PC(USA) called to “embrace who we are”—a denomination of small churches

Statistics show those preparing for ministry do not mirror the larger church

October 16, 2017

St. Louis

Leaders of Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) presbyteries and synods examined the “State of the Church” during a series of plenary sessions at the 2017 Mid-Council Leaders Gathering in St. Louis.

“We need to embrace who we are,” said Kris Valerius, assistant stated clerk for denominational rolls and statistics in the Office of the General Assembly, at a session on “Congregational Realities” October 15 here.

“Who we are” is small churches. Valerius displayed statistics comparing data from 2006 and 2016. The statistics showed that the number of small churches (150 members or less) is continuing to rise—to 72 percent in 2016, up from 62 percent in 2006.

Only 4 percent of congregations had more than 600 members in 2016, down slightly from 6 percent in 2006. “We can’t think of ourselves as being a church of tall-steeple congregations,” Valerius said.

She noted that the numbers have not changed much over the past decade. She also observed, “We have some churches that are incredibly healthy, maintaining their membership over the years. That’s also who we are.”

The age breakdown of church membership has remained much the same as well. About a third of members are 66 and older. More surprising, Valerius said, is that the percentage of members under 25 has only dropped by 1 percent—from 14 percent in 2006 to 13 percent in 2016.

There was good news and bad news to report in comparing membership gains vs. losses: “Our overall losses dropped 12 percent in the last 10 years,” Valerius said. That was the good news. The not-so-good news is that membership gains dropped 53 percent.

Andy Browne, vice president of church relations for the Board of Pensions, showed statistics on how many congregations are served by pastoral leadership (as indicated by enrollment in benefits plans of the Presbyterian Church’s Board of Pensions).

Not surprisingly, Browne noted, “Every church of 1,000 members or more has a minister on staff enrolled with Board of Pensions for benefits.” And most congregations of more than 300 members have a minister in pastoral leadership.

But only about I in 7 churches of 50 members or less had a pastor enrolled for benefits with the Board in 2016.

“The hope is that steady pastoral leadership might be available to those smaller congregations,” Browne said. Noting that “installed pastoral leadership is a vehicle for stability and health” and “a worthy investment,“ he wondered how smaller congregations might be encouraged to “stretch themselves” to afford pastoral leadership.

Statistics also show some significant differences between inquirers and candidates preparing for ministry in the PC(USA) and the congregations they will end up serving.

Tim Cargal, assistant stated clerk for preparation for ministry/exams in the Office of the General Assembly, presented data showing that the majority of inquirers and candidates come from the denomination’s largest congregations.

“Only 6 percent of inquirers and candidates come from congregations of under 100 members,” he said. “So their experience of being in a congregation is quite different from that of our church as a whole.”

Another striking statistic has to do with the racial ethnic and gender distribution of inquirers and candidates.

“Only a third look like me — white male,” Cargal said. Women comprise 43 percent of inquirers and candidates, and almost a quarter are not white, Cargal said.

“They look like the church that we need to become, not like a snapshot of the church today.”

  1. It seems fine to call attention to small churches, but the "who we are" language seems a bit misleading. Well over half of the PC(USA) belong to churches with more than 300 members. Small churches here defined as those with 150 or fewer members account for about 1/4 of the PC(USA).

    by david carothers

    October 16, 2017

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