COVID-19 and resulting restrictions didn’t just hit schools and businesses; many churches have been devastated by plummeting attendance and donations. The Episcopal Church USA, who this month reported their 2021 numbers, was particularly hard hit, and North Carolina was second only to Oregon in attendance loss among the church’s 110 dioceses.
“While in-person average Sunday attendance declined 35 percent in 2021 over the previous year’s count, overall membership in The Episcopal Church measured only a 3 percent decline,” the ECUSA report stated. “A surprise finding—particularly given the drop in attendance—was that funds collected through offerings and pledges (“plate and pledge”) increased by 3 percent.”
While there was the one bright spot of a 3% increase in donations, it was not quite enough to keep up with inflation, as the 2021 Consumer Price Index increase was around 7%.
North Carolina’s 53% drop in attendance was measured by looking at the first 12 weeks of 2020, before a lot of lockdowns had taken effect, and comparing it with the entire year of 2021. Average Sunday Attendance (ASA) over this time went from around 13,000 to 6,000. An average of 3,896 viewed online, meaning about half of those absent opted not to participate at all. This decline was only exceeded by Oregon, who experienced a 56% drop in attendance during this time.
Like the national trends, though, North Carolina saw a slight drop in membership and a slight increase in donations along with the steep drop in attendance. It’s not clear if members will begin trickling back over the next years or if the pandemic permanently interrupted the pattern of Sunday church attendance for the majority of former worshipers.
The ECUSA’s leader, Bishop Michael Curry, who was the bishop of North Carolina’s diocese from 2000 to 2015, said, while the news is disappointing, it gives the church a chance to reinvent itself in a new era.
“I empathize with the feelings of concern many may feel after reading this data, and yet it is important to remember that the institutional church as we know it has not been the form that Christianity has always taken,” Episcopal Church Presiding Bishop Michael Curry said. “We need our church leaders, both ordained and lay, to embrace this moment of reinvention, and the folks I see rising up are going to bring us into a profoundly different age.”
Like most denominations in the quickly secularizing society, the ECUSA has seen a long-term trend of declining and aging membership. 1959 was the peak of membership, with 3.44 million, and since then has declined to 2021’s 1.68 million total, a 49% decline. If the large majority of this 1.68 million is no longer participating in Sunday worship, the numbers could mask a much steeper decline in Episcopal life in the country.
Carolina Journal reached out to the North Carolina Episcopal Diocese Nov. 25 but did not hear back by time of publication.