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Why This Denomination May Soon ‘be on life support’

ECUSA
A procession in St. Mary's Episcopal Cathedral, Memphis, Tennessee, in 2002

Based on recent statistics, the Episcopal Church in the United States of America (ECUSA) faces a “dire” and “vastly diminished” future—and may even cease to exist in a few decades. Although numbers can’t tell the whole story of a church body, the ECUSA has experienced major declines in attendance and membership.

“The overall picture is dire,” says the Rev. Dwight Zscheile, an Episcopal priest and professor. “Not one of decline as much as demise within the next generation unless trends change significantly.” During the past decade, the ECUSA has lost one-quarter of worship attendees.

“At this rate,” says Zscheile, “there will be no one in worship by around 2050 in the entire denomination.” While offering pledges have increased, “the fact that fewer people are giving more money is not a sustainable trend over the long term,” he adds. 

Age Plays a Major Role

On a recent episode of “The Holy Post” podcast, researcher Ryan Burge sounded an alarm by predicting that the Episcopal Church will be dead within 20 years. In a follow-up “Religion in Public” blog, he clarifies that while that faith tradition may not completely disappear, “it will be vastly diminished” and “will very likely be on life support.”

Burge breaks down several factors in the denomination’s decline, focusing first on the graying membership. About 55 percent of all U.S. Episcopalians are at least 60 years old. And out of America’s 20 largest religious traditions, the ECUSA has the highest average age.

“A terrifying reality emerges” when you look at mode instead of mean, adds Burge. “The modal age of an Episcopalian in 2019 was 69.” By contrast, it’s 60 for a Southern Baptist and just 29 for a Mormon.

To counter that trend, “generational replacement” is essential, Burge writes, yet just 14 percent of Episcopalians report being parents of children under 18—the lowest of all religious traditions he examined. On top of that, retention rates in mainline denominations hover around 68 percent. According to Burge’s analysis, by the year 2040 ECUSA membership could be down to 0.7 percent of the U.S. population, half its current size.

Shifts & Predictions

Declines in Episcopalian membership are “especially acute,” says Burge, on the West Coast, throughout the Rust Belt, and in New England. “These are the places that used to be the stronghold of more liberal religious traditions, but now they are being hollowed out.”

The Rev. Tom Ferguson, an Episcopalian rector in Massachusetts, agrees that broader demographic trends are key. “I think in the Northeast, it’s largely (due to) secularization,” he says, “whereas I think in the Upper Midwest, it’s part of that population flight.”

For Ferguson, the “normalization of decline” is a “real fear.” Attendance statistics are just one indicator, he admits, yet they’re helpful for making honest assessments and implementing strategies. “If you have tons of folks coming to your free laundry, that’s great,” he says. “But if you’re still losing 25 percent of your congregation, well, then in a few years, you’re just going to be a laundromat.”

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Stephanie Martin, a freelance journalist, has worked in Christian publishing for 28 years. She’s active at her church in Lakewood, Colorado, where she lives with her family.