Even before its official year of splintering is completed, United Methodists are carving out a clearer identity for the denomination’s future and a clearer picture is emerging of who has stayed and who has left, about clergy health and the state of LGBTQ inclusion.
Staying and leaving
In March this year, an initial study of churches disaffiliating from The United Methodist Church found most were rural, located in the Southern United States and typically led by a male pastor, but not necessarily a United Methodist elder, the status denoting a seminary-trained minister.
That study was led by Lovett H. Weems Jr. of the Lewis Center for Church Excellence at United Methodist-related Wesley Theological Seminary in Washington, D.C.
Now the Lewis Center has released an updated report on disaffiliating churches through June 2023. The new data cover more than 6,100 disaffiliating churches.
The update shows the initial trends holding:
- Departing churches are found mostly in the Southeastern and South Central Jurisdictions, regions that once were the home of the Methodist Episcopal Church, South. The ME, South church was the branch of original American Methodism that broke away in 1844 over the issue of slavery.
- Departing churches are less likely to have an elder, or seminary-trained clergy, as their pastor.
- Departing churches tend to have a male lead pastor.
- Departing churches are disproportionately white, although the trend has shifted somewhat from mostly rural churches to some suburban congregations as well.
In addition to these broad trends, Weems found the exiting churches look a lot like the churches that have remained United Methodist. Among other things, they have identical median worship attendance levels, the same average age of members based on death rates, the same average number of professions of faith, the same rate of paying their annual financial remittances known as “apportionments,” and the same rate of support for clergy salaries from their annual (regional) conferences and districts.
In other words, there’s no mass exit of traditionalist, high-steeple, big-money congregations as had been predicted by conservative forces over years of conflict. While the denomination has been preparing for less mission revenue from its remaining churches, the Lewis Center report shows there is no disproportionate drain of United Methodist funding.
Some annual conferences are slated to hold additional meetings through the fall to vote on more church disaffiliations. The policy under which most churches are leaving, known as Paragraph 2553, expires Dec. 31. After that date, churches still can disaffiliate, but the bar for leaving will be higher and more complicated.
While the overall health of The United Methodist Church may remain stable, the health of United Methodist clergy has declined significantly over the past decade, according to a report on clergy health issued in early August by Wespath Benefits and Investments, the UMC’s pension management agency.
Kelly Wittich, director of health and well-being at Wespath, told Religion News Service Aug. 10 the findings show clergy well-being “which was a problem a decade ago, is an even bigger problem today.”
“We see that clergy struggle with well-being compared to their secular counterparts, in no small part due to the often unrealistic demands placed on clergy from multiple directions,” Wittich told RNS.
Wespath surveyed 1,200 United Methodist clergy about their health. They found roughly half of United Methodist pastors report feeling depressed, have trouble sleeping, struggle with obesity and worry more about money than they did in 2012 when the first study was done. However, the report doesn’t say whether the pastors’ age, which is a concern for the UMC, played into their overall health.
As with everyone else, more than half the United Methodist clergy surveyed reported the worldwide coronavirus pandemic hurt their social and emotional health. Roughly a quarter of those surveyed said their financial or spiritual health worsened during the pandemic.
Regarding their spiritual health, respondents to the Wespath survey said they have felt closer to God over the past two years through personal devotions and during pastoral visits. However, 68% said they don’t feel God’s presence much at church-related events — a development that could be related to the UMC’s political turmoil and disaffiliation struggles of the past two years.
The third recent development focuses on this year’s sessions of the 53 annual (regional) conferences in the United States.
According to a compilation by Heather Hahn of United Methodist News, the U.S. conferences showed a distinct inclination toward greater LGBTQ inclusion in the church — the presenting social issue most disaffiliating congregations cite as their “reason of conscience” for leaving the UMC.
“This year, several conferences began their sessions by approving requested church exits. But after completing that painful work, many of the U.S. annual conferences showed an eagerness to move toward a more inclusive future focused on the good that United Methodists can do together in the name of Christ,” Hahn wrote.
This year, 22 U.S. annual conferences — nearly half of U.S. regional units — adopted resolutions backing the removal of anti-LGBTQ language in the Book of Discipline, the collection of United Methodist doctrine and policies. According to Hahn’s report, “That total does not include conferences that passed similar resolutions last year, but it does include conferences in the U.S. where the restrictions have received little pushback before.”
In the latter category, Hahn cited the Alabama-West Florida Annual Conference, where a resolution supported removing the UMC’s social doctrine calling the practice of homosexuality “incompatible with Christian teaching.” However, the resolution also supported “a continuing commitment to honor the conscience and convictions” of clergy and churches that adhere to a theology that only male-female binary sexuality, expressed only in legal marriage, is acceptable Christian practice.
Several annual conferences in the disaffiliation-torn Southeastern and South Central Jurisdictions adopted resolutions reaffirming their continuing adherence to traditional Christian theology found in the Articles of Religion, a set of theological principles laid out by Methodism’s founder, John Wesley, when Methodists formed the American church after the Revolutionary War.
Dissident forces have alleged that United Methodists no longer would profess faith in Jesus Christ and that the Articles of Religion would be forsaken if the ban on homosexuality were lifted. However, the UMC’s “restrictive rules” prohibit abandoning the basic tenets of Christian faith.
Proposed regional structure
Finally, on Aug. 22, two official UMC bodies announced they have submitted legislation for the denomination’s next legislative General Conference scheduled April 23 through May 4, 2024, calling for restructuring the UMC into regional bodies. The proposal is intended to decentralize the United States from United Methodist governance and give more contextual autonomy to conferences in Africa, Europe and the Philippines.
Heretofore, non-U.S. UMC units have been known as “central conferences,” a structure set up when the U.S. branch was seen as the primary mission-sending part of the denomination.
A regionalization movement originated in December 2019 from an ad hoc group of non-U.S. church leaders who called their document the “Christmas Covenant.” Their idea was to avoid a schism by granting United Methodists greater regional autonomy to set up their ministries and missions to fit their cultural contexts.
Under the proposal, the United States would become a separate region with the authority to set up its own governance rules, subject to the UMC’s Constitution and the Articles of Religion. The structure supposedly would free the legislative agenda of the General Conference, which has been dominated by U.S. church concerns since the UMC was formed in 1968, to address truly global church issues. It also would give non-U.S. regions the authority to decide on the inclusion of LGBTQ Christians in church life.
The Aug. 22 announcement said the two endorsing bodies — the ministry-coordinating Connectional Table and the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters — worked with representatives of the Christmas Covenant to fashion eight petitions to set up the regions. The process to enact regionalization would be long and arduous, as it proposes constitutional amendments requiring approval of all United Methodist conferences according to a complicated electoral formula.
Despite the hurdles, energy for regionalization has been building as disaffiliations finish.
Bishop Mande Muyombo, chair of the Connectional Table, said in the announcement: “The shift from Central Conference to Regional Conference is a recognition of the maturity of the current central conferences which were once mission points of the then-missionary-sending churches in the U.S. Regional Conferences bring a sense of equity where God’s mission is lived with a sense of mutuality while witnessing to the Incarnate Christ in various contextual realities. No region can claim to be the center and others the peripheries, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ remains the center of God’s mission.”