In recent months, the United Church of Christ (UCC) has asked its members why they give in an effort to generate more revenue for the wider church in the future. The results of that survey are still being compiled, but it got me thinking about who funds the UCC today. I did a little research, and what I found really surprised me.
I started with our current giving pattern. For the past three decades, we in the UCC have funded the wider church in the following way:
- Individual donors give to their local congregation.
- Local congregations designate funds for Our Church’s Wider Mission (OCWM), which goes to their conference.
- The UCC’s Conferences keep part of the OCWM funds for their own ministries, then send the rest to the national setting of the UCC.
The wider UCC has additional resources available beyond OCWM donations, but such donations are still the primary source of funding for our ministries beyond the local church.
But how much is each UCC congregation supposed to contribute to OCWM? I put this question to then-Executive Minister of Local Church Ministries J. Bennett Guess at a clergy gathering this past January. After considering his response, he replied that there were as many different answers to that question as there were congregations in our denomination.
Rev. Guess’s answer was affirmed by this year’s recently-released UCC Yearbook. It reveals that local churches simply do not give in a standardized way to OCWM. Further, conferences make their own decisions about how much OCWM funding to keep at the regional level and how much to send on to the national setting of the UCC. The Yearbook lists the Conferences’ receipts of OCWM funds. Here are 2015’s top 10 OCWM-receiving conferences (in order):
- Central Atlantic
- Penn Southeast
- Penn Central
Together, these 10 conferences received over half of the total OCWM dollars given in 2015.
In many ways, the above list is not a surprise. Most of these conferences reflect the history of our denomination and its predecessor bodies. We have deep roots in New England, Pennsylvania, and the Midwest. It seems natural that OCWM giving would be high in and around Boston, Philadelphia, Cleveland, and Chicago.
Remember the funding pattern, though. Individual donors do not donate OCWM money directly to their Conferences. Rather, such donors give directly to their local congregation, and each congregation then decides how much OCWM money to give to the wider UCC.
So which congregations made up 2015’s top 10 list of OCWM donors? Here we find a more complicated story. The list (in order) is as follows:
- Evangelical and Reformed UCC, Frederick, MD
- Coral Gables Congregational UCC, Coral Gables, FL
- University Congregational UCC, Seattle, WA
- Westminster Congregational UCC, Spokane, WA
- Christ Congregational UCC, Silver Spring, MD
- First Congregational UCC, Wellesley Hills, MA
- Plymouth Congregational UCC, Seattle, WA
- Union Church of Hinsdale, Hinsdale, IL
- Plymouth Congregational UCC, Des Moines, IA
- First Congregational UCC, Columbus, OH
These ten churches make up 0.2% of the UCC’s total congregations, and they have 1% of the UCC’s total membership. Nonetheless, these congregations gave 8% of the total OCWM contributions for 2015.
In many ways, these congregations are quite different from each other. They range in membership from 133 to 3,382, and their average weekly worship attendance goes from 81 to 768. They’re located in urban centers, sprawling suburbs, and mid-sized towns. They represent seven different conferences from one corner of the U.S. to another. While all ten of these churches have a predominantly Euro-American membership, that fact alone does not distinguish them from the rest of the UCC (our membership is 89% Euro-American).
In fact, there’s only one pattern I could find that both unites and distinguishes these churches: they pro-actively welcome LGBT folks. Nine of these ten churches have voted to become Open and Affirming (ONA). The one church on this list that hasn’t yet voted to become ONA specifically states on their website that LGBT folks are welcome. Meanwhile, in the wider UCC, less than one-third of our churches are ONA and less than one-third of our congregants are members of ONA churches. Not every ONA church gives to OCWM at a high level, and not every LGBT-welcoming church has yet voted to become ONA. Still, each of 2015’s top-10 OCWM donor churches pro-actively welcomes LGBT folks.
One other fact about this top-10 list really surprised me: most of these churches are not from the places that the UCC and its predecessors were founded. Only one of these churches is from New England, and none are from Pennsylvania or Missouri. Meanwhile, four of the top five on this list are from the states of Maryland and Washington alone.
Speaking of Washington, the Yearbook reveals that the Pacific Northwest Conference of the UCC gives generously to OCWM. The PNC (which includes Alaska, Northern Idaho, and almost all of Washington) has three member churches in the top-10 OCWM giving rate, more than any other conference. On a per-member basis, the PNC is by far the top funder of basic OCWM support at $60.47 per member and is one of the top three conferences for per-member change in basic support. This is happening in spite of the fact that the PNC is one of our smallest conferences, with only 82 churches and 8,018 members. In fact, the PNC is similar in size to our South Dakota Conference, whose 78 churches and 9,329 members gave to OCWM at a per capita rate of $25.06 in 2015.
In fact, the state of Washington presents us with an exciting opportunity to start new churches. Once you subtract the PNC’s churches in Alaska and Idaho, it becomes clear that we have fewer church members and congregations in Washington than we do in South Dakota. This, in spite of the fact that Washington has more than eight times as many people as South Dakota. Further, Washington is benefiting from the U.S.’s decades-long migration patterns to the South and West, which have once again picked up post-Recession (as seen here). As a result, Washington’s population is growing in places like Seattle and Spokane, two cities that are home to three of our top ten OCWM-giving congregations.
As we in the UCC consider how to fund our denomination, we would do well to consider who funds our denomination. Our top-receiving conferences are overwhelmingly located in parts of the U.S. where we have historic roots, but those parts of the country have little population growth (or in the cases of Chicago and Connecticut, negative growth). If we want to significantly increase giving to OCWM in the coming years, perhaps we need a vigorous approach to new ONA church starts in places like Seattle.
Rev. Dr. David Lindsey currently serves as the Senior Pastor of Little River United Church of Christ in Annandale, Virginia, in the Central Atlantic Conference.