As data show denominational decline, Executive Council counters with themes of abundance

By David Paulsen
Posted Jun 12, 2023
Julia Ayala Harris

House of Deputies President Julia Ayala Harris opens the June 12-15 meeting of Executive Council in Providence, Rhode Island. Photo: David Paulsen/Episcopal News Service

[Episcopal News Service – Providence, Rhode Island] Talk of scarcity and abundance permeated the first day of Executive Council’s June 12-15 meeting here, as Episcopal Church leaders reviewed denominational data showing membership decline, financial resiliency and growing challenges in matching clergy to the hundreds of Episcopal congregations in search of priests.

House of Deputies President Julia Ayala Harris, in her opening remarks, warned against accepting a “scarcity mindset” as the church and its 1.5 million members look to the future. She compared today’s landscape to that of Jesus’ disciples in the first decades and centuries of the church.

“The church was being born and it was discerning who it would be, what our identities would be as followers of Jesus Christ and the way of love,” Ayala Harris said. “Just as the disciples were commissioned in the early days of the church, we are commissioned now: We are called by Jesus into the crucial ministry of embodying love and action in our communities.”

The Episcopal Church is “being called to let go of our scarcity mindset and embrace the abundant blessings that the Holy Spirit has given us,” she said, adding, “at the churchwide level, we sometimes talk too much about numbers, numbers of people in the pews, and not enough about the fruit of our ministries.”

Executive Council is the church’s governing body between meetings of General Convention. It meets three times a year and typically is chaired by the presiding bishop. Ayala Harris is leading this meeting while Presiding Bishop Michael Curry remains at home receiving medical care and monitoring for atrial fibrillation and internal bleeding.

Curry addressed members of Executive Council in brief, pre-recorded video remarks, thanking everyone for their prayers, messages and cards. “I’ll be praying for you as you pray for me as well,” Curry said. “I’m resting and paying attention to the body, soul and spirit.”

In his report to Executive Council, Kurt Barnes, the church’s chief financial officer, invoked the themes of abundance and scarcity. Despite lingering financial uncertainty from the COVID-19 pandemic, he underscored that The Episcopal Church’s general outlook remains strong.

He drew special attention to diocesan assessments – the money that dioceses contribute each year to the churchwide budget. Those assessments are the largest revenue line in the budget, about $29 million in 2023 out of $51 million in budgeted income. For 2023 and 2024, the church maintained its assessment on diocesan revenue at 15% while increasing the amount of revenue exempted from that assessment from $140,000 to $200,000.

Barnes said eight of the church’s 110 dioceses applied for and received hardship waivers from the payments in 2023, but most dioceses committed to paying the full 15%, raising the estimated budget total to a higher-than-expected $30 million.

“Here’s an instance of abundance, and sharing the abundance across the church,” Barnes said.

This four-day meeting of Executive Council is being held at the Graduate, a 101-year-old hotel in downtown Providence. The next meeting is scheduled for October in Panama.

Executive Council’s 40 voting members are a mix of bishops, other clergy and lay leaders. Twenty are elected by General Convention to staggered six-year terms – or 10 new members every three years. The Episcopal Church’s nine provinces elect the other 18 to six-year terms, also staggered.

Those members are tasked with focusing “a wide-angle lens on our beloved denomination,” Ayala Harris said in her opening remarks. The final presentation of the morning June 12 was devoted to providing data on the denomination’s “evolving reality and landscape.”

Parochial report data shows a steady decline in membership and Sunday attendance but plate and pledge income holding steady.

The 90-minute presentation featured the Rev. Molly James, deputy executive officer of General Convention, and the Rev. Meghan Froehlich, director of the church’s office for transition ministry. They were joined by Matthew Price, Church Pension Group’s senior vice president for research and data.

James and the General Convention Office oversee collection of data from the parochial reports submitted each year by dioceses and congregations. Declining membership and attendance numbers in recent years have raised alarms, but there also have been areas of strength and opportunity, James said.

Molly James

The Rev. Molly James of the General Convention Office discusses denominational trends revealed by parochiaThe Rev. Molly James of the General Convention Office discusses denominational trends revealed by parochial report data. Photo: David Paulsen/Episcopal News Servicel report data.

“We are declining, in that we have fewer parishes and fewer people,” James said. The number of congregations has dropped from about 7,000 in 2010 to under 6,300 in 2021, the last year of full parochial report data, and the denomination has shed more than 350,000 members in that time, down from about 1.9 million. Sunday attendance also has steadily declined.

Plate and pledge revenue, on the other hand, has remained steady at about $1.3 billion a year. “We are not losing money at anywhere near the rate that we are losing people,” James said.

“While there are downward trends and challenges in our data, I also believe there is much cause for hope,” she said. “This time of decline can be an opportunity for transformation, particularly because we have such tremendous resources – financial, material and human – to meet the needs of communities in which we are already present and those in which we don’t yet have an Episcopal presence.”

Church Pension Group is responsible for recording all ordinations, receptions, transfers, removals, retirements and deaths of Episcopal clergy. Price summarized that data to illustrate some of the dramatic shifts that have been underway in the past few decades, particularly the past five years.

LGBTQ+ priests now make up about one in four in The Episcopal Church. Men outnumber women as priests, but women are being ordained at growing rates, especially as bishops. More and more people of color have been consecrated as bishops or called to other senior leadership positions, Price said, though clergy of color still lag far behind those of white clergy in parish calls.

Some of the most sobering numbers, however, related to the decline in active priests in The Episcopal Church.

“We have seen a gradual drop of entrants into the priesthood over the last 12 years,” Price said. He counted 225 newly ordained priests in 2022, down from 325 in 2010, while annual clergy retirements have remained steady at about 400 a year. The gap between new ordinations and retirements has widened significantly since 2018, and about half of the remaining clergy are within 10 years of retirement.

Price likened the trend to an up escalator, overloaded at the top. More people are getting off or about to get off than there are people at the bottom getting on.

In addition, many new ordinations are coming from Generation X or older generations. “We’re relying very heavily on continued late-career ordinations to make sure that we have enough clergy,” he said, and that trend might not continue. “I don’t think that we can rely on somebody from the Millennial generation at 45 deciding that it’s their time to enter the priesthood. … If people decide not to get on the escalator at the bottom, if that dries up, then in terms of clergy supply we would face significant challenges.”

Transition ministries

The Rev. Meghan Froehlich, director of the church’s office of transition ministry, shares data collected from spring transition minister conferences across much of the church.

Those challenges already are fueling what some Episcopal leaders fear is a growing churchwide clergy shortage. Froehlich, whose office supports dioceses and congregations in their efforts to fill clergy calls, shared lopsided numbers from four regional transition minister conferences held in the spring – 622 congregation filling vacancies and only 87 clergy identified as actively searching for calls.

In Province IV, which encompasses the Southeast, eight clergy were searching for calls among 123 openings. Dioceses in the Pacific and Western United States reported more full-time than part-time openings this spring, while the dioceses in Eastern United States reported more part-time calls.

Froehlich cautioned that her data is not comprehensive and does not purport to fully convey the unique experiences of clergy and congregations. “We’re talking about real humans, with real differences and real similarities.” That said, the charts offered “a sense of, when you’re in a search process in a parish, what you’re looking at.”

– David Paulsen is a senior reporter and editor for Episcopal News Service. He can be reached at