Presbyterian sheep shifting; as the lost remain lost

lost sheep-2The Presbyterian landscape is changing, but much of it is just sheep shifting. The 200-year trend of loss of U.S. market share continues for all Presbyterian denominations combined.

The Presbyterian family of denominations

In 1967, there were already several branches in the Presbyterian family tree, but the two largest branches were the United Presbyterian Church (UPCUSA) and the Presbyterian Church US (PCUS).  Referred to as the northern and southern branches, the UPCUSA and the PCUS had a combined national membership of 4,254,297. These two denominations entered into discussions that eventually led to “Reunion”  in 1983 or the Presbyterian Church (USA), but not before two new branches, the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) and the Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) sprouted.  And just last year (2012), the PCUSA birthed an additional denomination, ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians (ECO).


Here’s how the sheep shift breaks down:

UPCUSA and PCUS                 1967: 4,254,597

formation of the PCA                 1972:   41,428;            2012: 364,000

formation of the EPC                 1981:   12 churches;   today: 160,000

formation of the PCUSA            1983:   >4,000,000;     2012: 1,849,490

formation of the ECO                2012:   20 churches;   today: 75 churches


If you add up the Presbyterians in these four denominations the total number is just under 2.4 million. That is a serious decline in terms of market penetration as the U.S. population has grown from 200 to over 300 million. In 1967, the Presbyterian market share was 2 percent. Today it is less than 0.8 percent.


Focusing our attention on one specific sheepfold: the PCUSA

Recent yearly declines:

2012:              102,791 members or 5.26 percent (incl. >100 congregations)

2011:              63,804 members or 3.2 percent  (incl. 96 congregations)

2010:              61,047

2009:              63,027

2008:              69,381


Visit for direct access to PCUSA research services documents and reports.

Looking at Table 1 of the 2012 Comparative Statistical report the PCUSA was steadily declining by about 60,000 members per year through 2011. At that loss rate, the PCUSA would cease to exist in 32.5 years.  But in 2012 that loss rate accelerated, and if the 2012 losses of >100,000 were not an anomaly, the viability timeline shortens.

Now, we all know Presbyterians who will most certainly still be “in” the PCUSA in 32 years, so it’s not quite that simple.

In 2011, the PCUSA’s membership fell for the first time below 2 million (1,972,287).  In 2012 it fell to 1,849,496 and will likely be 1.5 million by the 2016 General Assembly. That estimate is reached by taking into account three factors: church closures, church dismissals and disaffiliations, and the failure of most Presbyterian churches to reflect and keep pace with the changing demographics of American society.

Table 1 of the Comparative Statistics exposes the reality of shrinking congregations. Years 2013 through 2016 have been added as a projection of the ten year trend of the average size of a PCUSA congregation contracting by 3-4 members/year.

 Year:Members 2001 02 03 04 05 06 07 08 09 10 11 12 13 14 15 16
Median 117 115 111 109 107 105 103 100 97 95 93 89 86 82 79 75
Mean 226 221 217 214 212 208 204 199 195 191 187 180 175 170 165 160


In addition to the struggle of congregations, presbyteries are struggling as well. Middle Governing Body staff discussed these issues at the fall polity conference. You can read their reports here:

Some presbyteries are graciously dismissing churches to both the EPC and ECO. Other presbyteries are choosing instead to tenaciously defend the denomination’s implied trust over all local church assets. Since 2007, the Presbyterian Lay Committee has documented information about the realignment of nearly 400 churches.  This does not include those Presbyterians who have “walked away” to form or join other congregations.

An updated chart is available at:

Combining the trends of church closures (anticipates an average of 2/presbytery/year), denominational departures (anticipates 300/year in 2013-2016) and congregational decline, a projection of less than 1.5 million members at the end of 2016 is warranted.

Are these number realistic?


Churches with less than 15 members

If each of the 173 presbyteries closes an average of two churches/year the national impact is 346 churches.

The official Office of the General Assembly list of churches includes 9,970 congregations. The official number of congregations is 10,262. The missing 292 churches are considered in the OGA stats to have zero members. Additionally, there are 19 churches listed as having zero members. There are two churches listed as having one member; seven churches with two members; six churches with three members and 20 churches with four members. So, in 2013, presbyteries only need to have closed those churches with four members or less to have achieved the 346 anticipated by this projection.

In 2014, if presbyteries closed churches that currently have 13 members or less, the national total would be 346.  At the 10 -ear trend rate of decline, by 2015, the next tier of churches, those that currently have 19 members, will likely have declined to 15 or less; and by 2016 the churches which currently have 24 members will likely have 12-15 members.

So, if in each of the next four years the denomination’s 173 presbyteries close churches that fall below 15 members, 1,384 will be closed before 2017.  If even an additional 200 churches are dismissed or disaffiliate in each year, the total number of churches in the denomination will be 8,078 at the start of 2017.

For more information about PCUSA demographics check out:


Large membership churches

Table 6 of the report is worth a look. Of the 15 largest congregations, four are in active realignment.

#2 Christ in Edina, Minn., is seeking dismissal to ECO.

#4 Highland Park Dallas, Texas, has disaffiliated and joined ECO.

#11 First Houston, Texas, is in a season of discernment.

#13 Menlo Park, Calif., is seeking dismissal to ECO.

Drilling down further into the 2012 list: #16 St Andrews in Newport Beach, Calif., #100 Mandarin in Jacksonville, Fla., and #101 First in Winston-Salem, N.C., are seeking dismissal. #65 First in Edmond, Okla., and #120 Saxe Gotha, Lexington, S.C., have been dismissed and #23 Grace in Houston has entered the formal discernment process.

Looking back to the 2011 stats,

#14 First in Colorado Springs, Colo., was dismissed to ECO

#15 First in Orlando, Fla., was dismissed to the EPC

#16 First in Greenville, S.C., has been dismissed to ECO

#39 Eastminster in Wichita, Kan., has been dismissed to the EPC

#60 Danville Community, Calif., has been dismissed to the EPC

#74 First in Edmond, Okla., has been dismissed to ECO

#82 Chapel Hill in Gig Harbor, Wash., has been dismissed to the EPC.

All told, since 2006, 40 churches of 1,000 or more have either been dismissed or are now actively seeking dismissal from the PCUSA. Several others are engaged in formal congregational discernment processes.  The list of churches from the OGA includes 218 churches in the PCUSA with greater than 1,000 members.

When large membership churches leave the denomination it has a disproportionate impact on the statistics as a whole. One 1,800-member church realigning is equivalent to 10 churches of the denomination’s “mean” size or 20 churches of its “median” size. If the churches over 1,000 members that are currently in the dismissal or formal discernment processes all leave, the impact to overall denominational membership will be over 40,000.

To combat the psychological downer of these annual reports, some suggest that the denomination find a different metric than membership.  But as one pastor once said, “Numbers matter to me because people matter to God.”  Let us not forget that the early church viewed numeric growth as a sign of the Lord’s hand of favor. Acts 11:21 says, “The Lord’s hand was with them and a great number of people believed and turned to the Lord.” In Acts 2:42-47 we catch a glimpse into the life of the early church, concluding with the affirmation that “the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.”

If you’re interested in “why” from a research perspective, check out the observations made by LifeWay Research:


Carmen Fowler LaBerge