If times are tough for oldline Protestant denominations, they are dire for the United Church of Christ. The 60-year-old denomination announced staffing changes during the UCC Board of Directors meeting held March 17-19 in Cleveland. The changes follow the announced resignation of a top staff member in February and an internal report predicting an 80 percent decline in membership by 2045.
According to newly-installed General Minister and President John C. Dorhauer, there are “multiple financial challenges that could impact the well-being of the national setting” (terminology for the denomination’s national-level staff).
“In discussion about the staffing change, Dorhauer noted that the national setting staff has decreased from over 300 in 2000 to just over 100 today,” a staff report of the Directors’ meeting relayed. Dorhauer also assured the board that he would “distribute the workload fairly among the staff.”
Among the departures was the resignation of J. Bennett Guess, Executive Minister of the UCC’s Local Church Ministries and a member of the UCC’s four-person Collegium of Officers. Guess, the first openly gay person to serve as a national officer of the church, was elected to a four-year term in 2013. The departing official is resigning his position on April 8 to assume a role as vice president of the UCC’s Council for Health and Human Service Ministries.
Guess had worked for the UCC’s national setting holding several positions since 2000, first as Justice and Witness Ministries’ communications minister and, later, as editor of United Church News and the UCC’s news director. In 2007, he was named the UCC’s communication director. The board voted not to immediately replace Guess, but to appoint Dorhauer as the acting executive of Local Church Ministries for a period of six months.
That there are staff cuts isn’t a huge surprise – oldline Protestant churches such as the Presbyterian Church (USA), the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America and others have been cutting national staff as their adherents’ numbers decline. But two-thirds of national staff gone in the past 16 years is a singular distinction even among the UCC’s struggling peer group.
According to The United Church of Christ: a Statistical Profile (Fall 2015), the denomination had last year 5,116 congregations and a U.S. membership of 943,521 persons. Founded in 1957 as a merger of the Congregational-Christian Churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Church, the United Church of Christ has lost more than half of its membership in the intervening years.
In June of 2015, the denomination announced that it had entered into an agreement with a Georgia-based property management firm to sell its headquarters and an adjacent hotel that the church owned. The UCC will lease the building back for another two decades. The denomination relocated its headquarters to Cleveland from New York in 1990, a move that was expected to both reduce expenses and bring the church’s national leadership closer to the bulk of its congregations, which are concentrated in the upper Midwest and northeastern United States.
Last summer, UCC Center for Analytics, Research and Data (CARD) studies were released that confirmed dire forecasts. The first, Futuring the United Church of Christ: 30-Year Projections, showed that over the next three decades, the number of UCC congregations will decline from over 5,100 churches today to approximately 3,600 churches. During the same time period, the number of UCC members will drop precipitously, from 1.1 million to just under 200,000 adherents.
The report does not forecast a corresponding decline in total ordained clergy (including retired and emeritus clergy), but does report a drop in those clergy that pastor churches from just under 4,500 in 1985 to 3,000 today, declining to a projected 1,250 by the year 2045.