A Research Report*

The Episcopal Church, through the Office of Congregational Development, participated with other mainline Protestant denominations in a watershed study of new church development. Congregations that were founded between the years of 1980 and 1996 were surveyed to determine the state of new church development and the commonalties of successful new starts. The Lilly Foundation and the participating denominations funded the study.

The goal of the study was to learn the characteristics and growth patterns of new congregations, characteristics of their leaders, and what it takes to successfully plant a new church. Questionnaires were sent to the founding clergy, the current clergy, and five lay leaders who were knowledgeable about the founding of the new congregation. 'Success' was defined as a congregation that grew large enough to achieve self-sufficiency within seven years. An average Sunday attendance of 250 or more was determined by the ecumenical partners to be the benchmark for determining successful self-sufficiency.

The first important result of the survey was learning that the Episcopal Church had very limited records about our new churches. In the future Parochial Reports will track new churches.

The founding clergy of the new churches that had reached an average attendance of 250 or more have been invited to participate in ecumenical focus groups with other successful new church developers to deepen the understanding of what it takes to grow a new congregation.

You can view the full survey results on line or in print.

  1. Order the report "New Church Development: A Research Report" through Episcopal Parish Services at 1-800-903-5544 (38 pp., $10.00). The print version provides color graphs and charts.
  2. Select NCD report to download the report in Adobe Acrobat format.
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Some of what we learned about New Church Development in the Episcopal Church:

  • During the 16-year period between 1980 and 1996 the Episcopal Church planted 337 new churches nationwide.
  • 14 of those congregations reached an average Sunday attendance of 250 or more by their 7th year.
  • The strongest correlate of new church success was the initial size of the congregation. Congregations that had 75+ in worship attendance at the outset (by the third month) grew to be the largest and strongest. Those that began with few than 40 remained small.

  • Researching the demographics to inform site selection increased the likelihood of success. Knowing the community demographics did not ensure success, but unorganized placement almost assured failure.
  • Clergy who continue their focus on those not yet members grow larger congregations than those whose focus turns inward toward institutional and programmatic maintenance.
  • The new starts that are now the largest and strongest reported that they had a strategy and systematic effort to track visitors and prospects.

  • Founding clergy driven by a clear purpose, not a need to please people, grew larger congregations.
  • A common vision shared by the clergy and membership was a key correlate for the largest and strongest congregations.
  • Trained lay leaders made a difference. The most successful new congregations had lay leaders with some intentional training and experience in practical evangelism, outreach development, and conflict resolution.
  • Clergy that are the best at starting groups 'from scratch' grew the largest congregations.
  • The greatest number of large and strong congregations had young founding clergy (age 24-35).
  • An informal finding, not documented in the survey, was that a number of founding clergy left the Episcopal Church after the work of starting a new congregation.
*Report prepared by C. Kirk Hadaway, Research Services, United Church of Christ, and Penny Marler, Samford University.
The Reverend
Charles N. Fulton III,
Director of