The numbers are what the numbers are: Mid council leaders learn about denominational trends

ST. LOUIS – Most congregations in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) are small, but most Presbyterians attend larger churches.

About two-thirds of those preparing to enter ministry – candidates and inquirers in the PC(USA) – come from churches with at least 300 members, which means they may have little or no experience of life in a small congregation.

Just under 15 percent of small PC(USA) congregations – those with 50 members or fewer – are served by a minister who participates in the Board of Pensions benefits plan, which typically means that person is in full-time ministry. But most Presbyterians (about 70 percent) attend churches with 151 members or more, and typically those congregations are served by at least one full-time, seminary-trained pastor.

The first plenary session of the Mid Council Leaders Gathering, being held Oct. 15-17 in St. Louis, focused on congregational realities – dashing through a flurry of information about trends in the denomination and life on the ground. The gathering is being co-sponsored by the Office of the General Assembly and the Board of Pensions – it replaces what used to be called the Fall Polity Conference – and it’s drawn about 350 people for training and opportunities for connection.

During that first plenary Oct. 15, the speakers offered information and opportunities for discussion – but refrained from offering much interpretation.

“The numbers are what the numbers are,” but individual Presbyterians may view them differently, said Timothy  Cargal, an assistant stated clerk in the Office of the General Assembly, responsible for overseeing preparation for ministry.

“It’s easy to lament the past instead of to celebrate what we have,” said Kris Valerius, an assistant stated clerk for the Office of the General Assembly with responsibility for denominational rolls and statistics. “We should be celebrating what we have, because we have an abundance at our fingertips.”

Kris Valerius of the Office of the General Assembly. (Photo by Jodi Craiglow.)

Membership size. Valerius traced trends in the membership size of congregations for a decade, from 2006 to 2016. While the number of PC(USA) congregations overall declined during that time, the balance between smaller congregations and larger ones did not change a lot, she said.

Most congregations are small:

  • 150 members or less: 62 percent in 2006; 72 percent in 2016.
  • 151 to 600 members: 32 percent in 2006; 24 percent in 2016.
  • 601 members or more: 6 percent in 2006; 4 percent in 2016.

In 2006, the average PC(USA) congregation had 207 members; the median membership was 105.

In 2016, the average PC(USA) congregation had 157 members; the median was 78.

Information provided by Tim Cargal.

Age of Presbyterians. The largest percentage of Presbyterians are still those 66 and older. But the age distribution hasn’t changed dramatically over the last 10 years, Valerius said.

Information presented by Kris Valerius from the Office of the General Assembly

Pastoral leadership. Andy Browne, vice president of church relations at the Board of Pensions, presented information on the relationship between congregational size and its leadership – addressing the reality that many small congregations can’t afford to call a full-time pastor. Despite that, however, most Presbyterians belong to larger-membership churches – and most of those congregations are led by full-time ordained pastors.

Andy Browne, of the Board of Pensions. (Photo by Jodi Craiglow).

Only 6.2 percent attend churches of 50 or fewer members, and just under 11 percent those between 51 and 100 members.

More than 70 percent of Presbyterians belong to medium to large churches – 20 percent belong to churches with 151 to 300 members; 21 percent belong to churches 301 to 600 members; and about 12 percent to churches with 601 to 1,000 members.

Information presented by Andy Browne from the Board of Pensions

(Note: in the chart above, # or % “with TE in PP” means “number or percent of churches in that size category which have at least one teaching elder (minister) in the Pastors Participation program of the Board of Pensions: the bundled package of pension, medical, death and disability benefits that is required for installed pastors and available for other ministers of the church).

Information presented by Andy Browne from the Board of Pensions

Candidates and inquirers. The pool of those preparing to serve in ministry – candidates and inquirers in the PC(USA) – differs in some ways from the PC(USA) as a whole.

More than two-thirds of candidates and inquirers come from large congregations – about a third from congregations of 300 to 600 members, and another third from congregations of more than 600 members.

That’s significant because often “the role of the pastor is different” in congregations of different sizes, Cargal said during a workshop later in the day. Candidates and inquirers also are more racially and ethnically diverse than the overall PC(USA) membership, with about a quarter of candidates and enquirers being people of color, while the PC(USA) itself is about 91 percent white.

Information presented by Timothy Cargal from the Office of the General Assembly.

During that workshop, Cargal stressed the importance of cross-cultural training for candidates and inquirers – and of field education that gives them experience working with congregations of different sizes. And cross-cultural training can be broadly defined, participants in that workshop said – including gaining a better understanding of people from different races and ethnicities; of immigrants; of different generations and geographic regions.