The Seven Churches of the UMC Today

John Lomperis on April 7, 2021

Before its impending split, the United Methodist Church (UMC) has already evolved into seven distinct “churches.” The following is adapted from an academic journal article submitted recently published in The Asbury Journal: Lomperis, John (2021) “The Seven Churches of United Methodism, Revisited,” The Asbury Theological Journal: Vol. 76: No. 1, p. 82-108. This was offered as a sort of update of the famous 1985 “The Seven Churches of Methodism” study by Robert L. Wilson and William Willimon. The full journal article can be read here.

As the United Methodist Church prepares for a major split, a review of the key divisions that already exist is worthwhile.

The Preamble of the widely supported “Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace Through Separation” very explicitly envisions that one denomination emerging from the split, the “post-separation United Methodist Church” (psUMC) would liberalize church law to authorize same-sex weddings, in contrast to the emerging denomination to continue the UMC’s historic doctrinal and moral standards, now called the Global Methodist Church. The Protocol Preamble also acknowledges that these differences are related to more fundamental differences over contrasting theologies and approaches to Scripture.

But the realities of current United Methodist divisions are more complicated than a simple two-way division. It is more accurate to think in terms of how the UMC has become divided into seven main sub-churches, each with its own nuances and internal sub-divisions but also distinct overall features setting them apart from the other six. Importantly, for each of these “churches,” the constituency is far broader than those who strongly support, feel represented by, or are even terribly familiar with their faction’s identifiable leaders.

As some prepare to shape the psUMC, others prepare to shape the Global Methodist Church, and all sorts of United Methodists try to figure out this interim period, we would all do well to try to better understand each of the UMC’s seven “churches,” including the histories and nuances of United Methodists outside of the United States.

Church #1: American Traditionalists

American traditionalists are fundamentally united by their primary values of a high view of the authority of Scripture, and the urgent importance they see in salvation through Jesus Christ alone.  Leadership has been provided by the Renewal and Reform Coalition of renewal caucuses, including UM Action. Members of this “church” want their denomination to continue banning clergy sexual behavior outside of monogamous, heterosexual marriage, seeing this as a derivative commitment of their primary values. They see this moral stance as a matter of authentically loving all people, including their family members and loved ones in the LGBTQ community, and they deeply resent accusations to the contrary. This “church’s” experience with congregational growth and relationship to the UMC’s bureaucratic establishment has often differed starkly from that of other “churches.” American Traditionalists include important internal diversities, including a much-greater range of opinions on American politics than some outsiders imagine.

Church #2: The Genuine Methodist Middle of America

This is perhaps the least understood “church.” After all, it is the only one with no organized caucus or clear, representative leadership. It is very different, and much less liberal, than the caucuses and leaders now loudly touting the “centrist” label.

But there are many American United Methodists whose theological views are truly somewhere in the middle of the denomination’s divides, with the details varying widely between individual members. They are deeply uncomfortable with the packaged-deal stances of the caucuses of the other U.S. sub-churches. For some this is a transitional phase before evolving into one of the other groups listed here. But it would be a mistake to take the relative silence of this “church” in denominational debates as signaling that it can be ignored.

Church #3: Institutionalist Liberals

This American sub-church is defined by (1) a strong desire to liberalize church standards on sexual morality, (2) key theological shifts needed to support this stance, and (3) loyalty to the institutional trappings of the United Methodist Church as we have known it. The “four commitments” of the UMC Next caucus capture uniting core values of the members of this “church.”

Leadership is provided by denominational agency officials and the majority of American bishops as well as leaders from older liberal-caucus circles and all of the newer caucuses describing themselves as “centrist.” When we consider the particular history of how the term “centrist” was first widely introduced into denominational discourse, the realities of extremely liberal individuals claiming the “centrist” label when it seems politically convenient, and the differences with the Genuine American Methodist Middle (Church #2 above), the cause of accuracy would probably be greatly served by retiring all use of the word “centrist.” Revealingly, in the Mediation Team that developed the Protocol, the two leaders initially selected to represent “the centrists” and the two initially selected to represent supposedly distinct “progressives” were all members of the Convening Team of Adam Hamilton’s UMC Next caucus, with a common legislative agenda.

Leaders and activists of both this “church” and American Traditionalists (Church #1) have often defined themselves in opposition to each other. Members of this “church” have chosen to put aside their differences on other issues for the greater priority they see in making common cause against traditionalists. But what will happen after separation? We have already seen early signs of some of the intra-liberal divisions that may shape the psUMC.

Church #4: Liberationist Progressives

The self-described “liberationist” faction in America is sometimes given disproportionate attention. It merits listing as its own sub-church primarily due to the talk of some of its members forming a third denomination. Its members are less attached to the UMC’s institutional trappings than institutionalist liberals, whom liberationists sometimes accuse of such sins as valuing the denominational establishment over full LGBTQ+ liberation.

Leadership had primarily been provided by the UM-Forward caucus, but more recently a division has become formalized in the emergence of two new liberationist groups, the Liberation Project and the Liberation Methodist Connexion. There are strong reasons, based on present facts and some inherent limits, to be skeptical of the latter’s rhetoric about forming its own denomination. But then again, if the next General Conference fails to liberalize sexuality standards or enact a separation agreement, then some current institutionalist liberals may get frustrated enough to join some liberationists in forming a liberal split-off denomination.

Church #5: Sub-Saharan Africa

It is dangerous to make generalizations about over 6 million church members, spread across so vast an area, with so long a history. But some broad outlines can be carefully observed. The internal leadership culture as well as the wider social and religious contexts of this sub-church can be starkly different from those faced by United Methodists in the other sub-churches. One key factor is an often-extreme level of financial dependence on international partners. Although Africans remain extremely under-represented in denominational leadership, United Methodists here have in recent years experienced extraordinary growth and become increasingly vocal. This sub-church tends to fervently cherish its United Methodist identity and the cross-and-flame logo, in contrast to how some American congregations, across the theological spectrum, have consciously distanced themselves from denominational branding.

African United Methodists are overwhelmingly theologically traditionalist, with a high view of Scripture, strong commitment to evangelism, and near-unanimity in disapproving of homosexual practice. There are some exceptions, which should be neither ignored nor exaggerated. American traditionalists should take care to avoid any sort of “romantic racism” about this sub-church. Furthermore, as the denomination approaches schism, one prominent African leader has reported that “some influential African bishops, who are in support or sympathetic to this progressive sexual ethic,” are seeking to bring African United Methodism into the more liberal denomination that will allow same-sex weddings in at least some of its regions.

Church #6: The Philippines

The Philippines Central Conference is much smaller, with three active bishops and slightly more than 200,000 members. It faces distinct challenges finding its place within its nation’s wider religious landscape. Filipino United Methodists have done impressive work planting congregations in other nations, including in the Islamic Middle East, among overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs). This central conference’s particular traditions of having every bishop run for re-election and replacing General Conference delegates every four years have fostered some unique challenges. Talk of “schism” is particularly loaded for Filipino United Methodists given some of their own history.

Theologically, a strong super-majority of Filipino United Methodists are traditionalist. However, in contrast to Africa, there is a more sizable and sometimes vocal theologically liberal minority.

Church #7: The Central Conferences of Europe

Stretched across some 30 nations, today this region only counts slightly more than 50,000 members, a number which has been trending downward. Interestingly, Europe’s history of church-state relations is such that in some countries, the UMC actually receives direct financial support from the government (see here for a couple of examples).

Internal divisions here have often been generalized in terms of the Western nations having greater wealth as well as theological liberalism, and the Eastern nations often facing serious government repression and financial dependencies. There is much truth to this, but the reality is more complicated.

It would be a mistake to neatly equate theologically liberal factions in Europe with those in the United States. The real theological divisions that exist here have been less polarizing than in America. Among other things, at least much of this region has not had the same experience as Americans of liberal clergy publicly defying the denomination’s bans on same-sex weddings.

I strongly encourage reading the full article in The Asbury Journal to get a fuller picture of each of these seven churches of the UMC as well as the wider context and history in which these divisions have developed.

  1. Comment by td on April 7, 2021 at 4:52 pm

    Thanks for adding this. My two cents here is that within the US, by far the largest is #2, the genuine methodist middle.

    The unintended consequences of the supposedly-impending split will take place in this group. My general impression is that this group highly distrusts all sides, wants the church to follow its own rules, may or may not want an historic liturgy, and by and large is dismayed by our leaders bringing about institutional failure.

    The #2 churches are woefully unprepared to make a theological decision precisely because the tradition of the methodist church is for local churches to not make theological decisions, but to be community builders.

    My prediction is that this large group of local churches will likely be fractured and destroyed in the upcoming battle. Very few of these churches will choose “to leave”.
    The psUMC will inherit almost all these church building. Their traditionally-minded members who are young enough will go to catholic, baptist, and non denominational churches. The more liberally minded will inherit their local UMC, but will struggle for new members and money and will eventually shutter their doors once their many aging members die.

    Truly, to ignore this group is tragic, but the UMC has been ignoring it for decades. If it hadn’t been, the UMC clergy would have been following its rules, and the UMC would not be splitting.

  2. Comment by David on April 7, 2021 at 9:08 pm

    I wonder if the present situation would exist if the M. E. Church South had not rejoined the M. E. Church in 1939. The racially segregated Central Jurisdiction was established to accommodate them.

  3. Comment by John on April 8, 2021 at 11:52 am

    There were NO jurisdictions prior to 1939. They were created to segregate by race (Central Jurisdiction) as well as by geography. Northern Methodists were opposed to being led by bishops from the old Methodist Episcopal, South just as southern Methodists were opposed to be led by bishops who came from the ME. Methodist Protestants weren’t crazy about bishops, period, but that’s another story. That’s not so say there’s equivalence between the fears of northerners and southerners that led to the formations of jurisdictions… but the idea that structural separation within the merged church of 1939 was entirely to placate southerners is a false narrative.

  4. Comment by David on April 8, 2021 at 1:10 pm

    “It was an earlier 1939 merger that created The Methodist Church from the Methodist Episcopal Church, Methodist Episcopal Church South and Methodist Protestant Church. The Southern church only agreed to union after a compromise created a jurisdiction based exclusively on race — not geography.

    Nineteen black annual conferences of the Methodist Episcopal Church were placed in the Central Jurisdiction and the white conferences were placed in five regional jurisdictions. Seventeen of the 19 black conferences voted against the 1939 Plan of Union.”

    https://um-insight.net/in-the-church/50-years-on-the-central-jurisdiction-s-shadow-still-looms/

  5. Comment by William on April 8, 2021 at 6:09 pm

    When All Is Said And Done — The Two Churches Emerging Will Come
    Down To These Two Main Choices:

    To Which Methodist Denomination Do You Wish To Belong?
    Please Check ✔️ One

    —- The Progressive Denomination (Post-Separation UMC)

    1. Believes in a liberal understanding of Biblical Authority, Primacy of Scripture, and Biblical Interpretation in order to offer an alternative vision for people to embrace where Scriptures can be selectively and contextually placed in categories, at the discretion of the reader, essentially consisting of (1) Scriptures that express God’s heart, character, and timeless will, (2) Scriptures that expressed God’s heart, character, and will for a particular time but no longer binding, and (3) Scriptures that never expressed God’s heart, character, or will.

    2. Believes in a new understanding of Christian marriage to include same-sex marriage as a right derived from a liberal, alternative vision, and contextual Biblical interpretation perspective for people to embrace —- accompanied by the right to conduct same-sex marriage ceremonies inside the church sanctuaries by the church clergy.

    3. LGBTQ+ identified persons welcomed into full-inclusion with their committed sexual relationships affirmed, thus freeing them from the call of repentance for the forgiveness of previously understood sins of sexual immorality —- an alternative vision of God’s love and grace for people to embrace derived from a liberal, contextual Biblical interpretation perspective — while having an undefined position regarding the sexual practices and lifestyles of the heterosexual community outside those of a man and a woman in marriage.

    4. Full inclusion of LGBTQ+ candidates seeking licensing and ordination into the ministry who are in committed LGBTQ+ sexual relationships —- as well as being a safe harbor for LGBTQ+ clergy from across the denomination —- while having an undefined position for heterosexual candidates engaged in committed sexual relationships outside those of a man and a woman marriage.

    —- The Traditional Denomination (Global Methodist Church)

    1. Believes in the traditional Wesleyan understanding of Biblical Authority and Primacy of Scripture in that “all Scripture is inspired by God and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and training in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16). The core of the Christian faith is revealed in Scripture as “the faith that was once for all entrusted to the saints (Jude 1:3). Illuminated by tradition,reason, and experience, the revelation of Scripture is the church’s primary and final authority on all matters of faith and practice.

    2. Believes in God’s created order for Christian marriage as only that between a man and a woman as Jesus described and emphasized when he said — “haven’t you read that at the beginning the Creator made them male and female, for this reason a man will leave his father and mother and be united to his wife, and the two will become one flesh? So, they are no longer two, but one flesh. Therefore, what God has joined together, let no one separate” (Matthew 19:4-6).

    3. Believes in the historic, universal and Wesleyan understanding of the Good News Gospel. Therefore, LGBTQ+ identified persons, heterosexual identified persons, ALL persons welcomed equally into full-inclusion (Wesleyan Prevenient Grace) in order to partake of repentance, conversion, and reconciliation to God preached in Jesus’ name for the forgiveness of sins —- including the sins of sexual immorality —- thus receiving salvation and being born again, being transformed, and being turned from a sinful orientation to a new orientation in Jesus (Wesleyan Justifying Grace) in order to pursue, with the help of the Holy Spirit, holiness and good works for the glorification of God (Wesleyan Sanctifying Grace).

    4. Believes in the traditional, historic, universal, and Wesleyan Biblical standards of sexual behavior for candidates seeking licensing and ordination into the ministry as those practicing fidelity in a marriage of a woman and a man or celibacy in singleness.

  6. Comment by Gary Bebop on April 8, 2021 at 8:21 pm

    William’s comment is is right on the money. He understands the choices for what they are in reality. Watch the changing marquee of the liberal autopilot. But don’t be fooled by the “nuancing” of the program.

  7. Comment by td on April 8, 2021 at 11:32 pm

    Ah, yes, david, if the US had never had slavery and the the methodist church had never split before the civil war and the central conferences had never been created. ..then, well, there would never have been UMC clergy and their bishops abandoning christian sexual teachings.

  8. Comment by Pat on April 9, 2021 at 7:10 am

    William is correct.

  9. Comment by Tom on April 9, 2021 at 12:05 pm

    Our church pastor “cancelled” our congregation’s vote to affiliate with psUMC or Global United Methodist, saying the support for psUMC was “so overwhelming” that a vote would not be necessary. I have some doubts as the the extent of this support. It probably comprises a majority of members at my locality, but I don’t think it is nearly as “overwhelming” as described, and without a true vote, it is hard to know for sure. Sadly, the church where I got married, and where my son was baptized, has now been gripped by political activism, it seems. I grew tired of seeing rainbow flags printed in the weekly bulletins month after month. And the pastor using the book of Romans(!) to argue in favor of same-sex validation. And the associate pastor going full BLM activist. Far to politicized.

  10. Comment by John on April 9, 2021 at 5:24 pm

    “The Southern church only agreed to union after a compromise created a jurisdiction based exclusively on race — not geography.” No one is disputing that the creation of the abhorrent Central Jurisdiction was largely to placate the southern portion of the then-newly unified church–although there were more than enough persons beyond the South who were more than happy to oblige. But geographical divisions were also made–most conspicously the isolation of the secessionist states into two jurisdictions… again so that Northern and Southern bishops would not and could not exercise leadership beyond their own context.

    It’s not helpful to healing to whitewash our church’s past and present racism by pretending that it’s only the Old South who’s been complicit and that, beyond benign accommodation, Northerners have been innocent. (Before you conclude that I’m some apologist for “southern culture,” I’m a 12th generation Yankee.)

  11. Comment by Michael Murphy on April 9, 2021 at 9:08 pm

    Tom,

    I’ve seen this exact behavior before. The UM pastor is more liberal in their own theology than the actual congregation is. He/She therefore says a vote is not necessary – and if one were held, it would likely be in direct opposition to his/her own views. This would mean that the pastor would either have to come around to what the congregation wants, or leave his job. This is Sophie’s Choice for that pastor, and they would rather avoid it altogether and try to strongarm their opinions.

    In truth, what will happen is the more conservative members will just leave. The ones with the money. The new liberal church will NOT grow, and apportionments will not be paid. That pastor will never grow either, and will eventually be out of a swell job just because of politics (which was never supposed to be a part of the church in the first place).

  12. Comment by td on April 10, 2021 at 5:10 pm

    What Tom describes is exactly what will happen almost everywhere unless general conference or an annual conference require every church to take a vote.

    I have no faith in this institution to behave responsibly, fairly, or in good faith. And the only solution that is feasible is the only one that Methodists and protestants ever use: to split and go separate ways and not worry about the carnage left behind.

  13. Comment by Brother Thom on April 13, 2021 at 7:16 am

    I think the Global Methodist Church is poised to repeat a number of the issues raised here.

    First, I suggest it’s the top-heavy decentralized structure of the current UMC, that the GMC will likely mimic. No denomination should ever have a council of leaders (council of bishops) voting among themselves on the administrative issues of the church. Instead, a single bishop (let’s call him/her the president for now) should be elected by the collective of bishops to lead the denomination for a structured period of time.

    Second bishops should lead their conferences not only in accordance with the discipline but within any directive’s issues by the president of the church. Bishops should broad power to lead their conference members, but limited powers over deviating from doctrine.

    Next, bishops should be limited in numbers, very limited. No bishop should live in a parsonage larger or more extravagant than the pastors they lead. No conference offices or buildings should reflect opulence but instead should reflect the needs of the conference they serve rather than individuals occupying the offices.

    The president of the denomination should have the power to fire bishops “at will,” for violations of personal integrity, morality, fraud, and sin.

    District superintendents should cease to exist. I have not met a UMC pastor yet who has told me “thank God, the DS was there to help me.” What I have heard and seen are DS’s who meddle too much in church business, push agendas that don’t glorify God, but instead glorify their aspirations of being elected Bishop.

    It is obscene for a conference bishop to say, “we all need to be on a walk with Jesus,” as they climb into their conference car, with driver, and head back to their opulent office before heading home to their million-dollar parsonage. A life of service to God should be reflected in spiritual rewards, not monetary rewards.

    The GMC will only get one shot to get this right, and the signs are already there that some have their sights on something other than a walk with Jesus. Let pastors run churches, do away with DS’s, limit the number of bishops and elect a president to run the denomination.

The work of IRD is made possible by your generous contributions.

Receive expert analysis in your inbox.