Addressing the Rumor that the PCUSA Is Going Out Of Business Anytime Soon

The Presbyterian Church USA continues its decline, but institutions are inherently self-preserving

For the four years 2008-2011, the denomination closed or dissolved churches at a rate of 75-80 per year. It is expected that number will accelerate. If the experience of Presbyterians is like that of other former mainline denominations, one might expect upwards of 2500 PCUSA churches to be closed in the next decade due to death and demographics.

 

 

According to the recently released Comparative Statistics 2011, the Presbyterian Church USA continues its decline, but like a person reading their own obituary might say, “rumors of my death have been grossly exaggerated.” Institutions are inherently self-preserving.

The numbers and what they indicate

The recently posted report contains numbers that are now more than a year old. So this analysis will look both at the data and that trends over time.

Congregations

Based on reporting done by congregations one year ago, 5,517 or 53% of the denomination’s congregations have 100 members or less.  In most presbyteries, that means that the majority of the PCUSA’s existing congregations would not qualify to be chartered as new churches.

For the four years 2008-2011, the denomination closed or dissolved churches at a rate of 75-80 per year. It is expected that number will accelerate. If the experience of Presbyterians is like that of other former mainline denominations, one might expect upwards of 2500 PCUSA churches to be closed in the next decade due to death and demographics.

 If each of the 173 presbyteries closed one church a year, the PCUSA would have 1730 fewer congregations in ten years. If they each closed an average of 2 churches/year, that number rises to 3460 fewer churches in 2022.

Which churches are likely to be closed? According to the denomination’s Research Services:

  • 0-6 members: 129 PCUSA congregations
  • 7-10 members: 156 PCUSA congregations
  • <25 members: 1218
  • <58 members: 3507.

The number of dismissals indicated in the PCUSA’s comparative statistical report (21 in 2011) does not  square with information from other sources.  The Layman list includes more than 40 churches that realigned in 2011. The EPC has taken in more than 200 former PCUSA congregations in the past five years. So where’s the truth? Part of that difference may be accounted for by the fact that the PCUSA does not recognize congregations that disaffiliated from the PCUSA and the year end reporting by congregations to the PCUSA lags a full year behind the reality being reported on-line.

The fact that hundreds of congregations are actively seeking to leave the PCUSA for  either the EPC or ECO is not a secret. What is unknown is how many of those congregations will actually leave and when.  Executive presbyters indicate that the number of disaffected churches is around 600.

Membership

Looking at Table 1 of the Comparative Statistical report, the PCUSA is declining by about 60,000 members per year. At that loss rate, the PCUSA would cease to exist in 32.5 years. However, we all know Presbyterians who will most certainly still be around in 32 years, so it’s not quite that simple.

In 2011 the PCUSA’s membership fell for the first time below 2 million (1,972,287) and will likely be 1.5 million by the 2016 General Assembly.  That estimate is reached by taking into account three factors: church closures, church dismissals and disaffiliations, and the non-membership nature of new worshipping communities who use the metric of participation, not membership.

Table 1 of the Comparative Statistics exposes the reality of shrinking congregations. Years 2012 through 2016 have been added as a projection of the ten year trend of the average size of a PCUSA congregation contracting by 2-3 members/year.

 # of membersPer congregation 2001 02 03 04 05 06 07 08 09 10 11 12 13 14 15 16
Median 117 115 111 109 107 105 103 100 97 95 93 90 88 85 83 81
Mean 226 221 217 214 212 208 204 199 195 191 187 183 179 175 171 167

 

Combining the trends of church closures, denominational departures and congregational decline, a realistic projection of 1,447,639 members at the end of 2016 is warranted.* The PCUSA will likely enter 2017 with 8,668 congregations with an average membership of 167 and total denominational membership under 1.5 million.

(*Assuming: each presbytery closes an average of 1.5 church per year , another 100 churches per year are dismissed or disaffiliate, and churches continue to decline in overall membership at the 10 year trend rate.)

To combat the psychological downer of these annual reports, some suggest that the denomination find a different metric than membership.  But as one pastor once said, “Numbers matter to me because people matter to God.”  Let us not forget that the early church viewed numeric growth as a sign of the Lord’s hand of favor. Acts 11:21 says, “The Lord’s hand was with them and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.” In Acts 2:42-47 we catch a glimpse into the life of the early church, concluding with the affirmation that “the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”

Big churches

Table 6 of the report is worth a look. Of the 15 largest congregations based on membership, two have been dismissed and a third is seeking dismissal.

#10 Menlo Park, CA is seeking dismissal

#14 First Colorado Springs, CO has been dismissed to ECO

#15 First Orlando, FL has been dismissed to the EPC.

Drilling down a little further into the list:

#16 First Greenville, SC has been dismissed to ECO

#39 Eastminster Wichita, KS has been dismissed to the EPC

#60 Danville Community, CA has been dismissed to the EPC

#74 First Edmond, OK is seeking dismissal

#82 Chapel Hill in Gig Harbor, WA has been dismissed to the EPC

#85 First Kingwood, TX is seeking dismissal

If you compare this report to the prior year, you notice some churches that have fallen  significantly down the list. In 2009, Colonial Presbyterian Church is listed as having 1687 members, putting it 85th on the list. That same church now appears as #4944 with 100 members. Why? Because in reality CPC is now a member congregation of the EPC. But the PCUSA does not recognize that reality and the presbytery continues to pursue the matter in civil court.

Many of the denomination’s largest churches are heavily involved in either the Fellowship of Presbyterians or Next Church.  So, the denomination’s largest churches are not neutral on the issues. They are leading in efforts to forge new ways of “doing” church even if that means they can no longer do it all together in one particular expression of Presbyterianism.

Dollars and sense

Financially speaking the outlook for the Presbyterian Church (USA) is not nearly as bleak. At the national level, the Presbyterian Mission Agency (formerly the GAC) has a very healthy guaranteed income stream from The Presbyterian Foundation. The Office of the General Assembly and middle governing bodies are the ones who find themselves at the pinch point as membership declines because they rely upon on the collection of per capita.

As membership declines so does the number of people over whom per capita can be spread and thus, per capita apportionments must necessarily rise. The offset for presbyteries comes from the sale of real estate at the closure of dying congregations or through the confiscation of the property of those who desire to be aligned with another denominational body. Every time a presbytery closes a church or forces a departing congregation to leave without its property, the presbytery benefits financially. When property is sold or assets liquidated the presbytery has capital to operate.

For how long? That indeed is the question.

Carmen Fowler LaBerge is president of the Presbyterian Lay Committee and executive editor of its publications. This article first appeared on The Layman website and is used with permission.