Big Picture Status of United Methodism (Part 2 )

By Thomas Lambrecht-

In last week’s edition of Perspective, I began to survey the growth and decline of United Methodism around the globe. The big picture is that most of Methodism around the globe is in decline, with the exception of certain regions in Africa. Last week, I went into more detail about Africa [link].

When turning to the United States, the picture is more grim. Overall, the U.S. church lost 319,000 members. This represents 4.3 percent of its membership. There was only one annual conference that grew over the four years, and every jurisdiction lost members. Here are the statistics by jurisdiction:

The northern jurisdictions are not far behind when it comes to membership loss. They have a much higher membership level to start with, so the impact will not be felt as quickly. However, these figures have implications for the number of bishops in each of the northern jurisdictions. According to the formula in ¶ 404 of the Discipline, both jurisdictions are now entitled to eight bishops. However, both have nine active bishops currently. The 2016 General Conference froze the number of bishops because of the Commission on a Way Forward and its possible implications for restructuring the church. If the church is not restructured, however, it is likely that each jurisdiction will lose a bishop in 2020. (Of course, if there is a substantial exodus of members from the church after the 2019 General Conference, all jurisdictions may face the loss of one or more bishops.)While it had the smallest membership loss in numbers, the Western Jurisdiction lost the highest percentage of its membership. As has been noted for a number of years, this pace of membership loss is unsustainable in the West. Annual conferences are looking at consolidation/merger. There may come a time when the number of bishops in the West will need to be reduced below the constitutionally mandated number of five. Or the Western Jurisdiction may need to be folded into other jurisdictions. A study committee is looking at jurisdictional realignment, but all such plans are on hold until the 2019 General Conference decides what will be our denomination’s “way forward.”

Also in imminent danger of losing a bishop is the South Central Jurisdiction. Based on the formula, the SCJ has only 2,100 members more than the threshold for losing one of its ten bishops. If 2017 numbers are used to determine the number of bishops, it is possible for the SCJ to lose a bishop in 2020. But it will undoubtedly lose one bishop by 2024. The Southeastern Jurisdiction is not in danger of losing a bishop, as they voluntarily declined to add a bishop to which they were entitled several quadrenniums ago.

Annual Conference Trajectories

The only annual conference showing growth for the four years 2012-2016 was the North Carolina Annual Conference, which gained 76 members (statistically, less than 0.1 percent growth). Five other annual conferences declined by less than one percent:

              North Georgia                  -0.4 percent

              Kentucky                              -0.6 percent

              Texas                                     -0.7 percent

              Tennessee                             -0.9 percent

              Memphis                               -0.9 percent

Texas is in the South Central Jurisdiction, and the other four (plus North Carolina) are in the Southeastern Jurisdiction.

By comparison, there were six annual conferences that lost more than 10 percent of their members from 2012-2016.

              Upper New York              -17.0 percent

         Desert Southwest                -13.8 percent

              Yellowstone                          -12.2 percent

              Pacific Northwest                -12.2 percent

              Wisconsin                           -11.9 percent

              West Ohio                           -10.2 percent

Upper New York had the largest number of members lost at 28,500, making up nearly one-third of the membership losses suffered by the entire Northeastern Jurisdiction. West Ohio was next at 19,250, making up one-fourth of the membership losses suffered by the entire North Central Jurisdiction. Among other annual conferences, Florida, out of a much larger membership total, lost nearly 18,000 members, nearly one-third of the membership losses suffered by the Southeastern Jurisdiction. Central Texas lost 13,600, nearly one-fourth of the membership losses suffered by the South Central Jurisdiction, and Iowa lost nearly 11,000.

Three of these six fastest-declining conferences are in the Western Jurisdiction, two in the North Central, and one in the Northeastern. These declines could have devastating impact on some of the annual conferences involved. Yellowstone is the smallest non-missionary annual conference, with only 11,000 members. It is planning a merger with the Rocky Mountain Annual Conference over the next few years. Desert Southwest has only 31,000 members, while Pacific Northwest has just over 40,000 members and may explore a merger with the Oregon-Idaho Annual Conference (which itself only has just over 25,000 members). Wisconsin has 65,000 members, but may need to share a bishop (relinquishing its own residential bishop) with another annual conference beginning in 2020. Both Upper New York and West Ohio are much larger annual conferences, with almost 140,000 and almost 169,000 members respectively. They will not be as heavily impacted by loss of members in the near term.

The declines in all these conferences, however, are representative of why their respective jurisdictions are experiencing serious membership declines. It is worth noting that all six annual conferences are located in primarily rural areas. However, Washington State, Idaho, Nevada, and Arizona rank in the top ten states for population growth since 2010. Montana ranks in the top 20. (Pacific Northwest contains Washington State and part of Idaho, Yellowstone contains Montana and part of Wyoming, and Desert Southwest contains Arizona and part of Nevada.) Wisconsin and Ohio are 39th and 41st in population growth, while New York is 33rd, so that could have played a part in the membership declines in those areas.

Regardless of how fast or slow the population is declining in a given area, recent surveys have shown a surge in the number of unchurched people. The mission field in the United States has plenty of opportunity for harvest! Our church needs to find creative and faithful ways of making more disciples of Jesus Christ. Their eternity, not to mention the future of our church, depends upon it.

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News.

Comments

  1. As the membership shift continues from, it is strikingly hypocritical the resistance of progressives in granting Africans more representation in the church. If they were actually walking their talk, they would be leading the way to seeing this discrepancy corrected. Of course, their agenda of liberalizing the sexual ethics of the church trumps all other issues. —- especially the membership decline of the American UMC. Unless something along the lines of the following is adopted, then there could be a very small American presence in the UMC sooner rather than later.

    https://juicyecumenism.com/2018/02/26/six-steps-for-united-methodism-umc-future/

  2. Our continued decline (since BEFORE becoming the United Methodist Church in 1968) is the result of focusing on other agendas instead of evangelism and discipleship.

    An interesting 1987 book, “Facts & Possibilities,” by Douglas W. Johnson and Alan K. Waltz maps our decline and gives some compelling reasons for that decline. They point out that from about the mid-1960’s to the mid-1980’s church leadership nationally (and at the Annual Conference level) was focused primarily or merging the EUB and the MEC. Trying to merge two church structures at every level absorbed time, energy and resources. Evangelism and outreach did not.

    While there was some attempt at refocusing on evangelism and discipleship from the mid-80’s on, the major focus of our energy has been on theological infighting, primarily over the issue of homosexuality (although this is the “presenting issue” for a much deeper theological division). We simply can’t get focused seriously on evangelism when we are so deeply divided at all levels of church life (including, in many cases, even in local churches where people have broad views theologically).

    For these reasons, I truly believe the only way we will turn the corner from decline to growth and begin seriously “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” is through some kind of division approved by the 2019 or 2010 General Conferences. If we are going to learn from our past history, this really seems like the lesson we need to take seriously to heart.

  3. …and, if and when this division takes place, we need to refocus our time, energy and resources quickly on church planting, evangelism and disciple-making ministries. We won’t have the luxury of spending years simply reorganizing or looking inward at which marbles we were able to bring with us from the amicable separation.

    If the new church’s leadership (be they bishops, ministry or agency leaders, local church pastors or anyone else) don’t have a sense of urgency about these missional foci, we will continue to decline even though we are theologically and missionally united as a denomination.

  4. Robert E Hutcheson says:

    Absolutely correct Mike !

  5. William says:
    • I’d like to hear more about what the implications of this report are from long-time bishop watchers. I do not want to be left to my own thoughts which are quite negative.

    • If the bishops have decided to put unity above scriptural faithfulness, it’s over. Conservative/orthodox pastors and churches will leave (and maybe enter into a new venture via the WCA?), and the liberals will keep the name, while continuing to push their agenda for full inclusion of every possible sexual lifestyle – by every pastor and in every church that either chooses to stay or ends up staying because of apathetic inaction.

      As someone said elsewhere, it may be time to retire, even though I’m not financially prepared to. But I’ll be 62 by the time we have our 2020 Annual Conference, so I could legally do it and get out of Dodge, and find a place to serve in ministry elsewhere.

  6. The “leadership” in the church will soon find themselves to be “king of nothing”. They will drive away the ones who believe the same way that centuries of Methodists have. To hear sermons that preach contrary to what other pastors preach on the same subject matter makes one ask oneself “which way is correct”? A humble person must operate with the presumption that thousands of years of biblical teaching and hundreds of years of Methodism cannot be overturned because someone had a revelation that works contrary to the others. We may have more technology today, we may have more data today, but we must assume that we are no smarter and no wiser than those who came before. It’s like the child that comes home from college their freshman year and thinks they are smarter than their parents and grandparents. By the time they are 30 or so they realize they know less than they did as a college student. The reason for this is they begin to understand that technology and knowledge is no substitute for wisdom. Solomon knew wisdom is more advantageous than any other “gift”. The wise among this generation will learn from the ones who lived the Christians walk before them and be very cautious about new social trends.

    • A Retired Preacher says:

      E – your thoughts are very well said. And in an age and culture where the wisdom of the ages is ignored, how can we feel that we are honoring our parents, when our actions are taking away the churches, church families, and faith that they have believed in, trusted in, lived in, for countless generations. Peace and joy will be replaced by sadness and unrest.

  7. Mark Vern says:

    I have a data question. Does the number of members lost include loss because of death? Or is that a different number altogether? Where could someone find that data?

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