Over the last couple of weeks the Office of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) has released two sets of data that will be the focus of attention at the upcoming General Assembly. At some point in the next few of months I hope to really drill down into the data some more, but to do that there is a third report that I am waiting for so a detailed analysis will have to wait for its release. But because they will be the focus of attention in a couple of weeks, here are some initial comments.
The first one I will look at is the annual report of the summary statistics for the denomination including the 2015 membership data. To some degree this is either “move along, nothing to see here” or a case of Alfred North Whitehead’s famous quote “It takes a very unusual mind to undertake the analysis of the obvious.” But here we go anyways.
The money quote is always the totals so the PC(USA) finished 2015 with 9,642 churches, 20,077 teaching elders and 1,572,660 active members. That is a 1.9% drop in churches, fairly consistent with the 2.1% and 2.2% in the two preceding years. The number of teaching elders declined by 1.5% after declines of 0.9% in 2014 and 1.4% in 2013. The membership decline has been rising slightly with a 4.8% drop in 2013, a 5.3% drop in 2014 and then a 5.7% drop this past year.
Often times the story is “look how many churches and people are leaving the PC(USA) for more conservative denominations.” Now I will not deny that is an issue in these numbers but let’s add a little perspective here. The statistics show that in 2015 the PC(USA) dismissed 104 churches to other denominations. In the same year they dissolved/closed 91 churches. In general, over the last four years the number of churches dismissed has typically been roughly the same as the number closed. (2012: 86 closed, 110 dismissed; 2013: 74 closed, 148 dismissed; 2014: 110 closed, 101 dismissed) Over those four years there have been 13, 24, 15 and 14 churches organized.
It is the same story with membership losses. While the church lost 47,728 members by certificate of transfer in 2015, 27,469 joined the Church Triumphant (death) and 79,002 were lost to “other”, i.e. walking out the door and being dropped from the rolls. In general, the number of members transferred has been about half the number in the other category over the last several years. For perspective, the total gains by profession of faith, transfer, and other over the last year were 59,092.
In case you have not picked up where I am going with this my point is that dismissals are only part – roughly half – of the problem. Even ignoring dismissals of congregations and members the replacement rate in the PC(USA) is still well below the losses to dissolutions, deaths and disappearances.
There is another important component to keep in mind and that is the statistics use an old model and do not reflect a new paradigm. The major development emphasis in the PC(USA) right now is the 1001 New Worshiping Communities and as most of those are not chartered and do not have regular members they are not in these numbers. I could not find a specific current number but the number of 1001 NWCs appears to be between 250 and 300 at this time.
One piece of good news in the numbers is that for 2015 the total giving was up by 0.5%. With the decrease in membership this means that the per member giving rose 6.6% from $1043 to $1112.
The second report that was issued is the final report on The Church In The 21st Century. This resulted from a church-wide consultation and conversation on the denomination’s identity and where the PC(USA) should head. The report itself focuses on an online survey to which over 3000 members responded. There are two versions, a report only version with OGA annotations called When We Gather At The Table, and The Church in the 21st Century report from Research Services that has the appendix with detailed statistics. While the narrative is very similar, and in places identical in the two reports, I will be working from the latter one for the detailed statistics.
Maybe the most important thing to remember about this report is that it is self-reporting and not a random sample. Here are the two important paragraphs printed in both reports (page 6 of the detailed report):
Because this project invited the input of any and all people and entities of the PC(USA) (individuals, congregations, seminaries, mid-councils, and various affiliated groups [e.g. new worshiping communities, immigrant fellowships]) within a short time frame, creating a probability sample to ensure a representative group of Presbyterians was not feasible. Instead, a convenience sample (that is—a sample of volunteers) was used. As such, we cannot calculate a response rate.
Findings from the resulting convenience sample will not be as generalizable as findings would be if they had been taken from a (random) probability sample. However, an analysis of the demographics of those who participated in the study reveals that the sample somewhat matches the known demographics of Presbyterians as a whole. Exceptions are noted in the Demographics section, which follows.
So here is the caution: You can not take the numbers in this survey and say “According to the survey we know X about the PC(USA).” You can say that we know X about those that responded to the survey.
So does this mean that the survey is not useful? μὴ γένοιτο (by no means) But to consider what it does represent let’s take a look at a couple of points about who responded.
The report in Appendix A gives the results of each question. While I wish they would give the raw numbers we can work with the total responses and percentages of each question. To begin with, there were 3,427 responses and 98% were PC(USA) affiliated so that would be about 3358 PC(USA) individuals. Now, 3,055 submitted an answer to the question of whether they were ordained. Of those, 30% said they were teaching elders so that is about 917 meaning the other 2138 are members of churches. Considering those numbers, that means that 4.6% of teaching elders responded (based on the 2015 numbers discussed above) and 0.14% of members responded.
Let’s drill down on those members for a moment. Of the total of 3,055, 41%, or 1253, are ruling elders. Converting that into percent of members of churches, 59% of those who respondents who are not teaching elders self-identified as ruling elders. For comparison to a more controlled sample, in the 2011 demographic profile of the Presbyterian Panel 36% of members surveyed said they were ordained ruling elders.
In the new report participants were asked to rate their social orientation and theological orientation on a scale of 1 to 7. Based on the responses the report categorized 62% of all participants as socially liberal, 9% neutral and 29% conservative. The question was also asked for theological orientation with 54% liberal, 11% neutral and 35% conservative.
There is no perfect way to compare these results to the denomination as a whole. The question about social orientation has not been asked in previous surveys but the report makes a comparison to a question about political party affiliation in an earlier, more controlled study. A similar theological question was asked in the 2011 demographic profile with 19% of members saying they were liberal or very liberal, 39% saying they were moderate and 39% saying they were conservative or very conservative. The problem is that the earlier numbers are for members while new survey also includes teaching elders, who – based on that same survey question – are known to identify as more liberal, and there is no cross-tabulation or analysis of variance information to back out member versus ruling elder versus teaching elder groupings like the demographic profile does.
Has the denomination grown more theologically liberal? The departure of conservative congregations has almost certainly made this the case. But by 35%? That seems like a stretch. Similarly, has the middle shrunk by 28%? Maybe, but that is hard to understand as well.
Instead it seems more likely that the respondents to the survey are those that are the most connected and care the most about the PC(USA) — a fact that the survey acknowledges. The high response rate of teaching elders and ruling elders relative to members in general certainly seems to show this. By extension then it would follow that those on the theological ends are also more concerned and interested in being heard and those in the middle did not have as great an interest so they have a smaller response rate.
So what this survey says is that a lot of hard-core PC(USA) folks care about the PC(USA). Is it no wonder that when asked why it was important to a respondent to be part of the PC(USA) the top three answers were Theology (41%), Polity/Governance (29%), and Thinking Church/Educated Clergy (24%).
So that is what well-connected and involved members of the PC(USA) care about and see as the denomination’s identity and strengths.
But let me end this with this caution: While the study is a great snapshot of the identity and thoughts of the PC(USA) at this time it is biased towards those that know and care the most about the church. In one sense that is OK, because they are the ones who will be doing a lot of the heavy lifting related to restructuring in the years to come. But in another sense it is a problem because it reflects the status quo. If the PC(USA) is looking to recover and move forward it needs a close examination, more than can be done in one week at GA, ask some hard questions and make some difficult decisions. It is not just closing ranks around what it knows and understands but challenging some of the strongly held beliefs reflected in this report and possibly develop a new identity.
We will see where this goes. Stay tuned…
Postscript: I do want to acknowledge that there is a lot more material in the new identity reports and if you care it is worth a read. While I found it frustrating that more raw data was not released with it there is a lot of interesting info in there. Due to my intended focus of this article, as well as time constraints, I won’t be diving into it more now I may return to it later, probably in regards to how it is received by the General Assembly.