UM membership still sliding

By Heather Hahn

The United Methodist Church saw a reduction of at least 71,971 U.S. members in 2011. Put another way, the denomination in the United States lost in one year roughly the equivalent of the Minnesota Annual Conference and Red Bird Missionary Conference combined.

This snapshot comes from reports from 55 of the 59 U.S. conferences, which followed spring and summer annual conference gatherings.

The vast majority disclosed declines between 2010 and 2011 in membership, worship attendance or church-school participation — three commonly used metrics for charting disciple-making. Twenty-eight U.S. conferences reported losses in all three categories. Eighteen noted membership drops of 2 percent or more.

Eleven U.S. conferences increased in worship attendance, and five gained members. Only three reported both membership and worship growth.

The General Council on Finance and Administration, the denomination’s finance agency, will release the official 2011 figures next spring. But it’s already clear the denomination continues its decades-long decline in U.S. membership even as it grows worldwide. That trend has drawn the mounting concern of church officials.

“At the current rate of decline from the last five years, we have less than 50 years of The United Methodist Church in the United States,” the Rev. Adam Hamilton told the full body of the recently completed 2012 General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly. Hamilton is the senior pastor of United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas.

At the same time, Bishop Jane Allen Middleton pointed out that many churches, including those in the Susquehanna Conference, which encompasses central Pennsylvania, are serving more constituents than before. Susquehanna Conference saw a 39 percent increase in constituents
in 2011.

“The increase in constituents exceeded three times over the number of people we lost,” Middleton said. “What you’d hope to see is an increase in worship attendance, and that did not happen. What it is saying to me is that this is an era where people don’t want to join.”

In the United States, people no longer commit to fraternal organizations like the Lion’s Club or civic groups like Rotary Clubs at the rates they once did. That phenomenon, Middleton said, “is now reflected in the church.”

Yet she and other church leaders see signs of hope in their own conferences and in the larger United Methodist connection.

Worldwide growth, U.S. membership shrinking

One of those hopeful signs can’t be repeated often enough. The United Methodist Church is still growing, particularly in Africa but also in eastern Europe and the Philippines. In the decade between 1999 and 2009, the denomination’s membership grew by 25 percent.

The Burundi and East Africa annual conferences offer an example of that growth. In the past year, the two conferences reported an increase of more than 68,000 members — from 231,924 to 300,265.

However, the denomination’s financial base is shrinking. Indeed, 16 U.S. conferences reported planned budget
reductions either this year or in 2013.

As of 2010, about 99 percent of the money that supports general church operations through apportionments — including mission work around the globe — came from the United States.

For decades, giving increased even as U.S. membership declined, but after the 2008 economic crisis, giving dropped.

“It’s difficult for me to say whether we’ve reached a tipping point,” said Scott Brewer, the executive of connectional relations for the denomination’s finance agency. “We’ve seen pretty steep declines in membership and attendance in the U.S. these past couple of years, but we’ve also had an economic recession. At this point, it is still difficult to tell whether it’s the drop in membership, the recession or both.”

Signs of growth

Still, the numbers reported by U.S. conferences did show some bright spots. Moreover, others across the United States can replicate the strategies that some conferences have used in order to grow.

The Greater New Jersey Conference, for example, experienced its first membership growth in 45 years. Its membership stands at 93,655, up by a net of 240 from the previous year.

The Kentucky Conference saw its membership grow by 1,036 to 151,858, and its worship attendance increase by more than 450. That is the largest increase in both categories the conference has seen since its formation in 1996 through a merger of two conferences in the state, Bishop Lindsey Davis said.

Leaders in both New Jersey and Kentucky have embraced an adage from church-planting circles that it’s easier to make babies than to raise the dead.

“You don’t grow an annual conference by trying to revitalize existing churches,” Davis said. “I think some can be revitalized, but I don’t think we’ll ever revitalize enough churches to reverse the attendance and membership trends that we’ve seen over the last several decades.”

In Kentucky, the conference has started 15 new churches over the past four years. Davis said the conference allocates $1 million of its $9 million annual budget for planting churches.

In New Jersey, where less than 60 percent of the state’s population is white, much of that conference’s growth has come from reaching out to new or recent immigrant communities as well as Anglo communities, said Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar.

The conference has planted six churches in the past eight years. It has congregations that include Korean-Americans, Hispanics, Brazilians, and Haitians as well as members from various African countries. The Rev. Douglas Ruffle, the conference’s congregational development team coordinator, said the conference also includes perhaps the only Arabic-speaking United Methodist congregation in the United States.

“At celebrations and annual conferences, you really get the sense that this is the church of the Pentecost,” Ruffle said.

Both Davis and Devadhar also agree that it’s critical to work with young church members and particularly young clergy. Devadhar spends time with clergy in each district.

Devadhar said he has brought in church leaders from around the United States to “inspire and stimulate clergy and laity” in helping to grow the church.

“Anybody can have a good year,” he said. “What you have to strive for is to put year after year into the work so it becomes a trend. I’m thrilled with what we did this past year, but we need to continue to focus on the things that strengthen the church.”

Middleton, who will soon retire as an active bishop, said she thinks the denomination already has the tools to thrive in the United States.

“I think we as a church are absolutely where we need to be in our statement of the mission. We need strong disciples, and we need to be outward focused,” she said. “For me, that is the key to our future — that we truly understand we are not meant to be in insular, ecclesiastical ivory
towers, that we are truly meant to be in our community.”

Heather Hahn is a multimedia news reporter for United Methodist News Service.