All mainline denominations facing membership, money struggles

All mainline denominations facing membership, money struggles

June 30, 2006
Written by Daniel Hazard

Easy analysis never captures full story of church's challenge

An incensed reader from the Penn Central Conference wrote in early April to make his point that giving to the UCC has declined - and will continue to do so - specifically because of General Synod's affirmation of gay and lesbian persons. It's not the first time that sentiment has been expressed and likely not the last. Echoes of that refrain are evident in at least two letters below, and more such letters will arrive in the mail soon - I'm certain of that.

But, before some rejoice prematurely in the UCC's gay-inspired "defeat," let's take a closer look at the numbers.

#1. Yes, there has been financial fallout from General Synod's support for marriage equality. To suggest otherwise is laughable. As General Minister and President John H. Thomas has said, "We have to face that as a reality. There are a lot of factors, but I don't want to pretend that marriage equality has nothing to do with it." Nearly 100 of the UCC's 5,725 churches have elected to leave since July 4, 2005, and several more have decided to withhold contributions to Our Church's Wider Mission. More than merely making the UCC smaller, the withdrawals diminish us - in capacity, in history, in diversity, in fellowship. We can't lament this reality enough.

Yet, even without the marriage equality resolution, the UCC would be facing financial and membership challenges.

#2. Giving to mainline denominations not supportive of lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender inclusion has also declined significantly. Perhaps misery loves company, but the UCC is not alone when it comes to fewer dollars for connectional ministries and, while gay-acceptance is often cited as the reason, it's simply not true.

Take the United Methodist Church, for example, where U.S. membership and financial dollars for its national agencies have fallen dramatically. Unlike the UCC, however, the UMC's General Conference has passed resolutions barring gay and lesbian persons from ordination, preventing any spending that promotes gay/lesbian acceptance and prohibiting any local church or clergyperson from participating in same-sex holy unions, much less marriages. Its Supreme Judicial Council ruled last year that UMC clergy could refuse to admit gay or lesbian persons as members.

Likewise, practically every other mainline denomination has suffered from fewer dollars fl owing to the top and, with the possible exception of the Episcopal Church, you can't blame gay acceptance as the reason, because the churches' policies aren't there to back up the claim.

Here's the truth: When one compares membership and giving trends, the UCC and the ultra-orthodox Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod are in the same boat.

"In addition to dealing with our specific issues, we're also caught up in a negative trend," Thomas has said correctly.

#3. Giving to the UCC is up, despite what some secular reporters have written in recent weeks. Total church support reached $911 million in 2005, up from $898 million in 2004 and $882 million in 2003.

True, more churches are electing to spend this money on local mission, but the numbers don't lie: The UCC is not poor; our members contributed nearly $1 billion last year.

#4. Special giving to UCC's national setting is growing. Combined support for OCWM's four special mission offerings grew by 3 percent last year. On top of that, more than $1.5 million was given to support the Stillspeaking Initiative. Most impressive, UCC members contributed a record-shattering $9 million for disaster relief and recovery, up nearly four-fold from members' response after September 11. Even individual gifts to United Church News have quadrupled during the past two years.

While this makes the case that members will still contribute generously to connectional ministries important to them, it also reveals that confidence in the UCC's national setting remains strong. Givers still trust the connectional church to use its dollars wisely and efficiently.

#5. Conference retention rates are the confusing, often-unspoken factor. Here's how it works: Members give to churches, churches give to Conferences, Conferences give to national. But increasingly, higher costs for our 39 Conference offices have meant that more than two-thirds of OCWM gifts are now staying at the regional level. Last year, 68 percent of OCWM dollars were retained by Conferences, a jump of 1.2 percent in one year and up 19 percent since 1975.

Overall giving to basic support did fall from $30.3 million in 2004 to $29.6 million in 2005. However, that 1.2 percent increase in retention contributed significantly to the national setting's $647,709 revenue decline (from $10,605,163 in 2004 to $9,957,454 in 2005).

The public perception, even if incorrect, is that UCC members gave significantly less to its national offices in 2005, when the reality is that the UCC's national setting received significantly less from its Conferences, a trend that has continued uninterrupted for 49 years.

#6. It ain't pretty, but a single issue is not to blame. True, OCWM support is not only declining but any growth has fallen well short of inflation. New patterns for funding connectional ministries must be found.

However, the church's woes have as much to do with birthrate/population changes and evolving approaches to philanthropy as anything else. People no longer blindly give to support an institution, no matter its liberal-conservative leanings; they give to specific causes they care about.

For decades, our UCC publications have been full of members' letters laying the blame for the church's alleged demise on racial integration, civil rights, women's ordination, sexuality education or "supporting communism." Single issue analysis never captures the full story - but we'll keep running your letters anyway. 

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