Updated: Dec 27, 2020
“What every temple has to do is find what’s going to work for you. Find out
what’s important for the growth of your temple and find that balance — the
balance with your existing Sangha and bringing in the potential members.”
BCA President-Elect Terri Omori of the Vista Buddhist Temple
For the first time in its history, the BCA Executive Committee devoted an
entire meeting on the elephant-in-the-room issue of declining membership
at its temples and churches — and heard several presentations on
strategies aimed at reversing the trend. And while Bishop Rev. Marvin Harada emphasized the BCA has “got to address this membership decline issue first” by tackling it “head-on,” he expressed optimism about increasing membership.
"As the new Bishop, it is my goal to turn this curve around during my term
of office — but it’s going to take the effort of all of us, ministers, leaders and
members,” Rev. Harada said, noting that the BCA is looking at
implementing the effort in the post-pandemic period. “Let’s make Shin
Buddhism a thriving Buddhist tradition in this country for decades to come.”
The Buddhist Churches of America’s membership woes are in line with the
national trend affecting other, larger religions, including Protestants and
Catholics, according to the Pew Research Center. Since 2010, Protestants
have declined 16% and Catholics by 13%.
However, the BCA’s problems are more pronounced. From 2010 to 2020, it
has seen a 28% decline in membership, from 16,994 members to the
current 12,200. Over that same time, the BCA’s total budget has increased
29%, from $1.43 million to $1.85 million.
And, in Japan, with the Nishi Hongwanji in Kyoto, the situation is more dire,
according to Rev. Harada. Of its 10,000 temples, fully one-third may be
shuttered in the next decade, he said.
Issue Takes Center Stage
The Buddhist Church of America’s membership concerns took center stage
at a Nov. 22 BCA Executive Committee Zoom meeting, which was
attended by about 90 people.
The wide-ranging discussion, strategies, and recommendations included
presentations from: Vice President Glenn Inanaga of the Orange County
Buddhist Church; President-Elect Terri Omori of the Vista Buddhist Temple;
Spokane Buddhist Temple President Celeste Sterrett and Minister’s
Assistant Amanda Goodwin; Berkeley Buddhist Temple President Bradley
Menda; and Rev. Jon Turner of the Orange County Buddhist Church.
“It (membership) is the foundation of the BCA, as sensei (Rev. Harada)
said,” said Inanaga, who presented the membership metrics in PowerPoint.
“It supports our temples, it determines our dues and it is a measurement of
our success. And, finally, it is a key performance indicator much like any
other business or any other charitable organization, which should be
monitored and measured constantly.”
Inanaga said membership is a BCA national issue because the impact is
being felt by all of the BCA districts, ranging from a 0% percent reduction in
membership in the Northern California District and a 2% drop in the
Southern District to a 21% decline for both the Central California and the
Consequently, BCA assessment per member has risen by 80% over the
past decade compared with a 19% increase in inflation, reflected in the
Consumer Price Index, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.
The average BCA membership assessment was $84.13 in 2010; it’s now
He also noted that the BCA membership assessment makes up 71% of the
entire budget. Fundraising is at 4% and other income is at 6%.
“I’m sad to say that at 71%, we really are addicted to assessment,” Inanaga
said. “By that, I mean the revenue of the BCA, the lifeblood of the
organization, is primarily dependent on how much we can collect in terms
of the assessment. So if membership goes down, that is a serious issue for
Inanaga pointed out a potential area for the BCA to add to its membership
lies in the substantial number of Americans who are unaffiliated with any
religion. Since 2010, the percentage of Americans who are unaffiliated has
Inanaga’s list of recommendations included:
- increasing membership, to decrease the assessment;
- propagation and education by focusing on unaffiliated people and
prioritize making Buddhist education available to this group; and
- diversifying revenue sources to ease the burden on the
membership assessment to fund the budget.
Rev. Harada stated the need to set realistic goals to increase membership.
For example, he said, small temples might set a goal of gaining 10 new
members; medium-sized temples might try to get 30 new members; and
large temples, 50 new members.
At the same time, Rev. Harada noted his challenge as a minister — and a
potential obstacle to gaining new members — is “to give a message that
people want to listen to and want to come to the temple to hear.”
He spoke about “practical Buddhism” versus “truth level Buddhism,” which
he said that Shinran Shonin, and all the great Buddhist teachers, have
based their writings and teachings on.
“But to me, the average person is looking to Buddhism for more of a
practical level with questions like — ‘How can I apply Buddhism to my
everyday life? How can I find a sense of peace and tranquility in Buddhism
through these turbulent times we live in? Will Buddhism help me ease my
“So, if we’re not careful, there can be this disconnect, this big gap between
what people want to hear and what we ministers are relating,” he
continued. “We have to make that connection somehow.”
Rev. Harada emphasized his goal was not to present a form of “Lite
Buddhism” like “Lite Beer,” or oversimplifying Buddhism. “We need to
emphasize this ‘practical Buddhism’ — I think we need strong Buddhist
education programs, we need to be warm, welcoming and inclusive
Sanghas,” he said.
In discussing the Vista Buddhist Temple, Omori noted the temple has more
than doubled from a low of about 55 members to the current 115 Sangha
members in the past dozen years. She said the temple has succeeded
through a variety of means and programs, and emphasized being visible in
the community — through the Vista temple website; its taiko group that acts
as an ambassador in the community, and through workshop classes such
as how to make sushi; meditation services; a Dharma recovery group for
addictions; and new member orientation events.
Omori said what works for Vista is that the temple knows who is inquiring
and what they want. She said two-thirds of the individuals are 50 years and
older or recently retired and many are single and wanting to learn about
Buddhism. She also noted that Vista has made Buddhist education a
priority and has formed a Buddhist education committee.
“What every temple has to do is find what’s going to work for you,” Omori
said. “Find out what’s important for the growth of your temple and find that
balance — the balance with your existing Sangha and bringing in the
Spokane Redefines Itself
Sterrett spoke about how the Spokane Buddhist Temple has had to adjust
and redefine itself repeatedly over the years with the concurrent changes in
the community and demographics. In 1994, she said, the temple had 64
members — and all but three were Japanese or Japanese American.
Today, those figures have essentially flipped, with a predominately White
Sangha and only about 10 to 12 Nikkei out of more than 50 Sangha
Goodwin described how she was attracted to the Spokane temple four
years ago from a desire to learn more about meditation — and her heartfelt
experiences in listening to a Dharma message and chanting in the Hondo
for the first time. And she told how her involvement has grown to the point
where she’s now a Minister’s Assistant.
“The more I learn about Buddhism, the more I understand, the more I truly
appreciate the life that I’ve been given and my days are filled with so much
gratitude,” Goodwin said. “My life is completely different than before.”
In his presentation, Menda spoke about the need of the Berkeley Buddhist
Temple to get involved with external communities, beyond the Sangha and
the Hondo, and also by giving back to the greater community through food
and clothing drives.
“We feel that the next step in community outreach is truly embracing our
communities,” Menda said. “We ask ourselves questions like — ‘How can
we truly blend our temple community and culture with that of our
surrounding neighbors.” Menda said the temple has formed a BLEND
Committee, which stands for Buddhists Living in Equality and Non-
Discrimination, a phrase coined by IBS President and former BBT minister
Rev. Dr. David Matsumoto.
Examples of the BLEND Committee’s accomplishments have included
workshops on implicit bias, Black Lives Matter, LBGTQ+ issues, a
Transgender Day of Remembrance and the temple’s annual interfaith
Menda pointed out that even during the pandemic the BBT has gained two
new members — from the East Coast and the Mountain states region —
because, in part, of the temple’s online efforts and programs.
Rev. Turner discussed “keyholes” that have encouraged and enticed
individuals to join the OCBC. These “keyholes,” according to Rev. Turner,
include meditation services, Buddhist education courses and adult study
“At OCBC, we try to teach — and preach,” he said. “We’re not doing any of
these things in place of — everything is additive. So, meditation service
does not take the place of saying, ‘Namo Amida Butsu.’
Rev. Turner cautioned that “none of these things are a magic silver bullet. If
you offer meditation service, it won’t suddenly double your membership at
your temple. But meditation service, Buddhist education classes, adult
study courses, if you stick with it, you will begin to build a following. And if
you do all these things, they are mutually reinforcing and they begin to
have a multiplier effect.”