Around this time of year, the United Methodist Church’s roughly five dozen regional divisions in America, called “annual conferences,” have their yearly business meetings combined with a bunch of worship, guest preaching, and workshops. (Many of the annual conferences in other countries meet later in the year.)
United Methodism in this country has been steadily losing members for decades.
This year, among the bright spots of conferences which actually posted modest gains rather than losses in membership were North Georgia and Texas, which gained 581 and 1,738 members, respectively. (Despite its confusing name, the Houston-based “Texas” Conference is only one of five of the non-missionary conferences into which United Methodists in the Lone Star state are divided.)
In both these conferences, activists associated with the Reconciling Ministries Network (RMN) introduced resolutions which would have put the respective conferences on record as supporting key aspects of the LGBTQ liberation agenda.
In the Texas Annual Conference, a single activist from an RMN-affiliated congregation submitted a bunch of resolutions which would have made the conference officially petition the General Conference to remove disapprovals of homosexual practice from various parts of the UMC’s governing Book of Discipline. Interestingly, these petitions stopped short of removing denominational disapproval of premarital sex, as “Reconciling” activists have tried to do at General Conference.
Rounding out the “T” section of LGBTQ, a resolution introduced in North Georgia would have endorsed the “Transgender Day of Remembrance.” The first submitter listed was Giselle Lawn, a member of RMN’s board of directors, chair of its North Georgia chapter, and a member of St. Mark’s UMC in Atlanta.
The margins by which these resolutions were rejected were not even close. In Texas, all of the homosexual-practice-affirming resolutions (which, as just noted, were more moderate than the full extent of the “Reconciling” movement’s General Conference agenda) failed by vote margins of at least 2-1. The North Georgia transgender resolution was reportedly shot down by a vote of 1,025 — 302 (77.2 — 22.8 percent).
The overwhelming majority of delegates in these conferences reject the dangerous false dichotomy that suggests one has to choose between extending compassion to those who experience same-sex attraction or gender identity disorder and maintaining faithfulness to historic, biblical Christian teaching on matters like sexual self-control.
On the one hand, this proves that under Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter’s plan to “empower” every United Methodist annual conference and local church to unilaterally set its own policies on sexual morality matters, not even those local contexts in which sexual liberalization is overwhelmingly opposed could expect to be spared from the divisive debates now conducted at General Conferences.
But on the other hand, this serves as a yet another strong, empirical rebuke to those who continually claim, contrary to all evidence, that the church “has to” embrace a range of sexual liberationism if it is to succeed and grow in 21st-century America.
Yes, these are just two of the UMC’s many conferences. But as I recently explained to a newspaper reporter, in our denomination, NOT all conferences are equal.
First of all, United Methodist conferences vary widely in size.
Some seem to think that each annual conference session passing a homosexuality-affirming resolution merits its own headline.
But with its 285,944 lay members, the Texas Annual Conference has significantly more people than seven of the eight Western Jurisdiction annual conferences (Alaska, California-Pacific, Desert-Southwest, Oregon-Idaho, Pacific-Northwest, Rocky Mountain, and Yellowstone) COMBINED.
Meanwhile, with its 363,383 members, the North Georgia Conference is home to many more United Methodists than the entire Western Jurisdiction.
Secondly, when the full compilation of reports come in, I expect, as in recent years, there will only be a minority of other U.S. conferences recording any membership growth in the past year.
Accepting explicit arguments that the church “needs” to redefine its core values to pander to secular American culture (and the accompanying implicit arguments that the church should ignore the supernatural work of the Holy Spirit of making people who truly become Christians into new creations) would lead one to expect that the more the church conforms to culture, the more it will grow.
The Western Jurisdiction of the UMC has long been the most theologically secularized, and its leaders have publicized their disagreement with biblical standards for sexual self-control very widely within and beyond the church in their region. And yet this has also been the UMC jurisdiction declining the fastest in membership. Churches that do not offer anything radically different from anything else in the surrounding culture are generally bad at motivating people to get up early on Sunday mornings.
The Pacific-Northwest Conference merits special mention because of how its bishop, Grant Hagiya, has caused a stir with his divisive leadership style and his making clear – unmistakably clear – his unwillingness to effectively keep his own (freely chosen) vows to God and to other United Methodists to uphold the church’s standards. The recently concluded Pacific-Northwest Annual Conference session reported a membership loss of over five percent. Under Bishop Hagiya’s very vocally liberal leadership, the conference has already posted membership declines of 5.3 percent in 2013, 2.6 percent in 2012, and 4.5 percent in 2011.
These are huge losses for any church body, whether local or regional, to experience in a single year! If the Pacific-Northwest Conference continues annually losing five percent of its members for another dozen years, then its 250 congregations (assuming that many remain open) will be down to an average membership of less than a hundred members. At present ratios, this would mean only about 40 in each church’s worship attendance.
Anyone seriously interested in finding a “way forward” to keep current United Methodists together should look in a very different direction than the church leaders who are driving away a steady trickle of thousands of their own members.