As United Methodists look ahead toward next week’s special General Conference on human sexuality, there is a great deal of knowledge and wisdom to be gained by looking at the recent histories of other mainline Protestant denominations that have walked this road.
The Episcopal Church, Presbyterian Church USA, Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), and United Church of Christ have all in their own ways debated how to handle human sexuality and chose to liberalize their official stances and teachings. The sad reality is that after bending to progressive social pressures, these churches have only continued to shrink, not experiencing growth or renewal through an influx of young believers, LGBT-affirming people who had left the church, or any other means.
The so-called “One Church Plan,” which promises unity while changing the church’s definition of marriage and rolling back current bans on partnered gay clergy and same-sex union ceremonies, firmly sets the United Methodist Church (UMC) on a liberalizing path that very much mirrors what these other denominations have done. If recent history is any indicator, such a plan will cement the UMC’s decline by codifying unbiblical standards and practices that are surely only the first step toward requiring full affirmation of LGBTQ practice in all forms. So-called inclusion and openness in this way will not make the UMC a thriving church in the twenty first century, a beacon of hope for the lost and rejected.
There is one especially key way in which none of the liberalizing proposals adopted by these other denominations went as far as the United Methodist “One Church Plan” would go. When all of these other denominations liberalized their sexuality standards, remaining conservative congregations could still insist on only having pastors who personally lived by traditional moral standards and who never performed same-sex weddings. But because of the UMC’s somewhat unique system of bishops appointing pastors, if the “One Church Plan” is adopted, then any theologically orthodox congregations who remain in the UMC could beg and plead, but they would have no firm right to prevent their bishop from imposing on them a liberal pastor who was in a same-sex partnership or who was known to perform same-sex union ceremonies. Given the numerical imbalances of there being many more liberal United Methodist clergy than there are liberal congregations to go around, the One Church Plan would ensure that we would see many such mismatches between pastors and congregations.
While various particular data measurements were more readily available for some denominations than for others, the overall trend is rather consistent when denominations move in this direction. Here are the stories and statistics from each denomination.
Again, with each, keep in mind that these were the results seen when these denominations adopted liberalizing policies that in some ways were notably more moderate than the “One Church Plan.”
Presbyterian Church USA (PCUSA)
In 2006, a vote by the church’s General Assembly gave local ordaining bodies leeway in how they applied standards of their constitution. This freedom allowed governing bodies within the church to decide whether standards on marriage and sexual purity are essential or not, and to apply them to ordination candidates as they saw fit. In response to that denomination’s internal tensions, this new policy to effectively allow many liberal clergy to no longer be bound by traditional standards was sold as a compromise that would advance the “peace” and “unity” of that denomination. Sound familiar?
In 2010, the General Assembly passed an amendment to the church’s Book of Order that removed standards for clergy’s sexual behavior. Ministers, deacons, and elders no longer had to live in “fidelity within the covenant of marriage between a man and a woman or chastity in singleness.” The PCUSA’s official website described the new ordination standards and procedures like a local option, saying the change reaffirms the “right and responsibility” of local bodies to approve candidates for ordination, and clearly stated that persons in same-gender relationships could be ordained.
Rev. Jim Rizer, an ex-PCUSA pastor in Ohio described to me what a “local option” meant for him and the congregation he led: “There is not an opportunity for the local church to avoid these conversations,” he said, “the reality is if you participate in the connectionalism of the larger church, if you participate in larger church mission, if you participate in larger church funding, you have to have that conversation.”
Rev. Rizer and a portion of his PCUSA congregation left to form a new church in the Evangelical Presbyterian Church after a very financially costly and intensive period, in which the PCUSA resisted their departure and accused the leadership of mismanagement, forcing Rev. Rizer and the new congregation to leave their building and financial resources behind. Despite the institutional desperation and lack of amicable treatment they faced, the new congregation, Living Hope Evangelical Church, is thriving.
Meanwhile, the PCUSA continued to liberalize further. Its 2014 General Assembly voted overwhelmingly to redefine marriage as a union between “two people” and to allow pastors to conduct same-sex marriages where legal.
In contrast to Living Hope, since 2006 PCUSA membership has declined 38 percent, from over 2.2 million members to 1.4 million as of 2017. Attendance is down a bit more, dropping 39 percent since 2010.
From the demographic data that is available, it is clear that the PCUSA body is getting older and young people are not being drawn in by the church’s more progressive teachings. From 2013 to 2017, membership of those 25 and under dropped 23 percent, and the age group of 26 to 45 which comprises the core of parents raising children fell 25 percent. Both of these numbers are greater than the overall decline of 19 percent in the past four years – progressive teaching once again failing to deliver on promises of gaining support from younger generations. Members between the ages of 46 and 55 fell the most, proportionally speaking, at 28 percent. The two oldest age groupings the PCUSA uses, from 56 to 65 and 65 and older, fell the least, at 21 and 11 percent, respectively.
Baptisms for both children and adults fell even more precipitously than membership . Across the PCUSA, child baptisms from 2006 to 2017 dropped by 51 percent, while over the same period, adult baptisms dropped by 54 percent.
In total, 706 congregations were dismissed from the PCUSA to other denominations between 2006 and 2017. In contrast, only three joined from other denominations during that same period.
Ecumenical and global church relations globally have also worsened. A prime example was the severance of ties by the National Presbyterian Church of Mexico, which has over 2 million members, after the PCUSA’s 2011 decision to remove the fidelity and chastity language in its Book of Order. In 2015, The Independent Presbyterian Church of Brazil and the Evangelical Presbyterian and Reformed Church of Peru also ended partnerships over the PCUSA’s decisions on sexuality. The National Black Church Initiative, a coalition of 34,000 African-American churches from 15 denominations and made up of 15.7 million members, decided to end its relationship with the PCUSA in 2015, describing its redefinition of marriage as “a universal sin against the entire church and its members,” and called for repentance.
Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA)
The ELCA’s key liberalizing decision came in 2009, when its Churchwide Assembly approved a resolution that allowed the ordination of non-celibate men and women in same-sex relationships and also recognized same-sex unions. The new language adopted allowed “people in such publicly accountable, lifelong, monogamous, same-gender relationships to serve as rostered leaders of this church.”
The ELCA included provisions that recognized “the conviction of members” who disagreed with the new ordination policy and allowed congregations or individual pastors to hold to a traditional Christian understanding of marriage and sexuality. In its social statement following the decision, the ELCA described four different general convictions that varied in their response to homosexuality (see page 20 of this linked resolution). The church called for “mutual respect” amidst the lack of consensus, for the church “to live together faithfully in the midst of disagreements.”
Traditionalists were told that these new policies would not directly infringe on them, but that they would merely allow liberal congregations to have partnered gay clergy or same-sex weddings if they wanted them, while traditionalist members and their values would still be respected within the denomination. Again, sound familiar?
However, respect was never truly offered to traditionalists. Dr. Amy Schifrin, President of North American Lutheran Seminary (the new seminary of the North American Lutheran Church formed by former ELCA-ers), described the situation to me: “I think there was a lot of dishonesty. The ELCA had this four positions thing, that any of the four would be acceptable, and it appeared to me obviously a ruse. And it’s obvious now that the church doesn’t want people to hold these four positions.”
Many ELCA churches concerned about their denomination’s work diverted their giving. Rev. Donna Smith, who was pastoring an ELCA congregation in 2009, stated that her church gave people options, such as an assurance that “all gifts would go to the local congregation and local benevolent causes.” She said she knew of some congregations that directed all of their benevolence away from their synod and ELCA.
The ELCA’s numbers show a denomination that did not find unity and is now struggling greatly. A slew of congregations left the ELCA between 2009 and 2013, the first five years after the liberalizing change, with the vast majority of these departures coming in 2010 and 2011. In all, 675 congregations disaffiliated from the church, about two-thirds of the 954 that took a congregational vote to decide whether to leave.
The ECLA’s decline has continued far beyond the first two years when the exodus was greatest. The ELCA lost three percent of its congregations from 2016 to 2017, the most recent year for which data is available.
From 2009 to 2017, membership has decreased from 4,542,868 to 3,455,573, a drop of 24 percent. In that same period, the number of congregations also dropped significantly, from 10,348 to 9,039, a loss of 1,309 congregations or over 12 percent of them in a mere eight years. These number indicate that apart from entire congregations leaving, churches that stayed lost many people. Baptisms of children and adults combined have dropped 37 percent since 2009. While the ELCA does not publicly provide data on the age diversity of their members, past ELCA leaders I spoke to agree that the average member is getting older and older.
Progressive policies have not made the church more diverse, either. Active participation for African Americans/African Nationals is down 29 percent since 2009, Latino participation is down 36 percent, and for Asian Americans that number is 30 percent. In other words, the ELCA is losing people from each group faster than its overall membership decline.
The ELCA’s softened stances on sexuality have also worsened their ties to other Lutheran churches around the world. The Ethiopian Evangelical Church Mekane Yesus, the largest Lutheran denomination in the world with around 7.9 million members, cut all ties with the ELCA in early 2013 because of the American denomination’s shift on human sexuality.
The Episcopal Church
In 2003, the Episcopal Church’s General Convention affirmed Gene Robinson’s elevation to the office of bishop, thus effectively indicating, as the denomination’s highest governing assembly, that being openly in a gay partnership was no barrier to elevation to the highest ranks of clergy leadership. The controversy that followed led to many congregations and even entire dioceses (the Episcopalian equivalent of annual conferences) leaving and forming the Anglican Church in North American (ACNA). Four dioceses eventually left in 2008 – Pittsburgh, Forth Worth, Quincy (IL), and San Joaquin (CA). In 2012 the South Carolina diocese, one of the nine original ones that formed the Episcopal Church in 1785, also left.
Then in 2009, the church’s General Convention resolved that “God’s call is open to all,” formally opening ordination gays and lesbians, including to election as bishop. That same year, General Convention also approved blessings to be used in same-sex marriages. In 2012, the governing body authorized a provisional rite of blessing for same-gender relationships opened ordination to transgender people. Most recently, in 2015, the General Convention changed the changed the canons of the church to “make the rite of marriage available to all people, regardless of gender.”
The Episcopal Church could count 2.32 million members on its rolls in 2002, but in 2017 that number only equaled 1.71 million, a 26 percent decrease. That is over a quarter of their members in 15 years. Average Sunday worship attendance, a statistic that more effectively measures the size of the church by counting those who are still actively engaged, has fallen even more precipitously, dropping 34 percent to an average of 556,744 last year.
As Jeff Walton has reported, baptisms and confirmations in the church have also dropped rapidly: “Child baptisms dropped 55 percent from 44,995 to 20,069 since 2002, while adult baptisms dropped 53 percent from 6,299 to 2,927.” Parallel to this, confirmations for children have sunk 53 percent and adult confirmations have dropped 51 percent in the past 16 years. This does not bode well for the Episcopal Church’s future.
The Episcopal Church’s repeated response has been to sue congregations that want to leave for their property and any other assets. Many of these lawsuits have seemed simply mean-spirited, such as the case of Church of the Good Shepherd in Binghamton, NY, which offered to pay for its church building when it attempted to leave in 2011. In response, “the Episcopal Church sued to seize the building, then sold it for a fraction of the price” to someone who turned it into a center devoted to promoting Islam. A.S. Haley, an attorney who specializes in church property law and represented the departed Diocese of San Joaquin in central California, estimated after much personal research that combined litigation costs between the Episcopal Church and its departing churches would easily exceed $60 million by the end of 2018.
United Church of Christ (UCC)
Long known for its liberal stances, in 2005 the UCC became “the first denomination to affirm marriage equality for all people, regardless of gender” through a vote by its General Synod. This resolution called upon Officers of the UCC to urge legislators to support “marriage equality,” as well as the church filing a lawsuit in 2014 against the state of North Carolina, arguing that the state’s marriage laws (which then only recognized marriages between one man and one woman) violated the First Amendment.
At the national level, the UCC had already for many years taken a number of strongly leftist stances on a range of theological and moral issues, including support for LGBTQ liberationist causes. This climate had already resulted in significant numbers of people leaving the denomination, but the adoption of this 2005 resolution was seen as a particular turning point.
Since this decision, 14 percent of UCC congregations have left or closed, and overall membership has fallen from 1,271,785 to 853,778, a decrease of 33 percent. Again, the greater losses of membership indicates that not only did many congregations leave, but there were major losses of individuals suffered among congregations who stayed. Leading the pack on church liberalization is good for losing a third of your people, not church vitality.
Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) denomination made their key liberalizing decision in July 2013, when their General Assembly voted to open ordination and all leadership roles to gay and transgender individuals, with no expectation of abstaining from homosexual relations. The resolution called the church to affirm all Christians, “regardless of their sexual orientation or gender identity.”
Despite the defense made of this new policy that it would not compel conservative congregations to change their local approaches to ordination or same-gender marriage, the church has faced the same decline that the other denominations have.
Though data on this denomination is limited, the Disciples are another clear example of how a church’s official teaching matters at the local level, in some way influencing every pastor and congregant. Already significantly smaller than the other mainline denominations discussed, Disciples membership shrank to 411,140 in 2017 from 497,423 in 2014, a 17 percent drop. Worship attendance dropped to 139,936 from 177,141, a difference of 21 percent, in the same period.
Recent history is abundantly clear – liberalizing church teaching and practice on human sexuality brings division and not unity, it limits ecumenical work on global missions, it creates a smaller, older, and less diverse membership, and promises of respecting traditional biblical perspectives and members are almost never kept.
Not one mainline Protestant denomination has experienced the renewal and vitality that was promised by those selling the liberalizing plans, some of which were rather similar to the “One Church Plan,” although none went nearly as far.
The sheer size of the exodus of people from these denominations, within just a relatively short number of years, after they adopted such policies is rather remarkable. The PCUSA lost nearly 40 percent of its people, the Episcopal Church lost 26 percent, the ELCA lost 24 percent, the UCC lost 33 percent, and the Disciples of Christ (with less time for the full fallout of their more recent decision to become clear) has already lost 17 percent. Behind these numbers are very deep human and missional costs.
United Methodists could expect the same kind of bait-and-switch, division, and continued pushes for further liberalization that these other churches experienced with less radical plans. History’s lesson is unambiguously consistent – the “One Church Plan” would be disastrous for the UMC.