 parishes in the US, a fifth straight year of losing 40 to 100 a year.  In many cases this is a matter of small parishes merging; but in some cases communities are simply losing their Episcopal churches.

The count of total active Baptized Members is 1,867,000, down 1.4% this year, down about 7% total over the past five years.  This number has been dwindling from a high of 4 million 40 years ago.  During the early ‘00’s it was common   to attribute our membership losses to people leaving over the then-divisive issue of ordaining gay clergy.  Now that decision has positioned us at the vanguard of the right side of history, but it is not translating into membership growth. Bring out your dead!   

The Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) in all 6600 parishes on a given weekend is 623,700 – down 2.6%.  The five-year trend is down by over 10%.  Attendance is dropping even faster than membership – indicating that normative expectations about what constitutes “participation” are changing.  So ... "but I'm not dead yet!"

Median parish membership  is 152.  (The mean, or average, is 281; a few very large churches drive up the average.)   The median means that half the Episcopal congregations in the US – 3311 of them – are smaller than 152 individual members.  Sixty percent have less than 200 members, and only 14% are larger than 500.  We at Trinity are well established within that top group, with more than 800 members.  So ... "really, I'm feeling much better."  

Median  ASA is 61, and the average or mean is 94.   Only 4% of Episcopal churches have a higher ASA than 300, and Trinity is just outside that group at 282.

The national Average Pledge $2553, up .8% … that number has increased by 60-70 dollars a year for five years.   Our average pledge at Trinity in 2013 was $2150, up by $150 after having hovered just under $2000 for several years.   Nationally, the average pledge has increased by almost $400, or 18%, over the past five years.   That’s a good thing, I believe, but I can’t help but think that that’s largely a function of small churches having no other revenue stream and no other alternative, in the face of inexorably-rising costs, than for every remaining member to give more to make up for the members who passed away each year.

I also have to think that Trinity’s average pledge is lower than it could be, because people don’t see that same desperate dynamic at play here, thanks to our endowment.    But certainly we are a more affluent-than-average Episcopalian congregation.  Considering how many of the 47 parishes in the Diocese of Indianapolis are in small rural towns where the median household income is three-quarters what it is in Marion County and half of what it is in Hamilton County, Trinity has to be above average in our capacity. 

And for all I know, we very well may be above average in our individual generosity.  We just are not, as a group, doing as much of our giving through the local church as the average Episcopalian congregation. 

But I didn’t write this just as a means of shaming us into giving more.  Rather, I’d like to suggest applying these numbers to a couple of different perspectives.  

A growing Average Sunday Attendance is likely a good indicator of a healthy congregation, but a declining ASA is not adequate evidence that a church is not healthy.  ASA is measuring changes in societal patterns that it is counter-productive to battle.  I would argue that a member who worships twice in a month, attends (or leads) an educational offering twice a month, and invests time on a committee and/or at an outreach mission twice a month, is a more engaged member than someone who attends worship four times a month but does none of the other.   I think Trinity is full – or at least half-full! – of people who fit that former profile.   Of course, I’m sure there are some smaller churches where the same thing is even more true.  But we at Trinity have the resources to demonstrate some leadership in tracking and promoting this kind of engagement measuring, and in that way changing the national narrative of what is and what is not a “dying” church.

I also think that there are some good conversations going on at Trinity about how we should cover the cost of our program with our giving, and use our endowment to maintain our physical plant and fund new initiatives.   What new initiatives?    That’s not been decided … in fact, I don’t think there’s even a list started.  

But every time I read a new analysis on the decline of the church, I have to think … we have at Trinity the resources – the talent, the imagination, and the venture capital and financial flexibility – to conceive and implement ideas that could change the world beyond our walls and our neighborhood.