The Changing Shape of Methodism

By Thomas Lambrecht

As many churches considered the option of disaffiliation, there has been a focus on the contrast between a traditional understanding of our Methodist doctrines and practices compared with how The United Methodist Church has evolved over the past couple of decades. Now that the disaffiliation process is moving forward with the current wave of annual conference votes, it is appropriate to look at how the structure of Methodism will be changing as a result.

Disaffiliation Progress

As of this week, 1,836 congregations have disaffiliated from the UM Church in 2023. Added to the 2,017 that disaffiliated before this year, that means 3,853 churches have disaffiliated, representing 13 percent of all U.S. congregations.

There have been arguments about whether this constitutes a “schism” or a “split” or instead a “splintering” of United Methodism. Some are unwilling to call it a schism or a split until it reaches half the denomination separating. (That is a somewhat arbitrary definition of schism or split, which simply refers to a division in the body.) It should be noted that five annual conferences have experienced the loss of more than 40 percent of their congregations. Even under the arbitrary definition, for those conferences it is a schism.

It is estimated that at least another 1,100 congregations will complete the disaffiliation process over the rest of this year. It will probably be more than that, as some conferences do not publicize the number of disaffiliating churches until right before the annual conference meets to vote on them. Even with this conservative projection, nearly 5,000 churches total will have disaffiliated by the end of 2023, which represents 17 percent of all U.S. UM congregations.

Although exact numbers are not available at this point, it appears that at least 80 percent of disaffiliating congregations are aligning immediately with the Global Methodist Church (GMC). Others are remaining independent for a time while they discern their future and heal from the wounds of disaffiliation. It is expected that many of these churches will eventually choose to align with the GMC. In addition, many new GMC churches are starting with the core members of congregations that did not reach the required two-thirds vote to disaffiliate.

Based on these projections, the GMC should have well over 4,000 congregations and nearly 1 million members in the U.S. when the current wave of disaffiliations is completed and churches work their way through the discernment and application process to join the GMC.

A Global GMC

Of course, the GMC is a global denomination not limited to the U.S. The very first congregational members of the GMC were in the Bulgaria Annual Conference, which officially joined the GMC on its launch date of May 1, 2022. Last Fall, Slovakia also joined the GMC. Since that time, Estonia and four conferences in Russia and Eurasia have voted to leave the UM Church to become autonomous, and they may become part of the GMC when that process is completed.

In the Philippines, UM congregations are moving to the GMC and new congregations have been planted there. One or more Philippine annual conferences are in the process of being formed. One of the first GMC church plants last year was Good News of Life Church, planted in Antipolo City, a part of Greater Manila.

The GMC has been registered in the Democratic Republic of Congo for former United Methodists who have been evicted from their UM membership by some of the bishops there, and new congregations are being planted there. Preparations for registering the GMC in other countries of Africa are also taking place. It is believed that at least half of the African annual conferences will eventually join the GMC if the language in the Book of Discipline regarding marriage and ordination is changed. That would make African members the largest block of members in the GMC.

In addition, Methodists in other parts of Europe, Asia, and Latin America are exploring deeper relationships with the GMC as a way of linking with a theologically like-minded global denomination. Just this week, the Spain provisional district was formed with seven congregations centered around Barcelona. These explorations hold the potential for making the GMC a truly global denomination with a strong presence on each of five continents. Since the U.S. part of the GMC may not be a majority of the church, it will be an opportunity to explore what it means to be truly global, with voices from other parts of the globe giving leadership to the church and counterbalancing some of the “bad habits” U.S. Methodists have fallen into. There will be challenges and a learning process for all, but the end result promises to be a different kind of Methodist denomination that truly represents what the Kingdom of God will look like someday – people of every language, nation, and tribe!

Impact on United Methodism

While a new GMC denomination is growing up, rampant disaffiliation will have a serious impact on the structural reality of The United Methodist Church, as well.  A recent UM News article begins, “The United Methodist Church will look and operate very differently going forward.”

That structural change impacts two particular areas: the general church budget and the number and allocation of bishops.

The recent meeting of the UM General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA) and the Connectional Table agreed upon a proposed 2025-2028 budget that would be 40 percent lower than the 2017-2020 budget for the general church. The budget would decrease from $604 million to $371 million, the lowest amount in absolute dollars since 1984. Of course, with inflation, a $370 million budget in 1984 would be equivalent to over $1 billion today! Needless to say, the general church budget has not kept up with inflation over the years.

The membership of the church has declined in those 40 years, as well – from 9.2 million members to 6.1 million. Whereas, in 1984 the budget amounted to roughly $40 per member, today it would amount to over $60 per member. When adjusted for inflation, however, today’s number is about half what it was in 1984.

The recommended 40 percent decrease in the budget is prompted by the disaffiliation of an estimated 17-20 percent of church members, plus the “normal” decline in membership that has been averaging 3-5 percent per year. With the pandemic, local church expenditures have also decreased 7 percent from their normal levels. Until all the dust settles on disaffiliation, it is unclear what the financial ramifications will be, but there is no question there will be dramatically less money to work with at the general church level. That will undoubtedly mean reductions in the size and number of general church agencies and a reduction in the programs the general church can offer.

Number of Bishops

Council of Bishops President Thomas J. Bickerton is quoted as saying, “I don’t think that there’s anyone who is wanting to preserve the episcopacy in its current form. The numbers speak for themselves.” The budget proposal includes a 25 percent cut to the Episcopal Fund that pays bishops’ salaries and expenses.

The U.S. jurisdictions have already cut the number of bishops from 47 to 39. The Northeastern Jurisdiction cut four bishops to go from ten bishops to six. The South Central Jurisdiction cut two bishops to go from ten bishops to eight. The Southeastern Jurisdiction cut two bishops to go from 13 bishops to 11. In total, that represents a 17 percent reduction to the number of U.S. bishops.

Under the Discipline’s formula for determining the number of bishops, what will each jurisdiction be entitled to after this round of disaffiliations is complete?

The North Central Jurisdiction would be entitled to seven bishops, meaning they would have to cut two bishops from what they currently have. One possible scenario would have Wisconsin and Michigan sharing a bishop and Northern Illinois and Illinois Great Rivers sharing a bishop.

The Northeastern Jurisdiction would be also entitled to seven bishops, one more than they currently have. Currently, New England has no resident bishop and Susquehanna is sharing two bishops with other conferences. Some form of realignment would allow New England to have its own resident bishop, probably shared with another conference.

The South Central Jurisdiction would be entitled to eight bishops, the number it currently has. Realignment of conference boundaries will have to account for the fact that 80 percent of the Northwest Texas Conference will have disaffiliated, half of the Texas Conference, and one-third of both the Rio Texas and Central Texas Conferences. Five previous Texas annual conferences will probably become four, and may include New Mexico, as well, which could be down to 16,000 members.

The Southeastern Jurisdiction would be entitled to ten bishops, one fewer than it currently has. South Georgia and Alabama-West Florida currently share a bishop, as does Holston and North Alabama. Perhaps Mississippi and Tennessee-Western Kentucky will also share a bishop, or another alignment may be proposed.

The Western Jurisdiction will keep its five bishops, since a minimum of five bishops per jurisdiction is guaranteed by the Constitution. Reducing the number of bishops in the West would require a Constitutional amendment. This creates an inequitable situation, since each bishop in the West would have only half as many members and congregations to care for as bishops in the rest of the U.S.

Reducing the number of bishops according to the Discipline’s formula would result in 37 bishops, a reduction of 21 percent in the number of U.S. bishops. That is still short of the 25 percent reduction in budget proposed to the General Conference.

The reduced budget also does not appear to have room in it for the additional five bishops promised to Africa in 2016. Without further reductions in the number of U.S. bishops below the number allowed by the Discipline’s formula, it would appear that additional bishops for Africa will be off the table.

The changing alignments within Methodism will result in significant structural changes. The Global Methodist Church will be navigating how to structure itself as a truly global church with equal and mutual contributions from all geographic areas of the church. The United Methodist Church will be navigating how to restructure within the limitations imposed by a dramatically reduced budget and reduced number of bishops. Those looking to keep things the same as they were at the denominational level will find comfort in neither camp. But such changes hold the possibility of fomenting new ways of doing ministry that make the church more effective at reaching a lost and needy world.

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

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