Every year, each United Methodist annual conference takes a tally of local church statistics to be placed in the subsequent year’s Annual Conference Journal. In the United States, these statistics are typically compiled for the summer annual conferences, and then posted on the UMC’s website. As summer comes to an end, it’s possible to compile these statistics to get a better picture of the general trend of the United Methodist Church in the United States. Unfortunately, 2013’s picture is no different from previous years: the vast majority of annual conferences are in a membership and attendance decline.
Quick caveat: eight conferences failed to turn in Annual Conference Reports– or turned in reports that didn’t include membership and attendance totals– and have not posted their 2014 Annual Conference Journal on their conference website. Those conferences are the Dakotas, Greater New Jersey, North Texas, Northwest Texas, Peninsula-Delaware, Red Bird Missionary, Wisconsin, and Yellowstone Annual Conferences. As a result, the following analysis does not take those conferences into account, although it’s unlikely they would substantially alter the general picture of decline.
The 49 reporting U.S. annual conferences reported over 83,000 fewer members combined, with more than 68,000 fewer members attending weekly services. These losses are consistent with the results of the previous year’s annual conference reports, as reported by United Methodist News Service. UMNS’s analysis found a loss of 87,319 members and 50,895 fewer people in worship in 2012, based on 57 of the 59 annual conference reports. While membership losses continue at roughly the same pace, the decline in worship attendance has jumped by more than one-third.
There were a few positive exceptions. The Texas and North Carolina Annual Conferences both saw modest growth in their membership totals, but by less than one percent each. The Alaska and Central Texas Conferences both saw similarly modest growth in attendance, while Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference saw a respectable 2.7 percent growth in attendance. But the only conference to grow in both membership and attendance was the Tennessee Annual Conference, by less than one percent for each.
But there were also a few negative outliers. Rio Grande Annual Conference led the U.S. conferences in membership (-9.08%) and attendance losses (-10.62%), which may be partially related to its ongoing merger with Southwest Texas. But in second place was the Pacific-Northwest Annual Conference, with a 5.06% drop in membership and an 8.25% drop in weekly attendance. In fact, the entire Western Jurisdiction did very poorly when it came to membership losses. Six of its eight annual conferences were in the bottom ten: Pacific-Northwest, Alaska (-4%), Rocky Mountain (-3.5%), Oregon-Idaho (-3.04%), California-Pacific (3%), and Desert Southwest (-2.93%).
|Annual Conference||% membership decline in ‘13||Jurisdiction|
|Rio Grande||9.04||South Central|
|West Ohio||2.99||North Central|
|New Mexico||2.64||South Central|
Meanwhile, the North Central Jurisdiction seemed to suffer the worst attendance losses. Five of its eleven annual conferences were in the bottom ten: Northern Illinois (-5.46%), West Michigan (-5.37%), Illinois Great River (-4.25%), Detroit (-4.12%), and Minnesota (-4%). If it’s any consolation, the Western Jurisdiction suffered a greater decline in attendance on average, thanks to the abysmal performance of the Pacific-Northwest Annual Conference.
|Annual Conference||% attendance decline in ‘13||Jurisdiction|
|Rio Grande||10.62||South Central|
|Northern Illinois||5.46||North Central|
|West Michigan||5.37||North Central|
|Illinois Great River||4.25||North Central|
One interesting case is that of the New York Annual Conference. In 2013, UMNS spotlighted it as one of the few annual conferences that had grown in weekly attendance (albeit, by only 0.3%). The late Bishop Martin McLee chalked it up to worship revisions that had created “a more ‘friendly’ approach to the worship experience.” In the year since, however, the New York Annual Conference has suffered the fifth worse decline in attendance among the U.S. annual conferences. Whatever positive changes, flukes, or accounting magic led to 2012’s noteworthy numbers seems to have evaporated.
It’s hard not to look at the list of fastest declining annual conferences in light of the continuing debates over Scriptural authority and sexual morality within the United Methodist Church. Of the 16 fast-declining conferences listed above (excluding Rio Grande’s unusual circumstances), at least 12 have passed resolutions at recent annual conference sessions stating their support of the LGBTQ movement, and another (Alaska) belongs to a jurisdiction that has done the same. Meanwhile large and growing UM annual conferences have overwhelmingly rejected such resolutions.
This year’s bleak picture is hardly an outlier. The United Methodist Church has been in decline in America since the 1960’s. But by examining what’s driving the growth in the conferences like Tennessee and Texas, by diagnosing what’s driving the exodus in conferences like Pacific-Northwest and Northern Illinois, and by relying on God’s guidance, anything can happen.
IRD’s compiled statistics can be downloaded by clicking here. The document, and this article, will be updated as the remaining annual conference journals come in.