Written by Daniel Hazard
Church leaders are reporting mixed statistical and financial outcomes - both positive and negative - during the six-month period that followed General Synod's controversial decision to affirm support for same-gender marriage equality.
Since July, about 49 churches - or less than one percent of the UCC's 5,725 churches - have voted to disaffiliate, according to the denomination's research office. Most, but not all, of the departures appear related to disagreement with the marriage-equality resolution.
The withdrawals, however, also come amid a resurgence of interest in the UCC by new or existing churches, with 23 congregations affiliating with the UCC during 2005 and an additional 42 churches expressing a "firm interest" in joining. The year also ended with some hopeful financial indicators, including significant increases for some national offerings and special appeals.
'We grieve the loss'
"The number of departing churches is far fewer than some had earlier projected," said General Minister and President John H. Thomas, who nonetheless described the last half of 2005 as a period marked by "conversation," "education," and at times, "exhaustion." "We grieve the loss of any and every congregation that decides to leave - not only because of the loss of members but also for the loss of shared history, ministry and fellowship."
Based on 2004 financial data, the withdrawing churches - with a combined membership of 10,535 - contributed about $89,000 annually to support Our Church's Wider Mission (OCWM), the denomination's shared purse that funds ministries at the Association, Conference, national and international settings. Those receipts represent less than three-tenths of 1 percent of the $32 million contributed to OCWM each year.
Most of the departing churches appear to have been distancing themselves financially from the denomination for many years, said William Morgan, the UCC's chief financial officer.
Morgan also acknowledged that an undetermined number of disgruntled churches have decided to remain with the UCC but have indicated they will consider reducing financial support for OCWM in 2006. That effort, he said, could be offset by supportive congregations that intend to increase OCWM contributions.
"While some fluctuations in OCWM can surely be attributed to Synod-related issues," Morgan said, "we're also hearing from many churches that have other budgetary concerns, such as rising heating costs, insurance premiums and other expenses that impact their OCWM giving. There are other factors to consider."
The UCC is unique among many of the historical mainline denominations because individual congregations retain legal ownership of their buildings and property, making it easier for UCC congregations to decide their own futures. An often underreported fact is that not all churches that vote to leave the UCC will necessarily stay away forever. In the past two years, five once-departed churches have voted to return.
'Great new enthusiasm'
Church officials also reported a sharp increase in inquiries about UCC affiliation. The Rev. David Schoen of the UCC's Evangelism Ministry, said that, in addition to discussions with 42 existing non-UCC churches, his office has had conversations with more than 20 pastors or lay persons interested in starting new congregations where none currently exists.
"We've seen great new enthusiasm for new church development," Schoen said.
In October, the 4,300-member Cathedral of Hope in Dallas, Texas, voted overwhelmingly to pursue UCC affiliation and cited the General Synod's marriage resolution as a motivating factor behind its decision. At least two more large-membership churches with an eye toward joining the UCC have planned congregational votes in 2006.
The process by which local Associations grant formal standing to incoming churches can sometimes take months to complete, Schoen said.
In addition to the inquiries, 10 churches were granted standing during the year and 13 congregations were recognized as newly planted churches.
The UCC also marked a record-setting year for financial support of special offerings and appeals, global disaster response and the Stillspeaking Initiative.
"While every setting of the church has fretted over finances this year, members of the United Church of Christ have demonstrated amazing, record-breaking generosity," Thomas announced in late December.
UCC members contributed a record-shattering $9 million through national church offices to support national and international relief - fueled by churchwide concern for victims of the tsunami in Asia and East Africa, the hurricanes in the southeastern U.S., violence in Darfur and the Sudan, the earthquake in Pakistan and Kashmir, as well as global hunger and the spread of HIV/AIDS infection. The 2005 financial total is more than four times the $2.1 million given over a two-year period in response to the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Web-based giving through ucc.org quadrupled in 2005, with nearly $500,000 coming from 2,800 givers, a three-fold increase in online donors.
Although year-end remittances were not due until the end of January (thus, after press time), Morgan projects the church will come close to its $32 million goal for national and Conference basic support, which funds the church's mission infrastructure. Plus, he said, it looks like the church will realize a 3-to-5 percent overall increase in receipts for the UCC's four national special-mission offerings, which are received annually and earmarked for global development, justice advocacy, evangelism and church renewal, and support for church retirees.
Also, more than $1.5 million in secondmile giving was received to support the Stillspeaking Initiative, the UCC's national advertising campaign.