Renegade UMC Pastors See Congregations Dwindle

on November 23, 2013

One of the constant refrains from those who want Christian denominations to embrace gay marriage, abortion, and/or the latest progressive social aim to come along, is that embracing these doctrines will help to stem the membership and attendance decline of many churches. The thinking is that some in the West reject Christianity because of its countervailing views on these issues. Therefore, if mainline churches simply capitulate to these new cultural norms, people will return to church.

That’s the theory. In practice, mainline churches that embrace modern sexual mores have seen their attendance fall as much or more than those that do not. Meanwhile, of the 15 largest Christian denominations in the United States, the only one that posted any growth last year was the conservative Assemblies of God. It’s a longstanding trend; surveys of the American public have found that the number of adherents to mainline denominations fell 10% between 1990 and 2008 while Pentecostals increased by 40% and self-described evangelicals exploded by nearly 400%.

A recent internal battle within the United Methodist Church provides an excellent petri dish of how changing doctrinal standards can drive a decline in attendance and membership. Currently within the denomination, members of the “Biblical Obedience” movement are offering up a lot of blustery talk about starting to run their churches like de facto liberal denominations where same sex marriage and sexual relationships outside of heterosexual marriage are encouraged. If indeed taking a stand in favor of gay rights and gay marriage are the panacea for the UMC’s attendance problems, clearly their outspoken advocacy would have brought a surge in membership? But a detailed analysis shows that quite the opposite has occurred.

Rev. Stephen Heiss is a Binghamton, New York pastor who openly admitted on the Reconciling Ministries Network’s (RMN) blog to officiating several gay weddings over the years. Currently, he faces charges in the Upper New York Conference stemming from his admission in the blog post. But as John Lomperis previously noted, Rev. Heiss’ church in Binghamton has seen a significant drop in attendance over three years (28%), all while dubiously posting membership numbers ten times larger than actual attendance.

Rev. Sara Thompson Tweedy currently faces a possible church trial for being in an open lesbian relationship and serves on the steering committee of the radically pro-homosexuality Methodists in a New Direction (MIND). The most recent records indicate that her congregation at the Memorial United Methodist Church in White Plains, New York has seen attendance fall by a whopping 34.5% in two years. Perhaps more disturbing than the inability to hold onto lifelong members is that within those years, Tweedy’s church failed to add even a single member. Perhaps local LGBT individuals or their supporters were grateful for Tweedy’s work, but if so it failed to drive the mass conversion advocates seem to expect.

Recently the most high-profile case of rebellion against the Book of Discipline was the church trial of Lebanon pastor Rev. Frank Schaefer after Schaefer presided over the wedding of his gay son. Schaefer was suspended for 30 days and required to reaffirm his commitment to the Book of Discipline at the end of the suspension, or face a defrocking.

Although much of the reporting on the Schaeffer trial has been sympathetic towards the pastor, credit is due to The Washington Post for at least noting the manner in which Schaeffer’s actions have torn apart his once cohesive flock. The Post reported on how one church member burst into tears when testifying on how Schaeffer told her the Book of Discipline “didn’t have to be followed,” and how it led her to leave the church. Another former member spoke about how she left because Schaeffer “was trying to change our views.” The Post estimates that half of Zion United Methodist Church’s 250 members have abandoned it since the spring and estimates that only 60 showed up for service the past Sunday.

Even the church’s September newsletter includes a letter from Schaeffer admitting the church is in decline. “As you are certainly well aware, our church has gone through some tumultuous times in recent months. We have lost dear church family members and have experienced a period of decline.”

Bishop Melvin Talbert is perhaps the most well-known and outspoken advocate of the ‘Biblical Obedience’ movement. But as the IRD recently noted, Talbert “presided over imploding membership and schism” during his service as bishop of the Seattle and San Francisco areas. And although he has a long history of administration within the UMC, Talbert hasn’t personally pastored in over four decades. Certainly Talbert might be able to speak to the sensibilities of the West Coast elites of the UMC, but can he really claim to speak for the rank-and-file members?

It’s possible that correlation doesn’t imply causation, and that some outside factor is driving the massive exoduses from these churches (although the connection in the Schaeffer case appears clear). But at the very least, it isn’t clear why we should heed the advice of pastors and retired bishops who cannot stem the membership losses within their own church homes. Ultimately these pastors provide the perfect examples of what is driving membership decline within mainline Protestantism; ignoring the concerns and will of church members in order to take part in the latest cultural turmoil.

  1. Comment by Mary Lou Taylor on November 23, 2013 at 6:20 pm

    You are playing a numbers game that can be very dangerous to your argument. In 1970, before the anti-LGBTQ language in the Book of Discipline, the United Methodist Church had 10,671,774 members. By 1990, after the BOD inserted several of its anti-inclusion passages, but before vocal protests, the church membership had dwindled to 8,853,445, while the US population steadily rose. Are you really going to argue that the decline in membership is because of liberal pastors? Really?

  2. Comment by gary on November 25, 2013 at 5:28 pm

    my wife and I left because of liberal pastors and the constant disobedience to God’s Word.

  3. Comment by Tom on November 26, 2013 at 5:10 am

    But Mary, although the BOD may have headed in a more conservative direction between 1970 and 1990, was that true of the UMC overall, or overall was the UMC becoming more liberal?

  4. Comment by Norm on December 6, 2013 at 6:13 pm

    Yes. What other reason is there? None that I’ve seen since the UMC was formed in 1968.

  5. Comment by Greg Paley on December 6, 2013 at 7:20 pm

    You must be kidding. Do you really think that the many thousands of EX United Methodists made their choice on the basis of the wording in the Book of Discipline? They left because that other Book – you know, the God Book – was getting nudged aside in the interest of “relevance,” not just about gay issues but about every left-wing cause that came down the pike.

    Sorry to burst your bubble, but the numbers have been racking up since 1960, and the lefty churches ARE in free fall, while many conservative denominations are growing (in part due to the ex-UMs, ex-Episcs, ex-PCUSA, etc). Behind the numbers are lots of people I meet who said they were sick of God being replaced by the new idols Diversity and Inclusiveness and Multiculti. The Multiculti cult is a dying religion.

  6. Comment by Rev. Robert Fulton on November 23, 2013 at 7:55 pm

    I would agree with the article. I have spoke to hundreds of people ( literally) who have left the UMC due to the expanding liberal/progressive views. Also those views usually embrace a sorteriology of universalism so their is no motivation for winning to lost other than winning advocates to the progressive point of view. Thus using those they “win”. People can see through that very quickly.

  7. Comment by Owen on November 23, 2013 at 7:55 pm

    Mary Lou: The difference between comparing overall denominational numbers and specific locations is that overall denomination is that church growth primarily happens at a local, not a national level. What happens on a national level should not by itself the primary factor in decline. It may or may not have an effect, but one should look at what is having a dramatic influence on the local level. However, one can surmise since conservative positions on homosexuality have been the norm, the change in the Book of Discipline did not introduce anything phenomenally new at the local level.

    In other words, correlation does not equal causation, unless you can demonstrate a causal relationship between the two factors. At a local level, you have more ground to make that argument, albeit one must make it cautiously.

    On a national level, however, simply quoting statistics does not determine causation. It could be the reverse in that the factor that necessitated the feeling of making explicit what was previous understood is also the cause for the decline. In other words, at the risk of painting with a broad brush, progressive views rose in prominence leading to a) decline in church growth and b) explicit statements being put into the Book of Discipline. That is another possibility for relationship. But the correlation of membership statistics on the national level proves neither possibilities. However, much research does tend to suggest that conservative churches tend to grow (see research by sociologist of religion, Rodney Stark), giving strength to the suggestion that progressive thought may be at least partially responsible for decline (this does not inherently exclude conservative thought either, however).

  8. Comment by David Schneider on November 24, 2013 at 5:28 am

    Mary Lou Taylor,
    According to the International Maritime Bureau, pirate attacks in the Indian Ocean had by October 2012 dropped to a six-year low. Attempted hijackings fell from 237 in 2011 to 75 the following year, with successful attacks plummeting from 28 in 2011 to 14 in 2012. Are you really going to argue that the decline in membership isn’t because of declining pirate attacks? Really?

    Try to read articles before you critique them. At the end the author specifically says “It’s possible that correlation doesn’t imply causation, and that some outside factor is driving the massive exoduses,” while continuing to be reasonable in the following sentences. Sigh.

  9. Comment by Sarah Caldwell on November 24, 2013 at 4:13 pm

    If a pastor started preaching anti-divorce (completely biblical as Jesus made a direct and general condemnation of it ) and the church membership went down, would you blame him? If his preaching caused a split in the congregations, would you blame him? Perhaps any loss would be considered a falling away of dead wood, those who were CINOs–Christians in name only.

    Unless our faith is a numbers game, the size of a congregation can not be the measure of a pastor’s faithfulness. That said, a pastor may become consumed by a particular cause or worship practice or group and, as a result, fail to exercise pastoral leadership and support to the rest. In such cases, the problem is not a bad focus but one that is too narrow.

  10. Comment by Samuel on November 24, 2013 at 8:52 pm

    “Ultimately these pastors provide the perfect examples of what is driving membership decline within mainline Protestantism; ignoring the concerns and will of church members in order to take part in the latest cultural turmoil.”

    “Ignoring the concerns and will of church members” is only derivatively a reason for the membership decline. The fundamental reason is lack of fidelity to the truth.

    Conceivably the concerns and will of church members could incline toward an embrace of the pansexualist agenda (or palatable parts of it, such as noted in Sarah Caldwell’s comment) in preference to the biblical and traditional model for human sexuality. That would not make the change acceptable.

    Any community that allows matters of faith and morals to be subject to a fundamentally political process is courting disaster. The record of those denominations who have done so is not encouraging. Virtually all of them have become or are becoming living (or, rather, dying) examples of Neuhaus’ Law: “Where orthodoxy becomes optional, orthodoxy will be outlawed.”

  11. Comment by John S on November 25, 2013 at 7:48 am

    If the church is the same as the culture around it; why go to church? When it does imitate the culture its efforts are second rate at best. Better music, better food, better hours, better management, better accommodations are found outside the church. Without the distinct message of God the church has no place and no future.

    And if your measure of success for the church is bottoms in the pew (which I believe is now official UMC doctrine) you’ve already lost that message.

  12. Comment by gary on November 25, 2013 at 5:31 pm

    Do not love the world or the things in the world. For if you love the world the love of the Father is not in him. I John 2:15. I love this verse – memorized it in Greek as well.

  13. Comment by David on November 27, 2013 at 11:04 am

    Bottoms in the pew does appear to be the goal. A group of us met with our senior pastor and an associate pastor last year about concerns we had. During the meeting, the senior pastor was asked if a specific act (not the desire to perform that act or the predisposition toward it) was a sin. He answered that he would not be “put in a box” and that he would “not answer that question” because “as soon as I do, I will alienate half of the congregation”. Biblical truth and sound teaching no more, get the people in the door.

  14. Comment by Greg Paley on December 6, 2013 at 7:24 pm

    I think my response to him would have been, “Well, you are alienating ME, and I’m heading for the door, and if you care to check the numbers on all the mainline denominations for the past 50 years, you’ll see how much alienation ensues when some wimp pastor conforms to the secular culture.”

  15. Comment by David on November 27, 2013 at 11:13 am

    Bottoms in the pews does appear to be the goal over and above souls in Heaven. When a group of us at my large UMC church met with our senior pastor and one of the associates last year to express concerns over an issue, the senior pastor was asked if a specific act (not the desire to commit the act or the predisposition toward it) was a sin. He answered by saying “I will not be put in a box” and “I will not answer that question, because as soon as I do, I will alienate half the congregation.”

    Biblical truth and sound doctrine are no more, get the people in the door.

  16. Comment by Darkrider on November 25, 2013 at 7:52 pm

    I am a lay-Preacher, I have brought sermons to quite a few different congregations, and I still say this;
    _When you show me, in the inspired word of God, commonly called the King James Version of the Holy Bible that the words God says concerning homosexuality is not what God said, is not what the scripture pertains to, That homosexuality is wrongly referred to as “an abomination to God”, and that the writings therein are not what God intended, that homosexuality is not a sinful act, that God was wrong in saying, or impugning that it is sinful, That the direct and damning verses that deal with homosexuality are merely a mistake, and God is sorry for having them written there, in more than one place then, and only then, will I seriously sit down and listen to your arguments intended to justify the acts of homosexuality-( among other abominations so listed by God almighty). There is no intent addressing the issue in the scripture insinuating or outright advocating the ‘lawfulness'( scripturally speaking), or ‘correctness’ of homosexuality. Not even the admonishing of Jesus, who said more than once to “love the sinner’, I remind all reading this, that the SIN, and the SINNER are two completely different issues. The person committing a sin, any sin, is under the law, when a sinner admits his/her sin, is remorseful because of that sin, and humbly asks God to forgive that sin, then that person is under grace, God’s grace, and the shed blood of Christ Jesus covers that sin. God will forgive sin, will even remove it, will separate the sin from that person “As far as the East is from the West,” never to be remembered! You want redemption? You desire salvation? You search for a purpose in life? Homosexuality will not deliver on that, only a ‘new life in Christ Jesus’ can deliver an answer for such a search.
    ***Text from Leviticus, Acts, John, Romans, and elsewhere in scripture prove me out here.

  17. Comment by John S on November 26, 2013 at 10:29 am

    The KJV (and only the KJV I presume from your post) is the inspired word of God? Jesus did part time work for Shakespeare? BTW, which authorized version? The first one that said Thou Shalt Commit Adultery? Are we now including the apocyphra (to use the original KJV spelling) as the inspired word of God?

  18. Comment by Tom on November 26, 2013 at 5:18 am

    ‘Biblical Obedience’? Obedience to whom/what?

  19. Comment by Pudentiana on November 26, 2013 at 11:41 am

    There is so much talk of LOVE without contextualizing it and there is so much in the way of twisting the Word of God to justify sin in the Same Sex Movement that one finds it hard to find any life-giving tenets. Perhaps this is why people are so frustrated and also why their churches are shrinking. Mr. Griswold’s article is straightforward and well reflects the state of US Methodism. Enemies of the Discipline, which does reflect God’s Word, have decided to storm the walls of the Church because they are offended by her message. Did I say her message? Yes, because she is the Bride of Christ.

  20. Comment by Sam on November 27, 2013 at 8:08 am

    I’m going to push back on this. While overall numbers for the UMC have certainly dwindled, you are unfair in using individual churches that have lost membership while becoming welcoming to all people as case studies. You are cherry picking numbers to prove your point regarding acceptance of homosexuality. In Washington, DC there are 8 United Methodist churches that are a part of the Reconciling Ministries Network – a group pushing for a welcoming and inclusive denomination. The Reconciling churches in Washington, D.C. are the churches that are GROWING. In Chicago, the Urban Village Church is a new church plant that has grown to four locations for worship on Sundays. This church is very publicly a welcoming and inclusive church. In Atlanta, GA there are not as many Reconciling churches as in other cities, but there are churches there that, while not a member of the RMN, are welcoming to all people – and, guess what, those churches are growing. The fact that these churches in diverse geograhical regions are growing while opening their doors to all of God’s children doesn’t prove that they are going to win the battle for the soul of the UMC – anymore than your cherry picking of declining congregations proves your argument that acceptance of all people is leading to the decline of the UMC. I assume you can point to folks who have left the UMC because the feel it is too liberal – but I can also point to people who have left the UMC because they feel it is too conservative.

  21. Comment by John S on November 29, 2013 at 11:24 am

    Everything in NOVA is growing both liberal and conservative. People are following the money. Given the shift of NOVA from conservative to liberal I would be extremely surprised if the liberal congregations were not growing. The question, not really addressed anywhere in this, is what is growth/shrinkage relative to the area’s growth and demographics.

    BTW DC, Chicago and Atlanta are not diverse geographical areas. The overriding aspect in each is urban. Differences city to city are mainly cosmetic while the underlying structure is amazingly similar.

  22. Comment by Sam on December 2, 2013 at 2:46 pm

    People in DC are very different from people in Atlanta who are very different from people in Chicago. But that wasn’t my point, anyway. My point was that the headline of the post on this site about congregations “dwindling” is misleading. Sure, some congregations may have dwindled when the church took a liberal stand that not all congregants agreed with, but for many churches taking a stand for inclusion has been brought about new life for those congregations.

    Not really sure how NOVA came into the discussion.

  23. Comment by John S on December 3, 2013 at 7:08 am

    I’ve worked in all three for extended periods. The people in all are relatively the same (leaving out the deadweight in the National Government housed in DC).

  24. Comment by John S on December 3, 2013 at 7:12 am

    NOVA is Northern Virginia a major feeder to DC. I do agree, however, that people are too quick to make a connection from sparse data to prove a point. I try to point out that just because a church is growing does not mean it is healthy or good and that it is shrinking doesn’t mean it is dead or dying. If people attending or joining is the measure then what you have is a variant of the Elks, VFW, DAR, etc. not a church.

  25. Comment by Sam on December 4, 2013 at 2:24 pm

    “If people attending or joining is the measure then what you have is a variant of the Elks, VFW, DAR, etc. not a church.”

    On that we would agree, John S.

    The comment about “dead weight” is really unnecessary, however. It’s easy to demonize people who work for the “national government.” Hint: Most people tend to refer to it as the federal government, since the term national government somehow reveals a certain level of distaste for one’s government (which is, after all, YOUR representative government – elected by you and your fellow citizens in this great land of ours).

    But to return to the issue at hand and your point about whether a growing congregation is a sign of a good congregation, or whether a shrinking congregation is a sign of failure, that’s really the entire point of the ongoing disagreements with Methodism isn’t it? Both sides sincerely believe they are right. Ultimately, I suppose only the good Lord knows. In the meantime, perhaps we could all treat one another with a little more Christian charity.

  26. Comment by John S on December 5, 2013 at 7:15 am

    National/Federal, Municipal/City, (more fun is the State/Commonwealth useage) to me they are synonyms to be used as the whim floats by. The dead weight comment relates to personal experiance. I have found DC, whose business is government, as opposed to other cities whose business is business to be somewhat unique in its additudes.

    I do agree that one’s view of the church will affect the standard by which it is measured. Obviously I’m in the camp that says a bigger church, membership roll, budget, program or music department may not be a sign of God’s blessing on the congregation’s endeavors.

    What I would like to see in the UMC is a step back and instead of the drumbeat of “Get more people!” (and lets face it, most of the times it pushed in such a way that its irrelevant if they are or become Christians) and discuss what is the church, what is the local church, what is growth in the church-an individual or individuals growing in grace or number, and so on to address: then is a “vibrant” congregation one that hits measurable metrics or something else?

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