A presentation given last October by current and former members of the Presbyterian Church (USA)’s Research Services concluded that a large majority of the congregations that have left the PCUSA since 2006 were conservative churches that “were tired of battling the more moderate majority over various issues, pre-eminent among them the question of ordination of sexually active gays and lesbians to the ministry.”
The October 2014 presentation also predicted that the pace of departures from the PCUSA in 2015 would depend “in part on how presbyteries vote on a constitutional amendment to redefine marriage from ‘between a man and a woman’ to ‘between two people,’ …”
PCUSA presbyteries approved that amendment the Book of Orderchanging the denomination’s definition of marriage so that same-sex weddings may be conducted by PCUSA pastors and in PCUSA churches five months after the presentation was given.
If, like the report states, the majority of the congregations leaving the PCUSA are conservative churches, it is very probable that the pace will accelerate.
According to “Congregations leaving the Presbyterian Church (USA),” which was presented the annual meeting of the Religious Research Association held Oct. 31 in Indianapolis, there have been two “major” periods of congregational departures in the PCUSA:
- From 1983-1991, when a total of 111 congregations with 31,107 members left.
- Beginning around 2006 and still continuing. At the time of the presentation, a total of 396 congregations with 118,524 members had left the PCUSA. Only 13 of those, with 650 members, joined another mainline denomination.
The 2006-present ‘departure era’
The Research Services presentation said that this era began slowly, and “cannot be traced with certainty to any particular event, but rather appears to have started in a few of the 1,000+ member, more conservative PCUSA congregations that were tired of battling the more moderator majority over various issues.”
Of the 383 congregations cited by the presentation that left the PCUSA for other-than-Mainline denominations, 61 percent – or 232 – were in the Confessing Church Movement.
The Confessing Church Movement began in 2001 when a single church developed a confessional statement, which was later adopted by its presbytery and then by thousands of PCUSA sessions. The movement centered on the foundational truths that:
- The Bible alone is the Word of God and the sole authority for faith and life;
- Jesus Christ alone is the Way of salvation, the Truth of God’s Word and the Life of the church; and
- The Holy Spirit continues to work to bring people into conformity with the will of God, toward holiness, including living within fidelity in marriage between a man and woman or chastity in singleness.
While the exodus from the PCUSA was gradual at first, the presentation stated that it grew “especially in 2012” following the PCUSA’s approval of ordaining gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people as pastors, elders and deacons.
There was also an increase beginning in early 2012 after a new denomination — ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians — was formed.
“Momentum continues with efforts in the PCUSA to change the definition of marriage to ‘two people,’” according to the presentation.
Looking at additional statistics from the PCUSA and other Presbyterian denominations that fact is being proven true.
The PCUSA’s comparative statistics for 2014 – released in May of 2015 – show that the denomination dismissed 101 congregations during the year. ECO grew by 77 churches in 2014, and between January and May of 2015 had added 17 more churches. On July 9, the web site listed 211 congregations as members. A large majority of those have come from the PCUSA.
The Evangelical Presbyterian Church grew by 46 churches between May 30, 2014 and May 26, 2015, increasing the number of churches from 520 to 566. All but nine of those were from the PCUSA. The EPC tracks church movement from May of one year until May of the next, with the list being revealed at the annual June General Assembly meeting.
The 1983-1991 ‘departure era’
The Presbyterian Church (USA) was formed in 1983, when the United Presbyterian Church in the USA (UPCUSA) and the Presbyterian Church US (PCUS) were reunited, following their split decades before over the Civil War.
When the two denominations reunited, each agreed upon a single constitution that contained a “trust clause,” which claimed that the new denomination held all church property in trust for the PCUSA. Since the PCUS – the southern denomination – didn’t have a trust clause in its constitution, those congregations were given a seven year window to leave the PCUSA with their property.
Most of those churches, according to the “Congregations leaving” presentation, joined the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA).
The PCA was organized in December of 1973 when delegates, representing approximately 260 congregations with a membership of more than 41,000 that had left the PCUS, held a constitutional assembly at Briarwood Presbyterian Church in Birmingham, Alabama.
The data for “Congregations leaving the Presbyterian Church (USA),” was compiled and presented by Joelle Kopacz of Research Services, Jack Marcum emeritus, Research Services and Ida Smith formerly of Research Services.
The PCUSA’s Research Services provides a wide variety of services including articles and reports, demographics information, statistics, program evaluations and Ten-Year Trends for the denomination.