Where are United Methodists?

By Walter Fenton –

According to the General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA) United Methodist Church membership in Africa has continued to grow dramatically. At the close of 2008, GCFA reported 3.1 million members for the three central conferences in Africa. By the end of 2013, membership had surged to almost 5.3 million for an annual growth rate of 11.1 percent over the five-year period.

During that same period, UM Church membership in the United States went from 7.8 million to 7.3 million for an annual loss rate of 1.2 percent. If the respective annual rates of increase and decrease continue to hold through the end of 2016, then for the first time in the UM Church’s history more of its members will live in Africa than in the U.S.

However, the dramatic growth in Africa has not led to greater African representation on key general church leadership bodies. Currently, just three Africans sit at the UM Church’s Connectional Table (CT), the 59-member organization that essentially serves as the denomination’s administrative council.

Thirteen of the church’s bishops are included on the CT, but not one of them is from Africa. In fact, four of those bishops (three active and one retired) are from the relatively small Western Jurisdiction (WJ) of the U.S. which counts just 331,719 UM members. The central conferences in Africa have nearly 5 million more members than the WJ, but no episcopal leaders at the CT. Also, when the Council of Bishops recently elected its six-member executive leadership team for 2016-2018 it surprisingly included no African bishops.

Screen Shot 2015-06-29 at 12.59.45 PMEven if the annual rate of growth for Africa slows to half of its present rate in 2017, it will still continue to surge well beyond U.S. church membership. It would have 8.8 million members by the end of 2020, 10.9 million by the end of 2024, and a whopping 13.5 million when the church meets in Harare, Zimbabwe for the 2028 General Conference. By that time, Africa could easily have two to three times the membership in the U.S., and it will dwarf the size of the church in The Philippines and Europe.

The implications of this shift in membership are staggering. In the short-term, it will continue to foster a degree of unfairness at General Conference. Because of the church’s formula and timing for apportioning delegates, there is a distinct possibility the African central conferences will still have a minority of the delegates at GC 2020. The formula is based not just on membership, but also on the number of ordained clergy in each region of the church. The U.S. has at least four times the number of ordained clergy as the central conferences in Africa. And the apportioned delegates for each region of the church will be determined based on the 2016 statistical reports, so even though it is very likely Africa will have as many as two million more members than the U.S. in 2020, it will have approximately an equal or fewer number of GC delegates.

Over the next 10 to 15 years it will become increasingly odd to have all of the United Methodist Church’s general boards and agencies located in the United States when the vast majority of UM members will live in Africa.

Walter Fenton is a United Methodist clergyperson and an analyst for Good News.



  1. Mark Flynn says

    How can anyone possibly defend this exclusion of Africans from the table? The United Methodist Church has a lot of exclusion in the name of inclusion and a lot of intolerance in the name of tolerance.

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