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

Statistics show the PCUSA is smaller and whiter, falling behind the Episcopal Church in size for the first time in the modern era

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 biannual 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 223rdGeneral 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.

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/MAXto 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.

Reprinted with the author’s permission from Juicy Ecumenism.

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