The Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) is a theologically liberal, US-based Protestant Christian denomination that claims 1.4 million members and 9,300 congregations. 1
PCUSA shares a common background with its theologically conservative counterpart, Presbyterian Church of America (PCA). PCA was created in 1973 when 260 conservative Presbyterian churches left the more liberal Presbyterian Church in the United States over theological and organizational disputes. 2 3 4
The PCUSA takes more theologically liberal positions on matters such as the ordination of women, abortion, immigration, homosexuality, same-sex marriage, and the role of tradition in the church. 5
Presbyterianism, which arose during the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, was among the earliest denominations active in the Americas. 6 However, many divisions and schisms in the ensuing centuries led to a wide variety of Presbyterian denominations. In 1973, concerns over theological and social liberalism resulted in the creation of the more traditionalist-conservative Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), whose leaders said that they could not remain in the “position of being submissive to a tolerant and erring majority.” 7
In 1983, the Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA) was established with the merger of the Presbyterian Church in the United States (PCUS) and the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (UPCUSA). 8 Upon the merger, the new PCUSA claimed 3.2 million members and 12,000 churches. 9
Theology and Ideology
While Presbyterians are theologically and politically diverse, the PCUSA falls on the theologically and politically liberal end of the spectrum. As one Presbyterian leader said in 1983, the merger would result in a denomination “generally liberal in its stance.” 10
While a 2014 Pew Research Center survey indicated members of the Presbyterian Church USA lean somewhat conservative (40 percent) over moderate (36 percent) and liberal (22 percent), their social views are markedly more liberal. Sixty-five percent of PCUSA members believe abortion should be legal in most or all cases. The same percentage of PCUSA members believe homosexuality should be accepted. Fifty-seven percent favor same sex marriage and 56 percent favor more environmental regulations. 11
A 2008 study indicated that the leadership of the PCUSA is significantly more liberal than the membership. Fifty-two percent of PCUSA clergy identify as liberal, 16 percent as moderate, and only 32 percent as conservative. 12
PCUSA has been in a long-term decline since its membership high of 1983 after the mergers. In 2005, active membership in the Presbyterian Church USA had declined by 900,000 to 2.3 million members across 10,959 churches. 13 While it remains the largest Presbyterian denomination, membership had declined to a claimed 1.35 million members and 9,161 churches as of 2018. 14
Despite its theological and political teachings, PCUSA acknowledges the lack of consensus among its churches on issues of same-sex marriage and transgender issues. As a result, the PCUSA determined that ordaining bodies “are permitted but not required to ordain lesbian, gay, bisexual, or transgender persons,” and that pastors and congregations are “permitted but not required” to conduct same-sex weddings. 15
The Presbyterian Church USA takes an active, engaged stance on advocacy work. The first General Convention of the newly-formed PCUSA adopted a report stating that the far-left political movement of Liberation Theology was “the most exciting contemporary movement to relate politics to faith,” highlighting the radical-left Sandinistas and Marxists in Latin America. The report said, “Reformed Christians are called…to be politically active,” and recommended that the church “Affirm coalitions of individuals to lobby for social justice issues and causes and call on the governing bodies of the church to take public policy stands on such issues.” 16
At the corporate level, the Presbyterian Church USA engages in political advocacy on a wide variety of issues. In 2008, the PCUSA passed a resolution calling for felons to get the right to vote, congressional representation for Washington, D.C., campaign finance and election-speech restrictions, public financing of elections, and the elimination of the Electoral College. 17
Leadership of the Presbyterian Church USA has advocated on a variety of political issues. It has opposed President Donald Trump’s restrictionist asylum and immigration policies, his decision to officially recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel and to place the US Embassy there, and his withdrawal from the “Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action” deal negotiated between the Obama administration and the Islamic Republic of Iran. PCUSA also formally supports gun control. 18 19 20 21
The Presbyterian Church USA is governed in the traditional Presbyterian manner, with congregations electing leaders known as the Session to run church programs and operations and to represent the congregation to the Presbytery, a union of congregations in a geographic area. Leaders also have responsibility for calling, ordaining, and oversight of ministers. The Presbytery then elects leaders to represent it to the Synod (a group of Presbyteries in a given region), which oversees the Presbyteries in its region, and at the General Assembly, which is made up of ministers and elders who are elected by the Presbyteries. The General Assembly meets every two years to develop church-wide goals, adjudicate issues within the church, and elect a Stated Clerk to lead the organization. 22 23
In 2016, the Presbyterian Church USA General Assembly elected the Reverend Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, II as Stated Clerk. Nelson is the first African American to lead the Presbyterian Church. Previously, the Nelson was an associate director at the Benjamin L. Hooks Institute for Social Change at the University of Memphis. 24 He also led the PCUSA’s Office of Public Witness in Washington, D.C., which serves as the organization’s national public policy office. Nelson’s family is steeped in Presbyterian ministry, from his grandfather, father, and two uncles who were pastors to his wife, who is also a pastor. 25
As a church, the Presbyterian Church USA has no legal obligation to file tax returns with the IRS. However, PCUSA does publish general financial data in annual Denominational Statistics reports. 26
In 2017, PCUSA received total revenue of $2.45 billion, with $1.57 billion of that coming from member contributions. Most of the PCUSA’s expenses went to local programming, with capital expenditures and local missions the organization’s second and third-highest expense categories, respectively. 27 Revenue and contributions have been in a long-term decline. In 2005, PCUSA revenue was $3.1 billion, with $2.1 billion of that coming from member contributions. 28
- Presbyterian Historical Society, History of the Church, Accessed April 17, 2020. https://www.history.pcusa.org/history-online/presbyterian-history/history-church
- Presbyterian Church in America, About the PCA, History, Accessed April 18, 2020. https://pcanet.org/about-the-pca-2-3/
- Westminster Presbyterian Church, The Presbyterian Church in America (PCA) and the Presbyterian Church, U. S. A. (PCUSA), Accessed April 18, 2020. https://www.westpca.com/pca-different-from-pcusa
- Tobin Grant, “What catalyst started the Presbyterian Church in America? Racism”, June 30, 2016. Accessed April 18, 2020.
- Joe Carter, “How to Tell the Difference Between the PCA and PCUSA,” June 23, 2014. Accessed April 18, 2020.
- Presbyterian Church USA, Timeline of Presbyterian History, Accessed April 18, 2020.
- Presbyterian Church of America, Message to All Churches, Accessed April 18, 2020. http://www.pcahistory.org/documents/message.pdf
- Association of Religious Data Archives, Merger of UPCUSA and PCUS, Accessed April 17, 2020.
- Austin, Charles, “NORTH-SOUTH RIFT OF PRESBYTERIANS HEALED BY MERGER,” June 11, 1983. Accessed April 20, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/1983/06/11/us/north-south-rift-of-presbyterians-healed-by-merger.html
- Austin, Charles, “NORTH-SOUTH RIFT OF PRESBYTERIANS HEALED BY MERGER,” June 11, 1983. Accessed April 19, 2020. https://www.nytimes.com/1983/06/11/us/north-south-rift-of-presbyterians-healed-by-merger.html
- Pew Research Center, 2014 Religious Landscape Study, Accessed April 20, 2020. https://www.pewforum.org/religious-landscape-study/religious-denomination/presbyterian-church-usa/#social-and-political-views
- Public Religious Research, 2008 Clergy Voices Survey, Accessed April 20, 2020.
- Presbyterian Church USA, 2008 Summary of Statistics, Accessed April 18, 2020.
- Presbyterian Church USA, 2018 Comparative Summary of Statistics, Accessed April 18, 2020. https://www.pcusa.org/site_media/media/uploads/oga/pdf/statistics/2018_comparative_summaries_of_statistics_v4_6-19-19.pdf
- Presbyterian Mission, What We Believe: Sexuality and Same-Gender Relationships, Accessed April 20, 2020. https://www.presbyterianmission.org/what-we-believe/sexuality-and-same-gender-relationships/
- General Assembly of Presbyterian Church (USA), “Reformed faith and politics,” 1983. Accessed April 20, 2020. https://www.presbyterianmission.org/wp-content/uploads/2-reformed_faith_and_politics-1983.pdf
- Presbyterian Mission, “Democracy, Voting Rights, and Electoral Reform”, Accessed April 20, 2020. https://www.presbyterianmission.org/wp-content/uploads/votingrights1.pdf
- Office of the Stated Clerk, “Stated Clerk calls for end to the sale of assault weapons following mass shooting in Pittsburgh,” October 30, 2018. Accessed April 20, 2020. https://www.pcusa.org/news/2018/10/30/stated-clerk-calls-end-sale-assault-weapons-follow/
- Office of the General Assembly, “Stated Clerk issues statement in response to President Trump’s decision to withdraw from Iran nuclear agreement,” May 09, 2018. Accessed April 20, 2020.
- Presbyterian Church USA, “Stated Clerk joins amicus brief opposing Trump’s travel ban,” April 6, 2018. Accessed April 20, 2020.
- Jerry Van Marter, “Stated Clerk issues statement on Trump’s decision to recognize Jerusalem as capital of Israel,” December 06, 2017, Accessed April 20, 2020. https://www.pcusa.org/news/2017/12/6/stated-clerk-issues-statement-trumps-decision-reco/
- Presbyterian Church USA, PC(USA) Structure and Governing Bodies, Accessed April 20, 2020.
- Presbyterian Church USA, Office of the General Assembly, Accessed April 20, 2020. http://oga.pcusa.org/section/ga/ga/?page=9
- Presbyterian Church USA, Stated Clerk, Biography, Accessed April 20, 2020.
- Presbyterian Church USA, Press Release, “In historic vote, PC(USA) elects J. Herbert Nelson denomination’s top ecclesiastical officer,” June 24, 2016. Accessed April 20, 2020. https://www.presbyterianmission.org/story/historic-vote-pcusa-elects-j-herbert-nelson-denominations-top-ecclesiastical-officer/
- Presbyterian Church USA, Denominational Statistics, Accessed April 18, 2018. https://oga.pcusa.org/section/churchwide-ministries/stats/denominational-statistics/
- Presbyterian Church USA, 2017 Summary of Statistics, Accessed April 18, 2020. https://www.pcusa.org/site_media/media/uploads/oga/pdf/statistics/2017_comparative_summaries.pdf
- Presbyterian Church USA, 2008 Summary of Statistics, Accessed April 18, 2020. https://www.pcusa.org/site_media/media/uploads/oga/pdf/2008-comp-sum.pdf