May 1, 2014

United Methodist Women in Decline

The United Methodist Women (UMW) were thrust into the spotlight last weekend when former Secretary of State Hilary Clinton gave the keynote address at its quadrennial assembly. UMW is, in the words of the Associated Press, “the denomination’s 800,000-member women’s mission group, with a special focus on women, children and youth.”  In addition to the AP story (which was picked up by many outlets), Buzzfeed and Bloomberg likewise described the United Methodist Women as having 800,000 members. The United Methodist Women website brags a membership of “approximately 800,000.”

The problem? It simply isn’t true. According to official United Methodist Church statistics, UMW have not had 800,000 members for over a decade.

The General Committee on Finance and Administration keeps a tally of UMW members, reported each year by local churches. The last time there were 800,000 UMW members was in 2001: 811,289 to be exact. By 2012, that number had fallen to 528,156, a decline of 34.9%. At its height in 1974, the UMW had 1.36 million members, meaning it has lost more than 60% of its members.

Of course, some of the decline can be accounted for given the general decline of the United Methodist Church in the United States, but not all. In the same timespan that the UMW lost nearly 35% of their members, United Methodist churches in the US only suffered a 10.4% decline in membership. UMW’s membership is therefore declining three times faster.

membership graph

Unsurprisingly, with a decline in membership, there has a similar decline in monetary contributions to the UMW. The vast bulk of UMW’s revenue comes in the form of mission giving, money given to local and district organizations to fund missions. In 2012 for example, 51.8% of UMW’s $27.21 million operating revenues came from $14.1 million in mission giving. The second largest form of giving is designated giving, and then bequests, gifts, and contributions. The remaining forms of revenue listed on UMW financial disclosures are from sources other than charitable giving, such as interest and investment income, publications, rental income, Brooks Howell Home receipts (a retirement home run by the UMW), and “Other”.

So in terms of ‘giving,’ we’re left with three different forms. Based off of the ten years of financial information available on the UMW, membership giving is on a decline. Between 2003 and 2012, mission giving declined 21.8%, designated giving declined 29.55%, and bequests, gifts, and contributions declined 15.9%. Interestingly, total operating revenues have only fallen 5.4%, indicating that increasingly UMW depends on other sources of revenue.

contributions update

It’s also worth noting that these calculations are in nominal dollars, i.e. NOT adjusted for inflation. Given that $1 in 2003 would be worth $1.25 in 2012, UMW’s drop in contributions is actually even greater than appears. Adjusted for 2012 dollars, mission giving has declined 37.44%, designated giving has declined 43.64%, and bequests, gifts, and contributions have fallen 32.55%. Adjusted, total operating revenue for UMW has declined 24.34%.


Again, the UMW website appears to be out of date. It brags that UMW members raise “close to $20 million” and “up to $20 million” each year, and appears to have been touting that number since at least June 2006. However, the press release announcing Clinton’s decision to speak at the assembly claims more modestly that “members raise more than $16 million annually for mission with women, children and youth.” It’s possible that UMW has consciously updated its old statistics, but missed a few instances on its website. But even then, the same press release contains the outdated 800,000 membership figure.

The IRD has written several times about many of the more questionable actions taken by the United Methodist Women. Last December, a UMW-operated retreat center honored former bishop Melvin Talbert less than a month after the Council of Bishops denounced his performance of a same-sex marriage in another bishop’s area. As I noted at the time, this was hardly surprising:

Unfortunately, the honoring of Melvin Talbert by the United Methodist Women is par for the course for a division of the church that has a long history of unfettered liberal activism. In this year alone, the UMW have demanded a complete halt of border security and illegal immigration enforcement, praised Roe v. Wade while calling for a re-examination of the UMC’s support for crisis pregnancy centers, and lobbied for increased restrictions on the Second Amendment and against fracking and the Keystone pipeline.

Even more recently, IRD President Mark Tooley called on Clinton to distance herself from a radically anti-Israel workshop being offered at the UMW Assembly.

Perhaps the UMW ought to take a long, hard look at how their politicized actions might be contributing to its decline. Otherwise, it risks becoming increasingly impotent as Christian women choose to organize and donate to more apolitical Christian organizations.

UPDATE: An earlier version of this blog post stated that between 2001 and 2012, the United Methodist Church declined 10.4%. That number reflects the decline in the American jurisdictions of the United Methodist Church, not the entire denomination. This error has been corrected.

13 Responses to United Methodist Women in Decline

  1. Greg Paley says:

    My aunt, who is a certified lay preacher in the UM and also teaches a Sunday school class, told me that her congregation simply dissolved its UMWomen’s group, for lack of interest. Obviously there’s a trend.

  2. Txcon says:

    I think part of the decline is the lack of outreach to professional women. Our church, for example, is a relatively affluent urban area where most families are dual-income professionals. And yet almost all of the UMW (and all women’s outreach) events are mid-morning on weekdays. There is no mission to women professionals that are at work at 10 am on a Tuesday.

  3. Ohio conservative says:

    As a 50-something, raised in the UMC, I dropped my membership in and financial support of the UMW back in the early 2000’s as I became concerned of their support of liberal political issues. Finally becoming aware of their support of agencies which advocate for abortion was the final straw. The ever-increasing left-leaning of the denomination led me to leave the UMC altogether in 2008. Clearly, I am not alone. If, and until, the UMC finds it’s way back to truth based on the Word of God and not the ever-changing social gospel, the number of people leaving the denomination to find truth will continue.

  4. Mavis Diment says:

    Just wondering about the 800,000 figure–does this include women from Africa and other conferences outside the U.S.?

  5. UM Pastor's wife says:

    When I suggested creating a woman’s group that would still be tied to UMW at one church my husband served, I was viciously attacked by the UMW president. I stated I wanted to create a group that would be more up-to-date and offering biblical and spiritual lessons to working women (which I was one of) while still giving and supporting UMW. The woman started yelling that I wanted to destroy and get rid of the group altogether. She then accused my husband of the same and some very nasty lies were then spread. A special meeting was called, with the DS in attendance, where I gave the figures of declining membership and pointed out the ages of the women in attendance, how many were now in nursing homes, and the circles that had stopped meeting. I stated my goal was to bring the number of women in the group back up, but since they were more interested in attacking me then I would simply quit the group myself. Soon after the evening circle stopped meeting because the monthly meeting was always held on a weekday morning and the older members refused to change to include them. It’s very frustrating to be a pastor’s wife and try to support a dying group.

  6. Heather says:

    It sounds like the Presbyterian Church (USA) and the Methodists have a lot in common. The more left wing these denominations become, the more rapid the denominations’ decline. Yet the people running these denominations refuse to recognize or acknowledge this, as they are so caught up in their self-serving agendas.
    I just hope the last person to leave remembers to turn out the lights.

    • JohnEpiscopal says:

      The Roman Catholic Church is considered by Pew Research to be the fastest declining denomination in the US and it is conservative on most social positions. The Southern Baptist Convention also declines by 2% or so a year and closes 1,000 congregations every year. The SBC is very conservative. So why are they declining? They’re not ‘liberal’.

  7. Emily says:

    Why so much attention on the membership of the UMW? Drops in attendance could be largely due to the fact that more women are working full time and cannot participate due to time constraints. The UMW has a long history of biblically based social action, ie “what you do to the least of these you do to me…” which you do not mention. Current liberal fringe issues aside, the UMW has largely followed traditional Methodist Social Principles in its work to be a witness to Christ by its caring actions. All in all, without substantial social science research, this is really nothing more than a politicized piece of writing.

  8. Martha Berry says:

    THE UMW has become so liberal that it hardly resembles the UMW of past years. When will it get back to the original intent of serving others while remembering its Biblical roots? The Assembly just ended is a good case in point. They could not have gotten anyone that could have been any more political than Mrs. Clinton. Why could we have not gotten someone from our own ranks? Mrs. Clinton hardly represents UMW or the UMC, no matter that she has been a life long member of the UMC.

  9. D. Sensing says:

    At every church I have served there has been a very active women’s group that deliberately had severed membership in the UMW or had never established it.

    The number one reason they gave me? They didn’t want to pay UMW dues because they saw no point in them and certainly to benefit.

    I neither endorse nor rebut that. It’s simply what I was told.

  10. Vacogito says:

    I was President of our Church’s UMW in the ’80s. As a young new member of the Church I was disturbed by the unquestioning support of abortion rights. By the time the ’90s came along no new younger members joined. By the millennia our UMW disbanded. We could no longer support the political mission of the National and Global UMW. The group was a great loss to the missions of our Church but members could no longer send their money to support the promulgation of beliefs that they felt wrong or even evil.

  11. JohnEpiscopal says:

    I really question the statistical analysis of this article given that the author is quite obviously biased against UMW. Even if, however, they have 528,126, as this article claims, that still makes them a large and formidable advocacy organisation within the UMC.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *