Big losses projected in PCUSA
Estimates: 2005 decline of 65,000; 2006 decline of 85,000

By John H. Adams
The Layman Online
Monday, February 13, 2006
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Without a word of explanation, the number crunchers for the Presbyterian Church (USA) are projecting record-setting membership losses in 2005 and 2006.

The loss in 2005 was estimated at 65,000, followed by an 85,000 projected loss in 2006. The 2005 figures, which congregations are already reporting, tally membership as of Dec. 31, 2005. The verdict on the decline for 2005 is expected to be available in April, when the General Assembly Council will meet to prepare proposed budgets to be considered by the 217th General Assembly when it meets in Birmingham, Ala., on June 15-22. The council will have to guess the decline for 2006.

(Story continues below chart)

Membership year
as of Dec. 31
Budget year Members Change from
previous year
Pct. change
(1) 1965 1967 4,254,597 +11,124 +0.26%
(2) 1983 1985 3,121,338 -34,822 -1.39%
2002 2004 2,450,334 -41,812 -1.68%
2003 2005 2,403,851 -46,483 -1.90%
2004 2006 2,361,856 -41,995 -1.75%
Estimated, 2005 2007 2,296,856 -65,000 -2.75%
Estimated, 2006 2008 2,211,856 -85,000 -3.70%
(1) 1965 was the year that the PCUSA and its predecessor denominations reached their highest membership; (2) 1983 was the year of the reunion of the United Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Presbyterian Church U.S.

The General Assembly's 2007 budget will be based on the 2005 figures; the 2008 budget will be based on the 2006 estimate.

Both the projected losses in members in 2005 and 2006 would be higher than any prior year's downturn since the reunion of the northern and southern streams of the mainline denomination in 1983. The projected 2006 loss would represent a single-year decline of 3.7 percent, the highest percentage loss in the denomination's 216-year history.

If the projections become reality – or worse – they will have a devastating impact on both the per-capita and the mission budgets of the church. There has been some speculation that the 218th General Assembly, which is supposed to include about 200 more commissioners as the full effect of biennial assemblies begins in 2008, may not be able to pay for those additional seats.

Already, the per-capita budget is stretched. Staff cuts and the use of reserve funds have enabled the denomination to meet its basic mandates. But the reserve funds are shrinking fast. For this year, the per-capita budget includes $2.65 million in reserve funds. The amount of reserve money available for the 2008 budget is projected at $1.17 million.

The General Assembly Council has already recommended to the General Assembly that the per-capita appotionment for 2007 and 2008 be $5.72. The per-capita rate for the 2005 and 2006 budgets is $5.41.

There was no discussion about the projections, which were included in a spread sheet that was prepared by the denomination's Mission Support Services and presented last week at a joint meeting of the General Assembly Council's executive committee and the Committee on the Office of the General Assembly.

In the past, Mission Support Services has been close to target or slightly low on its membership loss projections.

If the projections hold true – or become worse – the impact on the denomination's ability to finance its day-to-day operations (the per-capita budget) and mission program would be dramatic.

The denomination's financial ability to maintain its mission program depends on a stable membership. Previous declines have been reflected in regular increases in the per-capita rate – to keep it at roughly $13 million a year, despite staff cuts and infusions of reserve funds. But the denomination's mission budget even more dramatically reflects the cost of membership losses. From 2001 to 2005, the mission budget has dropped from $144 million to $116 million.

Much of the mission budget comes from the denomination's stock portfolio – valued at nearly $2 billion – but about $20 million annually comes from special offerings. Considering special offerings and per-capita payments, Presbyterians send the denomination some $30 million a year in cash for ongoing costs.

The report by Mission Support Services [MSS] offered little optimism.

It did, however, give best-case and worst-case scenarios:

In the best case, MSS said expenditures could be less than budgeted and the decline in membership could be less than expected.

In the worst case, MSS said actual membership declines would more than projected; actual expenditures would exceed budgeted expenses; there would be additional financial implications for the General Assembly and the availability of funds from reserves would be "dramatically reduced."

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