After more than 40 years of uninterrupted decline, the United Church of Christ (UCC) may not be the picture of vibrant American Christianity, even among its troubled Mainline Protestant peer group. But the descendant of the Congregationalist tradition has found reason for optimism: its constituents envision a shared future advocating for causes popular on the political left.
A survey of 4,000 constituents of the church commissioned by a denominational task force identified three top issues that the church should focus upon in the next decade: climate change, racial justice and income inequality.
“What we learned from both surveys is that, as a denomination, we are on one accord with our future priorities and issues. These were the five areas where people said we should place our focus,” announced the Rev. Darrell Goodwin, chair of the Strategic Implementation Task Force. The other two issues were immigration justice and religious tolerance.
The survey results were presented at the UCC Board of Directors meeting March 9-11 in Cleveland.
UCC General Minister and President John Dorhauer is quoted in an article on the denomination’s web site saying that the task force’s work was critical in articulating “a future worth living into.”
“We needed first to see a future that shifted the narrative away from decline and diminishment. They have done that,” Dorhauer said. “The Board, and I with them, needed to see what was coming so that we could align our staff less with past needs than with future expectations. They gave us that. I am grateful to them for helping us see not just what is possible, but what is being called for from us.”
The denomination’s most recent statistical profile released in autumn 2016 listed 5,032 congregations and 914,871 members, down from 5,116 congregations (-1.6%) and a U.S. membership of 943,521 persons (-3%) in 2015.
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. An internal report made available in June 2015 predicted an 80 percent decline in membership by 2045. The corresponding financial crunch has led to a 70 percent cut in staff at the UCC’s national office since 2000.
Consequences of this historic collapse are felt in UCC congregations now, with an estimated one-quarter of all UCC churches without a full-time pastor. Many churches, especially in the denomination’s New England heartland, are facing a difficult choice between retaining their buildings and employing clergy, with many opting to rely upon retired and non-stipendiary clergy instead of full-time ministers.
The denomination made news in 2015 by embracing a policy of Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions (BDS) against companies that do business with Israel. A prominent congregation in the UCC hosts an annual “Drag Gospel Festival”. Published materials from the UCC also drew attention last year after challenging the inerrancy and divine inspiration of the entire biblical text.