Declining membership, dwindling finances likely to top church agenda

by Shelton on August 18th, 2012

filed under Finances


Postmedia News

Debates about church policy on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the controversial Northern Gateway pipeline will likely attract most of the media attention. But delegates to the United Church of Canada’s 41st general council, which opens Saturday in Ottawa, have a more pressing issue to confront: the future of their church.

Like all main line churches in Canada, the 87-year-old United Church — Canada’s largest Protestant denomination — is facing multiple challenges.

It has far fewer people in its pews than it once did. Since peaking at more than one million in 1965, membership has fallen by nearly half. The declines have been even steeper for Sunday school enrolment — down about 90 per cent since 1961 — baptisms and professions of faith.

Those who do come to church are predominantly older. Among the nearly 7,500 church members who responded to a major identity study last year, the average age was 65.

The church’s 1,970 ordained ministry personnel are also aging. As of April 2011, their average age was 56. Just six (0.3 per cent) were under age 30.

In a country in which most people live in large cities, more than 50 per cent of the church’s congregations and 30 per cent of its members reside in communities of less than 2,000. Another 23 per cent of congregations and 26 per cent of members live in communities with populations between 2,000 and 30,000.

It’s hardly surprising, then, that the church’s finances are dire. It currently spends more than it takes in, and many, if not most, congregations are struggling to pay their bills. It has already had to close churches and lay off staff, and more hard decisions lie ahead.

Yet in an interview with the Citizen this week, Mardi Tindal, the United Church’s outgoing moderator, declared that she’s “more hopeful about the future of the church than I’ve ever been.”

Faith fuels part of Tindal’s optimism. “It’s important that we, as followers of Christ, trust in God’s abundance,” she says.

She’s encouraged by more tangible things, as well. For example, this triennial gathering of the general council includes an “extraordinary number” of delegates — known as commissioners — under age 30, she says.

It has also attracted a record 15 candidates seeking to succeed Tindal as moderator. “This is a sign of abundant leadership in the church,” she says. The general council will elect the new moderator Thursday.

(One candidate is Rev. Tom Sherwood of Ottawa. From 1999 to 2009, he was ecumenical chaplain at Carleton University, where he has taught for three decades. In 2009, the United Church appointed him McGeachy Senior Scholar and commissioned research into the religiosity, spirituality and values of Canadians born in the 1980s.)

Tindal has also been deeply impressed by the young ministers the church has been able to recruit. “Even in small numbers, they’re making quite an impact.”

And while there are fewer people in the pews, those who do come to church “are there because they are taking their spiritual lives very seriously,” Tindal says. That wasn’t always the case in the 1950s and 1960s, when going to church was the thing to do. It’s that depth of faithfulness, more than anything else, that gives Tindal hope for the church’s future.

Despite her upbeat assessment, there’s little doubt the United Church is facing an existential crisis. Its dimensions are catalogued by a “State of the Church” report prepared by the church’s general secretary, Nora Sanders, and distributed to all general council commissioners.

The financial challenges are most pressing. Though contributions to the Mission and Service Fund — which supports the central church’s activities — remained constant at about $30 million a year from the mid-1980s to 2009, inflation has eroded the fund’s purchasing power by about half.

Moreover, contributions have fallen in the past couple of years. “We can no longer rely on Mission and Service donations, since giving patterns to this fund are in flux,” the State of the Church report says.

That has already resulted in significant staff reductions at the General Council office in Toronto as well as cuts to grants and programs. Since the General Council is the major funder of the United Church’s 13 Conferences and outreach ministries, “future reductions will affect all parts of the church as we know it today,” the report warns.

To date, the church has been able to supplement Mission and Service income by drawing from the church’s assets. But, says the report, “this practice cannot be continued in the long term without injecting significant new resources into the church’s reserves.”

In view of the deteriorating balance sheet, church closures and amalgamations are inevitable. “Letting go of treasured buildings and all that they represent of our past life is a painful part of our transformation as a church,” the report says.

“At this point, the minor tinkering that could be done has been done. A good hard look at our structures is needed to determine the scale of our work that is appropriate — and possible — in our future.”

A finance report to delegates underlines the challenge ahead. It says the United Church will have depleted its available financial reserves by 2014 and will need to implement “substantive changes. We recommend that commissioners carefully evaluate both the short-term and long-term affordability of each proposal being considered.”

Amid the gloom, though, there are glimmers of light. As overall contributions to the Mission and Service Fund have declined, the amount donated per person has risen. And contributions to congregations have been stronger than those for the Mission and Service Fund.

Tindal finds hope in the fact that the church’s financial crisis won’t hit full bore until 2014, because that provides time to make the necessary adjustments. She’s confident the church is up to the task.

“The church at large has now recognized that the status quo is not an option,” Tindal says. “We are an adaptive church. That is one of our great strengths.”

Sanders observes that members are guided by scriptures that have been around for thousands of years. “The way that we worship, the formats, the institutions have changed many, many times over that time,” she says. “And we’re in one of those times of change.

“I think it’s time for us to think and pray about what’s most important to us. In our lives we can’t do everything or have everything, and in our church, we can’t either.”

Some changes will directly affect worshippers. More churches will sold, with money invested to generate a stream of income that can support the development of new forms of ministry. More congregations will share worship space, sometimes with people of other faiths.

To service rural churches, the Ottawa general council will look at a back-to-the-future circuit rider model, with one minister serving several different congregations. Some of the 130 different proposals the commissioners will consider involving giving lay members a greater role.

“This is not about diminishing the importance of an educated, well-prepared clergy,” Tindal says. “But there are some things that lay people need to be empowered to do as well.” With training, they can even be lay worship leaders, she says, filling in while the minister is leading services at other churches.

Sanders concedes that the State of the Church report, at first blush, “could seem pretty discouraging. But once you absorb that, and you realize that change is going to happen — it’s not a choice — that frees you up to start thinking what changes might be wonderful.”


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