Moutain SkyBy Walter Fenton-

Shortly before Christmas, local churches in the Mountain Sky Episcopal Area of The United Methodist Church received a letter requesting monetary gifts for a “Vital Congregations Sustentation Fund.”

The letter, signed by the 16 jurisdictional delegates from the area’s two annual conferences (Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone), explained that since the election and appointment of the Rev. Karen Oliveto as the area’s bishop, “there has been stress in some of our most theologically diverse congregations. Some have lost members. Others have had members withdraw their financial support.”

The communiqué goes on to state that the fund is being created, “to provide churches with short-term financial assistance … where a pastor’s compensation is at risk.”

In short, some of the very Western Jurisdictional delegates who ignored the church’s teachings on marriage and rejected its sexual ethics by voting for Oliveto, are now asking laypeople and clergy, many of whom respect the will of General Conference, affirm the church’s governance structure, and believe its teachings on these matters are grounded in Scripture, to fund the consequences of their defiance.

For years some progressives and institutionalists have claimed the church’s plunging worship attendance could be traced to its archaic sexual ethics and its failure to affirm same-sex marriage. And in fact, the letter implies the need for financial assistance is just a “short-term” fix, presumably to be rectified when secular liberals and millennials begin pouring into local churches prepared to tithe and lend a hand repairing the church’s roof.

But before anyone buys into this dreamy scenario they might want to see how things are going for old-line denominations like the Presbyterian Church USA (PC-USA), the Episcopal Church, and the United Church of Christ (UCC), denominations that have been running this experiment for the past decade or two.

In early 2016 PC-USA officials projected the denomination would shed 400,000 members from 2015-2020. This is on top of a whopping 28% plunge in membership between 2005 and 2015. The denomination raises funds for the general church by assessing a per member amount that each congregation is expected to pay. That figure is set to rise 12.5 percent over the next five years, even as the church plans to cut outlays by 12 percent from 2017-2020. Perversely, even increasing the per-capita member amount fails to generate the necessary funds for growing the church when membership falls so precipitously. UM Church officials should take note.

Since the consecration of an openly gay bishop in 2003 and the liberalizing of its sexual ethics and teachings on marriage, the Episcopal Church has watched its worship attendance drop by an astounding 26 percent from 2005 to 2015. It is in the process of closing seminaries and has even contemplated selling its church headquarters building in New York City.

And finally, the UCC, which was the earliest adopter of a liberalizing strategy, is now in free fall. It has laid-off numerous church officials, watched hundreds of churches exit the denomination, and seen the vast majority of the remaining ones shrink in size. Membership plunged by 28 percent between 2005 and 2015, and church officials warned earlier this year that on its current trajectory the denomination would essentially collapse by 2045.

To be sure, some will respond that church is about more than seeing how many people you can pack into your pews. But by the same token, church leaders, like the 16 delegates who signed the request for “financial assistance,” need to candidly state the likely long-term cost their agenda will require of people in the Rocky Mountain and Yellowstone annual conferences.

Here’s betting it will be very steep.

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


  1. I voted for Karen Oliveto. I have sent in a personal gift over and above my church tithe. All means all. Grace opens doors. She has been called, unanimously elected and I am honored to be part of the Western Jurisdiction of the United Methodist Church.

  2. I certainly hope that there is no glee in the fact that some churches are struggling! Let’s get a sense of the context here. In an area that comprises four states, three of which are solidly “red states” and one “purple” one, in an area that has over 400 congregations, a handful of churches are struggling over the spirit led election of Bishop Karen Oliveto. Hardly an epidemic or collapse! In fact, I think it is a testimony to the power of the Gospel that holds us together that in this area so few churches are struggling. Ironically, the struggling churches, for the most part, are the more conservative ones, the ones so weak that losing a few givers can affect the ministry of the church in profound ways. Few progressive churches are struggling as a result of this election. I would think that the supporters of the Good News caucus would want to to support these churches with their gifts. Gifts can be made to the Sustenation Fund of the Yellowstone Conference.

    And the cost will be what the cost has always been for followers of Jesus Christ. Everything. All you have and all you are. There is no room for halfway commitment to Christ. The price is steep, indeed.

  3. Wow, and she’s a bishop. I bet she’s one to advocate recovery classes for porn addicts and drug addicts. Not to mention the love that she will show people who are going through divorce. Heck, she may even advocate for more divorces so that people will be happier. She will help them get in touch with their “inner self”. She could give great advice, particularly to the men because we know that men are the real problem anyway. Maybe she can teach us an interpretive dance on climate change. OK, folks, I’ll stop being sarcastic, but you know, this is a bunch of bull. The United Methodist have been taken over by a group of elites that worship the democratic party above Jesus. What a joke!

  4. The progressives continue claiming to be follows of Jesus Christ in their arguments regarding same sex marriage and the practice of homosexuality while, at the same time, outright rejecting his teachings on the matter — and they do this with such conviction and self assurance. No matter the Biblical interpretation technique employed, Jesus clearly and unequivocally stated God’s created order for marriage as recorded in Matthew 19 and Mark 10 as that between a man and a woman, highlighting the uniqueness and unequal characteristic of that union, in his condemnation of divorce. Can one reject those parts of Jesus’ teachings and those parts of Scripture that one disagrees with and continue to be a follower of Jesus? That is the essence of the crisis that the UMC faces. This new commission must deal with this authority of Scripture issue. The special called General Conference must deal with this authority of Scripture issue. Can the UMC continue being a Christian denomination, followers of Jesus Christ if it rejects the authority of Scripture on marriage and the practice of homosexuality for the sake of “full inclusion”?

  5. Jack, how does your comment sit alongside the story of Jesus and the leper or the prostitute? I am certainly not judging you. Just posing the question.

  6. Sure you are judging me. You are, in fact, pre-judging me. Prejudice would be the right word. Because I actually believe in sin and its destruction of people (addiction, perversion, pride, murder, etc.), you assume that I (or any other evangelical) would not help the prostitute or the leper. My experience is that the demonized, non-progressives are judged by the progressive church on a regular basis. The “love referees” assume that they show so much more love and grace than any other group in the church. They are quick to judge who is “loving” and who is “unloving”. And if you are anything but a Democrat, they would just push you on into hell if they had the opportunity. But people need more than acceptance. They need Jesus and his power to transform their lives. And what the part of the “go and sin no more” scripture is not a judgment. 1. Jesus said he didn’t condemn her. 2. and gave permission to sin no more (He acknowledged that she was sinning.) Look, I worked with a progressive denomination for several years as a youth pastor. Sure, they are all about clothing the homeless and feeding the poor. But at the end of the day, they are far more worried about colors in the sanctuary, liturgy, and getting a new member by means of their “open doors.” You will rarely see them address the destruction in people’s lives: drug addiction, pornography, gender confusion, divorce. But hey, they’ve got their PHDs and their pride and that is what matters. It is right out of 2 Tim 3:5: “having a form of godliness, but denying its power.”

  7. Jack, it is obvious from the tone of your comments that you are one of those people who need Jesus.

  8. It occurs to me that Christianity must change or die has a different meaning than examine by the author…It means that those who believe they are Christians but fail to learn from the words of Christ will face death…in other words it is about following Jesus Christ not words of men or any one church or denomination, but following Christ. And following Christ is not the same as following he Bible. The only words one should heed are those of Christ…the others are not relevant because they do not grant salvation.

  9. I think everyone will consider that same sex civil marriage is not the same as he marriage bond established by God. Same Sex marriage is a civil contract to protect individuals, not a spiritual one for the purpose of union of one with God. But what does Jesus say about homosexuality…nothing…But he has a lot to say about divorce, which conservatives have little to say. The only authority is Christ, not scripture.

  10. Pot, meet kettle! Jack, you have made a lot of accusations about Bishop Oliveto, but I can tell you’ve never met her. Speaking of pre-judging! You’ve assumed a lot about her theology, worship practices, treatment of men, and on and on. I do know her. You are wrong on every single account! She is perhaps the most traditional and orthodox of bishops I have served under in years. She talks freely of incarnation, resurrection and authority of scripture. And if you think she is mostly worried about “colors in the sanctuary” than helping drug addicts or those held hostage by pornography, well, you’ve never worshiped at Glide UMC!

    I guess in this “post-truth” world you can just say what you want without it having to be based in facts. But that is not a good witness to the gospel…

  11. We all need Jesus

  12. Painting a broad picture about what you think, “conservatives have little to say.” Is out of line. You do not know the hearts and minds of those you are pointing to. And to claim that Jesus says “nothing ” about homosexuality is dishonest. Jesus speaks often about immorality, and makes it clear that all of us are sinners. To pick and choose which sins we wish to ignore takes us off the path that leads to Him.

  13. Amen.

  14. Jesus said, “for out of the heart come evil thoughts — murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander. These are what defile a person…… (Matthew 15: 19-20)

    Note: Jesus separated the sexual sins of adultery and sexual immorality here. Certainly the practice of homosexuality was considered a sexual immorality sin in the context here. To say that Jesus did not address homosexuality as well as other not-specifically named sexual sins is incorrect.

    And, again, His reaffirmation of God’s created order for marriage as that between a man and a woman clearly implies that all other human sexual relations outside that unique union is sinful.

  15. I’m in complete agreement that legal marriage contracts authorized by the State are in no way to be confused with Christian marriage covenants authorized by God and recognized by the Church. But whether Jesus spoke or refrained from speaking about any particular topic is irrelevant if the scriptures indeed speak to that topic. For what we know of what Christ taught we know through the scriptures, which are God-breathed. Because the scriptures are inspired by the Holy Spirit, they necessarily reflect the will of God. The Third Person of the Trinity does not contradict the Second Person, nor do either of them contradict the First Person.

  16. Actually, Jesus didn’t need to say anything about homosexuality. He was Jewish and in a thoroughly Jewish context. The Torah was clear in its understanding of the issue, and thus it was a non-issue for most of the Gospel audience. The reason the issue is picked up by Paul is that the Jesus movement now spread out into the Greco-Roman world and it was much more open and affirming of homosexual actions than Judaism. Now that Gentiles from that culture and worldview were becoming Christian, different issues needed to be discussed for what it means to have the Jewish Messiah as Lord.

  17. Susan, it is obvious from your condescending words that you don’t like my tone. So allow me to break it down for you. My bubble of Christians who followed the formula of “love and acceptance” were awesome- except for the fact that with all of the love, no one ever told me of the transforming power of Jesus in their life. You see, you can’t discuss the need for Jesus if you don’t believe that your life needs to be transformed. In the bubble I was in, no one could talk about being transformed because any discussion of the destruction of sin was considered “Pharisaical”. Why? Because one would have to possibly JUDGE sin or the action of sin in order to talk about the destruction of sin. I had to completely leave my bubble of “loving and kind” friends to find friends who told me the truth about myself and my need for Jesus. I had to come face to face with the sin in my life and allow God to do something about it. I invested some of my life in a “loving and accepting” world who talked looked down anyone who presented the whole truth of the Gospel. Jesus didn’t come into the world so we could all be more loving and kind to everyone except Southern Baptist. Jesus came to save us from destruction and to transform us. So you are gonna have to pardon my tone.

  18. Some people voice their opinions with temper tantrums, twitter posts, blogs, intellectual dishonesty, and theological overthinking. Most devout people voice their opinions with their feet and their wallets. Groupthink caused this, why should the outgroup pay for it?

  19. Jack, I know Steve. He was not judging you at all. He asked a question. Your own psychology, your own personality, your experience… that is what determined your view that he is judging you. He won’t reply as it isn’t in his nature. I’m happy to do so. I am judging you. I’m not judging whether or not you’ll enjoy eternal life seated at His right hand. I am judging your response. Not on theological grounds; I am not qualified. No, but I’m judging purely on life experience and my perception of you as a human being. I hope, and I mean this sincerely, that your Heavenly Father can work the wonder in your life that you so obviously need. My faith tells me that He will find a way. I really believe He will. And I pray, quickly!!

  20. UMDATA.COM records the attendance at Glide church the year Karen became senior pastor as 3,600. Seven years later, when she left after her election, the attendance was 2,100. In terms of outcome-based leadership, Kent Ingram ought to have been bishop, reflecting gentle growth rather than Karen’s 42% decline in worship. I was a delegate at the General Conference and know that every effort to change church teaching was soundly defeated at the committee level. However, I also voted for what so many thought would be a truce (everyone committed to avoiding provocative actions) to give our bishops a chance to work the issue. The election of Karen by the WJ was felt by many to be a moral sucker punch to those who affirmed the truce, with the unintended consequence of guaranteeing formal division at some point. It can be constructive, gracious and freeing for all concerned, unless we model the Episcopal slash-and-burn litigious approach of the hierarchy toward those who in conscience could not remain Episcopal, even as they did remain firmly Anglican.

  21. “If you love me, you will keep my commandments.” – Jesus. (John 14:15)

    Jesus replied, “Anyone who loves me will obey my teaching. My Father will love them, and we will come to them and make our home with them. John 14:23

    I think these verses are plain and simple. If you truly love God, you will follow and obey Him (the Word – the Bible). True love is having compassion on those who need Jesus and SHARING with them that Truth, just like a doctor or nurse has compassion on someone sick or wounded – they give them what they need to heal. True love is NOT accepting sin that is against God’s Word. If you truly want to show someone love… you will tell them the TRUTH… tell them about Jesus so that they can (spiritually) heal and be made whole.

  22. Really ?
    Unanimously elected ?
    She wasn’t elected until the 18th ballot and only after the 2 other pastors withdrew – very misleading on your part.

    I am very serious here: in searching for the truth and Gods way – I am conflicted – – Can you please point to me any where in the Scriptures where it says marriage is only between a man and woman ? Also I have searched for Scripture saying homosexuality is OK in Gods eyes ?
    We all know what the Bible says about marriage and homosexuality – but I am truly looking for passages where God says it is acceptable.. Please help.. Then there is the little matter of the Book of Discipline – which she is obviously against –
    I feel (unless there are Scriptures I have not found) what Ms Oliveto did in accepting this nomination – was very selfish – dividing the Methodist Church on purpose —-

    I do not condemn nor judge homosexuality – that is for God – however that doesn’t mean we have to accept it in all phases either – Love the sinner hate the sin..
    Scriptures please


  23. I agree with John regarding the authority of all scripture. I would also add a question to those who might indicate dismissing the scriptures that are not direct words from Jesus… “How did Jesus understand scripture?” For As Jesus often cited the Hebrew Bible/ OT), whenver he does it seems that Jesus himself upheld that Scripture is from God.
    Also what about the book of Revelation, if we are looking only at the “red letters” of Jesus, does that include the admonitions to the churches from the book of Revelation? In other words Is is Jesus who is speaking in The book of Revelation or not?

  24. Powerful Jack powerful! You hit the nail on the head. The United Methodist Church bureaucracy not the people in the pew has become a front for the extreme left-wing of the Democrat Party. When you read through the news service articles each day you’don’t think you were reading a newsletter from the Democrat Party. It’s time for all those who voted for Donald Trump to realize funding the bureaucracy, not their local church is funding the opposing team. The whole, entire, complete structure must be turned upside down. It’s time to turn the tables over in the UMC bureaucracy.

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