The United Methodist Church saw a reduction of at least 71,971 U.S. members in 2011. Put another way, the denomination in the United States lost in one year roughly the equivalent of the Minnesota Annual Conference and Red Bird Missionary Conference combined.
This snapshot comes from reports from 55 of the 59 U.S. Conferences, which followed spring and summer annual conference gatherings.
The vast majority disclosed declines between 2010 and 2011 in membership, worship attendance or church-school participation—three commonly used metrics for charting disciple-making. Twenty-eight U.S. conferences reported losses in all three categories. Eighteen noted membership drops of 2 percent or more.
Eleven U.S. conferences increased in worship attendance, and five gained members. But, only three report both membership and worship growth.
The General Council on Finance and Administration, the denomination’s finance agency, will release the official 2011 figures next spring. But, it’s already clear the denomination continues its decades-long decline in U.S. membership even as it grows worldwide. That trend has drawn the mounting concern of church officials.
“At the current rate of decline from the last five years, we have less than 50 years of the United Methodist Church in the United States,” the Rev. Adam Hamilton told the full body of the 2012 General Conference, the denomination’s top lawmaking assembly. Mr. Hamilton is the senior pastor of United Methodist Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kan.
The numbers have a spiritual dimension. Efforts to make new disciples in the United States are not keeping pace with either the nation’s population growth or the death rate of the denomination’s older members.
At the same time, Bishop Jane Allen Middleton pointed out that many churches, including those in the Susquehanna Conference, which encompasses central Pennsylvania, are serving more constituents than before. The denomination defines constituents as unbaptized children, church school members and others who are not members of the church but are in relationship with the congregation and for whom the local church has pastoral responsibility. Susquehanna Conference saw a 39 percent increase in constituents in 2011.
“The increase in constituents exceeded three times over the number of people we lost,” Bishop Middleton said. “What you’d hope to see is an increase in worship attendance, and that did not happen. What it is saying to me is that this is an era where people don’t want to join.”
In the United States, people no longer commit to fraternal organizations like the Lion’s Club or civic groups like Rotary Clubs at the rates they once did. That phenomenon, Bishop Middleton said, “is now reflected in the church.”
Yet she and other church leaders see signs of hope in their own conferences and in the larger United Methodist connection.
One of those hopeful signs can’t be repeated often enough. The UMC is still growing, particularly in Africa but also in eastern Europe and the Philippines. In the decade between 1999 and 2009, the denomination’s membership grew by 25 percent. The General Council on Finance and Administration reports the UMC now has more than 12 million professing members around the globe.
The Burundi and East Africa conferences offer an example of that growth. In the past year, the two conferences report an increase of more than 68,000 members—from 231,924 to 300,265.
However, the denomination’s financial base is shrinking. Indeed, 16 U.S. conferences reported planned budget reductions either this year or in 2013.
As of 2010, about 99 percent of the money that supports general church operations through apportionments—including mission work around the globe—came from the U.S.
For decades, giving increased even as U.S. membership declined, but after the 2008 economic crisis, giving dropped.
“It’s difficult for me to say whether we’ve reached a tipping point,” said Scott Brewer, the executive of connectional relations for the denomination’s finance agency. “We’ve seen pretty steep declines in membership and attendance in the U.S. these past couple of years, but we’ve also had an economic recession. At this point, it is still difficult to tell whether it’s the drop in membership, the recession or both.”
The denomination’s U.S. membership in 2010 was fewer than 7.6 million.
Signs of growth
Still, the numbers reported by U.S. conferences did show some bright spots. Moreover, the strategies that some conferences have used to grow others can replicate across the U.S.
The Greater New Jersey Conference, for example, experienced its first membership growth in 45 years. Its membership stands at 93,655, up by a net of 240 from the previous year.
The Kentucky Conference saw its membership grow by 1,036 to 151,858, and its worship attendance increase by more than 450. That is the largest increase in both categories the conference has seen since its formation in 1996 through a merger of two conferences in the state, Bishop Lindsey Davis said.
Leaders in both New Jersey and Kentucky have embraced an adage from church-planting circles that it’s easier to make babies than to raise the dead.
“You don’t grow an annual conference by trying to revitalize existing churches,” Bishop Davis said. “I think some can be revitalized. But I don’t think we’ll ever revitalize enough churches to reverse the attendance and membership trends that we’ve seen over the last several decades.”
In Kentucky, the conference has started 15 new churches over the past four years. Bishop Davis said the conference allocates $1 million of its $9 million annual budget for planting churches.
In New Jersey, where less than 60 percent of the state’s population is white, much of that conference’s growth has come from reaching out to new or recent immigrant communities as well as Anglo communities, said Bishop Sudarshana Devadhar.
The conference has planted six churches in the past eight years. It has congregations that include Korean Americans, Hispanics, Brazilians, Haitians as well as members from various African countries. The Rev. Douglas Ruffle, the conference’s congregational development team coordinator, said the conference also includes perhaps the only Arabic-speaking United Methodist congregation in the United States.
“At celebrations and annual conferences, you really get the sense that this is the church of the Pentecost,” Mr. Ruffle said.
Both Bishop Davis and Bishop Devadhar also agree that it’s critical to work with young church members and particularly young clergy. Bishop Devadhar spends time with clergy in each district.
Bishop Davis meets once a month with clergy younger than 40. The clergy meet with leaders from the general church and from the Kentucky Conference, who talk with them about what it means to be effective pastors.
Bishop Devadhar said he has brought in church leaders from around the United States to “inspire and stimulate clergy and laity” in helping to grow the church. He also ensures that each of the conference’s congregations has its own charge conference with its district superintendent in a worshipful setting.
Bishop Davis added that he makes sure clergy know he values performance, especially in the work of growing the church. “Anybody can have a good year,” he said. “What you have to strive for is to put year after year into the work so it becomes a trend.”
Bishop Middleton, who will soon retire as an active bishop, said she thinks the denomination already has the tools to thrive in the United States.
“I think we as a church are absolutely where we need to be in our statement of the mission. We need strong disciples, and we need to be outward focused,” she said. “For me, that is the key to our future—that we truly understand we are not meant to be in insular, ecclesiastical ivory towers—that we are truly meant to be in our community.”