BCA Discusses Declining Membership Strategies

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

Eastern districts.


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

$151.64.


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

the BCA.”


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

increased 53%.


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.”


‘Practical Buddhism’


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

stress?’


“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

potential members.”


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

members.


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

panel.


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.


OCBC’s ‘Keyholes’


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

courses.


“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.”

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