So today the 2006 red book numbers are out, and everyone has to do the appropriate posturing.
Looking at 2005, and considering domestic dioceses only, we see immediately a decline of 50,000 in active baptized members, and a decline of 22,000 in Average Sunday Attendance (ASA). That works out to a 2% decline in the former, and a 3% decline in the latter. Not good, but I suppose it could be worse. ASA/parish went from 110 to 108, a 2% decline.
When we look at the other numbers, however, things start to look really bleak. Paradoxically, it's because the other numbers are good. Baptisms outnumbered funerals by about 8,000; adding baptisms to receptions gives a net gain of about 15,000 over burials. And when one includes adult confirmations (many of which are for converts from other denominations), the gain may be as much as 29,000. (I'm ignoring child confirmations, but surely many of these can also be counted as gains in membership.)
So why is this bad? Well, because of that 50,000 member decline. That decline is caused by people leaving the church; so putting it all together, it seems that somewhere between 66,000 and 80,000 members left. That's 3% to 3.5% of the membership. Forget all the mythology about ECUSA dying off; the problem isn't that people are getting old, but that they don't want to be Episcopalians any more. And that suggests that we need to take a stronger look at retention. Classically, the churches saw growth in terms of evangelizing, and took child baptism for granted. As far as the latter is concerned, child baptisms outnumbered burials by a significant margin. But departures outnumbered burials by at least two to one, and outnumbered conversions by at least two to one-- maybe as badly as six to one.
The ratio of child baptisms to deaths isn't wildly out of line with national demographics; either young adults tend to stick around long enough to have their 2.1 kids, or the ones who stay are having big families. What it does suggest, however, is that the crucial source of departures lies in people who have had kids. There are other numbers that suggest this is a problem. Child confirmations are a third of child baptisms, when they should be close to equal; even total confirmations does not come close to equaling child baptisms. Now this suggests that a lot of people simply never get confirmed, but it also suggests that a lot of departures are coming from people who have kids and then leave. If one assumes that everyone who stays gets their kids confirmed, then it's not inconceivable that as many as half of the families who have kids baptized leave before their kids start high school.
I will note in passing that marriages are a little under half of child baptisms, and about half burials. This again implies a certain stability: people do get married and do have children at about the right rate. If there is a big drop in the high school to marriage group, it isn't registering in the statistics yet.
That leaves the big unknown group: the middle-aged. These people don't appear in the statistics in a way that can be directly identified, because they do not personally participate in the rites that get recorded. Thus we are left to deduce how they figure in the numbers. Now, one possible source of discrepancy could come from people who are struck from the rolls because they move to retirement communities; it's conceivable that a lot of these people are nonetheless buried out of their former parishes. We've explored the case of those who have kids but leave before the kids are grown. That leaves the late middle-aged, and the various factors examined so far suggest that they are substantial contributors to the exodus-- perhaps as much as half.
As for why people are leaving: well, it is hard not to look at the trend starting in 2003 and draw at least one conclusion. But the numbers suggest that the problem is not as simple as getting young people to come (back) to church. Keeping older people there is a large part of the problem, and needs further study.