Economist crunches UM numbers

Dr. Don House - a lifelong United Methodist - holds a Ph. D. in economics and chairs the denomination's eight-member Economic Advisory Committee. Photo by Steve Beard.

Dr. Don House – a lifelong United Methodist – holds a Ph. D. in economics and chairs the denomination’s eight-member Economic Advisory Committee. Photo by Steve Beard.

By Walter Fenton-

Earlier this year almost all the hot button issues were on the agenda at The United Methodist Church’s pre-General Conference briefing in Portland, Oregon: denominational restructuring plans, divestment of church pension funds, climate change, and of course same sex marriage and the ordination of openly gay clergy.

But there was one very notable exception, conspicuous by its absence: the long, steady rate of worship attendance decline in the U.S. and the dangerous implications it poses for the UM Church’s institutional infrastructure.

That’s why Good News sat down with economist Dr. Don House at his offices in Bryan, Texas, to talk about the numeric crisis that threatens the church. A lifetime United Methodist and a General Conference delegate since 1996, House has commanded the respect of church leaders for well over a decade.

House has worked at RRC, Inc. for much of his adult life, and served as its president for the past 27 years. The firm of economists and other analysts offers research services, data analysis, and litigation support to a number of Fortune 500 companies, routinely taking him to Houston, Dallas, and New York City to meet with clients.

For many years House served on the board of directors of the General Council for Finance and Administration (GCFA), and he now chairs the Economic Advisory Committee, a team of professional economists, clergy, and other laity that does data analysis for the church and assists it in formulating the general church’s quadrennial budget that funds 10 of the 13 boards and agencies and the episcopal fund. The budget is funded by annual conferences’ apportionments, which are collected from local churches.

House has deep roots within Methodism. Raised in a parsonage, he brims with warmth and admiration for his father who had a long and distinguished career as a United Methodist pastor in the Texas Annual Conference.

“Dad preached his last sermon at the age of 96,” House said. “And I think it was his best sermon. He preached it at our early and late service [First United Methodist Church in Bryan, Texas]. At the late service we had a baptism, which took a little time away from his sermon, but he was still so sharp that he knew where to mentally edit it so we’d finish within the hour. He passed away at 97.”

As he talks about his father and his own formation in the church, House’s fidelity to it, his commitment to its theology and its polity, and his hope for its future is always evident. But he is also very concerned.

House gained wider notoriety around the UM connection in May of 2014 when he delivered an important, but sobering presentation in Nashville, Tennessee, to a joint meeting of the GCFA and the Connectional Table, the denomination’s top administrative body. Based on exhaustive analysis by his firm, he walked several dozen church leaders through a series of slides projecting where the church would be in 2030 and 2050 if it continued on its current trajectory.

Using 2010 figures as a baseline, he demonstrated how the denomination’s infrastructure – its annual conferences, districts, and its boards and agencies – is likely to collapse by 2050 if action is not taken soon. Among other things he projected that:

• The number of annual conferences would fall from the 59 the church had in 2010, to 37 in 2030, and then to just 17 by 2050.

• The number of districts would go from 450 to 235 in 2030, and then plummet to just 91 in 2050.

• And the number of local churches would drop from the 32,433 reported in 2010 to 21,117 in 2030, and down to just 9,985 in 2050.

One of the main factors driving all of this is the U.S. church’s long, steady decline in worship attendance. Using the average annual loss of 52,380 recorded between 2002 and 2012, House projected that by 2030 attendance will go from 2010’s 3.1 million to 2 million in 2030, and then to just 959,000 by 2050.

House told the very quiet room of church leaders that “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 will no longer be possible. And by 2050, the connection will have collapsed.”

However, according to him, it doesn’t have to be this way. He believes the appeal of Wesleyan theology and the power of connectionalism make the UM Church attractive to plenty of people.

“Wesleyan theology is our portion of the Christian church,” he said. “I continue to believe that perhaps, 10 to 20 percent of the population [roughly, 32 to 64 million people] has an affinity for our theology, and if we aren’t there, they won’t get it. They won’t be brought to Christ by any other vehicle. I continue to have hope that we Methodists can fulfill our mission.”

However, he believes the church needs to stabilize its base through a strategic growth plan in order to reach these people. It would require the denomination to invest in revitalizing those local churches that can be revitalized.

“Not every local church is going to make it,” he said. “So the urgency is to find the strategic churches that are willing and able to grow, and then go on to the next level. They in turn can then support the denominational infrastructure so it can continue to invest in revitalizing other churches and starting new ones.” But as House reported to the CT and the GCFA, time is of the essence. He believes the denomination must adopt a strategic, credible, and metric oriented plan, and begin implementing it as soon as possible.

That window of time is probably closing faster than what he originally projected. Late last year GCFA reported that average weekly worship attendance dropped an alarming 2.6 percent from 2013 to 2014. That was on top of a 2.1 percent loss the previous year.

“When we obtained the data for 2014 it was worse than we expected,” said House. “The decline in worship attendance was the highest percentage decline in the history of this denomination. It’s very, very troubling.”

He described the latest figure as “unsustainable” and “catastrophic.” And because of them, his Economic Advisory Committee decided to offer a new set of assumptions for the church’s quadrennial budget.

The CT and GCFA were set to ask the General Conference to approve a $611 million budget for 2017-2020. But House’s committee said it might be wise to consider $595.6 or $604 million instead. This February both the GCFA and the CT decided to stick with the original $611 million proposal. Ultimately, the General Conference delegates will determine which figures to approve.

Not factored into the various proposals is how the General Conference debates and decisions over same-sex marriage and the ordination of openly gay clergy will impact worship attendance rates and in turn the general church budget.

In the late summer of 2014 Bishop Scott Jones of the Great Plains Episcopal Area encouraged the GCFA staff and its board of directors to meet with denominational leaders in the Episcopal Church, the Presbyterian Church USA, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America to determine how the fall out over these debates impacted their churches. In recent years, all three have experienced significant membership and attendance losses, with the Episcopal Church and the PCUSA seeing declines in excess of 5 percent annually.

House explained that so far the GCFA has not asked his committee to attempt to factor these matters into its projections and budgetary proposals. He believes the UM Church’s long, steady rate of decline is complex, broad based, and that no one factor accounts for all of it.

As a man who has spent his professional life doing data analysis and crunching numbers, House is a consummate realist. He’s also been around the UM Church long enough to see various revitalization plans come and go, and yet have the stubborn decline rate persist and even recently accelerate. So he might have more reason than most to throw his hands up in exasperation.

In spite of the number crunching, House remains genuinely committed and hopeful. “I believe in mainline denominations,” he says. “I believe that they are the structures by which we can transfer the faith across the generations. When we United Methodists build a church, it can be there 100 years or more. We can be there across five or six generations, and that continuity across family trees is important. That’s part of the gift, part of the treasure that we give to communities. And without us, it’s gone. And that’s why I’m sold on the idea of a mainline denomination.”

When joining the other General Conference delegates in Portland, House’s message will be a combination of concentrated realism, the importance of facing hard facts, but doing so with hope and a keen sense of responsibility for the great treasure we have inherited.

“I wouldn’t be spending as much time as I do at this,” he says, “if I didn’t think there were reasons to be hopeful.”

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


  1. Gary Bebop says

    The glacial decline of the UMC has not set loose panic across the connection because a trajectory of fifty years, or twenty-five years, or even ten years is unfathomable to many people. They are not concerned that far out. They see ceaseless shifts in brand popularity within their own communities, even among the churches. Many people make no assumptions about their own future, let alone the UMC’s.

  2. William Harrison says

    Just wait till they pass same sex marriages! You will see a dramatic decline?

    • William, since marriage equality is now the law of the land, and legal in all states, I see the UMC’s membership increasing when all God’s children are granted full acceptance. When all God’s children who choose to marry may do so, as long as each person in that couple is single. When all God’s children who wish to study, and are graduates of a seminary can attain ordination. When we no longer are reverting to discrimination as we did in the days when our African American sisters and brothers were relegated to the “Central Jurisdiction,” and viewed somehow less than our Caucasian sisters and brothers.

  3. Hi, Steve! Walter Fenton is really hitting them out of the part thee past few weeks. I’d like permission to republish this profile of Don House in UM Insight. Email me at your your convenience.

  4. Don House rightly holds up Wesleyan theology. The abject irony of that is Wesleyan theology is thriving in certain quarters outside the America United Methodist denomination. What does that say about what has happened to Wesleyan theology inside the American United Methodist denomination? Of course the UMC and Wesleyan theology is thriving in in other parts of the world, and it looks as if the UMC is shifting away from America. Another way to look at this — perhaps by 2050 it can be turned back around in America by missionaries coming from abroad to reestablish it again as a true Wesleyan church. Must its present American model essentially die In order for the true Wesleyan Methodist church to be resurrected?

  5. We are struggling very hard with how will we be able to morally justify financially supporting an organization that is in the process of allowing individuals who are openly embracing (even if they themselves do not participate in it) a lifestyle of sexual promiscuity and permissiveness (aka homosexuality) and demanding that individuals with that lifestyle be put in positions of leadership and in religious leadership over children. To continue to hold “Safe Sanctuaries” training and to dismiss church workers for sexual harassment claims that can be litigated, but embrace sex outside of marriage as defined as 1 man, 1 woman for life, looks like a church that is lost, more concerned with protecting itself from litigation, then with protecting people from harmful choices. If everything is ok, and there is no kind of sex that is wrong, that means using and being used is compatible with Christian teaching, so then why does the church even need to exist? just to tell people that we can all live whichever way we want to? Maybe the church can provide ambulance services after we all go off the cliff… but then that mindset of sacrificially serving others is not compatible with a mindset of using and being used. The church deserves to hold high standards… many lost people will look to it at some point in their lives for hope and direction. Many lost people will be hurt if the church decides the high standards are just too high that it doesn’t even want to hold onto them themselves.

    • Hi Donna,
      I have to disagree with your statement that gay or lesbian couples are promiscuous as the several gay and lesbian couples have been together, monogamously, for years and now are married. Gay and lesbian couples are no more promiscuous than are heterosexual couples. I ,and I am sure, you, know of heterosexual couples who do not honor their marriage vows.

  6. Homosexuality is just the tip of the “using and being used” iceberg; the rest of the iceberg is the far, far greater quantity (just because there are that many more people in this group) of heterosexual “using and being used”. The pornography, the pre-marital sex, the adultery…. haven’t we and our families paid enough for these “pleasures”? Can’t the church lead us back to sanity on sexual matters and lead us to a way to live that we can all be proud of? not cringe with regret? and walk around wounded by?

    I urge the church leadership to recognize that many in the leadership may not have first hand experience with the emotional consequences of sex outside of marriage with marriage defined as 1 man and 1 woman for life. Using and being used sexually blows holes in your soul. For the church to follow God’s example and to tell people that somethings can really hurt you is not being mean …. it is a sign of true love.

    • Hi Donna,
      Many happily, married people who have been married for many years were sexually active, exclusively with each other prior to their marriage. This is not new. Many couples were together during their college years, but could not afford separate residences. My husband and I have been married for 57 years, but were sexually active for four of the five years that we were together prior to our marriage. When we met we were in our senior year of high school, then I was studying to be a nurse, graduated, passed my nursing boards and worked a year prior to marrying my husband. He studying to become an engineer and then went on to seminary where he, also, graduated and served the then, Methodist Church for nine years, prior to returning to his original career as an electrical engineer.
      Most couples consummate their love prior to marriage, and I know of none who have not done so. Perhaps if the time that they have been acquainted is short, such as four or five months prior to marriage they “wait,” but do they really know each other with that short a courtship? It is far better to truly know each other well, and although my husband and I did not live together as many couples do today, we did know each others likes, dislikes and whether we could live together, compatibly.
      Living together before marriage is a good idea as if you can’t live together happily, and with only a few disagreements, then it is better to know this before you marry someone., rather than marry, and find out that you cannot live in the same house/ap’t and do so happily, and end up needing to divorce.

  7. I simply dread the day that is coming when I must tell the leadership at the local church that we must leave. UMC churches have done so much for me personally. It breaks my heart to leave, but I have already sinned enough in my life and to have on my conscientious, paying to employ those who may prey on children and who may have been preyed on as children, is something I will not add to my list of life’s regrets. The Catholic Church has shown us the error of these ways and UMC will be culpable if it goes forward with this direction.

    • Hi Donna,
      I am sorry that you picked destructive relationships,, however, in so doing, you learned a lot. The lessons were painful, but you learned that you are a good person and deserved to be treated well. My husband and I used to tell our daughters, “You will be treated as well as you allow yourself to be treated.” If you tolerate being verbally, emotionally, or even physically abused, the abuse will not stop. You must know that as a full human being, you deserve respect, honor, love and commitment from the person whom you love, honor and respect and to whom you are committed..

  8. I joined, what was then, the Methodist Church at age 18, back in 1955. At that time the Methodist Church was progressive for many years. The clergy marched in support of civil rights for our African American sisters and brothers and against the Viet Nam War. The congregations did not always appreciate those stances, but congregations are often lag behind the clergy, who at that time had three to four years of seminary education. In those years no one railed against abortion, realizing that this was a decision to be made carefully. The issue of homosexuality was not even on the “radar.”
    I am a retired RN and my husband is a retired, ordained minister in the UMC, and a retired electrical engineer. He left the full time ministry in 1967 to work for GE and he served as part time minister in one church for ten years and as a supply pastor when the full time minister needed time away from his/her church..
    In the past twenty or so years, we have seen changes in the UMC that seem to be more regressive than progressive, and this has been to the detriment of the UMC.
    In 1976 being LBGTQAI was realized to be not a mental illness but due to how we were born, such as our adult height. Just this past year, 2015, marriage equality became the law of the land. The brouhaha over our LBGT sisters and brothers is the same brouhaha that I saw regarding our African American sisters and brothers, as they were enduring the UnChristian Jim Crow Laws, during the 1950s and 1960s. Sadly, now the UMC clergy and hierarchy of the UMC are disallowing full inclusion for our LBGTQI sisters and brothers.
    The very reason that the UMC is seeing a rapid decline in their membership is that the church is trying to live in the early 20th century instead of the first quarter of the 21st century.
    I will be very interested in the outcome of the General Conference. If the General Conference will include all who love God and their neighbors as themselves, as Jesus commanded, and accept our LBGT sisters and brothers into full inclusion. If they will realize that many, if not most people, do not “wait until marriage” to be intimately involved with a partner and not condemn or censure a church member or the clergy who is in a committed relationship, but not married. How many of the couples for whom clergy have been celibate until marriage? I can guarantee few, if any. How many baptisms have clergy performed for single mothers? I know that there are many.
    If a woman has had an abortion, this is a private matter between her and her doctor. Do you think that a woman would tell her clergy person, if she thought that she would be rebuked? No, she will keep silent, as she should.
    How many people take the Bible literally or think of the Bible as “history/” I can tell you that most educated people do not, unless they “hang up their brains,” in a “brain rack,” along with their coats, when they come to church.
    Come into the 21st century, relate the Bible to today, realizing that this book was written by men as it was a male dominated society, and it was written before the great advances in science that we have today. The Bible was written for a time that existed many centuries ago, and the Gospels were written by men long after the death of Christ, thus the stories regarding Christ had been handed down as none of the Gospel writers lived at the time of Christ..

  9. I need to correct a sentence in the second to last paragraph of my letter. The sentence should have read how many of the marriages that UMC clergy have performed are for couple who have been celibate until the marriage? I know very few of such marriages.
    Furthermore, how dare a cleric or anyone, for that matter, condemn a woman who has had an abortion? There are many reasons that a woman may choose to terminate her pregnancy, and these reasons should remain between a woman and her doctor. Jesus said nothing regarding abortion, and the Discipline has been revised many times, and will be revised again. It is only the Discipline that decries abortion. the Discipline of the 1960s did not condemn this choice as it does today.
    I sincerely hope that this General Conference will bring the UMC to a more progressive place, the first quarter of the 21st Century and will stop trying to drag us back to the mid 19th Century.
    I hope, too, that the church will cease allowing those without seminary education to be charge ministers. Allow seminary students, such as my husband was from 1961-1963 to run a small church, but to allow those with as few weeks of lay preaching experience to run a church is counterproductive, as unfortunately they are unable to interpret the Bible and take it too literally, to the detriment of the church they are serving.
    The “parsonage system,” should be abolished and clergy pay should be commensurate with the number of years of education that is or should be required of a minister in the UMC. A graduate of a seminary has as many years of education as a lawyer, doctor or CPA, yet clergy are expected to live in substandard housing, work 80 hour weeks and accept low pay. This housing would not be tolerated by most of those attending the church, and the furnishings in the parsonage are “hand me down” items found in someone’s attic. Pay the clerics enough to purchase or rent a home that they choose.
    Frankly, the UMC’s budget is low because they are depending on poorly educated persons to run their churches. Knowing what is ahead, fewer men and women are choosing to enter the UMC’s ministry.

  10. Don House is correct. If the UMC, in this coming General Conference, continues its right wing agenda, and does not realize that those who are LBGT were born as they were, and deserve full inclusion in the UMC, this will affect membership. Those who are LBGT have loved ones who are both LBGT and “straight,” and if your “straight” members see their relatives and friends excluded, they will, also, leave the UMC.
    If the G. C. of the UMC keeps insisting that their members do not have “premarital sex,” the members who are together in an exclusive, loving relationship, but unmarried, they will either leave the church or lie about the relationship.
    If you insist that no woman or girl have an abortion, those women and girls will either leave, or they will not reveal that they have had an abortion. Remember one in three women will have had an abortion before she is 45 years of age. Some of these “abortions” were due to miscarriages, but others were chosen for a myriad of reasons, such as health of the mother, rape, incest or carrying a fetus with severe anomalies. The UMC may try to insist that fetuses with severe anomalies should still be allowed to be born, but will the UMC pay the horrendous medical bills that ensue?
    Abortion is a medical procedure, and must, always, be between a female and her physician, not the clergy and not the legislature.

  11. DONALD HIGBEE says

    If we as United Methodists want to see our denomination grow we must first get back to the basics of wining souls for Christ. To do that we need to make our case for why people need a Savior. That case is rooted in the first eleven chapters of Genesis. Without demonstrating to the World that the Bible is the foundation of ALL TRUTH then we lose along with every other denomination that has stopped teaching the truth about human origins and the origin of sin as the reason why they need a Redeemer.

    The challenge facing the Christian Church at large and United Methodists specifically is OUR failure to truly believe the ancient creeds of the Church we recite every Sunday. Do we really believe GOD created every thing seen and unseen or do we believe we are here by random chance. And I contend that if you believe that you are just a product of time and chance that you are wasting your time trying to rescue the United Methodist Church from extinction in the United States of America.

    My personal mission is to win souls for Jesus Christ through both personal ministry and in supporting the ministry of others.

    • Don, the BoD has been revised many times and I hope that it will be revised, again, during this G. C. The Bible, too, has many translations and many more interpretations that the one that you insist upon.
      God, to me, is not a “man” or a “woman,” but an unfathomable energy source, from which we get the strength to do all that we must do in this life and all that we may face during our life.
      As for a “Savior,” no,we do not need a “savior,” but we need to realize that this energy force, if we allow it. can help us to care about others as we care about ourselves, and allow us to be better people, and be all that we can be, while encouraging others to be all that they can be.
      I urge you to read a book by John Shelby Spong, entitled, “Why Christianity Must Change or Die.”


  1. […] a strategy that has been often used but has never yielded a turnaround.  Economist Don House predicts there will only be 17 U.S.annual conferences by 2050 under present polity and demographic trends. […]

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