UCC loses 551 churches and a whopping 286,000 members

2023 United Church of Christ General Synod
2023 United Church of Christ General Synod |

The United Church of Christ (UCC), a mainline Protestant denomination known for its progressive stance on social issues, faces a significant decline in membership according to a recent report by the UCC Center for Analytics. From 2012 to 2022, the denomination lost over 286,000 members and 551 congregations, marking a continuing trend over several decades.

Six decades have seen a dramatic decline in UCC membership, with numbers plummeting from over 2.24 million in 1960 to just 712,000 in 2022. This decline is partially attributed to a 2005 resolution supporting same-sex marriage, which caused some congregations to leave the UCC.

The recent increase in church closures reported by the UCC might not paint the whole picture. The report itself acknowledges a new policy implemented in 2022 that automatically removes inactive churches from records after two years. This might explain the jump compared to previous years. Future data will show if this policy stabilizes the numbers or if there's an underlying decline.

However, the report also highlights a longer-term trend of membership and congregation decline, particularly around 2005-2007. Back then, the UCC's stance on same-sex marriage played a significant role, leading to an average closure rate of “almost three congregations per week.”

Despite the shrinking numbers, the UCC points to some silver linings. Smaller congregations, according to the statement by CARDD Director Erica Dollhopf, tend to have higher volunteer engagement and attendance, highlighting their close-knit communities.

She said, “the smallest churches by membership size tend to have the most people attending in-person worship relative to membership. While not everyone who attends worship is necessarily a church member, this calculation is another way to approximate engagement, which generally is highest within smaller churches.”

The Great Lakes region, encompassing states such as Wisconsin, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia, has the highest percentage of United Church of Christ (UCC) members at 30.6%.

Following closely is the Mid-Atlantic region, with 20% of UCC members, and the New England region in third place, comprising 19.7% of the denomination's members. In contrast, the Western region, extending from the West Coast to states like Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, and Wyoming, has a lower proportion, accounting for only 9.4% of members and 13.1% of congregations.

Additionally, the recent election of Rev. Karen Georgia Thompson as the first female president and general minister has brought renewed hope and excitement.

In her nomination speech, Thompson emphasized the UCC's resilience and the ongoing spirit of progress. "Here is where we have seen the Spirit of God poured forth among us in many ways," she said, "And here is the place we identify as now, as we ponder the call of God to be salt and light to the world."

The report also delves into the denomination's demographics, revealing a predominantly white membership (83.1%). The Great Lakes region holds the highest concentration of UCC members, followed by the Mid-Atlantic and New England regions. The Western region, despite its geographic size, has the smallest percentage of members and congregations.

While the UCC grapples with declining membership, the new leadership seeks to navigate the challenges and continue the denomination's legacy of social justice and inclusivity. The report's findings offer valuable insights into the church's current state, providing a platform for informed discussions and potential strategies for future growth.