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.
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.
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.