Rev. Marvin Harada was appointed Bishop of the Buddhist Churches of America (BCA) in April 2020 at the beginning of the Coronavirus pandemic. Recently, Shinshu Center of America (SCA) asked Rev. Harada via Zoom about pressing challenges facing BCA, which represents the Nishi Honganji denomination (officially called Jodo Shinshu Hongwanji-ha) of Jodo Shinshu Buddhism.
SCA: In recent years, there’s been a general feeling membership at temples has been declining and many temples were having a tough time staying open. What’s the current state of BCA temples?
Rev. Harada: Our data shows over the past ten years that membership in BCA dropped 27%. In the past two years, two temples closed. For many years, we’ve talked about membership decline, but in my mind, we haven’t really addressed it, nor have we looked at the sobering data. If we drop 27% every ten years, it won’t be long before we’ll wither away.
Clearly, we have declined in membership because we’re not reaching the masses. We’re not connecting with everyday people in this culture. One issue is that we’ve been focused on the Japanese American community. Some temples with large Japanese American communities in the surrounding area still have strong membership numbers. Other temples have grown because they reached beyond the Japanese American community and now have very diverse Sanghas.
Our current state is some temples are losing members, some temples are maintaining their numbers, and a handful have grown. Smaller temples that have lost members are having a difficult time. They don’t have enough members who can support a resident minister, work at fundraisers, or maintain buildings.
Although challenges are formidable, as Bishop I’m determined to turn around the membership decline and grow our temples and Sanghas. We can do this by focusing on Buddhist education to make the Shin Buddhist teachings accessible to the general public and help our members deepen their appreciation of the Dharma.
We have much to offer. We have a teaching that’s universal for all ages, genders, socio-economic backgrounds, sexual orientations, and ethnicities. We are a “family friendly” form of Buddhism that doesn’t require a lifestyle out of the ordinary, and that even a child can follow. I’m confident we can more effectively share the teachings and that growth will naturally follow.
SCA: BCA has faced a shortage of ministers. Please tell us about the number of ministers compared to the number of temples, about filling vacancies and the role of minister’s assistants.
Rev. Harada: Presently in BCA, we have 35 full-time kaikyoshi (fully ordained) ministers and a total of 58 temples. It’s a bit difficult to answer how many temples don’t have ministers. A number of temples are supervised by ministers assigned to other temples. Some temples no longer can support full-time resident ministers. About eight temples that can support a full-time minister don’t have one at this time.
A few temples are being served by minister’s assistants, but they are supervised by a full-time minister in the area. These minister’s assistants have at minimum, tokudo [first level] ordination, and a couple have kyoshi [full ordination] There are approximately six cases like that in BCA.
SCA: How do you plan to address the minister shortage?
Rev. Harada: Although we now have a shortage, a number of ministerial students are in the pipeline, studying at the Institute of Buddhist Studies in Berkeley, and are on the path to becoming fully ordained. Some of them aspire to become either volunteers or part-time ministers. A few aspire to become chaplains. Therefore, our ministerial shortage will continue for some time in the future.
I think our Minister’s Assistant program is a solution that’s still coming to fruition. IBS has been instrumental in the growth of ministerial aspirants when it created a certificate program to qualify for ordination, and made online study possible. Now, ministerial aspirants from various parts of the country are taking courses and are on a path towards becoming ministers. Previously, students had to move to Berkeley to study for the ministry.
Also, we’ll continue bringing ministers from Japan. Many of them have come and are doing a commendable job here. They have good people skills, a good command of English, and a deep desire to share the teachings. We’ll continue welcoming ministers from Japan, but we also must create our own native-born ministers.
Buddhist education at the local level is a first step in providing fertile soil from which ministerial aspirants bloom forth. Without effective education programs, and ministers teaching them effectively, we’ll continue seeing a shortage of ministers.
SCA: What other challenges do you see going forward?
Rev. Harada: Most temples and temple leaders see finances and budgets as our greatest future challenge. There’s no denying we’ll face challenges trying to support our temples, especially with an older and smaller membership. But to me, it’s not a financial issue. I ultimately think it’s a Buddhist education issue. The more our members come to appreciate the Dharma and find it deeply meaningful in their life, there’s no amount they wouldn’t give to support their temple and the BCA. If we want to raise our finances, we must first deepen our appreciation and understanding of the Dharma. Finances and donations will follow as a matter of course.
SCA: How will you address those challenges?
Rev. Harada: I’m presently having one-on-one conversations with every one of our full-time kaikyoshi ministers. We talk about how they are doing, and any issues or concerns they want to discuss. These meetings have been very fruitful. Once I complete these meetings, I’ll hold the same kind of meetings with two leaders from each temple, preferably the president and president-elect. I’ll discuss with them the status of their temple, and will try to assist them in ideas for implementing a Buddhist education program and other things they can do to grow temple membership.
SCA: Thank you, Rev. Harada.
-Rev. Ken Yamada, editor at Shinshu Center of America