Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Statistical Day of Reckoning

The statistics nerds among us look forward with a mixture of longing and dread to the days when Kirk Hadaway and his crew release the annual numbers. Longing, because he gives us a lot of material to work with; dread, because of the inevitably bad news those numbers deliver. Well, for the latest Executive council meeting, they delivered a presentation which pulls together the usual summary numbers, plus other data not routinely released. Some lowlights:
  • Every church statistic is in the negative over the past decade: "we do not have a measure that is moving in a positive direction."

  • Membership has fallen since the mid-sixties, when we had over three million members. Now we have less than two thirds that.

  • Membership losses have accelerated since the early years of this century, and since 2004 shrinking congregations have outnumbered those showing growth by a considerable margin. Only 25% of congregations grew in 2010.

  • Attendance has fallen steadily since 2000 after being rock steady through the 1990s (ASA data doesn't go back further than that, unfortunately). In 2010 only 17% of congregations recorded growth in attendance.

  • Trends in other denominations are also bad. The UMC and other mainline Prots have been in decline for 25 years; in the past three years the SBC has also slipped into the red.

  • "For every parish that has opened in the past 10 years, 2.5 parishes have closed." Most new churches have been planted in the south.

  • We are old. Only 10% of our membership is young adults, compared with 20% of the US population; conversely, the oldest cohort holds 30% of our membership, as compared with 13% of the population at large.

  • Our clergy are old too. The average age at ordination is 46. Over the past three years we have not ordained enough people to keep pace with retirements.

  • Plate and pledge, adjusted for inflation, have steadily declined since the beginning of the century.

  • 72% of ECUSA congregations are in financial distress, far worse than the 58% of US congregations as a whole.
The reader will not be surprised to learn that this report has been met with consternation, not to mention a certain panicky urge to do something about it. The question, of course, is where the decline is coming from. Some possibilities:
  • Not enough kids. Hadaway's older analysis identified the drop in the white birth rate as a major source. However, this report is now a decade old, and it precedes the pattern of acceleration seen in the decade since. Also, this is a factor we will just have to live with.

  • People leave. This is not a negligible contributor. My analyses in the past seem to show this as perhaps the dominant factor; in any case, losses in the four departing dioceses account for 19% of the drop in domestic membership since 2007.

  • People don't join us. In our heyday it was commonly claimed that 50% of adult Episcopalians were converts. It's hard to pry that out of the data because of the many converts who don't show up in the offices, particularly as the expectation to be confirmed has just about disappeared.

  • We are not retaining our kids. This is everyone's favorite reason, but if adult conversions were what sustained us before, it follows that this was never one of our strong points.

  • Society is becoming more irreligious, and people these days don't join institutions. These are perhaps contributors, but again we don't have a way to track them.
I'm going to save my opinions on what to do for a later post. However I hope in any case that some of the complacency has been shaken off.

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