Episcopalians participate in sweeping study of religion in America

by James Solheim
[email protected]

(ENS) Episcopalians participated in a massive study of religious life in America and, like the other groups included in the study, learned a few things that might help plans for the future. The results were released at a news conference in New York City March 13.

Faith Communities Today (FACT): A Report on Religion in the United States Today was conducted by the Hartford Institute for Religion Research, based at Hartford Seminary in Connecticut, and was funded by the Lilly Endowment and the cooperating religious bodies.

It is the most broadly based survey of religious institutions--churches, synagogues and mosques--ever conducted in this country, involving 14,301 congregations in 41 different faith groups.

The basic questionnaire used in the study was mailed last spring to 1,100
Episcopal churches drawn from the 1998 Parochial Report database. A total of 726 were returned with an effective response rate of 67.8 percent.

The 200 core questions covered six broad areas--worship and identity, location and facilities, internal and mission-oriented programs, leadership and
organizational dynamics, and finances. Prof. Carl Dudley and Prof. David Roozen of the Hartford Institute estimate that the survey data "applies to about 90 percent of the worshippers in the United States," even though it did not include several large groups.

The study revealed, among other things, that half of the congregations participating report that they are growing, most report that they welcome
change, and, to no one's surprise, that changes in worship often prompt serious congregational conflict.

"These congregations feel good about themselves," said Dudley at the news
conference. When compared with the past, "these congregations are larger and financially stronger than the past. Despite the challenges of changing
community populations and the natural process of institutional aging," he added, "the vast number of congregations feel that they have been able to renew their strength and to sustain themselves."

Leadership still an issue

In the section on leadership, the study concluded that "religious leadership
should be recognized for its significant contribution to the vitality and growth
of congregations. Leaders should be applauded for guiding a remarkably complex array of worship, educational, fellowship and outreach activities." Yet the report also noted that "some report that they have lost energy that comes with clear vision," with age cited as one factor that "places a drag on a congregation's sense of energy and purpose."

The study suggests that "clergy with a seminary education are no more likely, and in many cases less likely, to report that their congregations are
well-organized, vital and alive, growing in participants, openly dealing with
conflict and scoring high on a clear sense of purpose." While urging some caution in interpretation, Dudley said that those responsible for theological
education might "consider ways to help religious leaders deal with conflict
constructively within denominational polities, and specifically with areas known to induce tension, such as developing contemporary expressions that are appropriate in various worship traditions."

On the all-important concept of change, the study revealed that "change does not come without the emotional cost of conflict," pointing out the
relationship between growth, change and conflict. "Congregations see themselves as growing by cultural heritage, by intentional and focused sense of mission, and by affirming standards of personal morality and social justice," the study concluded. "They see themselves as willing to change, especially where they can imagine the alternatives."

Analysis of the Episcopal Church data reveals that:

*about a third of the responding churches are growing, another third
have plateaued and a third are declining;

*the largest proportion of churches report locations nearly equally divided between cities with a population between 10,000 and 50,000 and towns with a population under 10,000;

*the largest church responding had 6,094 members with a median membership of all reporting churches of 246;

*the median Sunday morning worship attendance was 110 and the median
sanctuary seating capacity was 200;

*almost half the churches responding have two weekend worship services, often with slightly different formats;

*over half (52 percent) reported that "a sense of God's presence" characterizes their worship "very well";

*about 91 percent report that they "always" read creeds or statements
of faith during worship, and 89 percent always pass the peace, but less than
1 percent include dance or drama.

In reporting on congregational finances, the median total income among
churches responding to the survey was $158,000. Almost 60 percent of the
churches indicate that their financial situation today is excellent or good. The median for the budget includes 50 percent of income for staff salaries, 20 percent on congregational operations, 10 percent on denominational mission work, and 5 percent on program support and materials.

"Without the texture of these faith communities woven into the life of virtually every corner of our society, the culture of the United States would be far less than our best," the report said in a postscript.

Good timing

"The study comes at the right time for us," commented the Rev. Charles Fulton of the Episcopal Church Building Fund, who helped coordinate the church's participation as a missioner for Congregational Ministries. "We are
particularly interested in the characteristics of growing congregations--and this gives us some concrete data."

The Episcopal Church's determination to build membership through special
evangelism efforts can draw on the data, according to the Rev. Winston Ching, director of Congregational Ministries, who represented the church at the news conference. "As we seek to build our capacity for ministry, we will now have a better idea of what people are looking for--we will have a better
understanding of our context for ministry," he said.

The study makes it clear, Ching said, that "worship and liturgy are strong
points for Episcopalians. And yet the power of symbols is changing and we must look for new symbols with meaning for a different generation. The study
gives us a useful map for the future, helping us draw on our strengths and uniqueness while remaining open to the future," he said. (The report is available at http://fact.hartsem.edu)

--James Solheim is director of the Episcopal Church's Office of News and