New Study Planned on BCA Membership

A member of the Salt Lake Buddhist Temple will be conducting a comprehensive study to explore the BCA’s troubling membership issues — with hopes of coming up with recommendations on how to grow the Sangha and retain members.


Daehyeon (Dae) Kim is an organizational and social psychologist who is a Ph.D. candidate studying organizational behavior at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri. Kim was introduced at the Dec. 4 BCA National Board meeting by Bishop Rev. Marvin Harada. The Bishop was introduced to Kim by Salt Lake Resident Minister Rev. Jerry Hirano, who asked Kim if he’d be interested in doing a research project on a nonprofit organization such as the BCA.


“He indicated that – ‘Yes’ – he would be very willing and interested,” Rev. Harada said. “Several of us have met with Dae and are very impressed with him.”


In November 2020, the BCA Executive Committee held a meeting to take a hard look at the BCA’s declining membership. From 2010 to 2020, the BCA has seen a 28 percent decline in membership from nearly 17,000 members to the current 12,200. Over the same time, the BCA’s total budget has increased 29 percent from $1.43 million to $1.85 million. (“BCA Discusses Its Declining Membership, Strategies,” Wheel of Dharma, December 2020)


In holding initial meetings with BCA leaders and with other members about membership concerns, Kim concluded, “We have a crisis in terms of the membership.”


In his PowerPoint presentation, Kim laid out the focus of his study.

“So the first question is, ‘How can we increase the membership of non-Japanese Americans? And are there any factors that might be hindering non-Japanese Americans from joining our temples?”

He noted that Zen Buddhist temples have a lot of non-Japanese American members. “So this indicates that Buddhism has potential in the United States — but why Zen? Why not us?” Kim said. “What makes us not grow and what makes a place where non-Japanese Americans feel that they cannot join — if that is the case. These are two other research questions that I will try to find answers to during my collaboration with the BCA.”


Kim said there’s nothing wrong with having predominantly Japanese American Sangha members in BCA temples and churches. But he also spoke about the inherent risks, given the demographics and overall aging of the Japanese American population.


“The Jodo Shinshu Buddhist temples have served as cultural centers for Japanese Americans so they can maintain their cultural heritage and cultural identity,” he said. “There is a beauty in that and our temples have served this role.


“However, when it comes to the future of the BCA, we need to think about increasing the number of non-Japanese American members because otherwise the Dharma that we love might not exist in the United States.”


He said that conducting research can help in several ways, including: interviews; case studies comparing the cultures of two similar sized BCA temples and churches; a survey of BCA members; and field experiments.


Kim said one issue he discovered is that many young Sangha members don’t come back to temples or churches once they graduate from high school or college. He added that many other religious organizations are facing the same problem with young people.


He noted that most of the BCA temples and churches are on the West Coast, and primarily in California — which creates a geographic obstacle for many students who move away from the West Coast to attend colleges and universities.


“I’m currently in St. Louis, but there’s no close temple nearby,” he said. “So, I have been out of the Sangha for about four years.”

Kim emphasized that all BCA Sangha members, friends and supporters who take part in the study would be assured of confidentiality and would not be identified. He signed a non-disclosure agreement with the BCA to legally protect the confidentiality of anyone who takes part in the study.


“I think the study has been valuable to address many of the concerns that BCA leadership has in its membership,” said BCA Vice President Steven Terusaki of the Buddhist Church of Oakland in the subsequent question-and-answer session.


“Because of the pandemic, we’re in a very unique time of the BCA. and the approach to address embedded cultures in local temples may not be representative right now of what the past situation has been among local Sanghas,” Terusaki continued, calling for a need for “a different perspective” with Kim’s study.


Terusaki also pointed out the need “to address the current success of our online work and our online efforts to promote the Dharma.


“Taken together, with some level of understanding the current parameters of how temples are reopening, might give us some indication of a different way to think about membership,” he said.

Seattle Betsuin Rinban Rev. Katsuya Kusunoki said he wanted the study to show “some positive aspects” that visitors express in their decisions to come to the BCA temples, as well as the comments from Sangha members who continue as temple members.


“I want to know what points they like, why they want to be a member or if they choose to come to the temple and continue being a member — then maybe we are able to see BCA temples’ uniqueness and maybe a strong point,” Rev. Kusunoki said.


Northwest District President John Inge mentioned that the BCA conducted a survey of members and guests a few years ago. Among the results, he said, was a finding that showed a stark difference between Japanese Americans and non-Japanese Americans as to why they chose to attend the temples.


“Non-Japanese Americans were there for religious reasons, but the Japanese Americans, many of whom were longtime members, were there for the sense of community and to be with other Japanese Americans,” Inge said. “It could be food, it could be seeing their friends. It was much more of a community center (to Japanese Americans) and I would be very interested to hear in your research if these findings were true throughout.”


Kim intends to take up to two years for his study, contacting, interviewing and surveying the BCA Sanghas of temples and churches, ministers and officials — as well as seeking out individuals who have visited temples but who have decided not to return or join.