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PC(USA) releases 2021 statistical report, showing a denomination of small churches and aging membership

Photo by Алекс Арцибашев on Unsplash

The shape of the story is familiar: in 2021, the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) continued to lose members (as it has done for nearly 60 years now), a slow, steady drip of people leaving or dying. According to the just-released 2021 statistical report, the denomination lost another 51,584 members in 2021, bringing the PC(USA) membership down to 1.19 million.

The denomination is mostly-White and aging — a third of Presbyterians are age 71 or older.

Most Presbyterian congregations are small (although most Presbyterians attend larger churches).

Studded in these new statistics, however, are a few nuggets worth examining a bit more closely.

Baptisms were up in 2021 by 3,260 – with 7,511 baptisms “presented by others” reported in 2021, compared with 4,251 in 2020. On the one hand, that’s good news: more baptisms. On the other hand, it probably reflects the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, when many congregations were closed to in-person worship in 2020 — so parents mostly didn’t have the choice to stand at the front of the church and present their baby to be baptized. Some of those 2020 baptisms likely got delayed until 2021, as COVID-19 vaccinations became available and more churches resumed in-person services.

But the number of baptisms in 2021, while up from the year before, still lagged considerably from previous years — down more than 3,000 from the number of baptisms performed in 2019. Over the long term, the number of PC(USA) baptisms continues to decline.

In 2021, the PC(USA) dissolved 104 congregations — just one more than in 2020. That leaves the denomination with 8,813 congregations. Only two congregations were dismissed in 2021 to other denominations — a significant drop from the early 2010s when hundreds of congregations left for more conservative denominations following General Assembly votes to allow Presbyterian ministers to perform same-sex marriages and to allow gay and lesbian pastors with partners to serve PC(USA) churches.

These days, the decline in congregations is coming mostly as churches get so small that they can’t keep going and dissolve. The number of presbyteries also dropped by four in 2021, from 170 to 166, as some mid councils merged and realigned.

From 2020 to 2021, the PC(USA) lost 51,584 members, a 4.1% decline.

Peak membership came in 1965, with 4.25 million members in the two denominations that later merged to become the PC(USA). The PC(USA) membership losses reflect the reality that fewer American adults participate in organized religion.

In 2020, Americans’ membership in houses of worship dropped below the majority for the first time, according to the Gallup poll, with only 47% of American adults saying they belonged to a church, synagogue or mosque.

Most PC(USA) congregations are small — with 20%, or one in five, having 25 members or fewer.

About two-thirds of PC(USA) congregations have 100 members or fewer.

Financially, that creates real problems for many churches —with increasing numbers being unable to afford to hire a full-time pastor. A number of recommendations coming to the 2022 General Assembly deal with the financial pressure on churches — including recommendations from the Special Committee on Per-Capita Based Funding and National Church Financial Sustainability, and a resolution from the Racial Equity Advocacy Committee (REAC) regarding the lack of installed pastoral leadership in people of color congregations.

The rationale for that REAC resolution states that “currently 80 percent of the PC(USA)’s predominantly Black congregations are without installed pastoral leadership. At least 40 percent of Hispanic/Latino congregations do not have installed pastors.”

The assembly also will be asked to consider the role of commissioned ruling elders in the life of the denomination — with many small and rural congregations depending on ruling elders for congregational leadership and with a handful of recommendations coming to the assembly seeking more flexibility in leadership including for immigrant congregations and new worshipping communities.

The 2021 statistical report also shows a denomination that remains predominantly White — roughly 88%, although that’s not with all congregations reporting.

And the PC(USA) skews significantly older than the U.S. population. In 2020, only 16.6% of the U.S. population was age 65 and older. But a significant chunk of Presbyterian church members falls into that group.

While the number of PC(USA) ministers declined in 2021 by 372, the number of ordinations increased by 11 and the number of candidates for ordination by 13. But the number of those being ordained each year is not keeping pace with the number of ministers who are retiring or dying.

The full 2021 statistical report can be found here.

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