At about the same time that I was drilling into the religious affiliation numbers from Pew Research the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) Office of the General Assembly was releasing their membership numbers for 2014. Since the numbers did not show much new, and not much beyond the general pattern of the Pew numbers, I did not rush to print with an analysis. In addition, there was an interesting change in one number that I wanted to find out more about. Now I am ready so let’s dig in.
Between 2013 and 2014 the PC(USA) decreased by 209 congregations, dropping from 10,038 to 9,829. An interesting point in 2014 is that the church returned to dissolving more churches (110) than they dismissed (101). The last two years the dismissed churches (2012: 110; 2013: 148) outnumbered the dissolved churches (2012: 86; 2013: 74). It is important to note that if a church majority unilaterally leaves for another denomination without the formal dismissal from the presbytery they usually either remain on the books if there is a continuing congregation or are listed as dissolved.
Regarding gains, no churches were received from other denominations and 15 churches were chartered. Here again, there are some shadow congregations as many of the 1001 New Worshiping Communities are not chartered and are working under a new model in many presbyteries so that it may be a long time, if at all, before they would be chartered and appear in these stats.
So over all the change in the number of churches in 2014 represents an annual decline of 2.1%.
Membership numbers are also declining from 1,760,200 in 2013 to 1,667,767 in 2014, an annual drop of 5.3%. The largest category of loss continues to be Other – people who leave without transferring – at 78,107. Certificate, or transfer, losses are second at 51,352 and transfers to the Church Triumphant (deaths) were 28,389. The largest categories for gains is profession of faith for those over 18 with 24,051 joining the church and 16,637 transferred in.
The PC(USA) had a total of 65,415 join the church and 157,848 leave for a net loss of 92,433 and a ratio of loss to gain of 2.4.
A couple of comparisons: The Pew survey found that the percentage of individuals in the U.S. who identified as mainline Protestants declined from 18.1% of the total population in 2007 to 14.7% in 2014. Converting that to absolute numbers that would represent a 14.1% decline in the number of members of the mainline. For the PC(USA), the decline was from 2,209,546 in 2007 to 1,667,767 in 2014 or a 24.5% decrease, a number significantly ahead of the mainline as a whole.
The second comparison is with the Church of Scotland. A little while back I looked at their numbers and compared them to the PC(USA). Now that I have the 2014 numbers I can add that last PC(USA) data point and do the full comparison. From 2003 to 2014 the Church of Scotland had a 10.8% decline in the number of churches while the PC(USA) had an 11.2% decline. For membership, the Church of Scotland declined 31.1% and the PC(USA) declined 30.7%. Very close numbers and I have updated the graphs of the ratios from the previous post and you can see they have very similar trends. In both graphs the PC(USA) is in blue and the Church of Scotland in red.
There is one piece of data in the report that really caught my attention: The number of PC(USA) candidates for ministry declined by about 50%. With thanks to the folks at Research Services and Assistant Stated Clerk TE Timothy Cargal for answering my question, this is a known issue and represents a change in reporting method. Rev. Cargal answered this question for someone else in the comments of the report download page:
Most of this change resulted from transition in January 2014 from one reporting system used by the presbyteries that relied on mailed in forms to a new, easier online reporting system. During the transition, many individuals who had left the preparation for ministry process in previous years by withdrawal, removal, or even ordination, but for whom this information had not been reported, were removed from the system. The new system encourages more accurate reporting because presbyteries have direct access to the system and so make more regular use of it. Additionally, those under care can now also see their status in the system through their online exam accounts and encourage their presbyteries to make sure their individual profile records are accurate. We are seeing a decline in inquirers and candidates (just as the Association of Theological Schools is reporting declines in total seminary enrollment across the country), but nothing on the order of 50% in a year.
So, from a statistics point of view this is a reset of the number and no comparison of 2014 to preceding data is relevant. In addition, this is one of my bellwether numbers every year and I have commented on it multiple times in the past. The implication is that previous numbers have lower reliability so my past analyses and comments must now be viewed with a more critical eye.
It is still interesting to note that there are 562 (new system) candidates reported and 292 ordinations last year. But, Rev. Cargal helps us out here in a piece he just wrote for the PC(USA) Preparing for Ministry blog. The new system gives greater granularity and he shares with us that as of mid-May there are 288 candidates that have been certified ready to receive a call. (For those not familiar with the system, “certified ready” is short for the last formal status in the PC(USA) preparation process: certified ready for examination for ordination, pending a call.) So of those 562 candidates just over 50% were certified ready. Furthermore, those 288 are close in number to the 292 ordained last year.
But Rev. Cargal informs us of another interesting data discrepancy: While 292 ordinations were reported on forms to the OGA Records Manager, only 166 teaching elders listed in the online rolls have a 2014 ordination date. It looks like we will have to stay tuned for resolution of that discrepancy.
Looking further at Rev. Cargal’s analysis, he notes that of the 288 certified ready candidates in the system, about 3 of every 10 have been searching for less than a year, 4 of 10 have been searching between one and three years, and the remaining 3 have been searching for more than three years. He also says that for those that have been ordained, 29% were ordained within six months, 30% ordained in the next six months, 25% ordained in the following year and 16% after more than two years.
I am glad to see that better numbers have resolved one of the big issues that I have had with the PC(USA) call system, the high number of candidates and low number of ordinations. I am curious to see the more detailed comparative statistics in the fall to see what additional light those data might provide regarding the current status of the PC(USA) call system.
So is the PC(USA) in a death spiral? Losing 92,000 members a year would bring the church to zero in about 19 years. If the loss is 5% each year over that time in 20 years the church would have a membership of a bit more than 600,000. If it were to return to the average mainline loss from Pew of 2% per year then the PC(USA) would have about 1.1 million members in 20 years.
There are a couple of factors which could work in the PC(USA)’s favor over the next two decades. First, maybe it has its controversy now behind it so going forward the church could find a missional rallying point and work to decrease or reverse the decline. The other is that the PC(USA) has started thinking about what church membership means in the current cultural context and as New Worshiping Communities grow these annual membership reports may not properly reflect the numbers affiliated with the PC(USA). We may end up with a new model of being a church that is less concerned with statistics, per capita and formal membership.
Finally, if you are concerned with the overall decline in church affiliation currently in the news, I would encourage you to consider the long view and have a look at a piece by Tobin Grant, “Religious decline in America? The answer depends on your time frame.”
So, regarding membership and the pastoral preparation and call process there is a lot here for us to do some further thinking about. I am not sure where it will take me next, but this is GA season and with a bunch of GA’s coming up next week more analysis on this will probably wait a while. As I always say… Stay Tuned!