Hundreds of congregations and clergy have left mainline Protestant denominations since 2000.
In 2009 the ELCA and in 2011 the PCUSA adopted policies allowing ordination of gay clergy. Research reported at the Religious Research Association conference in Indianapolis this past October looked at the recent exodus of conservatives from the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, the ELCA, and the Presbyterian Church (USA), or PCUSA. This writer, assisted by John Augustine, Brooke Hamer and Brian Hansen, reported on a study using over thirty telephone interviews with clergy who left either the ELCA or PCUSA and a mail survey of forty-nine former ELCA ministers.
A major trigger for leaving was the change in clergy sexuality policy. The deeper causes and context of leaving involved mutual accusations of heresy and cultural polarization percolating in these religious bodies. Conservatives who left cited liberal heresy, illegitimate understandings of sacred scriptures, diminished moral authority and loss of control over denominational policies.
Conservative clergy developed a subculture and networks that bridged between those who already left and conservatives still in the ELCA or PCUSA who were thinking of leaving. Social networks and a sense of crisis shared with other conservatives set the stage for this schism. Alternative denominations perceived to be a better fit were available. The attractions of leaving won out over any obstacles along the way. Focusing on the Presbyterians [see September 2013 RW for more on the ELCA schisms], one choice for those who left the PCUSA was the more orthodox Evangelical Presbyterian Church, with stronger ties to Presbyterian and Reformed heritage and creeds.
Those joining the Evangelical Convenant Order of Presbyterians found a denomination moving closer to evangelical identity in many congregations with somewhat less emphasis on creeds and faith heritage. All of them ordain women, although the Evangelical Presbyterian Church permits congregations to call only male pastors. The prohibition on female clergy was the major reason these congregations and leaders, with only a few exceptions, did not consider affiliation with some longer existing conservative denominations such as the Presbyterian Church in America.
Statistics about congregations that left the PCUSA were presented by Joelle Kopacz of the PCUSA research office representing her collaborators Jack Marcum and Ida Smith.
Since 2006 over four hundred congregations left the PCUSA. And since 2010, almost 90 percent of PCUSA congregations that left joined either the Evangelical Presbyterian Church, EPC, or Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians, ECO; 251 left for the EPC and 99 for ECO. More have joined these denominations since they left the PCUSA. Regionally, losses were greatest in the mid-South, the West and Pennsylvania.
The PCUSA experienced just over one percent loss of revenue to the denomination from congregations that left in 2012 (-1.6 percent) and 2013 (-1.2 percent). Congregations that left the PCUSA were sending less than average in contributions to the denomination so financial damage from lost revenue was relatively minor. In 2015 and beyond, eyes will be on how the presbyteries vote on redefining marriage from one man and one woman to two people without gender being specified in official PCUSA policy.
By Wayne Thompson, professor of sociology at Carthage College.