This month, the United Methodist Church’s General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA) updated its annual global membership statistics for our denomination, highlighting further internationalization. There has been a long trend of non-Americans overtaking Americans in the UMC’s overall size. Now, depending on which measure we use, the ranks of United Methodism in the United States have been either virtually tied, recently surpassed, or left in the dust by those overseas.
Our geographic conferences generally report statistics for the previous year. There is usually additional lag time is in compiling numbers from our central conferences outside of the USA, which are not always updated yearly. So the current “Quick Facts” chart about our denomination, which GCFA just updated, shows the 2019 statistics for American United Methodism (as reported in 2020) and the 2018 statistics for non-Americans (reported in 2019).
Even acknowledging that this is not as exact a science as we would like, our denomination tracks a wealth of useful metrics for tracking trends and making objective comparisons. Harvard Divinity School’s dean and my former advisor, David Hempton, liked to say that historians love to study Methodists because they can count them. Not every religious body shares our long tradition of meticulous record-keeping. We’re very methodical like that.
Here is how the U.S. portion of our denomination compares with the non-American central conferences:
|Central Conferences (2018)
|Congregations or preaching places
|Average Weekly Worship Attendance
*Per GCFA, “preaching places,” counted only in central conferences, “are a common form of gathering in certain countries that is not as formal as the organized churches elsewhere.” This figure is split between 18,402 such preaching places and 12,866 organized congregations outside of America.
(The above statistics are all from GCFA, though some of the wording is mine.)
The relative clergy-heaviness in American United Methodism is likely driven by different approaches to the clergy-laity division of labor in ministry. I remain deeply impressed by a General Board of Global Ministries (GBGM) “In Mission Together” event I attended several years ago. There a leader of United Methodism in Malawi in southern Africa explained their ministry model of seeing each pastor as largely a trainer of a local corps of evangelists: the lay members.
In terms of counting local communities of worship (including “preaching places”), the records for central conferences have just surpassed those for the USA. This is a brand-new development! The GCFA’s summary statistics that were posted as late as last month (of 2018 for the U.S. jurisdictions and 2017 for the central conferences) showed the combined number of central-conference local communities (congregations plus preaching places) to be just barely under the number of U.S. congregations—30,881 for the former and 30,955 for the latter.
In terms of average worship attendance, these (pre-pandemic) measures show that on any given Sunday, far more Christians worshipped in United Methodist congregations outside of the USA than inside. Of these roughly six million worshippers, a super-majority of 61 percent were outside of America. The central conferences only passed Americans in this metric on GCFA’s “QUICK UMC FACTS” page last year, between January 2019 (when it reported 2016 numbers for both America and central conferences) and February 2019 (when it reported 2017 numbers for the former and 2016 numbers for the latter).
In terms of formal members, our denomination’s U.S. and central conference portions have now come to a virtual tie, both at about 6.5 million. Of nearly 13 million members, the gap between the two has shrunk to a mere 23,173. Central conference membership is overtaking U.S. membership at this very moment in history.
There are reasons to think that we have actually already passed the tipping point of having a minority-American membership, while we await official confirmation in the next year. The overall trend has been absolutely consistent overall decline in America coupled with general overall growth in central conferences (with some exceptions, like a very slight decline in central-conference membership between 2017 and 2018).
The GCFA’s current “QUICK UMC FACTS” page do not include 2020 developments, such as the departures of the liberal Glide Memorial UMC in California and the evangelical Granger Community Church in Indiana. Nor does it include continued central-conferences growth after 2018. If we only take the loss of Glide’s 13,096 members and Granger’s 1,979 members, along with the 2019 gain of 747 members in the small Kivu Conference in central Africa this squeezes our denomination’s American majority down to a statistically insignificant 7,351.
So it seems much more likely than not that later reporting will show that the tipping point for majority-non-American membership has already passed at this point.
Our denomination’s membership has experienced a major sea change in a historically short period of time. Earlier this year, I found myself doing a deep dive in the journal of the 1984 General Conference (the first held after I was born). That year, our denomination’s highest governing authority had mere 68 delegates from central conferences (and only 22 from Sub-Saharan Africa), reflecting official statistics showing over 95 percent of denominational membership in America. Now the growth of central conferences has resulted in them being entitled to 370 delegates to the next General Conference, 43 percent of the total.
These developments directly relate to our coming denominational split.
When central conferences accounted for little more than a token number of members and General Conference delegates, they posed no threat to the dominance of certain factions of well-educated, liberal, and mostly white Americans. But then came the turning point of the 2019 General Conference, specially called in hopes of resolving some of our key internal differences. Observers across the spectrum agree that a significant majority of American delegates voted for an ambitious package of church-law changes to liberalize our denomination’s sexual-morality standards (although a very sizable minority of U.S. delegates voted the other way). But even an enthusiastic vote for such a comprehensive plan by the clear majority of American delegates proved to be no longer enough to set our denomination’s agenda. This was blocked by overwhelming support of non-U.S. delegates for the alternative Traditional Plan, which both reinforced traditional sexual-morality standards and strengthened accountability for clergy more generally. This signaled the end of American dominance in our denomination.
Quite simply, the reason for the now widely agreed upon need for our denomination to divide is because of how since that General Conference, liberal American conferences, bishops, and caucuses have made clear that such global sharing of power (and expectations to respect and submit to the will of non-American delegates) is absolutely unacceptable to them.
Even as we prepare for the split, many liberal American leaders are making clear that they would only want to remain in the same denomination with significant number of United Methodists in the Global South if they could establish formal segregation from each other, effectively preserving a large degree of American power and protecting Americans from having to respect and submit to non-American delegates on many key matters. As with other historic examples of “separate but equal,” such rehashed “global segregation plans” (which liberals have continually pushed in various forms since 2008) would actually divide the denomination into very unequal regions, privileging Americans at the expense of others.
As we prepare for the next General Conference and the future beyond, it is worth considering these developments and reflecting on such questions as:
- Why is there such proportional imbalance in the number of bishops allotted to the USA and the rest of the world (especially Africa), even though non-U.S. bishops generally cost the church much less?
- When liberal American leaders have insisted on keeping African United Methodists (who account for the vast majority of our denomination’s black members) systemically under-represented and marginalized within the Council of Bishops and other denomination-wide leadership bodies, what does this suggest about the future of how the denominations into which the UMC will divide will handle differently such matters of proportional representation?
- In considering details and concerns with a separation agreement, how much do basic manners and fairness demand that we listen to United Methodist leaders in central conferences who strongly stand with most central-conference delegates in supporting the Traditional Plan? How much should we sideline such representative voices to instead narrowly concentrate on amplifying the voices of some non-Americans because of their acceptability in the eyes of liberal American officials?
- Is colonialism really dead in the UMC’s liberal-American-dominated bureaucracy?