NBC News has a notable story this week about Teresa Hord Owens, the first black woman to lead the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) denomination. Significant news about the group’s membership is also in the report.
Owens may or may not be the first black woman to lead a Mainline Protestant denomination (depending on how executive leadership is defined within churches of differing polities) but reporter Mashaun D. Simon seems to have “buried the lede” quite far down in the NBC coverage. Quoting Disciples Associate Vice President of Marketing and Communications Cherilyn Williams, the story reports:
“We have 450,425 participating members reported, but not all congregations report numbers so this is an educated guess,” she said. “There are 2,066 persons who are coded as pastor or student pastor of a congregation. Of that number, 522 are women; 275 are African-American and 82 are African-American women.”
Presumably Williams is citing information from the denomination’s 2017 yearbook (that must be purchased to view).
In 2007, the denomination had reported membership of 689,507. The most recent publicly available data on the denomination is from the 2014 yearbook, posted that year by blogger Derek Penwell, the yearbook reported 497,423 members.
So the denomination has declined by 46,998 members since 2014, a drop of 10 percent, and by 239,082 members since 2007, a drop of 35 percent in the past decade. While not the worst drop among the “seven sisters” of Mainline Protestantism (that dubious honor currently goes to the Presbyterian Church (USA) which has dropped 5.71 percent each year for the past two reporting years) a 10 percent drop from 2014-2017 is a stark rate of decline for the Disciples. The Association of Religion Data Archives has membership data from 1925-2010 view-able here. According to records, the denomination has dropped from a high of 8,081 churches in 1965 to 3,624 in 2010, a decline of 55 percent. Attendance is also tracked, with the 2014 report listing an average worship attendance of only 177,141 persons.
The Disciples of Christ recently held its biennial General Assembly in Indianapolis July 8-12. Readers of this blog may recall that denominational officials had earlier threatened to pull their convention from Indiana after the state legislature passed the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA). Then-Disciples General Minister and President Sharon E. Watkins argued in a letter that under the state law some church members “might experience legally sanctioned bias and rejection” under the law, which was quickly repealed under strong pressure from business interests.
The Disciples of Christ jointly shares a public policy advocacy office with the United Church of Christ, frequently staking out politically liberal positions. In 2015, Watkins was among a group of 44 Religious Left officials releasing a statement calling for continued federal funding for Planned Parenthood, the largest provider of abortions in the United States. In 2013, the Disciples General Assembly joined with several other Mainline Protestant denominations in embracing sexual orientation and gender identity as specially affirmed categories in the church.
The Disciples are the smallest of seven Protestant churches historically classified as Mainline. The denomination has lost three-quarters of its once nearly 2 million membership since the 1960s. Prominent members have included Presidents Ronald Reagan, Lyndon Johnson and James Garfield.