Membership in the Presbyterian Church (USA) declined by more than 100,000 last year, according to the 2012 statistics released recently by the denomination’s Office of the General Assembly. It is the single largest annual membership decline since the PCUSA was formed in 1983.
By the end of 2012, total membership in the PCUSA was 1,849,496, down 102,791 from the 2011 figure of 1,952,287.
Only in 1972 and 1973 were the combined membership loss totals of the PCUSA’s two predecessor denominations – the United Presbyterian Church in the United States, (UPCUSA) and the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) – greater. In 1972 the losses of the two denominations totaled 103,150, and in 1973 the decline was 139,882. The UPCUSA, or the “northern” church, and the PCUS, or “southern” church reunited in 1983 to form the PCUSA. The membership total of the newly formed PCUSA in 1983 was 3,131,228. (Click here for chart showing PCUSA membership and losses 1960-2012)
Presbyterian Lay Committee President Carmen Fowler LaBerge commented, “The last time Presbyterians saw this kind of realignment in membership followed the formation of the Presbyterian Church in America in the early ‘70s. The migration of churches to the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians is not noted in the stated clerk’s comments but can hardly be ignored. The EPC has taken in more than 250 churches in the past five years. ECO has 50 with another 150 en route. Those are all losses to the PCUSA, and they’re not over yet.”
The number of PCUSA congregations also declined in 2012 by 204. Of those, 86 were dissolved and 110 were dismissed to other denominations. The figure of 110 churches being dismissed to other denominations is less than half the statistic being given by the PCUSA leadership, including its moderator, Neal Presa. In a May 2 presbytery meeting, Presa acknowledged that five churches per week are leaving the PCUSA for other denominations which would add up to a total of 260 churches departing.
The PCUSA also ended the year with 215 fewer ministers. There were 20,849 PCUSA ministers at the end of 2012, a decline from the 2011 figure of 21,064. While there were 35 ministers accepted into the PCUSA from other denominations – seven more than in 2011, 126 ministers were dismissed to other denominations.
Decreases were shown in the amount of contributions made to the PCUSA. In 2012, the denomination received $1,910,795,635, a decrease of $92,769,555 from the 2011 amount of $2,003,565,190.
Explanations or excuses?
In the official press release announcing the results of the 2012 statistics, PCUSA Stated Clerk Gradye Parsons referenced an Oct. 9, 2012, study by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life. He said that not only is there an overall decline in membership in all Protestant denominations, there is also huge growth in the United States of the religiously unaffiliated.
“The fact that fewer Americans say they have a religious identity does not necessarily mean there has been an overall decrease in spirituality in America,” Parsons said. “The 2012 statistics challenge us as Presbyterians to connect with the ever-growing number of those with no religious affiliation.”
Blogger Mateen Elass, a pastor who along with his congregation left the PCUSA in January of 2013 to join ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, recently commented on the PCUSA’s 2012 statistics.
Elass said that the explanation from Parsons “boils down to two things: 1) All the mainline churches are in decline; the PCUSA is a mainline church; therefore it is in decline. 2) Our culture is increasingly resistant to affiliating with religious institutions — how can we help it if people today don’t want to sign on the dotted line …? Both these reasons, whether true or not, show a desire to excuse the leadership from responsibility rather than a passion to turn things around. There are certain churches that are growing in this environment. Why not study them and invest the denomination’s significant resources in retooling itself to become a more effective proponent of the gospel? Why not return with passion to the heart of the Biblical Gospel rather than giving itself over to causes that are ancillary to the church’s true mission?”
He continued, “On the other hand, the denomination is leaking like a sieve when it comes to membership retention. The number who transferred out to other denominations by certificate was up 126 percent from 2011 (52,064 compared to 23,082). The number lost through ‘other’ means (cleaning the rolls, usually) was up about 4 percent (from 95,613 to 99,067). The only category showing a slight decrease in losses from that of 2011 was in number of deaths. This is small consolation.”
Also released with the 2012 statistics was a page of “Miscellaneous Information,” that included the racial composition of PCUSA congregations. In 2012, 91 percent of the congregations were made up of white members; 2.85 percent were Asian; 2.24 percent were African America; 1.42 percent, Hispanic; and 1.03 percent, black. All other categories were less than 1 percent.
LaBerge said that “no consideration of the failure of the PCUSA to keep pace with the changing racial demographics was addressed in the stated clerk’s rationale. The failure of Presbyterian to effectively transmit the Gospel effectively to the next generation, evangelize their neighbors and receive Christians immigrating from other parts of the Kingdom is worth noting.”