As the Rev. Kevin Martin has often said, “demographics are destiny.”1 One of the demographic facts we have to face is the prospect of a clergy shortage as many clergy retire in the not too distant future.2 That is both an enormous problem and a great opportunity as seminaries seek to train the clergy to fill the vacancies.
However there are other demographics of which we need to be aware. Chief among these is the fact that our churches are not growing.
In 1965, the Episcopal Church reached its highest recorded membership: 3.6 million members (a 100 percent growth from 1930). Episcopalians constituted 1.9 percent of the U.S. population. From 1930 to 1965, even though the population grew, membership in the Episcopal Church grew faster than the population. However, from 1965 until today, the membership of the Episcopal Church and our percentage of the population have both declined. In fact, our percentage of the U.S. population (what business people would call our “market share”) has fallen during this time faster than our membership.3
While the average age of a person in the United States is estimated to be 34.6 years old, the average age of an Episcopalian is estimated to be 57 years old.4 A church that isn’t growing and where the average person is 57 years of age can expect to see roughly half of its membership die in the next 18 years. Further, since 60% of Episcopal congregations have a membership of 100 or less,5 how many of these congregations will remain viable with the loss of half their membership? The loss of members whose churches have closed, and who will not find their way into other Episcopal congregations, will most likely accelerate the overall rate of membership decline.
These statistics point to the need for a radical rethinking of our approach to evangelism and congregational development. Nashotah House does an exceptional job of providing a quality theological education and a practical grounding for ministry. Our objective today must be to do more to equip our graduates to serve in a Church that faces these challenges.
It would be easy to look at these statistics and lose heart. I believe we are called to look at these statistics and take heart! Jesus said, “The harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few. Ask the Lord of the harvest, therefore, to send out workers into his harvest field” (Luke 10:2). Our response to a shrinking church must not be to reduce the number vocations for ministry but to increase the number. Our ministry cannot be limited to our congregations when “the fields are ready for harvest.” We must not judge the size of our ordained ministry by the size of our Church but by the size of the field to be evangelized—and not only our Lord’s command, but a simple look at the world around us, tells us that the harvest to be reaped is huge.
1. Kevin Martin, “The End of the Protestant Era,” The Vital Church Newsletter, September 17, 2004. http://www.vitalchurchministries.org/newsletter/269.aspx
2. Matthew J. Price, “Will There Be a Clergy Shortage?—Analysis and Predictions For Uncertain Times.” Church Pension Group, 2002.
3. Kevin Martin, “The Future of the Episcopal Church: A Hard Look at the Numbers,” The Vital Church Newsletter, March 3, 2004. http://www.vitalchurchministries.org/Newsletter/186.aspx
4. Charles N. Fulton III , “2020 Challenges and Opportunities,” Congregational Builder Newsletter, February 2001. http://www.ecbf.org/arch11.html
5. C. Kirk Hadaway (Director of Research, The Episcopal Church Center) “Congregation Size and Church Growth in the Episcopal Church” http://www.episcopalchurch.org/documents/