PCUSA considers ditching major General Assembly gatherings over financial woes, membership decline

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The Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) holds its biennial meeting in Detroit, Michigan, June 14-21, 2014. |

Presbyterian Church USA announced Monday that it might have to limit or even end its tradition of holding a biennial General Assembly as a mass gathering due to financial woes and declining membership.

The Rev. J. Herbert Nelson II, stated clerk of the PCUSA General Assembly, said future general assemblies will not likely resemble past ones in terms of scale.

In a video posted on the PCUSA’s website Monday, Nelson said the denomination "cannot continue” to hold what he called “the big tent General Assembly” in which “we have people from all over coming in and spending six, seven, eight days at a general assembly and utilizing that in a big arena.”

Nelson attributed the reduction in future General Assembly events to financial woes tied to the mainline Protestant denomination's considerable membership decline over the past several years.

“That is happening, basically, because we are at a place financially with the drying up of per capita as it is and the whole system is strained with regards to the fallout in the denomination with membership loss which actually came from people leaving,” said Nelson.

“Dealing with the issue that we are not a denomination right now ... that can afford the kinds of things that we have been doing.”

Herbert Nelson
The Rev. J. Herbert Nelson II, stated clerk of the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.), gives remarks in a video posted on social media on June 8, 2020. |

Nelson clarified that “this does not necessarily mean we stop doing anything,” but added that “we have to find new ways of adjusting to” the current situation for PCUSA.

“And I think that’s a good thing for the denomination because it helps us to be more creative,” he continued. “It helps us to look at what it really means to be a Church. And as far as the General Assembly is concerned, it helps to remind us that, quite frankly, we are way ahead of the game in terms of the issues of policy and the ability to go out and make a difference in the life of the world.” 

PCUSA has seen a dramatic loss in both members and member congregations, partly over many leaving the denomination over its theological positions.

In 2000, the denomination had approximately 2.5 million members; by 2019 that number had dropped to a little over 1.3 million members or about half of what it was before.

One factor in the decline has been the denomination’s stance on LGBT issues, such as allowing regional bodies to ordain openly gay individuals and recognize same-sex marriages.

These and other legislative actions have prompted hundreds of congregations to leave PCUSA in protest, with them joining more theologically conservative Presbyterian denominations.   

Last month, PCUSA decided to cancel its 2021 Big Tent gathering due to a combination of budget issues and concerns over the possible impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Held every other year since 2009 and separate from the General Assembly, the Big Tent gathering involved a mixture of speakers, workshops, and other non-legislative matters.

“While I will miss Big Tent, there is one opportunity that remains,” said the Rev. Diane Moffett, head of the Presbyterian Mission Agency, in a statement released in July. “The opportunity is that we can be the church in this moment, actively engaging the world so that it wakes up to the new possibilities in Christ."

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