Growing Episcopal congregations

By John B. Chilton

What do we know about how or why Episcopal congregations grow? We can start by asking which congregations are growing and what are their characteristics. I say “start” because correlation does not prove causation. For example, congregations with parenting programs are likely to be growing. But is this because congregations with parenting programs attract newcomers, or is it because congregations with young growing families adopt these programs?

In 2005 the research and statistics office of the Episcopal Church issued a report, FACTS on Episcopal Church Growth, authored by C. Kirk Hadaway, Director of Research. Faith Communities Today (FACT) is a project of Hartford Seminary and the Hartford Institute for Religion Research. Thus far, FACT has conducted surveys of congregations in participating denominations in 2000 and 2005. FACTs on Episcopal Church Growth reports the results of the 2005 survey of Episcopal congregations. In this essay I summarize a portion of the report and offer some of my own thoughts.

The FACT 2005 survey form given to congregations is here. The survey was completed by 57% of congregations surveyed, usually by clergy. The 4,102 responses were weighted to reflect size and location in the population of Episcopal churches as a whole to improve the representativeness of the sample.

Growth in membership can be measured either as a rate or as a change. Small congregations can show large growth rates (or decline) even if it is just a change of a few members. And large congregations can have large growth in numbers with a small growth rate. Congregations were therefore classified as growing if they had “substantial growth in numbers” and at least a 5 percent rate of growth comparing 2000 membership to 2005.

Hadaway’s results are presented in five groupings of characteristics of congregations: demography, worship, orientation towards growing, conflict, and clergy leadership. In this essay we focus on demography. For my purposes this will include location (rural, suburb, etc.), year of establishment of the congregation, the age distribution of the membership, ethnicity, gender balance, the theological conservatism of members, and the conservatism of the diocese.

Location matters: New suburbs of cities have the largest proportion of growing congregations (39%). In downtowns the proportion was 30%. In other categories – rural, small town, old suburb, older residential in a city – the proportion growing ranged from 21 to 24 percent. Hadaway does not state whether, say, downtowns had both a large proportion growing and a large proportion in substantial decline.

Newer congregations grow: Of congregations formed since 1990, 48% were growing over the period 2000-2005; dioceses plant new congregations where the capacity for growth is greatest, often new neighborhoods. Of those formed earlier the proportion growing was 28% or less depending on the age interval examined. Older congregations in new suburbs are less likely to grow than new congregations in new suburbs. This may reflect behavioral differences between new and old congregations, or it could reflect the fact that dioceses choose to plant churches in those new suburbs whose residents are most likely to be open to the Episcopal Church, or simply that older congregations often literally don’t have much room to grow. The clear suggestion however is that existing churches in growing neighborhoods should ask if they appear insular to outsiders.

Immigration and ethnicity: US Census figures tell us the white population is growing slower than the black population, the Hispanic population, and populations influenced by immigration (e.g., Asian). Hadaway finds growth of congregations is related to their ethnicity but “the relationship tends to be stronger in other denominations.” It has been said more than once that growth will not be found by going after the traditional constituency of mainline churches.

Presence of children: Of congregations with over 40% under the age of 18 the proportion that are growing is 40%. Other categories are much lower. Even in congregations with 20 to 40% under the age of 18 the proportion growing is 26%. But is it the presence of kids that attract new families? Or is it merely that congregations with children have many families that are growing? Or are we perhaps also seeing the effect that in new suburbs there is population growth and most residents of new suburbs are younger families?

Aging congregations don’t grow: In congregations with less than 25% of the membership over age 50 the proportion growing was 42%. Of congregations with 26% to 50% over the age of 50 the proportion drops to 31%. And it only gets worse if more than 50% of your congregation is over age 50. As Hadaway has underscored elsewhere, the birthrate among Episcopalians has fallen below the replacement rate. With that as given the age distribution membership of the typical congregation will shift towards older cohorts unless we evangelize. Yet many aging congregations are a reflection of their community so it is easier said than done that to grow these congregations you must attract young families.

Gender balance matters: It’s well known that regardless of denomination more females than males attend church. What Hadaway finds is that gender balance matters to growth. Of congregations that were more than 60% female, 50% were in decline. The proportion in decline is 45% if the congregation is more than 60% male (however unlikely that might be!). 40% are in decline in the “balanced” category (40 to 60% female). Since age is not held constant, it could be that we are merely seeing the effect of age combined with the fact that females have a longer life expectancy. If not, there could be a policy suggestion here: think harder about strategies that bring men to church.

Theological orientation of the parish matters: Congregations were asked what is the “theological outlook of the majority of your congregation’s regularly participating adults?” There is a stair-step fall across categories from “predominantly conservative” in which 48% of congregations were in decline, to “predominantly liberal” where just 34% were in decline. That would be consistent with the presumption that conservatives are most likely to be leaving the Episcopal Church and growth is occurring in those parishes that most reflect the liberal direction of the national church.

Conservatism of the diocese matters: If you are in a conservative diocese (in Hadaway’s classification there are eleven such dioceses) your congregation is more likely to growth. At the same time, if you are in a conservative diocese your congregation is more likely to be growing if it is left or right of “somewhat conservative.” It appears that conservative dioceses are more successful at holding onto conservative members than are other dioceses. In addition, I suspect part of what we are seeing in conservative dioceses is polarization due to conflict, where congregations towards the ends of the spectrum are picking up members from congregations in the middle, as well as from each other.

There are several questions on the survey form which Hadaway does not report on, probably because they had no strong effect on growth. These included questions on political conservatism of the congregation, household income, proportion of adults with college degrees, encouragement of personal piety, programs, outreach, and clergy.

There are also questions that could be asked that were not. For example, what other Episcopal churches, or churches of other denominations, are nearby? Where there is more opportunity for people to choose a congregation according to their theological preference are congregations in the middle growing slower? Or might it be that some people are attracted to diverse congregations or congregations that offer variety in worship?

A way to add value to the survey would be to match the congregation’s responses with the data available at from the national church at Studying your Congregation and Community. As stated there,

In order to know who you are, you need to examine where you are and where you have been.

Looking at the social and demographic characteristics of the local community sheds light on the people to which we hope to minister. Looking at trends in membership, average worship attendance, and financial giving sheds light on congregational strength and whether current patterns indicate growth, decline or stability.

The social and demographic characteristics of the local community – household income, ethnicity, education are garnered from U.S. Census data. The data by themselves are useful – for example, there’s no point following a strategy of attracting young adults if there are none in the community. What makes for a sensible evangelism strategy will differ in each context. And these factors may have more to do with the efficacy of different growth strategies than characteristics of the congregation itself.

But it would also be possible with census data to group the surveyed congregations by community type. One example: group congregations according to the ethnic mix of the community (not just to the ethnic mix of the congregation). A question that could be asked then is which congregations in ethnically mixed communities are growing – those that focus on the traditional white higher income segment in the community, or those that take a less traditional approach? What makes for a sensible evangelism strategy will differ in each context. And these factors may have more to do with the efficacy of different growth strategies than demographic characteristics of the congregation itself.

More will be said about growth strategies in Part II this coming Monday. See, also, my essay from last week is here.

Dr. John B. Chilton is an economist specializing in applied game theory. In January he will conclude six years of service at the American University of Sharjah (United Arab Emirates) and return home to Orkney Springs, the location of Shrine Mont Episcopal Conference Center of the Diocese of Virginia. He maintains two personal blogs, The Emirates Economist and New Virginia Church Man.

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