The UM Church Adjusts to Fewer Bishops

By Thomas Lambrecht

In the aftermath of losing one-fourth of its congregations and members in the U.S., The United Methodist Church anticipates a number of adjustments to its ministry and structure. For example, UM News Service has reported that since 2016, general agencies have cut about 40 percent of their staff. This is in line with the proposed budget coming to the April General Conference in Charlotte, North Carolina, that calls for a 40 percent reduction in the quadrennial budget, making it the smallest budget proposed since 1984.

Adjustments are driven substantially by an anticipated drop in financial resources, and also by a drop in the number of churches and members. This second factor is an important driver in the number of U.S. bishops, which will be reduced by jurisdictional conference action this year.

Number of Bishops Set by Formula

The number of bishops to which each jurisdiction is entitled is based on a formula found in the Book of Discipline, Par. 404.2. Each jurisdiction is entitled to a base number of five bishops. The jurisdiction is then entitled to an additional bishop for every 300,000 members (or major fraction thereof) over the base number of 300,000. So, at 450,000 members, a jurisdiction would be entitled to six bishops, rather than five. At 750,000 members, the number would move to seven bishops, and so on.

Based on the formula and 2016 membership numbers, this is the number of bishops each jurisdiction had before disaffiliation began:


Members Eligible Bishops 2016 Actual Bishops
North Central 1,270,000 8 9
Northeastern 1,257,500 8 9
South Central 1,707,500 10 10
Southeastern 2,818,000 13 13
Western 340,500 5 5
Total 44 46

As the above chart demonstrates, both the North Central and Northeastern Jurisdictions were set to possibly lose a bishop in 2020, due to a decline in membership in those jurisdictions below the number set by the formula.

However, the number of bishops is not automatically set by the formula. Instead, the Interjurisdictional Committee on the Episcopacy (ICE) is tasked with recommending the number of bishops to be approved by the General Conference “on the basis of missional needs” (Par. 404.2b). The ICE can recommend retaining a higher number of bishops than the formula would allow. It recommended in 2019 that the number of bishops be retained as is for the 2020 General Conference, so that the denomination could see the results of the 2019 General Conference before deciding on any reductions.

Number of Bishops Reduced in 2023

In the aftermath of three postponements of the 2020 General Conference, the jurisdictions held special jurisdictional conferences in 2023 to allow bishops to retire who were mandated to do so by the mandatory age limits in the Discipline. Some of the jurisdictions voluntarily decided to elect fewer new bishops than they were otherwise entitled to elect. That way, if disaffiliation meant further reductions were necessary, some active bishops would not have to be forced out of office. It would give time to see how many churches disaffiliated and the impact on various annual conferences.

This is the result of that first “downsizing”:

2016 Bishops 2023 Bishops
North Central 9 9
Northeastern 9 6
South Central 10 8
Southeastern 13 11
Western 5 5
Total 46 39

This 15 percent reduction in the number of bishops was actually only an 11 percent reduction from the number that jurisdictions were entitled to in 2020. But it showed church leaders grappling with the potential of drastic changes coming in the wake of disaffiliation. The North Central Jurisdiction anticipated retirements in 2024 that would allow them to reduce their number of bishops as needed.

Number of Bishops Post-2024

Jurisdictions are still making plans regarding the election of bishops this summer in the wake of the 2024 General Conference. There are also several proposals to the General Conference to eliminate the above formula for setting the number of bishops. One of those proposals would have the general church pay for the initial five bishops, and then have each jurisdiction pay for any bishops it elects over that base five. None of the proposals would reduce or eliminate the requirement for a base of five bishops. Thus, they fail to address the greatest inequity, which is the Western Jurisdiction maintaining a full five bishops while other jurisdictions would have two to three times the number of members per bishop.

Based on 2019 membership numbers with an estimated adjustment of how many members were lost through disaffiliation, this is how many bishops would be allocated by formula in 2024, along with how many bishops each jurisdiction plans to allocate:

Post-Disaffiliation Members Eligible Bishops Current Bishops Projected 2024 Bishops
North Central 745,000 7 9 7
Northeastern 864,000 7 6 7?
South Central 950,500 7 8 7
Southeastern 1,500,000 9 11 10
Western 277,500 5 5 5
Total 35 39 36

If these projections hold, the number of U.S. bishops will have been reduced by 22 percent, from 46 to 36. That is in line with the General Council on Finance and Administration’s budget for a 23 percent reduction in the Episcopacy Fund for the 2025-28 quadrennium. At this time, it is unknown whether there will be money available for additional bishops in Africa, which were promised in 2016.

Under these projections, neither the North Central, the South Central, nor the Southeast would elect any new bishops in 2024. Depending on whether or not any currently active bishops retire, it is possible the Western Jurisdiction would not elect any new bishops, either. Some jurisdictions have yet to decide what their episcopal numbers will be, and that could also be influenced by actions taken at the General Conference.

Most of the reductions are the result of annual conferences moving to share a bishop.

  • In the North Central Jurisdiction, Wisconsin and Northern Illinois will share a bishop, as will East Ohio and West Ohio.
  • In the Southeastern Jurisdiction, North Alabama, Alabama-West Florida, and South Georgia will all share one bishop.
  • In the South Central Jurisdiction, Northwest Texas, North Texas, and Central Texas will share a bishop, Oklahoma and Arkansas will share one bishop, and New Mexico and Rio Texas will share one bishop.
  • In the Northeast Jurisdiction, Baltimore-Washington and Peninsula-Delaware are sharing a bishop, as are Eastern Pennsylvania and Greater New Jersey. New England and Susquehanna are both being covered by multiple bishops. It is very possible one more bishop will be elected in this jurisdiction and/or that annual conference borders will be realigned to provide more equitable episcopal areas.​​​​​​​

All of this ferment illustrates the point that Good News has been making for several years. The UM Church following disaffiliation will be a different church than it was, both structurally and in its beliefs and teachings. Those who thought that by remaining United Methodist, everything would stay the same, are finding out that change was inevitable for all of us. The key will be to grasp this opportunity to make the churches of whatever denomination the most effective in their mission and ministry for the sake of Jesus Christ. It will be a challenging task for all, demanding patience, prayer, and sacrificial commitment to the greater mission.

Thomas Lambrecht is a United Methodist clergyperson and the vice president of Good News. Jurisdictional map created by United Methodist Communications.​​​​​​​​​​​​​​


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