Recently compiled data from the United Methodist Church’s General Council and Finance and Administration (GCFA) shows a significant shift in where the concentration of membership is moving globally as well as within the United States.
Compiling membership data for a denomination is always a moving target. Some areas assemble their data faster than others, and then it takes some time for a centralized office like GCFA to receive, review, and officially certify everything.
Recent reporting on Juicy Ecumenism has generally used the GCFA’s figures for the clergy and lay membership of each United Methodist region around the globe in 2012. It was on the basis of these statistics that varying numbers of delegates were allotted to each annual conference for the 2016 General Conference.
The final U.S. statistics for 2015 were just released this month. At this point, the latest comprehensive set of such statistics for the denomination’s overseas central conferences was for the year 2013.
There are obviously limitations to such data. But the actual counts of clergy and lay membership are the clearest hard data for measuring how many people our denomination has in each area.
What follows is a chart showing the latest combined clergy and lay membership figures for each of the five U.S. jurisdictions and three central conference regions (Europe and Africa each have three distinct central conferences, while there is only one in the Philippines) and how much of a shift in numbers this represents from the 2012 statistics. Figures are based on 2015 statistics for the USA and the 2013 statistics for elsewhere.
In the big picture, we continue to see membership losses in the United States and Europe offset by greater gains in Sub-Saharan Africa. There is also some notable growth in the Philippines.
However, it is not enough to simply note that we are losing members in the United States. Trends of decline, and growth, are very uneven within America. Once again, the latest data shows that the Western Jurisdiction, whose leadership’s aggressive theological liberalism and open defiance of our denomination’s communal covenant are well known, continues to be the fastest-shrinking U.S. region of the denomination. Evidently the secularized theology, cultural pandering, and rhetoric about “inclusiveness” combined with the ways in which the Western Jurisdiction bishops have mistreated and in some cases driven out faithful evangelical pastors aren’t working out very well.
On the other hand, while losing “only” 2.4 percent of your people in three years is nothing to be proud of, it is no coincidence that the Southeastern Jurisdiction is both the most evangelical-leaning of the five and the one whose membership decline is not nearly as steep as any of the others.
The other three jurisdictions’ theologies and decline rates are somewhere in the middle, with the relatively more liberal northern jurisdictions declining at faster rates than the relatively more traditionalist South Central Jurisdiction.
The actual decline of the Northeastern Jurisdiction may be even greater than these numbers suggest. But at that region’s 2012 Jurisdictional Conference, one presenter brazenly urged leaders to avoid cleaning long-inactive members from the rolls of congregations, for the express purpose of gaming the system by allowing the Northeastern Jurisdiction to claim enough nominal members to justify it having nine rather than eight bishops.
The discrepancies in decline between different regions are even vaster when we compare the combined clergy + lay membership statistics for 2012 vs. 2015 in each of the roughly five dozen annual conferences into which American United Methodism is geographically sub-divided:
As you can see, the chart below lists U.S. annual conferences in order of their rate of decline from 2012-2015. The higher an annual conference is on the list, the greater its rate of membership decline, relative to other areas. To help us visualize the dividing line between those annual conferences that are above average in this area from those that are below average, I have put the statistics for American United Methodism in the proper place in the middle.
I noted who the bishop was for each annual conference during this period (which changed for many conferences two months ago). Our bishops obviously bear great responsibility, and the greater an annual conference’s rate of decline, the more its bishop really had a duty to make publicly clear that the church could no longer be run as it had been, implement a major course correction, hitting the panic button as much as necessary. But it is not fair to put all of the blame, or credit, on our bishops. Annual conferences consisting of dozens or hundreds of congregations spread over large areas are very complex entities. Bishops are often significantly more theologically liberal or conservative than the annual conferences to which they are assigned. And as with local congregations, there are sometimes situations in which growth happens in an annual conference in spite of the poor leadership of a bishop, or where decline happens in spite of a bishop’s fervent efforts to reorient the conference towards renewed evangelistic passion.
Given the complexity and vast size of our denomination, there will be numerous local exceptions to any broad generalizations about such data. Yet a few big-picture observations are in order.
The (eastern) North Carolina Conference’s growth of less than half of one percent is not exactly impressive – except for the fact that it stands alone as the only one of 57 U.S. annual conferences to have experienced any net growth in the last three years on record. The Texas, Tennessee, Kentucky, and North Georgia Conferences get honorable mentions for holding about even with less than one percent membership decline.
Looking at those few episcopal areas that have the rare combination of being relatively theologically traditionalist at the grassroots level and having a bishop during this period who was one of the more outspokenly theologically orthodox bishops, they are concentrated near the bottom of this list, meaning they are doing better than most other conferences in terms of membership trends.
Of the nine annual conference’s whose rates of decline hit the double digits (i.e., they lost more than 10 percent of their people in just three years), all can be fairly characterized as being among our denomination’s more theologically liberal annual conferences, with the exception of West Ohio, which is more mixed. It is really striking that half of the Western Jurisdiction’s eight annual conferences are in this group of fastest-declining conferences.
Thus, even amidst a context of overall decline within the United States, we are seeing the clergy and lay membership, and consequent influence within denominational affairs, shift away from many of the most radicalized areas of our denomination, so that more traditionalist areas should become increasingly dominant.
With these latest statistics, we see that African United Methodism has surged well past the 40 percent mark of denominational membership as it continues its march toward making us a majority-African denomination. Already, the three African central conferences plus the U.S. Southeastern Jurisdiction constitute over 63 percent of the church, and this super-majority may shift to two-thirds within just the next couple of years.
Here is the geographic distribution of United Methodism according to these most recent data:
|US Jurisdiction||Portion of Global United Methodism|
|Central Conference Region|
If you have any insights for key factors in driving the growth or decline rates in any of the above-mentioned regions in particular, please feel free to share in the comments!
UPDATE: I have recently learned that much of the recent decline in the Central Texas Conference can likely be attributed to a major effort a couple of years ago to clean up the membership rolls of congregations in that conference.