Where’s the Presbyterian beef?

grill steakPeter Smith is the veteran religion reporter at the Louisville Courier-Journal. He gets to cover a bunch of interesting religions stories, including an ongoing battle over a Ten Commandments display in a Kentucky courthouse.

He also does a great job of finding the local perspective on national religious stories. That was a lot easier this week with the news that the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) was cutting 75 staff positions in the face of budget cuts. The headquarters for the church body are in Louisville.

Smith has written several stories about the cuts, but each one left me asking questions. See if you have the same reaction. Here’s Sunday’s story:

The 2.4 million-member denomination has been losing members for decades, but church officials say donations to congregations are actually at record levels. But church officials say churches are sending less money to the denomination for its mission programs and are spending more of it on their own ministries.

Here’s the Monday update:

In 2002 and 2003, the church cut 85 jobs through layoffs and attrition. Presbyterian officials say the denomination’s 2.5 million members are giving at record levels to their congregations. But those congregations are sending less money to headquarters to fund national programs, church officials say, and are instead spending more on their own ministries.

And here’s Tuesday’s story:

[General Assembly Council Executive Director John] Detterick said Presbyterians are actually donating more money to their churches than they were a decade ago, but congregations are sending less to headquarters and spending more on direct ministry.

“Presbyterians today do not want to write a check and send that money off for somebody else to make a decision on where it goes,” Detterick said. “More and more work is being done more directly by Presbyterians, and the need of the national (office) to do it is not as great.”

Hmm. I wonder why local Presbyterians aren’t giving money to headquarters. I wonder if there’s any more to this story? I can understand not digging deeper if it were just one story, but at some point you have to wonder whether to accept headquarters’ take on the problem. Also, Smith says the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) “has been losing members for decades.” That’s one way to put it. Hemorrhaging would be another:

Without a word of explanation, the number crunchers for the Presbyterian Church (USA) are projecting record-setting membership losses in 2005 and 2006.

The loss in 2005 was estimated at 65,000, followed by an 85,000 projected loss in 2006. The 2005 figures, which congregations are already reporting, tally membership as of Dec. 31, 2005.

If the Presbyterians are like other church bodies dealing with budget cuts, the reason for funds not reaching national headquarters could be deeper than both the HQ explanation and the dissatisfaction among laity. Yes, laypeople who are dissatisfied with church leaders and the direction of a church begin giving their funds directly to the causes they support. But regional church organizations are also developing expensive bureaucracies and choking off church funds that might go to national headquarters. Both stories are ripe for exploration.

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  • Steve

    Are the conservatives working to destablize the Mainstream denominations or have the Mainstream denominations left historic Christianity? Instead of returning to the Gospel, many Mainstream denomoinations move farther away, thus marginalizing those who believe in the truth of the historic faith. The UCC is a good example of how a church losses more and more churches and members while moving away from their own historic teachings.

  • Stephen A.

    I’m shocked and surprised that the PC(USA) is still a functional unit at all. That it still exists as a single demonination is perhaps news in itself.

    I left this sinking ship in the early 1990s, back when congregations’ contributions were being used for “reimagining” seminars in which papier mache “goddesses of Wisdom” were starting to be fashioned and hoisted high above adoring female supplicants.*
    The media has a duty to report the theological and personal reasons why tens of thousands have fled each year since then.

    * http://www.layman.org/layman/news/news-around-church/reimagining-god-movement-10-years.htm

  • http://theaccidentalanglican.typepad.com Deborah

    “Are conservatives working to destabilize the Mainline denominations?” Well, if non-conservatives would (a) join these churches in great numbers (as they predicted when denominations began being more “inclusive”) AND (b) give more money directly to the denominational structures (yes, it’s possible to earmark donations for the national church — ask your church treasurer), these churches wouldn’t be financially unstable, now, would they?

    I’m thinking this is the kind of thing Yogi Berra envisioned when he talked about people “staying away in droves.”

  • http://jeffthebaptist.blogspot.com Jeff the Baptist

    The other problem they haven’t mentioned is that giving may only be at record levels because they aren’t adjusting for inflation and the weakened dollar. Just like gas prices today are only setting records if you don’t adjust the 1970s prices for inflation.

    That and some of that money may be staying at the local level because the congregations themselves are demanding it. The PCUSA has been in a lot of high-profile political hijinx like financial divestment from Israel and meeting with members of Hezbollah on the national level.

  • http://www.geocities.com/hohjohn John L. Hoh, Jr.

    There are several reasons for decreased national contributions while local contributions are on the upswing.

    The fact of inflation may play a part in this. Has anyone run a corollary to average incomes of members for the same time period?

    Another could be the bloated bureaucracies we see at the national and regional level. My own pastor has been frustrated in seeking mission funds from the national office and being invited to a fancy lunch “on the synod credit card” but then be told there are no funds. At one time it seemed as if the WELS had two separate organizations doing the same tasks–and a task force was created to study this and create solutions! Don’t think that doesn’t trickle down to the local level.

    And finally, it could well be that the local level has experienced increased costs in insurance, fuel bills, salaries, worker benefits, etc. It becomes a matter of survival more than greed. My one congregation has had increased revenue–but it doesn’t keep pace with the increases of costs of operating as a congregation and we have no more “fat” to trim.

  • http://n/a Greg

    Much decline in the established churches relates to declining birthrates. We are contracepting ourselves out of existence. Once upon a time we all rejected contraception not just the Romanists. I remember reading a book by the original Lutheran hour speaker W. A. Maier which rejected the practice of contraception. Perhaps the decision of the LCMS to not follow Maier’s wisdon is partly responsible for the decline of this great church.

  • http://clientandserver.com dw

    I’m shocked and surprised that the PC(USA) is still a functional unit at all. That it still exists as a single demonination is perhaps news in itself.

    It’s mainly because PC(USA) is still a huge church with a national congregation and a diversity of religious and political beliefs. The aftershocks of the PCS schism continue, but it didn’t affect the West Coast all that much. And the rank-and-file are on the whole on the evangelical side of the mainline, even if Louisville isn’t.

    The Presbyterians have also been more effective in retaining the 18-35 crowd than other mainlines. Of course, this ain’t 100,000 Acquire The Fire sorts, but they are young.

    And the Presbyterians are still mostly evangelical (and young) on the West Coast, and it’s the evangelical wing that’s growing and offsetting the drop in membership. The East Coast and South you’re not seeing that as much, mainly because the evangelicals and TULIP-Reformed left with the PCA.

    I left this sinking ship in the early 1990s, back when congregations’ contributions were being used for “reimagining” seminars in which papier mache “goddesses of Wisdom” were starting to be fashioned and hoisted high above adoring female supplicants.*

    And you know how much impact that had on the church as a whole? Nada. Some of the liberals liked it for five minutes and then moved on to the Jesus-Like Flavor Of The Month. The evangelicals wrote Stern Letters Of Protest and ignored Louisville. Was there an edict from on high that everyone had to start worshipping Sophia? Of course not. Ten years on, everyone’s forgotten about Sophia. There are other Hip New Jesus-Lite Ideas to tout.

    The media has a duty to report the theological and personal reasons why tens of thousands have fled each year since then.

    They do. It’s called the Obituaries.

    PC(USA) isn’t suffering from a bleed-off as much as a die-off. The liberal wing stop evangelizing because it wasn’t cool and besides, Jesus scares people. The evangelicals kept evangelizing but now struggle against the Haggard-Warren-Vineyard competition of megachurches and “alternative worship.” The old people went to God.

    The PC(USA) church I’m in has seen its membership climb from 350 ten years ago to nearly 600 now. I’m not sure what you could do with that data point, Stephen. It must blow your mind that a bunch of heathens who have the gall to preach the Gospel in this Sodomite denomination are allowed by God to GAIN members.

    All that said, I think what you’re seeing in Louisville is just a greater reflection of the end of the strong denomination system in this country. PC(USA) will survive if they preach the Gospel. Those of us who are are just waiting for the rest of the denomination to open their Bibles.

  • Scott Allen

    dw, great comments! Most enlightening, since in the 1990s I left a dead PCUSA congregation in the Chicago area. It’s encouraging that someone actually is reading the Bible somewhere in the denomination. I got tired of “celebrating” compromises and wondering where my money went. Hey, if you’re preaching the Gospel, keep at it!

  • Jim Hale

    Funny how Louisville has been using that 2.4 or 2.5 million member stat for the past five years. The truth is that the real membership numbers are more like just over one million. Most PCUSA churches rarely purge their rolls. So they report that they have a membership of 400, when only 130 show up on Sunday. I left two years ago after the last General Assembly in which they decided it would be a good idea to boycott Israel, and came within five votes of throwing out the theological underpinnings for ordination standards. Most think that the pro-gay vote will finally prevail at this summer’s GA. The end could mercifully, be near.

  • http://clientandserver.com dw

    Funny how Louisville has been using that 2.4 or 2.5 million member stat for the past five years. The truth is that the real membership numbers are more like just over one million.

    Nope and nope. PC(USA) says 2,362,136 on their website. The “real membership number” is really silly, since the churches report what’s on their rolls. Churches aren’t required to purge the rolls every X years, they just do them when they do them.

    You talking attendance? With average Sunday attendance running around 52%, maybe you’ll get “just over one million.” 1,228,310, to be exact. Wait, that’s not “just over one million,” is it?

    So they report that they have a membership of 400, when only 130 show up on Sunday.

    Again, local churches do this, not Louisville. For example, University Presbyterian in Seattle reports a membership of 4397 and average attendance of 3533 in 2005. It’s right on the PC(USA) site.

    In the long term, congregations are going to purge their rolls to reflect their membership due to the poll tax on members. Yet, PC(USA) membership has been at a fairly steady 1-2% decline every year, which is still slower than what we’ve seen with the UMC and the UCC.

    Most think that the pro-gay vote will finally prevail at this summer’s GA.

    We’re still a ways from ordaining gays. G.60106.b has to be overturned first, and even if GA finally overturns it, the synods and presbyteries will have final say. And remember, the presbyteries voted in favor of Amendment B 2:1 back in ’97. G.60106.b has been the one thing saving the PC(USA) from the fate of the Episcopal church, and the evangelical wing knows this.

    The end could mercifully, be near.

    Yeah, right. Have you looked out here in the west? You have some HUGE evangelical churches out here. Some of them, like U Pres, are evangelical flagships of entire regions. And they haven’t left PC(USA). When U Pres and First Pres Colorado Springs and Menlo Park start heading towards the door, THEN the end will be near. (And when they go, they’re not going to the PCA, by the way.)

    But, you know, you could be praying for us instead of being judgmental and snippy. Those of us on the evangelical side are pleading with God for repentance and transformation, and that we can all pick up our Bibles and reason together. We need all the prayer support we can get.

    Or do you like the fit of that millstone around your neck?

  • vek

    An issue not yet mentioned is the rise of alternative denominational agencies sanctioned within the PCUSA itself. Presbyterian Frontier Fellowship and Presbyterians for Renewal, for example, supplement or replace some of the missions and church-support work traditionally handled (and sometimes neglected) by the PCUSA bureaucracy. Freedom to direct donations through these agencies makes the PCUSA more agreeable for centrist or evangelical congregations. If the cash flow of these agencies were included in denominational figures, the picture might not look quite as bleak.

    For another data point, I belong to one of several rapidly-growing evangelical (think Campolo, not Falwell) congregations in an historically lefty East-coast Presbytery that has perceptibly swung back toward the center over the last ten years or so. Locally, at least, sheer force of numbers and dollars is tilting the balance. Evangelicals sit on most of the Presbytery committees now, so strange things can happen.