Presbyterian Decline

Presbyterian Official: “I Don’t Despair” as Members Vanish

on June 4, 2018

A new hymn commissioned by the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) for the denomination’s upcoming General Assembly encourages congregants to “Draw the Welcome Circle Wider”. But as Presbyterians prepare for the biennial legislative gathering, updated statistics made available today by the PCUSA Office of the General Assembly (OGA) show a denomination struggling to widen that circle – numerically and demographically – and instead reporting a steep, uninterrupted Presbyterian decline in 2017.

The U.S.-based denomination shed 67,714 members in 2017, a decline of nearly five percent. A net 147 congregations closed or were dismissed to other denominations, bringing the denominational total to 9,304 congregations.

“I don’t despair, I never despair,” PCUSA Stated Clerk J. Herbert Nelson, II declared in a statement made available on Monday. Of those who will not be in the newly-widened circle, 20,162 departed via certificate, while 74,129 simply vanished and are listed as “other”.  Deaths accounted for a decline of 25,565 members in 2017. The denomination is 91 percent white, not reflective of a diversifying United States population. In 2012, the PCUSA reported that it was 89.9 percent white, indicating that the denomination has somehow become both numerically smaller and less diverse in the same period of time that the United States population grew in size and became more diverse.

The top staff member of the church had, in 2017, announced that the PCUSA “is not dying, it is reforming.”

The statistics come just before the denomination convenes its 223rd General Assembly June 16-23 in St. Louis, Missouri. In 2015, the denomination’s top executive declared that the PCUSA was merely “settling into the new thing God is creating.”

In 2016, the PCUSA declined by 89,893 active members. Since 2005 the denomination has reported losing nearly two out of five active members, declining from 2,313,662 active members in 2005 to 1,415,053 in 2017. The denomination’s reported membership is now smaller than that of the Episcopal Church, which began a similar decline in the early 2000s.

Funding Consequences

Decreasing membership affects the denomination’s ability to continue normal operations. Smaller membership reduces revenue for programs and offices at the denominational headquarters in Louisville since the apportionment is per-member. An increased contribution from the shrinking pool of remaining members has been proposed in order to keep staff and programs operating.

A proposed per capita increase of 10 percent each year in 2019 and 2020 will, if adopted, jump from $7.73 per member in 2018 to $8.50 in 2019 and $9.35 in 2020. Such an increase will, according to the OGA, stave off staff reductions. But even if the General Assembly approves the increase, by 2021 the OGA is on track to have spent all of its unrestricted reserves. An original proposal from the OGA for much larger 39% and 7% increases in 2019 and 2020 was scaled back after encountering “significant opposition” from congregations according to The Presbyterian Outlook. The General Assembly per capita budget funds support for the World Council of Churches and National Council of Churches, among a variety of other initiatives.

Public Witness

A series of legislative proposals, known as overtures, will be discussed at General Assembly, including “On Seeking God’s Peace Through Nuclear Disarmament in the 21st Century” (09-08) which calls for Presbyterians to “Renounce the false god of nuclear security”. Overture (08-01) directs the Board of Pensions and the PCUSA Foundation to divest from the fossil-fuel industry. Additional overtures seek to restrict ownership of firearms (11-14), call upon congregations “to confess their complicity and repudiate the Doctrine of Discovery” (10-13), and form a taskforce “to investigate the need for creating an Advocacy Committee for LGBTQ+ Concerns” (10-03) which instructs the taskforce to consult with unofficial caucus groups such as PARITY, the organization behind “Glitter Ash Wednesday”. Overtures “to welcome transgender and gender non-binary people” (11-12) and “explicitly affirm” LGBTQ+ people (11-13) will also be considered.

Also under consideration by the upcoming General Assembly are a series of anti-Israel measures. One overture opposes state legislation which withholds state funds from institutions and organizations that call for boycott, divestment, and sanctions (BDS) against Israel.

BDS activists typically call for divestment from Motorola Solutions, Hewlett-Packard, and Caterpillar, among other companies that sell non-lethal products to the Israeli military.

Another overture seeks action to urge the real estate company RE/MAX to stop facilitating the sale of property in West Bank settlements.

The PCUSA has a history of adopting policies uniquely critical of Israel, leading to pushback from U.S. Jewish groups and – in some instances – the state of Israel itself. In summer of 2017, a former moderator of the PCUSA General Assembly was denied entry into Israel. The entry ban prevented Rick Ufford-Chase and four other interfaith officials from boarding a flight from Washington, D.C. to Tel Aviv.

Israeli Interior Minister Aryeh Deri said in a statement to the Associated Press that the five had a long record of advocacy for the BDS movement.

  1. Comment by senecagriggs on June 4, 2018 at 2:33 pm

    The question I always have: Do they not see they are shooting themselves in the foot?
    I really do not know because it appears to be obvious, but maybe it isn’t.

  2. Comment by Bruce Willis on June 9, 2018 at 10:36 am

    No they don’t see they are shooting themselves in the foot. They will continue to shoot themselves in the foot and limp around wondering and complaining their feet hurt.

  3. Comment by Jim on June 4, 2018 at 3:01 pm

    To the PCUSA: (The Words of Jesus, REV 2:4-5)

    4 But I have this against you: You have abandoned your first love. 5 Therefore, keep in mind how far you have fallen. Repent and perform the deeds you did at first. But if you do not repent, I will come to you and remove your lampstand from its place.

    The lampstand has been removed

  4. Comment by William on June 4, 2018 at 3:26 pm

    The majority of our bishops in the UMC, with their local option plan similar to what the PCUSA already has in place, think they’ll get a different result? What is the psychological term used to describe doing the same thing over and over while expecting a different result?

    To all 2019 UMC delegates to the St Louis General Conference —- THIS IS AN ALERT!

  5. Comment by Bob Johnson on June 4, 2018 at 4:46 pm

    The UCC has got to be feeling pretty good about losing only 3% or 26,860 souls compared to PCusa’s big loss. The race to the bottom continues unabated.

    Great reporting as always Jeff. Thanks for all you do.

  6. Comment by Bob Johnson on June 4, 2018 at 4:51 pm

    Correction 26,605 not 26,860

  7. Comment by Jeffrey Walton on June 5, 2018 at 3:29 pm

    Thanks for sharing these UCC stats, Bob. I’ll certainly make use of them soon!

  8. Comment by Leigh on June 4, 2018 at 5:11 pm

    You don’t need to publish this comment. I just wanted to make you aware of a typo so you can fix it. The first paragraph says the General Assembly is “biannual.” It is actually “biennial.”

  9. Comment by Jeffrey Walton on June 5, 2018 at 3:27 pm

    Thank you, Leigh — I’ve made the change!

  10. Comment by David Virtue on June 5, 2018 at 6:31 am

    The PCUSA and the Episcopal Church are in lockstep as they race to the bottom. It’s only a matter of time as to who will get there first. Diversity, inclusivity and pansexuality are not winning converts. Heresy and apostasy are slowly wiping out mainline denominations.

  11. Comment by William on June 5, 2018 at 11:30 am

    And Satan would ask —- what better way to accomplish this than to contaminate them with heresy and apostasy via sexual immorality in a 21st century culture obsessed with it?

  12. Comment by Donald on June 9, 2018 at 10:40 am

    Doggone! I thought we Presbyterians were winning, especially since the Stated Clerk seems so happy and non-despairing.
    No problem – clearly the Almighty is, indeed, “doing a new thing” with these Legacy denominations.

  13. Comment by Donald on June 9, 2018 at 11:15 am

    Staving off staff reductions? OMG!! In all of those rascally corporations that PCUSA is so self-righteously criticizing and shaming, falling market share and dwindling compliance with policies usually result in staff reductions, up to and including those at the top (CEOs, CFOs, etc).

    I’m sure glad PCUSA so soooo sensitive to the welfare of those who are responsible for this decline!

  14. Comment by Loren Golden on June 9, 2018 at 11:05 pm

    The PC(USA) and its predecessors, the UPCUSA and the PCUS (which merged in 1983), has lost members every year since 1965, when the UPCUSA and the PCUS had a combined membership of 4,254,597. Since then, the PC(USA) has suffered a net loss of 2,839,544, or 66.74% of its 1965 membership.

    Contrary to Rev. Nelson’s oft-stated mantra (he stated it when he took office in 2016 and has repeated it in 2017 & 2018 when the annual membership numbers were reported), the PC(USA) IS dying; it is NOT reforming. Reformation begins with a reclamation of the Gospel of Salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, and proceeds with a reordering of the life of the Church according to its doctrines. This is how the Protestant Reformation began in the 16th Century, and this has patently NOT been happening in the life of the PC(USA) so far in the 21st Century.

  15. Comment by Joan Sibbald on June 10, 2018 at 8:11 am

    Homosexual sexual conduct is unnatural, despicable, perversion, and, an abomination. Any questions, PCUSA, call God. He’s in the Book!

  16. Comment by Joe M on June 12, 2018 at 12:40 am

    They are in denial…

    There is no question, then, about the call to sexual holiness in the world. We all know deep down we need it and we ought to strive for it. The question is who sets the terms: Jesus, or someone else.

  17. Comment by James on June 22, 2018 at 9:14 am

    we left, sadly, we will not be a party to a church that wants to indoctrinate our children into acceptance of sinful homosexuality and perversion.

  18. Comment by MikeS on July 4, 2018 at 9:16 pm

    They should just put the poor thing out of its misery, as is done for terminally ill pets, and distribute the assets to random charities.

  19. Comment by Doctor Don on July 8, 2018 at 12:15 pm

    The PC-USA has become a variant of Scientology since they are claiming that they only “appear to be sick”. Redefining ” illness” has never been an effective treatment for any disease.
    The demise for the PC-USA is sure since its membership decline graph resembles that of any chronic-fatal disease.

  20. Comment by Eric R. on July 31, 2018 at 4:42 am

    I am curious as to how much of the leaving is due to the ordination of gay priests and support for gay marriage, and how much of it is due to the PCUSA’s support for Palestinian terrorism and the church’s now openly anti-Israel and anti-Semitic hatred?

  21. Comment by Rebecca on March 13, 2020 at 10:06 pm

    We left about 6 months ago. The “pastor” preached his far left politics, unconvincingly disguised as God’s word. My #1 issue was the anti-Israel BDS movement.

  22. Comment by Stinky on August 26, 2018 at 6:56 pm

    Count our family as five FORMER members of PCUSA. Year by year, inch by inch, the church grew away from God’s Word, and we finally had to follow our faith and leave our long-time church family behind. Very sad.

  23. Comment by Manson Case on March 13, 2019 at 8:19 pm

    Is there a move a foot in the General Assembly to:
    1) Declare that Jesus is not the son of God and our savior, but is just a teacher.
    2) Declare that Jesus is just equal to Mohammed, Confusus, etc. Jesus , to me is the one and only God. He is not just equal to anyone else. Have you heard any proposals like item 1 and 2 above. If that passes in the Pres. Church USA, it will empty the church. What do you think?

  24. Comment by Jeff Beale on April 9, 2019 at 9:54 am

    And why, pray tell, would God continue to bless a group that purports to be a part of the Body of Christ which supports: abortion on demand; ordination of people actively engaged in sexual sin (as the Bible clearly prohibits as sinful); disingenuous ‘interpretations’ of the Bible to support any lifestyle or cultural whim; the failure to label sin as sin by excusing it because the label ‘sin’ may be considered judgmental; the abandonment of preaching the Bible from the pupit per hot button political or social issues; watered down adult Sunday school courses which are not Bible-based; the failure of the church to affirm that there are absolute God-given values & absolute rights and wrongs? The church should be a hospital for sinners – sometimes pain or discomfort is part of the healing process. The PC (USA) has become some kind of genteel social club where ‘all is good and OK’ and you can do whatever you want as long as you are politically correct and don’t offend anyone.

    Five plus year ago, we left our local PC (USA) church. Two things tipped the balance for us; a sermon entitled “The gray areas of the Gospel” (to justify the pastor’s daughter for having adopted a lesbian lifestyle). The second was our call (for a new pastor) that was so watered down that several important aspects of affirming the faith that are included in the ordination vows were left out. Reason: didn’t want to offend any candidates with less traditional beliefs. I wish we had left 5 years earlier. Now the floodgates are open and the PC (USA) will soon be an irrelevant, fringe denomination.

  25. Comment by R DeFazio on June 24, 2020 at 9:33 pm

    I was once a PCUSA pastor of a small church in Western Pennsylvania. From my perspective, the reason for the decline in the denomination, as with many other denominations, is not the politics of the church or the political posturing of church officials. It is, I believe, that there are those in the church that confuse favorable acknowledgement of the Christian belief system with actual faith. The problem is compounded further when such persons ascend to higher levels of authority in the denomination’s hierarchy because the tendency is to desire that the denomination stand as a bloc of opinion in a secular culture. It becomes a kind of “you’re either for us or against us” mentality that, for the most part, acts like bug spray to repel people.

    But let me go back to the matter of confusing favorable acknowledgement with faith. Those in the PCUSA, who speak with some passion about loving others, are right, and I cannot speak against them in this regard. There is, however, a distinct difference between genuinely placing oneself humbly before another, feeling what that person feels when one says something to him or her, and the kind of plastic, corporate love-in-name-only behavior that characterizes so many who say they are “Christian.”

    I am sure that everyone has had the experience of seeing all heads humbly bowed in prayer during a Sunday service as parishioners listen to the intoned mellifluous words of a professionally written prayer of confession, straight from the press in Louisville, and then after the service concludes hearing conversations among those same parishioners about politics, immigration, race, and various other third-rail topics in which that former humility has completely evaporated.

    For the most part, church members live untouched lives. They are completely secular during the week, and on Sunday morning, they come to a building, sit together, pay their dues, and then go home as unchanged individuals. They come with their prejudices and leave with them still intact.

    It’s sad to see. They call this a post-Christian world, but I doubt that it ever was actually Christian. The meaning of being a disciple of Jesus somehow got wrapped up in American triumphalism, economics, politics, a desire for a higher standard of living, and the unwitting adoption of a method of measuring spirituality that looked only at the outward appearance and not the depth of one’s soul.

    When I think back on those who most influenced my decision to become a pastor, what impresses me to this day was how “real” they were as people. They didn’t equivocate or make excuses. They were direct in their speech, and when they heard me say things that were distinctly unkind and unchristian, they called me on it, not fearing that it might damage our relationship. Truth and honesty mattered more than form and fashion.

    But today, how different it is. The denomination has become a marvel of a corporate model. In spite of all that it says about inclusion, it has lost touch with the very individuals that it says it wants to include. How does it do this? It does it by speaking of people as groups, not souls. It manages congregations, presbyteries, and synods as if they were pieces on a chessboard. Bear in mind that these things are not done with Machiavellian intent. Those who want to move the needle on the social justice gauge are not intentionally trying to be malevolently manipulative. In their zealotry for justice they sometimes forget that Jesus wasn’t a theological elitist or political bully. Rather he was one who spoke truth not only to power but also to the powerless, regardless of the consequences. His ministry was not lopsidedly tilted toward one end of the political or social spectrum. His revolution was one that had to foment first deep inside the individual. It had to produce, in most instances, uncomfortable change in the person. Those who followed Jesus had to remove the log from their own eyes first before having the temerity to pluck out the speck from another’s eye.

    I am saying these things because I once stood in a pulpit, preaching my “wisdom” and never hearing the sound or tenor of my own voice. My hubris did not end at the pulpit. It carried over into my marriage, and after a time, my wife could no longer endure my arrogance any longer. So she left me, taking with her our children, furniture, pets, and car. It was a shot straight to my gut, and afterward, members of the session of the church came to me asking me to stay on. In unaccustomed honesty, I asked them if they would in good conscience desire me to preside at their children’s weddings, hearing me administer vows of lifelong fidelity and mutual support, when I was freshly divorced. No one could say they would, so I left the ministry.

    For the past 40-odd years I have worked in a variety of occupations, mostly in finance and computer technology. I have worked mostly with people who swear a blue streak so dark that it would make the Mafia blush. They drink, solicit prostitutes, cheat their customers and their co-workers, lie habitually, and exhibit greed that is moderated only by a sense of social obligation as defined by the wizards of social media. Yet I can tell you that I have had some of the most meaningful discussions with them about faith, trust in God, and truly loving someone more than oneself than I ever did with members of a church.

    You see, they are unencumbered by having to pretend that they are better than who they really are. They are surprisingly open to the kind of evangelism in which the church seems to be so embarrassed to engage. What they want is straight talk and not flowery phrases, real acts of love and not symbolic gestures, and genuine kindness that sees them more as people worthy of God’s love and less as those deserving of his judgment.

    I am truly tired of “fake church” where people talk a good game but don’t know how to play that game. When a church official says that he or she is not distressed at the loss of church members, labeling it as a new circumstance in which God has placed the denomination, that bothers me tremendously. Why? Because if the church is preaching a message that actually resonates with the needs of deeply flawed people like myself, whether they choose to follow that leading or not, people will come to hear it.

    The church is not comprised solely of the pure. There are scoundrels, lukewarm dabblers, those who struggle to be good, and genuine saints, all of whom line the pews of a church. As our denomination has steadfastly distilled its membership down to only those who are candidates for sainthood, it has become irrelevant to the rest of the world that is screaming at its doors, clamoring for something that has eternal value. My grandmother used to tell me that the problem with most Christians was that they were so heavenly-minded that they were no earthly good. Her wisdom still applies today.

    The change in the PCUSA does not need to come from on high. In fact, it should be prohibited from coming down from on high because the track record of our denomination’s way of leadership is evidential of a track record of failure. That sounds harsh, doesn’t it, but it is absolutely true. In 1960, 4.25 million people in the United States were a part of a Presbyterian congregation. By 2019, only 1.3 million remained. Can anyone honestly say that in 60 years the denomination has spawned nearly 3 million so-called “backsliders,” agnostics, and atheists? I think that would be overstating the case, but I think it would be entirely honest to say that the church has moved far afield from the concerns of ordinary people about life, death, and eternity, so much so that its words sound hollow and valueless. Following the denomination’s theological statements has become like watching the nightly news. It follows fashion, not acknowledging that in the midst of current events are people whose innermost needs run deep into the mire of life. The church worries about its buildings, but the people outside the church worry about where they will live. The church worries about the banners hung in its sanctuaries, but the people outside worry about how they will clothe themselves and their children. The church worries about the quality of its choir, but the people outside worry that no one even hears their voices. And then the church worries and puzzles over its dwindling membership, the death of its youth program, its near-monochromatic racial makeup, and its loss of income.

    In the world of business startups, such a moment as the one now confronting the PCUSA requires what is called a “pivot.” The business looks at what its mission is, why it is failing, what its customers need and want, and then it pivots to a different posture that more accurately aligns with what its customers need and how it can better meet those needs.

    Our denomination needs to pivot because it is failing rapidly. Liturgy, vestments, slogans, and solemn ceremonies may as well reside on Mars because they don’t speak to the kind of people that I know. In their minds, those are things that people do whose language is unintelligible and whose culture is utterly foreign. The people that I know want something real and fulfilling, and they are willing to listen to the church if only it really had something to say.

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