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Finns share similar challenges with ELCA

The Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland reported a membership drop to 4.2 million (78 percent of Finns), with 80,612 members leaving in 2010 — double the numbers of the previous year. But 13,816 members joined (not including 47,943 children and infants who were baptized).

Harri Palmu, acting director of the church research center, said resignations primarily are part of an erosion over time. But he said resignations spiked after an October 2010 televised discussion of same-sex marriage. Increasingly, people resign over views that the church is either too hidebound or too reform-minded, he added.

"The largest group of leavers ever since the 1970s has been 18- to 24-year-olds living in the cities," he said. "Earlier there was discussion of a sense of alienation from religious life, but a more accurate rendition would be that the church is no longer held to be of sufficient personal significance to remain within its bounds."

Much like the ELCA, Finnish Lutherans are seeing declining church income. Unlike the ELCA, the Finnish church's income is based on a state tax paid by citizens, who are automatically church members unless they resign. Nearly half of its congregations ran a deficit last year, as staff, pension, maintenance and other costs increased.

Ahti Hirvonen of the "Church 2015+" working group, told the Helsingin Sanomat newspaper that the church is administratively "living beyond its means," saying only about 15 percent of members (600,000 people) are active and the others could cancel at any time.

But the newspaper reported that 5,000 (one-quarter of all staff) church employees are expected to retire within the decade — most not to be replaced. Pension costs are increasing by about $13 million a year, but church leaders hope stock market gains will help.

Leena Rantanen, director of the church's central treasury, told the paper that last year the pension fund grew by some $17 million, and "the income from the fund has been good all the time that it has existed."


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