PC(USA) Membership Numbers For 2016

A couple of days ago the Office of the General Assembly (OGA) of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) released the summary of statistics for 2016 and the corresponding narrative. This does of course provide new data points for my growing data set and gives me an opportunity for some statistical analysis which is, for me, a “source of innocent merriment.”

On the one hand, it is tempting to just tell you that if you read my analyses from the last couple of years you can move on since there is really nothing new in this year’s numbers. The bottom line is just about the same as 2015 and 2014 – number of churches down 2.0% and membership down 5.7%. OK, you are welcome to move on now if you want.

On the other hand, the commentary – some might refer to it as the spin – from the OGA invokes their new slogan, motto, mantra, tag line, I am not sure what they are calling it, regarding the PC(USA) that “We are not dying, we are Reforming.” There is an interesting statistical facet on that so in the second part I will drill down into that a bit.

But first, let’s run the numbers. Here is what I have for the last 24 years:

Year Num Churches Num Change % Change Num Members Num Change % Change
1993 11,416 -40 -0.3% 2,742,192 -38,214 -1.4%
1994 11,399 -17 -0.1% 2,698,262 -43,930 -1.6%
1995 11,361 -38 -0.3% 2,665,276 -32,986 -1.2%
1996 11,328 -33 -0.3% 2,631,466 -33,810 -1.3%
1997 11,295 -33 -0.3% 2,609,191 -22,275 -0.8%
1998 11,260 -35 -0.3% 2,587,674 -21,517 -0.8%
1999 11,216 -44 -0.4% 2,560,201 -27,473 -1.1%
2000 11,178 -38 -0.3% 2,525,330 -34,871 -1.4%
2001 11,141 -37 -0.3% 2,493,781 -31,549 -1.2%
2002 11,097 -44 -0.4% 2,451,969 -41,812 -1.7%
2003 11,064 -33 -0.3% 2,405,311 -46,658 -1.9%
2004 11,019 -45 -0.4% 2,362,136 -43,175 -1.8%
2005 10,959 -60 -0.5% 2,313,662 -48,474 -2.1%
2006 10,903 -56 -0.5% 2,267,118 -46,544 -2.0%
2007 10,820 -83 -0.8% 2,209,546 -57,572 -2.5%
2008 10,751 -69 -0.6% 2,140,165 -69,381 -3.1%
2009 10,657 -94 -0.9% 2,077,138 -63,027 -2.9%
2010 10,560 -97 -0.9% 2,016,091 -61.047 -2.9%
2011 10,466 -94 -0.9% 1,952,287 -63,804 -3.2%
2012 10,262 -204 -1.9% 1,849,496 -102,791 -5.3%
2013 10,038 -224 -2.2% 1,760,200 -89,296 -4.8%
2014 9,829 -209 -2.1% 1,667,767 -92,433 -5.2%
2015 9,642 -187 -1.9% 1,572,660 -95,107 -5.7%
2016 9,451 -191 -2.0% 1,482,767 -89,893 -5.7%

So what have we got? Both the number of churches and the number of members had a somewhat consistent decline for the first part of this time period through about 2004. The membership decline was creeping up but still hung below 2%/year. The rate of decline in the number of congregations was much more stable hanging a bit below 0.2%/year. Both then show a bit of a acceleration up to 2011 with the rate of church decline rising to just below 1%/year and the membership decline rising to a bit over 3%/year. Then in 2012 there was a rapid increase to a plateau that continues in the 2016 data. The rate of decline of the number of congregations has been right around 2.0%/year, the number for 2016, and the decline in total membership has generally been above 5%/year, with the 2016 number at 5.7%, a tie with the previous year for highest rate in the time period.

It is a bit interesting to see the headline of the narrative from the OGA: “PC(USA) membership decline continues but slows.” The answer to this headline is a bit of yes, and no. They are correct that in terms of net numbers the membership loss in 2016 is the lowest that it has been in three years. Good news? Not really, because as noted above the decreasing total membership number means there are fewer members to lose so the net number is magnified and the rate of decline, as expressed in percentage loss, is actually among the highest it has been.

Moving on, let me make some comments based on the slogan “We are not dying. We are Reforming.”

One important aspect of this is that the annual statistical reports and these summary statistics are more and more missing a developing component of the denomination. These reports reflect traditional congregations, but the PC(USA) is developing New Worshiping Communities which are not in the reports. While not yet substantial enough to offset the significant losses in the traditional congregations they do reflect one of the ways the denomination is trying to reform itself.

The second aspect, and one of the reasons I have posted the long timeline above, is what is happening to the denomination with the membership changes. Going back to 2000 I have the reports on categories of membership gains and losses. Members are gained through transfer, affirmation of faith, and “other.” Similarly, losses are counted in transfers to other churches, transfer to the Church Triumphant (id est, deaths), and again, the ever popular “other.” In the case of losses this can generally be though of as people who walk out the door and don’t come back.

So, at the end of 2000 the PC(USA) counted 2,525,330 members. In the intervening 16 years they gained 328,519 members by affirmation of faith of those 17 and younger. There were gains of 638,308 from affirmation of faith of those 18 and older. From transfers in it was 444,527 members gained and from other it was 200,440. So the total new members received in those 16 years was 1,611,794.

Going the other way, 573,098 were transferred to churches in other denominations, 528,030 joined the Church Triumphant, and 1,553,301 are in the other category. The total losses were 2,654,429. It is interesting to note that this is just slightly higher than the total membership in 2000. There is not much that can be done to stop, or induce to come back to church, the members lost to death, so the losses from transfers and walking away are 2,126,399.

My point, related to the reforming aspect, is that with turnover of this magnitude the PC(USA) of 2016 is not the same PC(USA) of 2000. That is not to say that aren’t some of those members from 2000 still around. But it must be acknowledged that unless there are a lot of people who leave and return the number that flow through the denomination is fairly high. (And I would note that there are some of the leave and return, as evidenced in my own church when there is a pastoral transition.)

If you want a graphical depiction of how this develops with time, here is one that I put together. It is a bit simplistic because all losses come out of the year 2000 total membership (the “Base Membership” in the figure). And at any given time the total membership of the PC(USA) would be the Base Membership plus the Members Added – the top edge of the orange indicated by the arrow on the right side of the figure.

It is a simple first-order model but it helps to show the interplay of the gains and losses how the losses build up with time. There is significant membership flow and so membership turnover is one way the PC(USA) is reforming.

To really consider the membership dynamics a more multidimensional model is needed that considers losses in both categories and that some gains may be individuals in a previous year’s losses. If I find some time I might play around a bit with modeling this with more parameters. Definitely would make losses proportional between the Base Membership and the Members Added. Maybe add a bit of reentry into membership from the Other and Transfer Losses. And if the demographics of the latest Presbyterian Panel are reported some estimate could be made of the retention time in the denomination. (Yes, there is a reason this is starting to sound like an aquifer model.)

I will note in closing that on a first look I see no changes in trends in this year’s numbers compared to the last few years. One interesting trend that continues is the increase in the number of candidates ( 2014 – 562; 2015 – 632; 2016 – 653) and the decrease in the number of ordinations ( 2014 – 292; 2015 – 249; 2016 – 215). Watching the Church of Scotland General Assembly this week they have a number of empty charges (id est, called positions) and mentioned this over-supply in the PC(USA) as a possible source of trained pastors.

And so we look forward to the release of the detailed comparative statistics in the fall to get a better breakdown on some of these summary numbers. But for now, at least as I read the reported numbers, it appears to be a bit of status quo in the PC(USA).

Stay tuned…

And now back to our regularly scheduled General Assembly tracking.

14 thoughts on “PC(USA) Membership Numbers For 2016

  1. Mateen Elass

    Steve, thank you for the very helpful and informative chart. However, in the paragraph above the chart you speak of it as a “graphical deception.” I trust that those words were the work of one of the demons living inside your computer, and that you actually meant “graphical depiction.”

    It was good for a laugh anyway!

  2. Dana Gilmour

    The data missing is the number of congregations in some stage of “dismissal.” Many presbyteries have taken a very hard line and are exacting huge ransoms for a congregation to depart WITH their property . Still, about 4 churches per week and 2000 members per week are departing.

  3. Gordon Quimby

    It is always fun to try looking at different modeling, but I am afraid your 16 year total loss/total gain analysis misses the mark. It assumes those that join the church all stay, which is not the case. If their lives were not truly touched, they often won’t stay. The 16 year period is also enough time for some families to have moved 2-3 times. The model also doesn’t take into account the large number of people who stayed in their church the entire period. Half of my church’s session was here 16 years ago. (Yes, half weren’t here, and that is the point to make, but to not take into account the long-term members hurts your analysis.) So the model was fun, but isn’t a good picture of reality.

  4. Gordon Quimby

    There is a huge story to tell looking at the PC(USA) numbers beyond just the totals. In just three years the number of Child Baptisms has declined by 19% while the Gains by Profession of Faith, etc. declined by 24%. For lack of a simpler way to put it; the Gains by Profession of Faith, etc. are the denomination’s Total Sales. When an organization experiences a sales decline of 24% in just three years, it is time to replace the top management! Going back to 2011, the five-year decline in “sales” is 36% and Child Baptisms are down 37%. That is almost “Biblical” in scope!
    As to why such a steep decline? A prophetic voice might suggest that God is not pleased with the direction the denomination has taken. This is something that HAS to be seriously considered. Church leaders would never agree that God has anything to do with this decline, and that proves the point!

  5. Al Sandalow

    I would think that the increase in the number of candidates and the decline in ordinations is related to the vastly smaller number of congregations that can afford a pastor. When I graduated seminary in the mid-1980’s, California almost always had around 100 clergy positions open. Currently, there are 18 open positions.

    Candidates are going to stack up if there are fewer and fewer congregations that can afford to hire them.

  6. Kirk Baker

    Your work and model are extremely important. I use research like this all the time and now have a new page to bookmark. Thank you for this.

    What I’ve noticed in my local church and Presbytery is a confluence of trends I find elsewhere (Pew, Barna, PRRI) converging. Past warnings about dying mainlines pretty much universally ignored the huge spike in memberships following WWII. Today we really are dealing with something different. The aversion to church among Millenials and the death of civic religion seem to have turned a corner. I find it very helpful when analysis examines the relationship between numbers and social surveys. Do you also do any of this kind of work?

  7. Craig Howard

    Steve, as a presbytery leader (Giddings-Lovejoy) I thank you for your statistical analysis and excellent questions you are asking. You write, “My point, related to the reforming aspect, is that with turnover of this magnitude the PC(USA) of 2016 is not the same PC(USA) of 2000.” In my presbytery, 47% of the members are over the age of 65. I suggest many of them were around in 2000, which means we are mostly the same PC(USA)! Perhaps the statistical turnover you describe is because those who are joining are not staying. Our problem may be we are losing our younger people, and the energy for evangelism that goes with them. Keep up the good work!

  8. Joseph Malham

    One element missing in this excellent analysis is the human impact on families. My wife and I worshiped together for nearly four decades. I taught the adult Bible class for over thirty years. I became increasingly concerned about the liberal leanings of our denomination. As an elder, I brought formal heresy charges against our denomination. In the process I did a ton of research includding reading confessions, “The Laymen” and web articles. Unfortunately our ruling session would not go along. I could never get a reason from their deviation from a biblical “traditional marriage”.

    In 2015 I left the PC USA for a bible based church, unfortunately my wife would not. Now we worship separately. I can’t express my anguish over her decision. I have tried to reason with her showing scripture but she is set in her ways.


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