This weeks blog post is written by Reverend David Schoen, Temporary Minister for Church Legacy and Closure, for the Office of Church Building and Loan Fund within Local Church Ministries. Rev. Schoen has also completed a report on Congregations that Closed in the United Church of Christ 2012-2015 that will be available soon to the wider church.
One hundred eleven congregations in the United Church of Christ closed in the years 2012 to 2015. These congregations did not merge with other congregations or leave the denomination, but ended their existence as ongoing churches. With help from the Center for Analytics, Research and Data (CARD) and records from the UCC Data Hub, information on these 111 closed congregations was compiled to strengthen our UCC response to and ministry with local churches, especially congregations that may be questioning their future.
It is noteworthy that characteristics of the closed congregations match many current UCC congregations based on the Fall 2016 Statistical Profile of the United Church of Christ.
Common Characteristics between Closed Congregations and Current Congregations
- Worship Attendance
All of the closed congregations averaged less than 100 in worship. Eight in ten current churches in the UCC (81.2%) have a weekly worship attendance of 1–100 (see page 8). The majority of closed congregations (70%) had less than 50 in worship. Nearly half (47.8%) of all current UCC congregations have less than 50 in worship. Based on these figures more than 2,500 of the 5,032 UCC congregations (see Quick Summary) have weekly worship attendance that corresponds to the weekly attendance of closed congregations.
Seven in ten (72%) of the closed congregations had a membership size less than 100 compared to four in ten (43.3%) current congregations (see page 7). Nearly 5 in 10 (48%) of closed congregations had less than 50 members. Given that two in ten (20.3%) current congregations have less than 50 members, more than 1000 current UCC congregations have membership size that corresponds to the closed congregations.
- Date of Organization – Age of Congregations
Half (50.6%) of UCC churches (see page 6), approximately 2,500 current congregations and half (51%) of closed congregations were organized from 1850 to 1939. Three in ten (30.9%) current congregations were founded before 1850, but less than one in ten (8%) closed congregations were founded in the same period. Three in ten (28%) of the closed congregations were founded after 1970. Congregations founded after 1970 are only one in ten (9.9%) of the current congregations. New congregations founded after 2000 represented 15% of the closed congregations, as compared to only 3.8% of current UCC congregations, which may reflect the reality that new congregations often do not survive the first 10 years of formation.
Four in ten (43%) closed congregations and four in ten (43.6%) current congregations come from the Great Lakes and Middle Atlantic Regions (see page 2). One-quarter, (25%) of the closed congregations were in the West Central Region, but only 14.3% of current congregations. Two in ten (20.7%) of current congregations are in New England Region but only one in ten (10%) of the closed congregations came from this region.
- Racial Ethnic Self-Identification
Just as the majority, (84.9%) of the current congregations (see page 5) self-identify as White/Euro-American so were 84% of closed congregations. The percentage (16%) of the closed congregations self-identified as other race and ethnicity is consistent to the percentage (15.1%) of current congregations. No Hispanic or Native American congregations closed from 2012-2015. The percentage of Asian/Pacific Island congregations that closed (6%) was higher than the percentage of current Asian/Pacific Island congregations (3.8%).
- Open and Affirming and Accessible to All
The majority (78%) of closed congregations was not Open and Affirming which is slightly higher than the 74.9% of UCC congregations in 2015 that were not ONA (see page 12). Roughly 8 in 10 (83.9%) of current congregations self-identify as being accessible to persons with disabilities, but only six in ten closed congregations self-identified as such.
Closed congregations showed long-term decline or flat-line in worship.
The overwhelming majority of closed congregations showed a slow steady decline or a constant flat-line in worship attendance. Only a handful of congregations showed a sudden dramatic decline in worship attendance in the 10 years before closing.
Congregation closures have remained constant since 2008.
On average, one congregation has closed every two weeks in the UCC since 2008. It is likely that the number of congregations closing will continue or increase as there are many UCC congregations that have similar characteristics.This continued decline is reflected in Futuring the United Church of Christ 30-Year Projections – Draft Results published in 2015 by the UCC Center for Analytics, Research and Data.
The ongoing and future reality of congregations closing raises significant challenges and questions. How does the UCC, locally and nationally respond to the closure of congregations theologically, liturgically, missionally and organizationally? How do we prepare ministerial and congregational leadership to address and assess their churches’ future, including the decision to close? How does the wider church support congregations, pastors and leaders as they make difficult, yet faithful decisions about their congregation and legacy?
These questions and challenges require further study, conversation and resourcing as we respond to and minister with congregations making difficult but faithful decisions about their future.
God is still speaking.
Reverend David Schoen, Temporary Minister for Church Legacy and Closure
Church Building and Loan Fund, Local Church Ministries – United Church of Christ can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Learn more about the invaluable Church Legacy and Closure Resource.