Monday, February 23, 2009

Eye-popping figures on SBC, RCC memberships released by National Council of Churches

The following press release from the National Council of Churches is one of the most significant religious developments this decade.  After bucking the trends that decimated other Christian bodies in the United States for the last 30 years, the Roman Catholic Church in the U.S. and the Southern Baptist Convention are both now posting numerical losses.

The source cited is one of the most reliable and authoritative information sources for church life today.

I will be writing more about this later, but I want my readers to see this breaking news now:

NCC's 2009 Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches
reports decline in Catholic, Southern Baptist membership

New York, February 23, 2009 -- The 77th annual edition of the Yearbook of American & Canadian Churches , long a highly regarded chronicler of growth and financial trends of religious institutions, records a slight but startling decline in membership of the nation's largest Christian communions.

Membership in the Roman Catholic Church declined 0.59 percent and the Southern Baptist Convention declined 0.24 percent, according to the 2009 edition of the Yearbook, edited by the National Council of Churches and published by Abingdon.

The figures indicate that the Catholic church lost 398,000 members since the appearance of the 2008 Yearbook. Southern Baptists lost nearly 40,000 members.

Both membership figures were compiled by the churches in 2007 and reported to the Yearbook in 2008. The 2009 Yearbook also includes an essay by the editor, the Rev. Dr. Eileen W. Lindner, on the various ways churches count their members.

Neither figure is earth-shattering given the size of the churches. Roman Catholics compose the nation's largest church with a membership of 67,117,016, and Southern Baptists rank second in the nation at 16,266,920.

But this year's reported decline raises eyebrows because Catholic and Southern Baptist membership has grown dependably over the years. Now they join virtually every mainline church in reporting a membership decline.

According to the 2009 Yearbook, among the 25 largest churches in the U.S., four are growing: the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (up 1.63 percent to 5,873,408; the Assemblies of God (up 0.96 percent to 2,863,265); Jehovah's Witnesses (up 2.12 percent to 1,092,169); and the Church of God of Cleveland, Tenn. (up 2.04 percent to 1,053,642).

There are no clear-cut theological or sociological reasons for church growth or decline, says Editor Lindner. "Many churches are feeling the impact of the lifestyles of younger generations of church-goers -- the 'Gen X'ers' or "Millenials' in their 20s and 30s who attend and support local congregations but resist joining them."

But former Southern Baptist President Frank Page told the Associated Press that the decline in his denomination was troubling because of the Southern Baptist emphasis on winning souls.

Page called on Southern Baptists to "recommit to a life of loving people and ministering to people without strings attached so people will be more open to hearing the Gospel message."

Lindner writes, "A slowing of the rate of growth of some churches and the decline of membership of others ought to be the focus of continued research and and thoughtful inquiry."

Churches listed in the Yearbook as experiencing the highest rate of membership loss are the United Church of Christ (down 6.01 percent), the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (down 3.01 percent), the Presbyterian Church (USA) (down 2.79 percent), the Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod (down 1.44 percent) and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (down 1.35 percent), American Baptist Churches USA, on the other hand, cut its previous decline rate of 1.82 percent in half, now reporting a decline of 0.94 percent.

Membership of the top 25 churches in the U.S. totals 146,663,972 -- down 0.49 percent from last year's total of 147,382,460.

The top 25 churches reported in the 2009 Yearbook are in order of size:
The Roman Catholic Church, 67,117,06 members, down 0.59 percent. (Ranked 1)
The Southern Baptist Convention, 16,266,920 members, down 0.24 percent. (Ranked 2)
The United Methodist Church, 7,931,733 members, down 0.80 percent. (Ranked 3)
The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 5,873,408 members, up 1.63 percent .(Ranked 4)
The Church of God in Christ, 5,499,875 members, no change reported. (Ranked 5)
National Baptist Convention, U.S.A., Inc., 5,000,000 members, no change reported. (Ranked 6)
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, 4,709,956 members, down 1.35 percent. (Ranked 7)
National Baptist Convention of America, Inc., 3,500,000 members, no change reported. (Ranked 8)
Presbyterian Church (USA), 2,941,412 members, down 2.79 percent (Ranked 9)
Assemblies of God, 2,863,265 members, up 0.96 percent. (Ranked 10)
African Methodist Episcopal Church, 2,500,000 members, no change reported. (Ranked 11)
National Missionary Baptist Convention of America, 2,500,000 members, no change reported. (Ranked 11)
Progressive National Baptist Convention, Inc., 2,500,000 members, no change reported. (Ranked 11)
The Lutheran Church - Missouri Synod (LCMS), 2,383,084 members, down 1.44 percent. (Ranked 14)
The Episcopal Church, 2,116,749 members, down 1.76 percent. (Ranked 15)
Churches of Christ, 1,639,495 members, no change reported. (Ranked 16)
Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America, 1,500,000 members, no change reported. (Ranked 17)
Pentecostal Assemblies of the World, Inc., 1,500,000 members, no change reported. (Ranked 17)
The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, 1,400,000 members, down 3.01 percent. (Ranked 19)
American Baptist Churches in the USA, 1,358,351, down 0.94 percent. (Ranked 20)
Baptist Bible Fellowship International, 1,200,000, no change reported. (Ranked 21)
United Church of Christ, 1,145,281 members, down 6.01 percent. (Ranked 22)
Jehovah's Witnesses, 1,092,169 members, up 2.12 percent (Ranked 23)
Christian Churches and Churches of Christ, 1,071,616 members, no change reported. (Ranked 24)
Church of God (Cleveland, Tenn.), 1,053,642 members, up 2.04 percent. (Ranked 25)

Friday, February 13, 2009

Trend toward hiding church-staff, church-bureaucracy salaries needs to be reversed

Churches, synagogues, and other religious institutions would do well to take note of the rising anger in the public over those huge salaries and bonuses big-name bankers and Wall Street brokers are making and take appropriate transparent action quickly.

Simmering below the surface is a salary issue that's been lurking and building in the religious community for decades.

Once upon a time everyone in most Protestant congregations knew the salaries of the pastor, staff members, and even denominational leaders. Not any more. Following a four-decade trend, hiding these salaries from the view of even the most involved congregants has become commonplace.

The move toward secrecy parallels the dramatic rise in church-staff and church-bureaucracy salaries. Except in isolated (mostly rural) situations, church workers today are paid commensurate with—sometimes better than—secular employees elsewhere.

Pastors, church staff, and church-bureaucracy staff certainly deserve to be paid adequately for their work. Most of the time they serve diligently and faithfully. No one I know or have read on this issue argues against that. The concern is with the secrecy that has evolved in trying to pay these employees fairly. 

As a child growing up in a Southern Baptist churches in Oklahoma City I was accustomed to the annual Wednesday Night Business Meeting discussion about how much the pastor should be paid. I just presumed that was how all churches behaved and would continue to act. Our pastor always made more than either of my parents or many other members of our church did. The discussions and tap-dancing that ensued were always fascinating to watch—probably a little uncomfortable for our well-educated, politically connected pastor but a good, clean, transparent airing of what otherwise would have been undercurrent gossip in the church.

My awakening that this wasn't the way all churches operated occurred in the early 1970s, after Kay and I moved to Houston and joined a large (now moderate) Southern Baptist church.  Noticeably absent in the church's annual report was a breakdown of staff salaries.  After the business session I politely approached the finance-committee chairperson and asked why that information was not in the printed budget I had received. His reply still rings in my ears: "If you want that information, you need to go ask the pastor for it. You'll have to present your reasons before he'll give it to you."  

My reply to that was, "So the fox is now guarding the hen-house door. How interesting!"

That episode alerted me to be on the look out for similar behaviors in other church setting. Sure enough the trend was emerging and building fast in many churches and denominations.

Southern Baptist Conservatives rode into power in the early 1990s proclaiming their concern about secret salaries and often said denominational bureaucracy salaries were too high.  Once in power, however, they quickly forgot that agenda. By 2005 the SBC Executive Committee, the power center of the denomination, was even fighting against some of its own trustees who claimed specific salary information was being withheld from them.

Camouflaging the issue is the fact that a few churches and denominational agencies continue to make salaries public. These handful are often cited by church officials as examples of openness in order to cover up the wider trend. 

Also confusing the issue is the fact that church "salaries" are often not the full picture of what a church employee is really paid. Few lay people today truly understand the parsonage-allowance concept and how it can protect as much as half a pastor's salary from taxes and public scrutiny. Just as with those highly paid Wall Street bankers and corporate executives, church and denominational salaries need to be understood in the context of the whole "salary package"—bonuses, housing allowance, tax subsidies, benefits, and so forth.

So, are some church officials' salaries in the league with those corporate executives whose salary packages are drawing fire today? No one can say for sure, since secrecy continues to rule the day in far too many congregations and denominational agencies.

Transparency, openness, and honesty are hallmarks of earlier church times that are just as needed today as they were then—maybe even more so given the current economic crisis and concern about "salaries" that have grown too large for the average person to comprehend.