Small congregations are backbone of Episcopal Church, study finds

May 4, 2003

"The relationship between congregation size and church growth is surprisingly tricky to measure," says C. Kirk Hadaway, the Episcopal Church's new director of research, in a new study just released by his office.

The study seeks to provide a more balanced perspective and combat what he calls "misinformation being circulated around the church using inadequate research procedures that gave an erroneous picture of the relationship between church size and growth, denigrating smaller churches and over-emphasizing the contribution of larger churches to the growth of the Episcopal Church."

"Unlike other mainline Protestant denominations, the Episcopal Church grew rather than declined in overall worship attendance during the last five years," according to the study. "Not counting new congregations, the Episcopal Church increased by nearly 17,000 attendees from 1995 to 2000."

Most of that growth was added by churches in the two smallest size categories. "Very large churches added substantially to the overall growth of the denomination but not as much as churches with average Sunday attendance of 100 or less. Clearly, smaller churches are the major source of growth in the Episcopal Church."

Sources of growth

Yet smaller churches are more "volatile" than larger churches, more likely to grow but also more likely to decline and die, according to the study.

"So what is the relationship between size and growth in the Episcopal Church? Actually, there is not a strong relationship, but to the extent that a relationship exists, it is the smaller churches and the largest churches that are most likely to grow," the study concludes.

"But the fact that small churches are more likely to grow is not the whole story. Smaller churches are also more likely to decline than churches in larger size categories," for a number of reasons. They don't have the people, money, staff and programs that would help them grow and "often have great difficulty paying a full-time priest. "And the condition of smaller churches seems all the more dire because many of the churches that are smaller now have declined into their current size category. Thus the presence of very weak, declining churches among the current set of small churches obscures the fact that many small churches have great potential for growth."

The study found, for example, that "the typical Episcopal congregation has an average Sunday attendance of 80 persons--and it is the typical Episcopal church that has been our primary source of growth during the last decade," according to Hadaway.

He said that bishops in dioceses with many small churches "found the emphasis on large churches and the impression that most small churches were dying to be demoralizing. These wrong impressions had to be corrected before they came to be reflected in program and policy decisions."

"The point is that any church can grow or decline, depending where it is on the growth cycle," said the Rev. Charles Fulton, director of congregational growth and development. "But lots of people are confused about why and how that happens."

The study is available on the church's web site at http://www.episcopalchurch.org/congdev/.

--James Solheim is director of the Episcopal News Service.

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