by Steve | Mar 21, 2023 | In the News, March/April 2023
By Danielle Strickland
I stole my first car when I was twelve years old. In family court, when my fate seemed to be incarceration, a leader from my church insisted I was going through a hard patch, but I could be sentenced to community service at a camp. The judge jumped at the opportunity.
But not even the intervention of kindness, the crisp, clean air of the woods, or the majesty of the natural world could snap me out of my downward trajectory. I’m bewildered and amazed that I lived through it. I can only surmise that the power of prayer and the grace of God, both undeserved but freely given, kept me alive.
I don’t remember a whole lot, but there are a few moments I can’t forget.
I remember the drive-thru where my uncle took out a bottle of vodka and topped off my Sprite, assuring me this would make a Happy Meal even better. I was eleven. He was bad. And I loved it. He fed me more than alcohol that day – he fed me the recipe of escape. Of addiction. A steady diet of lies is what I drank from that man. Those lies kept on feeding me.
I wanted to be bad. I didn’t want the consequences of my actions, but I also didn’t really mind them that much. I became drug-addicted, cold-hearted, and completely out of control.
That brought me to a day in court for over twelve charges. I had stolen another car. I had led the police in a high-speed chase around the city. I was with my partner who I had been forbidden to see by court order. I had robbed a store and injured the owner in an escape. I had damaged property. I had drugs on me and was high as a kite. The court wanted to try me as an adult or sentence me to the maximum for a young person – three years in a maximum-security prison.
On the inside, it did not matter to me if I lived or died. I was not at all remorseful. As the court was deciding if we would be released or held, the plaintiff called forward the man whose car we had stolen. His name happened to be Mr. Rogers. And even though my friend and I were handcuffed and facing jail time, we could not stop laughing. I mean seriously – Mr. Rogers!
My friend started singing “It’s a terrible day in the neighborhood.”
And even though the judge was ticked off, I said, “Boys and girls, can you say criminal?” And we both laughed.
They remanded me to prison because they believed I was a threat to society. They were right. Soon, I was in a holding cell in the basement of City Hall in downtown Toronto.
But then the guard let in a woman named Joyce Ellery, a member of my parent’s church. I rolled my eyes and cursed under my breath. I was not interested in the lecture or the invitation to change my ways. I couldn’t take the perpetual disappointment of my religious upbringing.
Joyce entered my cell and handed me a lawyer’s card – which is the kind of practical Christianity that brings tears to my eyes. And then she did something I did not expect. She hugged me. She wrapped her warm arms around my cold-hearted, drug-infused, bristling body. And what she didn’t do spoke volumes.
She didn’t lecture me. She didn’t scold me. She didn’t even advise me. She whispered in my ear while hugging my resistant teenage frame: “I love you.” That’s it. That’s all. That’s the whole thing. Then she nodded at the guard, who promptly opened the door for her to leave.
I was dumbfounded. But when that cell door closed, I heard the bang of finality. I was alone. I was stuck. I was lost. And then the most wonderful thing happened. Jesus showed up.
Was it a vision? A feeling? A trance? A tangible encounter with the divine? A metaphysical neurological brain experience? A drug trip? I have no idea. Here is all I know: Jesus showed up. I felt him. I sensed him. I heard him. I experienced him.
Jesus came with his arms open and wrapped me in his love. He whispered in my ear, “I love you.” And all the fear and pain, and shame and guilt, and hardness and badness started to loosen and leave, and I felt loved. Unconditionally loved.
It was like someone turned on a light inside of me and I could finally see that the place I was in was not good. That I didn’t belong there.
That encounter with Jesus did something that can never be undone. However, it did not make me magically better. Love made me alive, but it still left me human.
I was still addicted to drugs. I was still in prison. I was still stuck in cycles of thinking and living that would be very difficult to break. I was still captive to a lot of pain buried deep inside that would take decades to uncover and bury. But I was alive, I could feel, I could see, and I had hope.
I’m so thankful for Joyce. And Jesus. And even Mr. Rogers.
For that day truly was the most terrible, wonderful, beautiful day in the neighborhood.
Danielle Strickland is pastor, author, and justice advocate based in Toronto, Canada. She is the author of several books and host of DJStrickland Podcast, ambassador for Stop the Traffik, as well as the co-founder of Infinitum, Amplify Peace, The Brave Campaign and the Women Speakers Collective. This article was excerpted from The Other Side of Hope by Danielle Strickland. Copyright © 2022 by Danielle Strickland. Used by permission of Thomas Nelson Publishing (www.harpercollinschristian.com).
She will be one of the plenary speakers at the Beyond These Walls conference April 27-29 at The Woodlands Methodist Church in The Woodlands, Texas.
by Steve | Mar 21, 2023 | In the News, March/April 2023
By Scott Sauls
The book of Ecclesiastes is a confounding, long-hand essay written by a man who on the one hand has immeasurable power, wealth, possessions, feasting, and pleasure, and on the other hand cannot find happiness.
As I think about Ecclesiastes and all the other stories of prosperous women and men for whom life’s “rich blessings” have not delivered on their promises, I am also struck by Jesus’ admonishment to his disciples as they began experiencing “success” as the world defines it:
“The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, ‘Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!’ And he said to them…Behold, I have given you authority to tread on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy, and nothing shall hurt you. Nevertheless, do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven’” (Luke 10:17-20).
Did you catch that? When Jesus’ disciples came to him with news of their extraordinary strength and influence and success, his response was to say, “Do not rejoice…”
When God gives us success and loved ones and happy circumstances for a time, when he chooses to put the wind at our backs – by all means, we should enjoy the experience. But we mustn’t hang our hats on it … because earthly success, in all its forms, comes to us as a gift from God and is also fleeting. Our Lord is telling us not to allow appetizers to replace the feast, or a single apple to replace the orchard, or a road sign to replace the destination to which it points.
On this, C.S. Lewis provides essential wisdom in The Weight of Glory: “It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires (that is, our ambitions) not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.”
No self-serving ambition has the ability to satisfy the vastness of the human soul made in the image of God. As Augustine aptly said, the Lord has made us for himself. Our hearts will be restless until they find their rest in him.
Lewis’ perspective, when we share it, can also safeguard us from what the famous playwright, Tennessee Williams, called “The Catastrophe of Success.” Williams understood that while things like momentum, influence, position, being known, and being celebrated are fine in themselves, none of these things can sustain us in the long run.
Reflecting on his instant success after the release of his blockbuster Broadway play, The Glass Menagerie, he wrote: “I was snatched out of virtual oblivion and thrust into sudden prominence… I sat down and looked about me and was suddenly very depressed… I lived on room service. But in this, too, there was a disenchantment… I soon found myself becoming indifferent to people. A well of cynicism rose in me… I got so sick of hearing people say, “I loved your play!” that I could not say thank you any more… I no longer felt any pride in the play itself but began to dislike it, probably because I felt too lifeless inside ever to create another. I was walking around dead in my shoes… You know, then, that the public Somebody you are when you ‘have a name’ is a fiction created with mirrors.”
Tennessee Williams’ story, as well as the story of every person who has experienced the anticlimax of getting to the end of the rainbow and finding that there is not a pot of gold there after all, confirms a universal truth for every human heart:
Only Jesus, whose rule and peace shall never stop increasing (Isaiah 9:7), can sustain us. Only Jesus, whose resurrection assures us that he is, and forever will be, making all things new, can fulfill our deepest desires and give us a happily ever after. Only Jesus can make everything sad come untrue (got that one from J.R.R. Tolkien). Only Jesus can ensure a future in which every chapter will be better than the one before (from C.S. Lewis). Only Jesus can give to us the glory and the soaring strength of an eagle (Isaiah 40:31). Only Jesus, whose name is above every name, and at whose name every knee will bow, can give us a name that will endure forever (Philippians 2:9-10; Isaiah 56:5).
Making much of his name is, then, a far superior ambition than making a name for ourselves. For apart from Jesus, all men and women, even the most ambitious and successful and strong, will wither away like a vapor. “People are like grass. The grass withers, the flower fades, but the word of our God will stand forever” (Psalm 40:7-8).
Is the wind at your back? Don’t hang your hat there. Is the wind in your face? You can still rejoice, because in Jesus, your name is written in God’s book. And what could be better than that?
Scott Sauls is the pastor of Christ Presbyterian Church in Nashville and the author of numerous books. He has authored six books: Jesus Outside the Lines, Befriend, From Weakness to Strength, Irresistible Faith, and a Gentle Answer. His most recent book is called Beautiful People Don’t Just Happen. This article originally appeared on his website (scottsauls.com) and is reprinted here by permission.
by Steve | Mar 20, 2023 | In the News, March/April 2023
By Jenifer Jones
Sharon Hill* is a storyteller. She recites passages of Scripture in an interactive way, inviting listeners to see themselves in the story and to experience the Jesus they are hearing about. She does this primarily among Muslims and among people who used to be Muslims and who are now believers in Christ. All of the stories are told orally, making it an ideal method for reaching out to those in locations where it might be dangerous to have a Bible. She also trains people to share the gospel through storying. In Central Asia, she taught a team that visits women who are trafficked and prostituted. The group members invited Hill to go with them into a brothel so that they could watch Hill’s example of storying in such a setting. What follows is Sharon’s retelling of the encounter.
I’m in Central Asia in the middle of the night in a brothel. The team I was with had been there before. We walked in and my host said, “This is my friend. Her name is Sharon, and she’s a storyteller.”
We sat down at a little table with a few of the women. There were some men buying women behind me at the desk, passing money along, disappearing into the corridor.
In this culture, older people have nothing to do with the women in the brothel. The women wanted to know how old I was, and then they started to give me beauty advice. We were having the best time laughing and talking. God was building a rapport.
Finally, my friend said, “Well, would you like to hear one of her stories?” The women said, “Yes, yes, yes.”
One of the ladies at our table yelled at the madam who runs the brothel and said, “Turn off the television. We want to hear her story.”
I never know what story to tell until the moment arrives. I felt God saying that I should tell the Bartimaeus story. And I thought, Lord, these are all women. This is about a male beggar. Are You sure?
I said to the women, “Now put yourself into this story, as if you were there.”
“And so as Jesus and his disciples, together with a large crowd, were leaving Jericho, there was a blind man named Bartimaeus sitting by the roadside begging.”
I said, “So tell me what you think it’s like for him. Blind, begging, sitting by the roadside.” One lady started to tear up and wouldn’t make eye contact. She said, “Oh, I know how he felt. I was pushed down the stairs by a boy when I was younger, and I lost my sight. I was blind and went through many surgeries before I regained my sight. I know what it’s like to feel blind and not be able to see.”
I went on with the story. “When Bartimaeus heard it was Jesus of Nazareth, he cried out, ‘Jesus, Son of David, have mercy on me.’ And the crowd rebuked him, and said, ‘Be quiet.’”
I asked the ladies, “So what does that tell you about the crowd? They’re telling him to be quiet. How did that make Bartimaeus feel?” And the same woman said, “Don’t ask me that question because you will make me cry. And I don’t want to ruin my makeup. Because I know.”
Because these are all prostitutes. They know what it’s like to be rejected. I continued the story: “Jesus says bring him and the crowd brings him. And when he comes to Jesus, Jesus says to him, what is it that you want me to do for you?”
And I thought, Oh, dear God. I’m going to have to ask that question. I said, “You know that Jesus is here right now with us, and he knows you. He is asking you this question. What is it that you want him to do for you?”
And this same woman said, “Can we ask anything?” I thought she’d say, new house, a car, $1,000,000. I said, “Yes.”
She said, “I want a child.”
My heart just sank. In a brothel, this woman is sleeping with who knows how many men. And she was not well preserved. The woman had seen some life. I just thought, Lord, You hear this. I said, “We will pray.” And in my doubt, in the wee hours of the morning, we left.
The team and I went to an all-night coffee shop. I asked my friend, “How in the world can we pray for a child to be born to this prostitute?”
She said, “Sharon, this could be her escape. Having a baby could be her only way out.”
All right, Lord, I thought. Then we leave this in your hands. I’m scared to ask. You said anything.
A few months later I asked the team if anyone had heard from the woman. They replied, “Oh, yes. She’s pregnant. And she has left the business, and we don’t know where she went. But she’s left.” We began to pray that wherever she was, that she would know that it was Jesus who had given her this child, and that God would give her a safe place.
By faith, we believe that God has birthed life in this woman – not just with the baby, but in Him. God’s grace rescued this woman through a physical child. And we believe that God either has, or is, bringing her to himself.
Hill says she usually doesn’t get to know how people’s stories end. But that night in the brothel, a woman heard the end of the Bartimaeus story: “And Jesus said, your faith has healed you. Receive your sight. And immediately he received his sight. And He followed Jesus along the way”
“Jesus gave Bartimaeus freedom to go his own way,” Hill says. “But he chose to follow Jesus. We believe that the woman is also doing the same thing.”
Jenifer Jones is a communicator for TMS Global (tms-global.com). TMS Global is a sponsor of the Beyond the Walls mission conference to be held April 27-29 at The Woodlands Methodist Church in The Woodlands, Texas.
*Pseudonym is used for security reasons.
by Steve | Mar 20, 2023 | In the News, March/April 2023, Uncategorized
By B.J. Funk
You and I are cofounders of the “Can’t Admit When I’m Wrong” club. One of us realized its truth first, but I can’t recall if it was you or me. It’s almost unfair how we were selected because, at the time, both of us were terribly young and in control of most things in our lives, so much so that if “you’re wrong” ever dared to challenge us, we rebelled and stomped on the thought immediately. We were too young and immature to understand its implication and too self-centered to actually jump inside of that accusation and allow it to grow us up, soften us, mold us, and bring character and integrity into us. Pride kept us on the peripheral of contentment, and our bodies warmed that spot so often that we felt that’s where we belonged. That cozy nest felt safe. We called it home, but it had nothing to do with a physical space and everything to do with a comfortable place to hide.
As we advanced in age, truth sometimes knocked us down but was never able to keep us down. We only thought we had all the answers that would change the world. Our youth played hide and seek with our soul. We hid when others caught on to our erroneous thinking. We sought another friend, another role model, another anybody who would agree with us, coddle us, side with us and even admire us.
We had to be the biggest and best. Success tantalized our thoughts until we sat down in a big puddle of our broken dreams and idealistic world view.
Now, looking on the other side of broken dreams, we both see life completely differently. The way we acted was an insane search to be noticed, to get that promotion, to be the one that others admired. Do you remember those days?
Somewhere in between carpooling the kids and finishing our degrees, one of us learned to say, “I’m sorry.” That’s huge. It slides into the heart of your opponent with ease and sits down right next to “I forgive you.”
You and I don’t have to be in control. This understanding almost explodes our hearts with joy. We feel free. We don’t always have to be right.
There is one crucial teaching of Jesus that is the hardest for us to accept, even harder for us to do. It’s called dying to self, and it is overlooked by you or me, I can’t recall which. The command rises to the top of the New York Times Best Command List. It is life changing.
One of us, either you or me, tried it for a season, and it didn’t stick. Galatians 2:20 makes it clear that it must stick: “I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me.”
The words of Jesus in Luke 9:23 place an exclamation mark on this command: “And he said to them all, If any man will come after me, let him deny himself, and take up his cross daily, and follow me.”
“When someone ‘spiritually dies to self,’” writes Dr. D.W. Ekstrand, “self ceases to exist – that is, self is no longer the reason for one’s existence. As such, the individual is no longer concerned with ‘his own will or happiness,’ because he is no longer in the picture … he is no longer the center of his own little universe … he no longer continues to arrange the world around himself.”
We cannot admit we are wrong because we have never crucified the old man and died to self. We have continued to be the center of our own universe. Self-love reigns.
“In dying to the self-life,” Ekstrand writes, “we discover the abundant life.”
As Christians, we must do this. If we want our best life ever, we must. If we want to be true Jesus followers, we must. One of us, I’m not sure which, needs to get started.
B.J. Funk is Good News’ long-time devotional columnist and author of It’s A Good Day for Grace, available on Amazon.
by Steve | Mar 14, 2023 | In the News, March/April 2023
By Eddie and Allyson Willis
On a July morning in the mountains at Lake Junaluska, North Carolina, young people and their leaders from youth ministries around the Southeast have just finished breakfast and are gathered outside the entrances of Shackford Hall in the cool, crisp morning air.
They are awaiting the top of the hour when college counselors will fling open the building doors, allowing them to rush in for the “best seats” on the floor or the coveted seats in the balcony.
“Three, two, one… open those doors!” resounds throughout the building. Students rush in expectant for the things that are to come in the worship session.
Why the energy and excitement? This is summer Christian youth camp! Many of these students have waited the school year to pack their bags, load up their church bus, and spend part of a week with M28Camps in the space of the Lake Junaluska Retreat and Conference Center in the mountains near Waynesville, North Carolina.
So, what is unique about this camp experience? Youth ministries that bring their groups come away from an M28 experience talking about the difference in this event. “M28Camps is camp ministry done great. They’re very intentional at making sure students and adults alike are fully engaged in discipleship, worship, and community,” said Bryant Fisher, youth pastor of Brentwood United Methodist Church in Brentwood, Tennessee. “It will be the best tradition you’ve ever started for your summer ministry plans.”
The M28Camp model is to focus not only on the students but also the adults as well. Students and adults alike participate in worship, teaching, discipleship groups, and seminars all designed to help participants grow in the likeness and image of our Savior, Jesus Christ.
“The M28 leaders want to see the students fall in love with Jesus and fully live out his truth,” said Jason Anding, youth leader at St. Matthew’s United Methodist Church in Madison, Mississippi. “M28 is unique in that it holds the authority of Scripture dear and unashamedly strives to teach the truth of the Gospel to every student and adult who comes. It is a fun, high energy camp that is discipleship-focused and worship-centered in the beautiful Blue Ridge Mountains. M28Camps is a must for your students and church!”
Worship. A typical worship service at M28Camps not only holds the anticipation of grabbing a seat but that of singing worship songs, participating in stage games, watching counselor skits, drinking in the teaching from pastors and speakers from around the country, and enjoying being a part of what God is doing in their lives through camp. All of these elements are a recipe for student growth with their youth ministry, friends, and ultimately their Savior.
Discipleship. M28 follows the guidance of scriptural teaching in Matthew 28 to “go and make disciples.” That is the heart and passion of this ministry. Discipleship for M28 starts when the college summer staff begins meeting prior to camp to sharpen their swords together and study spiritual disciplines they can begin to practice in deeper ways before camp starts. At camp, these college counselors serve as discipleship leaders for the students who come with their youth groups to attend camp. In these “D-Groups” they are able each day to take the biblical teaching of the speaker and worship leaders and go deeper into understanding not only what they mean but how to begin to apply it in their own lives.
“Our youth are bathed in prayer individually and as a group by M28 staff,” said Susan Wright, co-director of youth ministries at Holland’s Church in Raleigh, North Carolina. “We confidently place our trust in M28Camps year to year to provide a Spirit-filled, Jesus-seeking experience for our youth.”
Students aren’t the only ones who are given the space and time to grow deeper in their faith. Adults who come – whether they are the student ministers, parents, or volunteer chaperones – also participate in their own D-Group. They have the opportunity for time away to be ministered to and listen to God speak into their lives.
There is a very high return rate of adult volunteers which we think is attributed in part to Adult D-Groups. We bring in pastors/speakers to pour into our participating adults. We honestly believe the adults benefit just as much as the students. Many fruits grow from these D-Group times: new ideas bloom, burn-out “soul care” happens, and faith is challenged in ways that are life-giving.
College Staff. M28Camps believes in training college students in ministry. Each summer a college staff is given the opportunity to lead young people in workshops, devotions, music, stage skits and games, and programmatic opportunities that help the camp function. There is great value in the careful selection of young adults who want to share their faith as well as lead others in the same manner. The position of a college counselor not only begins with staff devotion every day, beginning as breakfast is shared together, but ends each night with debriefing and prayer to process how their faith is being challenged and renewed.
Free time. Renewal can also happen for all who participate by experiencing the incredible natural terrain that North Carolina brings. Groups are encouraged to take advantage of the activities available in the Blue Ridge Mountains that surround the retreat center. Time away from technology and experiencing the beauty of God’s creation has a powerful effect on the participants. The M28Camps schedule is designed for groups to have time to explore locations they might not normally experience. Groups enjoy such activities as white-water rafting, exploring the town of Waynesville, canoeing and paddle boarding at Lake Junaluska, as well as many of the offerings of free hiking, waterfalls, and swimming holes along the Blue Ridge Parkway.
The top group free-time destinations seem to be “Slide Rock” and “Deep Creek Tubing.” The cost is minimal for the amount of fun provided. Taking time to explore these beautiful God-given scenes helps students remove themselves from their regular world often filled with concerns. It opens up space for God to break through their fears as they can often hear him more clearly without all the distractions.
M28 seeks to follow the call to make disciples through creative youth camp experiences where students and adults can get away from their regular routine and begin to examine what it means to follow Christ in a deeper way. The goal is to take that learning and practice back home where they will use the knowledge in their lives and pass it on to others.
Eddie and Allyson Willis are the parents of four children and the co-founders of the M28Camps. Eddie is the Campus Minister at Ole Miss Wesley Foundation and the pastor of Taylor United Methodist Church. M28Camps is expecting around 1600 youth and adults this July. For more information, please go to www.m28camps.com.
by Steve | Mar 10, 2023 | In the News
By Thomas Lambrecht
A recent report by Lovett Weems of the Lewis Center for Church Leadership purports to examine the 2,000 or so churches that disaffiliated from The United Methodist Church by the end of 2022.
The Weems report was supposedly intended to discover the non-theological characteristics of these disaffiliating churches and how they are like or unlike the broader UM denomination as a whole.
After reading the report, one wonders if it was even necessary to have a prestigious team of researchers issue a blue-ribbon report that there are “more similarities than differences between the cohort of disaffiliating churches and the total pool of all United Methodist churches.” There is really nothing much to see here in the results of the analysis.
Nevertheless, in a fractious time where differences of opinion are characterized as “misinformation,” the report claimed: “But disaffiliating churches are overwhelmingly in the South with majority white memberships. They are also more likely to have a male pastor …”
The problem with issuing reports like Weems’ in a Twitter age is that statistics can make ham-fisted and non-insightful conclusions. The bullet point characterization shown at the top of this article is shallow and problematic. For example, one can look at the report and just as easily proclaim: Non-disaffiliating churches are overwhelmingly in the Northeast and West with majority white memberships. They are also more likely to have a male pastor.
Furthermore, someone can hardly be blamed for asking what exactly is the point of a study of a process that is only partially complete and does not have fixed variables for participants? Even The Lewis Center knows that all annual conferences are not treating the disaffiliation process evenly across the board.
Can someone be faulted for wondering if the fractured “analysis” was merely issued to paint disaffiliation as solely the interest of white, Southern, male clergy?
This is seen most prominently in Weems’ supposed three biggest takeaways. “The greater differences we found for disaffiliating churches compared to all churches came in the majority racial makeup of the congregation (white), location (Southern), and gender of the pastor (male).”
To fill out the picture, let us look more closely at what the Weems analysis shows and does not show.
A Preliminary Picture
The first thing that must be noted is that the data on which the analysis is based is skewed toward the early disaffiliators. About 2,000 churches had disaffiliated by the end of 2022, out of a total of about 30,500 United Methodist congregations. Thus, by the end of 2022, about 6.6 percent of all UM churches had disaffiliated. These disaffiliations took place over a 12-18 month period. That level of disaffiliation in such a short time is in itself extraordinary.
As noted earlier, each annual conference has a different disaffiliation process, and some annual conferences had an easier and/or more affordable process than others. Thus, the population of disaffiliating churches is not representative of what the whole population will be at the end of this process. Twenty-one annual conferences had fewer than 6 churches disaffiliate in 2022, including eight conferences that had zero disaffiliations.
Furthermore, there is still another year to run in the disaffiliation process before Par. 2553 expires at the end of 2023. Based on our contacts among annual conference leaders, the 2,000 churches that disaffiliated in 2022 represent less than half the total that will disaffiliate by the end of 2023.
In addition, if the 2024 General Conference provides a reasonable and just way for disaffiliation to continue, there will be more congregations leaving through the end of 2025. This will be particularly true if that continued pathway eliminates some of the egregious financial penalties being imposed by some annual conferences. Post-General Conference disaffiliation will increase if, as anticipated, the General Conference changes the definition of marriage, repeals the Traditional Plan, allows same-sex weddings, and welcomes non-celibate gay and lesbian clergy.
Weems’ analysis concedes, “It is anticipated that more will exercise this option [of disaffiliation] by the end of 2023 when the disaffiliation legislation expires. … It is impossible to know if further disaffiliations will mirror the characteristics of this first group of about 2,000 churches. There is a good chance that some patterns that are pronounced in their variation from overall United Methodist patterns may continue.”
The nature of the disaffiliation process as a disjointed, conference-by-conference process makes it less likely that the patterns of the early disaffiliators will persist in the final makeup of all disaffiliated churches in the end. One must take Weems’ conclusions with many grains of salt, pending a further analysis when we have come more nearly to the end of the process and have a more broadly representative sample.
The first thing to note about disaffiliating churches is that they reflect fairly accurately the size categories of the general UM church. Weems found that “Compared to all United Methodist churches, disaffiliating churches are about the same mixture of churches by attendance size groupings.” The only real difference is that slightly more disaffiliating churches are between 25 and 50 in worship attendance, while slightly fewer are under 25 in worship attendance.
The story is floating around, spread by some UM leaders, that the disaffiliating churches are primarily small and rural. Weems found that is not the case. In our own analysis, at least 29 of the top 100 churches in worship attendance have disaffiliated or are known to be in the process of doing so. (There may be more.) Based on the overall percentage of churches disaffiliating (6.6 percent), one would expect only six or seven of the top 100 churches to disaffiliate. Four times the expected number have done so, meaning that the very largest churches are overrepresented in the population of disaffiliating congregations.
Weems’ analysis makes a big point out of the fact that, so far, a greater percentage of disaffiliating churches are located in the South. Here are the percentages:
PERCENT OF TOTAL UMC
PERCENT OF CHURCHES DISAFFILIATING
North Central Jurisdiction
South Central Jurisdiction
It is important to understand the context of why this would be so. Many of the northern annual conferences did not have functional disaffiliation processes until this year. On the other hand, many of the southern annual conferences had much shorter and simpler disaffiliation processes that were in effect already in 2022. So the southern churches got a head start on the rest and are somewhat overrepresented in the total of disaffiliating churches.
The South Central Jurisdiction is by far the one that is most overrepresented among disaffiliating churches – 21 percentage points above its expected proportion. That is almost entirely due to three annual conferences in Texas. The Northwest Texas, Central Texas, and Texas annual conferences experienced a very high percentage of disaffiliations that took place relatively quickly in 2022. Texas had half its congregations disaffiliate, Central Texas a bit less than half, and Northwest Texas nearly three-fourths. These percentages are obviously much higher than the 6.6 percent across the denomination and skew the results toward the South Central. Once all the disaffiliations are completed in 2023, it is expected that the percent in the South Central will be closer to 22 percent, not far from the 17 percent that the jurisdiction makes up for the whole.
It is true that the Southeastern Jurisdiction includes a disproportionate share of traditionalist churches. That is not expected to change when the final results are in. Northern and Western jurisdictions have suffered a much greater membership loss over the last couple decades, and that has affected the number of remaining traditionalists in those areas. Traditionalists in the south have not seen their annual conferences affected by disobedience and liberal theology to the same extent, so there has been less motivation to leave the church. However, it is expected that the northern churches should nearly double their percentage of the total disaffiliated congregations in the end.
This whole discussion under location points out why Weems’ analysis is premature and subject to change as disaffiliations continue.
Growth and Decline
Weems found in his analysis that disaffiliating churches were more likely to have grown in attendance in 2019 (the year he used for comparison, which was pre-pandemic). He also noted that disaffiliating churches received fewer professions of faith compared to the denomination as a whole. Does that mean the disaffiliating churches emphasized attendance more than membership? Or would the increase in attendance show up as an increase in professions of faith in a future year? Or is membership growth coming more by transfer in those congregations? We do not know the “why” of these statistics.
It seems risky to classify a church as growing or declining based only on one year’s changes in statistics. Any number of factors can cause a blip up or down in the numbers in a given year, but do not represent the longer-term trend. It would be wiser to use a three-year or five-year growth pattern, but that would take a lot more time and effort to run those numbers for over 30,000 churches!
Racial and Ethnic Makeup
The Lewis Center research staff is well-aware of how sensitive the issue of race and ethnic makeup of a congregation can be. The United Methodist Church in the United States has historically been an overwhelming white denomination. We have justifiably worked for decades to make it more inclusive to reflect the broader American population.
Historically, United Methodism’s racial makeup is made even more complex because we have time-honored relationships with African American sister-denominations such as The African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), The African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church (AMEZ), and The Christian Methodist Episcopal Church (CME).
That is why it is not a special revelation that the Weems team found that an overwhelming majority of disaffiliating congregations were majority white from a denomination that is overwhelmingly white (in the United States). (Of course, the Global Methodist Church does have non-white leaders on its staff and Transitional Leadership Council and welcomes majority-non-white congregations.)
Other factors, such as the financial support that some ethnic churches receive from their annual conferences, as well as cultural dynamics, play into the decision of whether a given congregation will disaffiliate. When reading the report, it is also worth noting that many large Asian congregations on the West Coast and the Northeast are hampered by the requirement that they pay 50 percent of their (astronomical) property value in order to disaffiliate. Such a requirement makes disaffiliation financially impossible when they would owe millions or tens of millions of dollars.
So there are why racial and ethnic non-white congregations might think twice about disaffiliating.
Weems found that, “Compared to all United Methodist churches, disaffiliating churches have pastors who are less likely to be an active elder and more likely to be part-time local pastors, associate members, lay supply, and retired clergy.” Actually, Weems’ numbers show that pastors of disaffiliating churches are no more likely to be full-time local pastors, lay supply pastors, or associate members, compared with the denomination as a whole.
Disaffiliating churches were six percentage points less likely to be served by an ordained elder and three percentage points more likely to be served by a part-time local pastor or a retired pastor. Part-time and retired pastors are more likely to serve smaller congregations or congregations in transitional situations. Both full- and part-time local pastors are likely to be ordained as elders or deacons in the Global Methodist Church, meaning that GMC congregations will have a much higher percentage of their churches served by ordained clergy.
What struck me was the fact that only 43 percent of all UM churches are being served by an ordained elder. More UM congregations are served by full- or part-time local pastors or supply pastors. Yet the UM system is designed to serve mainly elders. Local pastors and supply pastors have no guarantee of a job and are at the mercy of the bishop and district committee on ministry. It is amazing to me that as many churches with local or supply pastors decided to disaffiliate as have done so. Perhaps one reason is that such pastors will have far more power and support in the GMC.
Weems also determined that, “Compared to all United Methodist churches, disaffiliating churches have pastors who are more likely to be male. Only 17 percent of disaffiliating churches have a woman as lead pastor compared to 29 percent for United Methodist churches as a whole.”
However, the numbers behind this conclusion are questionable. Apparently, the data used for Weems’ analysis does not include a designation of gender for the pastor. Weems and his team went through 30,000 clergy name by name and assigned the probable gender based on their name. I can only imagine the monumental workload this process took! It is a subjective judgment for each name whether it is male or female. The margin for error must be high. In addition, Weems has stipulated in email correspondence that they could not identify the gender for 3 percent of UM pastors and 5 percent of disaffiliating church pastors.
Because of these questions, it is dubious whether the “gender gap” is as wide as Weems suggests.
On the other hand, it would not be surprising that there would be somewhat of a “gender gap” among pastors in disaffiliating churches. I have spoken to numerous female pastors who have traditional theology and are therefore ostracized in their annual conferences because of it. If traditional-minded female pastors find United Methodism inhospitable, they would not likely stick around very long in the ministry or perhaps not even get admitted in the first place.
Mark Twain quoted the British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli as saying, “There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Statistics can sometimes be made to tell a false story or support a weak argument.
Weems’ analysis should be regarded only as a preliminary snapshot – an inadequate one at that – of disaffiliating churches at the end of 2022. The situation can and will change before all the dust has settled. The context around numbers can help us bring the picture into better focus. Most importantly, the numbers themselves do not explain “why” the picture is the way it is. For that, we will need to dig deeper over the years ahead. In the meantime, Weems’ analysis should not be made to tell a story that the numbers do not really support.
Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and vice president of Good News.