The statistical grass is not greener on the other side

“We will be better off in another denomination,” said the person who has decided God’s will for their congregation. That assumption has always left me wondering what is meant by “better off,” but I’ve never seen any data to support or challenge that assumption. That’s why I decided to do my own research on the subject.

The Evangelical Presbyterian Church (EPC) graciously provided me with their 2012 statistics and the Office of the General Assembly provided our statistics for the last ten years. I tracked 85 congregations that were in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) prior to 2008 and have since left for the EPC, to gather basic statistical information and discover if there were any trends among congregations who departed for the EPC. These 85 congregations represent 20% of the current membership of the EPC, making them a statistically significant sample to study. Of note, without these 85 congregations, the EPC would have recorded a 3% loss in membership from 2011 to 2012.

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If you are not a statistic “geek” you can skip to the last two paragraphs for my conclusions. Otherwise, here is a plethora of statistical information. In 2002, these 85 congregations had a collective membership of 31,822. In 2008, before any had left the PC(USA), they had declined by 601 members, a 2% loss. In the four years between 2008 and 2012, during and following their departures to the EPC, their membership losses skyrocketed to 16%

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Breaking down the numbers further, reveals more details of the losses on a year-by-year basis. The eight congregations that left in 2008 have recovered their initial losses and are again at their 2008 membership level (4,260). The 15 congregations that left in 2009 had actually increased in membership from 2002-2008 while they were still in the PC(USA) (6,199 to 6,312). Between 2008 and 2011, these 15 congregations experienced a 20 percent loss (6,312 to 5,038). In 2012, they continued to lose members but at a 6 percent rate (5,038 to 4,738). The 15 congregations that left in 2010 had experienced a nine percent loss from 2002-2008 when they were still in the PC(USA) (9,395 to 8,580). That rate increased from 2008-2011 to a 12 percent loss (8,580 to 7,537). In the following year, 2012, they experienced a five percent loss (7,537 to 7,147). The 16 congregations that left in 2011 had experienced a four percent rate of loss between 2002 and 2011. In 2012 they lost 10% of their members (4,990 to 4,498). The 31 congregations that left in 2012 had experienced a membership loss of six percent (7,178 to 6,747). In the year of their dismissal, they lost 17 percent of their membership (6,747 to 5,604).

The only group of congregations among the 85 former PC(USA) congregations to show a gain in membership was the eight who left in 2008, and that was essentially a recovery of what they had lost. The group of congregations that had the smallest losses during their dismissal year was the only group that had actually increased in membership prior to departure. Four of the 85 congregations have shown an increase in membership between 2011 and 2012. All of the others have either lost or stayed the same.

The statistical conclusions are that membership trends for a congregation continue regardless of the denominational affiliation. Congregations that were losing members before dismissal continued to lose, some at an even greater rate. Those that were growing have bounced back modestly. Losses in the year of departure run from 10 to 20 percent with some congregations experiencing huge losses (43 percent; 402 members – was the highest on record) and others experiencing minimal losses.

So, are congregations “better off” leaving the PC(USA)? Not if “better off’ means membership. Not only that, but statistically speaking, congregations are in worse shape after departure than they were before. Is the denomination the reason for membership decline? If that were true, one would expect membership decline to reverse or at least slow after joining a new denomination. But the statistics reveal that switching denominations does not reverse or even slow membership losses. In fact, the process of departure appears to accelerate membership losses.

My guiding principle through all the discussions of dismissal has been to seek the advancement of the Kingdom of God. If it’s in the best interest of the Kingdom, then let’s get to work on it. However, it’s difficult to see how dismissals advance the Kingdom of God when statistics support a different conclusion. I still believe it is reasonable for a congregation to seek God’s wisdom and counsel regarding its affiliations, but advancement of the Kingdom of God should be a primary criterion by which we judge our discernment of God’s will.

MIKE COLE is general presbyter of the Presbytery of New Covenant, based in Houston, Texas.

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