United Church of Christ (UCC) officials unveiled a new logo for the Mainline Protestant denomination this month: a blue comma evoking the church’s motto that “God is still speaking”. While the logo has been updated “to reflect both tradition and innovation within the church as it faces the challenges and opportunities of Christian witness in the coming decades,” officials could have succinctly communicated the UCC with another simple image: a downward pointing arrow.
Newly-released 2016 figures show the progressive denomination in steep decline, reporting a loss of 34,488 members in 2016, to a total of 880,383 members (a loss of 3.9 percent). Backlash against the denomination’s anti-Israel advocacy is driving at least some of the recent decline.
A resolution passed by the UCC embracing the anti-Israel Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions Movement (BDS) passed at the 2015 General Synod called for the UCC and its conferences, members and local churches to “divest any direct or substantive indirect holdings in companies profiting from or complicit in human rights violations arising from the occupation of the Palestinian territories by the state [sic] of Israel;” “boycott goods identified as produced in or using the facilities of illegal settlements located in the occupied Palestinian territories;” and to “join boycotts of such goods in their local communities.”
The UCC has been locked into membership loss for decades, having shed more than half of its membership since the denomination formed from a merger of Congregational Christian Churches and the Evangelical and Reformed Church in 1957. But 2016 marks the first year when direct evidence of BDS activity can be seen as contributing to the denomination’s decline.
The Church by the Sea in Bal Harbour, Florida, which was affiliated with the UCC, rejected the denomination’s 2015 BDS resolution, and subsequently quit the denomination.
According to the Jerusalem Post, in an open letter, The Church By The Sea said it “unequivocally repudiates and rejects the [UCC] call to boycott and divest [from Israel]”. In addition the Church “has also withdrawn all of its investment funds (almost $3m.) from the United Church of Christ.”
Unlike the Episcopal Church, Southern Baptist Church and United Methodist Church, the bulk of UCC members are not located in the American South. Instead, the heartland of the Cleveland, Ohio-headquartered UCC is the Great Lakes region, followed by the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions.
All 38 UCC regional conferences posted declining membership in 2016, although some areas reported much larger declines than others. Only 8 percent of UCC members are located in the South, but the region appears to have taken the largest hit. The Florida Conference alone lost 3,129 members, dropping to 17,852 (down nearly 15 percent in a single year). The numerical loss in Florida was roughly equivalent to that of the Connecticut Conference, which has nearly four times as many members. Similarly, the Southeast Conference (Tennessee, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and the Florida panhandle) lost 3,794 members, down to 7,918 members total (down more than 32 percent in a single year).
The South Central conference (Texas and Louisiana) dropped 1,648 members to 10,288 total (down 16 percent). The Southern Conference (North Carolina and southern Virginia) dropped 458 members to 28,228 total (down 1.6 percent).
Conferences in the U.S. South have taken a financial hit after several congregations chose to either withhold or pare back their conference giving.
There is also evidence that disagreements centered upon the redefinition of marriage are hurting the UCC, even though the denomination has a reputation for progressive social policy. In 2015 the UCC board voted to send a $50,000 one-time grant to the southern conference, explaining that giving there had decreased after the UCC joined a clergy lawsuit against the state of North Carolina demanding the ability to solemnize same-sex civil marriages. Officials at the national setting (the UCC church headquarters) sought to reward the Southern Conference for making what they believed was a prophetic statement, but some congregations and individuals decided that they were not willing to fund such a move by their own conference.
While congregations and individuals have departed, some progressive clergy from other churches have moved toward the UCC. In 2016, Kansas United Methodist Pastor Cynthia Meyer, who is in a same-sex relationship, was placed on involuntary leave of absence by her denomination, later moving to serve as an interim pastor in a Topeka United Church of Christ congregation.
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.
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.