Presbyterian Church's realignment persisting

A realignment of Presbyterian churches is continuing both nationally and in their traditional stronghold in the Tri-State area, with scores of congregations leaving the mainline Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) for more conservative denominations, a new statistical report shows.

Membership went down nearly 5 percent nationally and even higher in several presbyteries in this region in 2013, according to the latest annual report released by the denomination. Some 148 congregations nationally left for other denominations in 2013, joining about 200 others that have left in recent years.

While those numbers still are dwarfed by the more than 10,000 congregations nationwide, many of them have included large and prominent congregations.

In Pennsylvania, 46 congregations either closed or left for other denominations in 2013, according to denominational figures.

The Rev. Sheldon Sorge, general minister of the Pittsburgh Presbytery, said that while there are silver linings in the latest statistics -- missions contributions are up, and several new congregations are in early stages of growth and aren't officially counted yet -- "one would be in denial to say the loss of membership is inconsequential."

The presbytery, which includes Allegheny County, agreed to dismiss three congregations late last year, accounting for the presbytery's net 7 percent loss in members, now at 31,350.

"We will not rest with decline being our narrative," Rev. Sorge said, citing efforts to launch several new churches and revive existing ones.

Membership losses are nothing new for the denomination, nor for many other historically white Protestant bodies, which have steadily shed members since the 1960s, when they peaked alongside the baby boom and a general thriving of organized religion. Since then, their decreasing numbers have tracked alongside lower birthrates, rising secularism and depopulation in small towns where many of their churches have been based.

The trend has begun to cross ideological boundaries, with the Southern Baptist Convention -- the largest evangelical body -- reporting last month the latest in a spate of annual declines in membership, attendance and baptisms.

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) numbers are compounded by the departure of congregations amid liberal trends in theology and sexuality, including the denomination's decision in 2011 to ordain noncelibate gays and lesbians as ministers, elders and deacons. Later this month, the denomination's General Assembly will vote on whether to redefine Christian marriage to include same-sex as well as opposite-sex couples.

For congregations departing the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), the destination denominations include the Evangelical Presbyterian Church -- whose Pittsburgh-based Presbytery of the Alleghenies has about 60 congregations in Western Pennsylvania and parts of neighboring states -- and the newly formed ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians, with 20 in Pennsylvania and 127 nationally.

But the main denomination's losses are no one's gain, according to the Rev. Paul Detterman, who helped organize ECO but also directs two newly merged groups that are working to support evangelical congregations that want to remain in the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).

Deciding whether to stay in or leave the denomination is a matter of a church's local context, he said.

"Location in a denominational sense does not determine success," he said. "The culture does not understand all the variants of any given denomination at all."

At the core, he said, "we need to be asking ourselves if people are finding in their experience of the church something that resembles what they're looking for in their experience of Jesus Christ. Are we presenting Jesus faithfully and well in a winsome and welcoming way? If the answer is yes, the numbers are not going to be a problem."

The Presbytery of Shenango, which covers Mercer and Lawrence counties, has in the past two years agreed to dismiss 12 congregations that sought to join other denominations, according to the Rev. Ralph Hawkins, its executive presbyter. The losses came after the presbytery agreed to a policy of allowing departing congregations to keep their property if they left -- a lower hurdle than many presbyteries, which have sought some compensation for properties that under church law belong ultimately to the denomination.

But at least one congregation in Shenango voted recently to stay put in the larger denomination, and others have echoed the thought informally, seeking to maintain long-standing ties to each other, Rev. Hawkins said.

"People really appreciate their presbytery," he said, citing everything from personal relationships and mutual accountability to education programs and mission exchanges with Presbyterians in South Sudan. According to the latest denominational statistics, Shenango had 9,223 members in 2013, down 17 percent from the previous year, in 57 congregations.

"Those resources are all available to congregations, and those are worth sticking around for," Rev. Hawkins said. "We should not underestimate for many there is a sense of loyalty to a historic Presbyterian body even if there's a recognition that the ideological tone of that body has moderated."

The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) remains the largest trunk of Presbyterianism in the nation, with 1.76 million confirmed members, not including those baptized but not confirmed. But the membership declined by 89,296 in 2013 and by 102,791 in 2012 -- both rounding to about 5 percent decreases, the highest rate of losses in decades.

"Yes, the numbers reflect a decrease in active members in the denomination," said a statement from the Rev. Gradye Parsons, stated clerk of the General Assembly of the Louisville, Ky.-based denomination. "But the numbers also illustrate fewer losses than the previous year. ... We are meeting the challenges we have had, and it's showing. And, our decline in total congregations is holding fairly steady."

Statistics in other area presbyteries for 2013, compared to 2012, include:

• Washington (Washington and Greene counties): 7,737 members, down 16 percent, in 54 churches, down by eight.

• Beaver-Butler (covering those two counties): 9,613 members, down 17 percent, in 74 churches, down by eight.

• Kiskiminetas (including Armstrong, Clarion, Elk, Indiana and Jefferson counties): 8,726 members, down 4 percent, in 81 churches, same as in 2012.

• Redstone (Westmoreland, Fayette, Somerset and Cambria counties): 13,679, down 2 percent, in 78 churches, down by two.

• Upper Ohio Valley (parts of northern West Virginia and southeastern Ohio): 6,769, down 3 percent, in 85 churches, same as in 2012.