UMW membership continues dramatic decline

By Liza Kittle

United Methodist Women (UMW) membership has continued its decades-long annual decline, according to 2010 local church statistics just released by the General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA). UMW lost 24,608 individual members and 509 local units in one year. The previous year (2009) saw a 54,000 member decline.

UMW membership is now 570,200 women. This figure represents only 13 percent of the total U.S. female membership in The United Methodist Church.

GCFA uses local church statistical reports to provide an accurate and detailed analysis of membership levels and church dynamics. These reports include measurement of UMW membership levels. More than 98 percent of churches submit a statistical report.

The Women’s Division, the governing body of UMW, does not publish internal membership records, and continues to report membership levels at “over 800,000.” However, it has been ten years since the organization had that level of membership. Since 1974, when membership was 1.36 million, UMW has actually lost nearly 800,000 members. Over the past ten years the decline has become more dramatic, with UMW losing 241,089 total individual members and 3,867 local units, averaging a loss of over 26,000 members and 420 units per year.

While The United Methodist Church also has experienced substantial membership loss since 1974, UMW has lost members at a rate 2.5 times greater. The following chart illustrates that while the UM Church has experienced a 25 percent decline in total membership since 1974, the drop in membership in UMW over the same period has been 58 percent.

Reporting this information does not give us joy. It is heartbreaking that our beloved church is in crisis—we are the bride of Christ. But we can use this data to help make the necessary changes for the future health of The United Methodist Church, especially as we approach General Conference 2012. Delegates will begin debating and adopting legislation to restructure the denomination, hopefully to reverse this downward spiral by increasing the spiritual vitality of local congregations. Opening other avenues for women’s ministry should be a critical component in this restructuring process.

The Women’s Division has consistently fought efforts at General Conference to open doors for other women’s ministries. Diversity and openness are touchstones of The United Methodist Church. Why do these important ideals seem to not apply to the 87 percent of women in the UM Church who choose not to participate in UMW? While UMW has historically been a mission-oriented organization, other women’s ministries could provide nurture, healing, and outreach to women sitting in our pews. We live in such a turbulent world of sin, brokenness, and a yearning for Jesus. Don’t we want to reach everyone in our churches with life transforming avenues of ministry?

It is our hope and prayer that delegates to General Conference 2012 will help facilitate an opening of opportunities for this to happen. We ask for you to be mindful in debate and insert language into the Book of Discipline that would allow other women’s ministries to be formed under the authority of the local church council.

Renew has submitted a petition that would accomplish this, by using similar language already present in the Discipline regarding United Methodist Men, which does allow for a variety of men’s ministries at the local church level. Renew has also submitted a resolution that would encourage the church to endorse the establishment of vital women’s ministries in local churches.

Some larger UM congregations currently do have other women’s ministries in place of or in addition to UMW, but they are not officially recognized by the denomination. There is only one women’s ministry, Celebration, which has been officially recognized by the Texas Conference. This fruitful women’s ministry is winning souls for Christ, nurturing women in the Word of God, and transforming lives. Chapters of Celebration have prospered even in churches that have UMW groups and both ministries operate successfully.

Women in many medium and small churches have a difficult time starting something new for the women in their congregations. Lack of pastoral support, pressure from UMW and church leadership, and the absence of church resources for women are just a few of the hindrances they face in trying to “think outside the box” and offer something new for women.

Women today desire a variety of options for ministry within the church. If the UM Church does not address this egregious shortcoming in our denomination, further decline of membership will undoubtedly result. Strong, diverse women’s ministries (including UMW) would impact our denomination in so many positive ways.

Women are desperate for a fresh encounter with the living God through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. I speak constantly with women who are leaving our denomination because it offers such limited opportunities for women’s ministries. We also want to embrace the vibrant women’s ministries that already exist and share these successful models with other local churches. Let’s use this opportunity of church revitalization at General Conference 2012 to have “open minds, open hearts, and open doors” for women’s ministry in the United Methodist Church! Please help us by letting your delegates know your desires for change in women’s ministry. We need your prayers and support.

Liza Kittle is the President of the Renew Women’s Network ( P.O. Box 16055 Augusta, GA 30919; telephone: 706-364-0166.