Economist Warns Church is in Crisis

In a presentation that he acknowledged is “sobering,” Dr. Donald House Sr. warned that The United Methodist Church has only 15 years to reverse its decline in the United States. This week’s presentation from House – a life-long United Methodist and trained economist – came to church leaders at the Connectional Table and General Council on Finance and Administration joint meeting held in Nashville, Tennessee. (See the UM News Service article for additional information.)

“By 2030, the denomination in the United States will either have found a way to turn around, meaning it is growing, or its turnaround in the United States is not possible. By 2050, the connection will have collapsed,” House concluded.

House based his conclusions on a comprehensive study of denominational statistics that included mapping the location of every local church and studying population trends within a 3-mile radius of each congregation. Historical trends dating back to 1974 gave a contextual picture for this study.

Worship attendance at United Methodist churches in the U.S. remained relatively stable from 1974 through 2001, with even a period of sustained growth from 1993 to 2001. Beginning in 2002, however, attendance has shown a straight-line decline for over ten years. “If this were a three-year trend,” said House, “one could chalk it up as an aberration. But you can’t ignore a ten-year pattern.”

“For the last ten years, the U.S. church has lost an average of 52,383 in worship attendance each year,” House reported. Actually, his numbers only ran through 2011. In 2012 the church lost 49,202, but in 2013 the loss caromed to 62,592. In other words, the trend is not getting any better, despite the efforts of the Vital Church Initiative, but may in fact be getting worse.

Along with the loss in attendance, House pointed out that the number of U.S. congregations shrank by 16 percent, the number of conferences by 19 percent, and the number of districts by 21 percent. “What we are doing is disassembling our infrastructure faster than we are experiencing decline in the U.S.,” he said. “If this were a business model, I’d say you were gracefully closing your doors.”

House pointed out that the number of churches per district has gone from 68 in 1990 to 72 in 2010, but is projected to rise to 90 in 2030. That means that each district superintendent’s workload will increase by 25 percent over the next 15 years. This raises the question of whether superintendents can give adequate supervision and leadership to all the clergy and congregations under their responsibility.

In addition, House reported, the church faces a coming shortage of ordained elders. Currently, the rate of decline among elders serving churches has nearly matched the number of churches that are being closed. However, by 2030 House projects that the church will be short by about 2,500 to 5,000 ordained clergy, as the Baby Boomer generation hits full retirement.

House projects that worship attendance that was 3 million in 2010 (down from 3.5 million in 1990) will decline to 2 million in 2030 and under 1 million by 2050. The current 59 annual conferences will reduce to 37 annual conferences in 2030 and only 17 conferences in 2050. Declines in attendance will be matched with declines in giving, which will make the denominational structure financially unsustainable.

One part of the solution is to start new churches. We are currently starting about 300 new churches a year, but the goal is to more than double that to over 700 new churches a year by 2020. Still, 700 new churches a year for four years would only represent a 9 percent increase in congregations, even if no current congregations went out of existence. “You can’t new-church-start your way out of this existing crisis,” House said.

That means a program must be developed to turn around existing congregations with primarily existing clergy. We are only replacing current clergy at the rate of about 750 to 1,000 per year, which means that it will take more than 15 years to replace half of our current clergy. Whatever programs are developed to revitalize existing congregations must be nationally scalable, House said. He is currently developing and testing such a strategy, but it may take another four to eight years before it is ready to implement nationally. Such a timeline would leave only six to ten years to effect the turnaround.

“There is no question that our church is in trouble,” said the Rev. Thomas Lambrecht, vice president of Good News and an observer at the meeting. “What I fail to understand is why church leaders are not considering that the theological shift among many of our clergy in a more progressive direction could account for a significant part of the decline. The Connectional Table reveals a schizophrenic approach when it acknowledges our crisis of decline and at the same time proposes a ‘Third Way’ on marriage and homosexuality that will drive many traditionalists and evangelicals out of the UM Church. If their plan is adopted, it will only accelerate the decline of the U.S. church, as we learn from the experience of The Episcopal, Evangelical Lutheran, and Presbyterian Church (USA).”

The church leaders took no action at their meeting in response to the report. Many leaders feel helpless to do anything about the decline.


  1. Allen C. says

    GFCA knows we are in decline, they know we are in as they call it an “economic crisis” yet they increase the budget and want more money. That makes complete sense! I have felt for years that our denomination needs a MAJOR overhaul from the top down. We need to become as ‘lean’ as possible in many ways, and quit wasting millions of dollars a year on worthless projects and agencies. I pray that one day our general conference delegates will heed the call to do away with those agencies that truly produce NO REAL Fruit and help us become a sustainable organization.

    • Steve Burton says

      In case no one reads my response below, I fully support what you are saying. But I think there still needs to be a meaningful drive to rekindle an interest in our denomination.

  2. Serena Dahl says

    Of course the mainline churches are in decline because they are no longer churches! I attempted to approach the pastor of a church I was interested possibly joining due to the need for support after the death of my spouse. The pastor backed away with his hands up and in no uncertain terms made it clear that he had no interest in counseling or consoling me. He even stated that ‘he was not a religious person’ and not the right ‘man for the job’. This man was a former United Methodist pastor and had left to pastor a non-denominational congregation in the same city. I soon learned that ‘non-denominational’ was just a code word for “I no longer believe in Biblical truths or moral absolutes, but still feel a need to go through the motions to feel good about myself’. Unforgivable.

  3. Steve Burton says

    Only two responses in three weeks. That kinda adds to the story, in my mind. I fully agree with Allen C. In addition to re-energizing our Church, we must get rid of the incredible administrative burden in our denomination. Too many chiefs and no “indians”. Looks like we’re headed that way.

  4. Rev. Dr. James A. Belcher says

    By advocating the founding of new churches as a solution to denominational decline, United Methodist leadership is addressing only half of the issue. The other half of the solution, one which leadership seems to ignore, is to dismantle significant portions of a top-heavy bureaucracy. We have too many denominational boards and agency which make little to no contribution to ministry, but nevertheless continue to drain funds from local churches, funds which local churches could use for their own revitalization. Our denomination is dying and our leadership seems unable or unwilling to make the hard decisions that lead to resurrection. The primary task of any bureaucracy is to perpetuate itself. I few our bureaucracy is perpetuating itself into a grave.

  5. I am a retired Methodist Pastor. I grew up in this denomination. My reasons for leaving would take too long to list, but this little story will give some insight. Several years ago I attended an ordination service for the daughter of a fellow Pastor. The Bishop gave the sermon. He quoted Lincoln. He quoted Mark Twain. He quoted Shakespeare. He quoted Aristotle. He quoted a dozen others. My friend asked me what I thought of the Bishop’s sermon. I replied that it seemed to me that if he saw fit to quote dozens of people it might be nice if one of them had been our Lord. That’s the problem with the UMC today. Jesus has been left out.

  6. Teresa Dougherty says

    I too have become disillusioned with my Methodist church. The focus seems to be on how many social events can be held and how many projects can be run instead of worship and taking care of the congregations spiritual needs. Worship services where shorts and flip flops are cute considered appropriate attire are not for me. I don’t want contemporary Christian Rock music and video screens.
    Even our “traditional” service seems so lax in biblical content.
    Also on a personal note, my father passed away a few months ago and our minister has not contacted my mother or me since his passing. No note, no phone call, no visit. My mother has suffered a devastating loss of her husband of 54 years and our minister can’t find the time to console her yet he mentioned this morning that he found time to go skeet shooting with some of the church men folk! My next door neighbor also a member of our church lost her husband two weeks after my father died and she did get a phone call promising a visit the next day. That’s been eight months ago and he’s still a no show. I thought ministers were supposed to minister to their congregants but it seems like the social events take priority. I’m really hurt by his lack of concern. I guess we don’t rank with the big money donors or the clique that runs everything.

  7. Richard Ivey says

    It seems the church has become way too political and politically correct. Much is focused on societal situations that pastors can help ameliorate through biblical teachings and guidance, but the church will never resolve. Our pastor’s sermon this past Sunday contained portions which could have been borrowed from the recent election dialogue and debates. When I mentioned that as we were leaving church he responded that he was only complying with what the Bishop wanted. The church has become way too top heavy and bureaucratic. Dr. House offers very plausible observations why we have been seeing declines in attendance.

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