Church sees signs of renewal even as exits rise

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Key points:

  • The United Methodist Church has seen about 20% of its U.S. congregations exit since a church law took effect allowing congregations to disaffiliate with property.
  • But that also means about 80% of U.S. United Methodist churches remain.
  • Many U.S. annual conferences see opportunities for both their existing churches and new ones to grow.

For many United Methodists in the U.S., the familiar annual conference opening hymn “And Are We Yet Alive” carried special resonance this year.

The denomination’s regional bodies had just come through another grueling season of approving church departures in the U.S. Dedicated United Methodists had good reason to sing Charles Wesley’s words with gusto — that they could still “see each other’s face” and join together in praising Jesus “for His redeeming grace.”

As other mainline Protestant denominations in the U.S. have done previously, The United Methodist Church is experiencing its own separation after decades of internal strife over the role of LGBTQ people in church life.

Data from the Lewis Center for Church Leadership shows the regional distribution of United Methodist churches compared to the regional distribution of disaffiliations. Graph courtesy of the Lewis Center.  
Data from the Lewis Center for Church Leadership shows the regional distribution of United Methodist churches compared to the regional distribution of disaffiliations. Graph courtesy of the Lewis Center.

But amid the sadness of goodbyes, many U.S. annual conference meeting in May and June welcomed new United Methodist faith communities and celebrated a renewed commitment to sharing the good news of Christ’s grace outside church walls.

“The people who are in the room are the people who want to be United Methodist,” said Council of Bishops President Thomas J. Bickerton, who also leads the New York Conference. “They want to reclaim a sense of purpose. And so right alongside of lament and grief is hopefulness and joy.”

As of the end of June, a United Methodist News review has found that U.S. annual conferences had approved the exit of 6,179 churches with property. That translates to about 20% of U.S. congregations — or one in five — withdrawing since a church law allowing disaffiliations took effect four years ago.

More disaffiliation data

From UM News:

United Methodist News has put together a chart showing, by conference, how many church disaffiliations have been approved. This unofficial tally is based on a UM News review of U.S. annual conference reports, publicly available journals and reports of the special annual conference sessions held in 2022 and this year. It does not include churches that have discontinued because they are no longer financially sustainable; nor does the chart include churches seeking to disaffiliate via legal action.

See chart.

From General Council on Finance and Administration:

The General Council on Finance and Administration, the denomination’s finance and data agency, is collecting the official data on church disaffiliations and church closures.

But the finance agency’s count of disaffiliations lags behind UM News’ data because it must wait for annual conferences to submit official reports once disaffiliations and closures are completed.

In the meantime, the agency offers more extensive information about the disaffiliations and closures reported. That includes statistics relating to disaffiliating and discontinued churches as compared to their annual conference as a whole.

See GCFA’s July 7 report on church closures and disaffiliations

More special sessions planned:

More than 20 annual conferences have special sessions planned or tentatively scheduled later this year to take up disaffiliation resolutions. The next round of disaffiliations starts in August.

See special session schedule.

Read 2023 annual conference reports.

Multiple annual conferences have scheduled or tentatively plan to hold more special sessions to consider disaffiliation resolutions before the church law expires at year’s end.

But for now, about 80% of U.S. United Methodist congregations — or eight in 10 — remain in the denomination, and many longtime church observers see reason to hope that the tide of disaffiliation is starting to ebb.

It’s also not yet known how much membership loss the disaffiliations represent. That’s in large part because a number of members of exiting congregations are opting to remain United Methodist by transferring to other churches and helping them grow or planting new United Methodist faith communities.

Jesus likened his disciples to vine branches that need trimming to flourish, and many United Methodists also see the potential that the current pruning of anger and infighting will enable the church to bear more fruit.

Lifelong United Methodist Pat Luna said she left the Alabama-West Florida Annual Conference feeling encouraged.

“The people who are staying in The United Methodist Church are excited and fired up and ready to move towards the future where we believe God is leading us,” said Luna, one of the lay people leading grassroots efforts to promote The United Methodist Church.

The Rev. Kim Goddard told the Holston Annual Conference that she and other district superintendents — who have been on the frontlines of administering disaffiliation votes — have shifted their conversation “to a new ‘D’ word.”

“Not disaffiliation,” she said. “That word is discipleship.”

The district superintendents are not alone in that shift. “I asked people, ‘How do you feel about this annual conference and how it’s going?’” Goddard told UM News. “There were several who said, ‘It just feels like a revival.’”

Still, she acknowledged that getting to this point has been at times heartbreaking and has involved a lot of prayer.

The tumultuous 2019 special General Conference — which by a relatively narrow vote strengthened the denomination’s bans on same-sex weddings and noncelibate, gay clergy — also added the church law that allows U.S. congregations to leave the denomination with property if they meet certain financial and procedural conditions.

For the most part, the United Methodist churches and individuals who oppose those bans have chosen to remain in the United Methodist fold.

Church exits accelerated after last year’s launch of the Global Methodist Church, a conservative, breakaway denomination that aims to maintain bans related to homosexuality. Since then, the new denomination reports that nearly 3,000 churches have joined. Five former United Methodist bishops — J. Michael Lowry, Scott Jones, Mark J. Webb, Robert Hayes and Young Jin Cho — also have left for the Global Methodist Church.

While not all exiting churches are joining the Global Methodist Church nor are they all leaving because of differences over homosexuality, most tend to be more on the conservative end of the spectrum. The disaffiliation requirements include a vote by at least two-thirds of a church’s members to leave and that its annual conference — comprising lay and clergy voters from multiple congregations — approve the church’s exit by majority vote.

Fresh look at Fresh Expressions

Discipleship Ministries, the United Methodist agency that works to help churches and conferences equip Christian disciples, is also seeing renewed attention to church-planting and especially Fresh Expressions.

Fresh Expressions are Christian communities, often lay-led, that are reaching new people outside church walls and meeting outside church building in such places as coffeehouses, people’s homes, laundromats and even tattoo parlors. The Rev. Michael Adam Beck has helped the Florida Conference launch hundreds of Fresh Expressions over the past decade. He is now also the director of the Fresh Expressions House of Studies at United Theological Seminary and the director of Fresh Expressions UM at Path 1, Discipleship Ministries’ church-planting program.

Beck said multiple conferences are starting their own Fresh Expressions initiatives. They include the Baltimore-Washington, Dakotas, East Ohio, Holston, Minnesota, Missouri, North Georgia, Virginia, West Ohio, West Virginia and Western North Carolina conferences.

“Fresh Expressions are church in themselves, not a stepping stone to ‘real church,’” he said. “Some of them have been meeting in their form for over a decade.” He cited as examples the Tattoo Parlor Church and Burritos and Bibles that each started in 2012.

“Fresh Expressions are a new form of church for our changing world, established primarily for the benefit of those not currently connected to any church,” he said. “So, yes, the key is to extend the church and form disciples. However, many will not check the institutional boxes.”

He added that Fresh Expressions are very much in line with the way Methodism’s founder John Wesley spread his movement — through small groups meeting outside conventional worship. “There is nothing in the world more Methodist than Fresh Expressions,” Beck said.

Bryan Tener, the director of contextual evangelism for Discipleship Ministries, said Path1 data collection in 2021 found that United Methodists had started 211 Fresh Expressions, but he suspects that is a significant undercount. “The growing number of Fresh Expressions and Launchpad participants going through training helps to highlight the growing energy to start new things,” Tener said.

Beck is leading various training opportunities for laity and clergy that is cohort-based through Adventurers Leadership Academy | Fresh Expressions FL. Discipleship Ministries also has a host of free resources on how churches can engage in this work.  

“It’s important for the UMC to look at this movement and reorganize our training, education, ordination systems and vitality metrics around what God is doing through it,” Beck said. “It will require major adaption and the loss and growing pains that come with that. While vitality does not look like it did in the 1960s, what it does look like today is very exciting.”

Goddard, the Holston Conference district superintendent, has experienced some particularly painful losses. The Holston Conference, which encompasses churches in eastern Tennessee, southern Virginia and a portion of northern Georgia, approved the disaffiliation of 264 churches — or about 31% of its total congregations. Of those, 55 were in the largely rural Virginia district that Goddard oversees.  

“I administered the vote for a church that I served as a newlywed,” she said. “My husband and I got married in May, I went to this church in June, and our first daughter was born there. And so these were people that I knew well. When I announced their vote for disaffiliation, they clapped. That was hard.”

Many of the church votes she administered were unanimous. But a funny thing happened on these churches’ way out the door. She said some members of those “unanimous” churches have since joined other United Methodist congregations in the area.

“These were people who were not in favor of that, and they just didn’t show up to vote,” she said. “And I think that’s happening in a lot of our little churches.”

Scott Thumma, a director of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research at Hartford International University, said The United Methodist Church has already lost twice or more as many churches as other mainline Protestant denominations that have undergone similar divides.

The reason for that, he said, could be because The United Methodist Church has long been a “large-tent” denomination with a greater diversity of theological positions as well as a greater geographic distribution across the United States, especially in rural parts of the country. The United Methodist Church also has long been the biggest mainline Protestant denomination in the U.S.

“The UMC still remains a large and significant presence in the mainline Protestant world,” Thumma said. “It might be said that the departure of the more conservative portion of the denomination could allow the remainder to craft a tighter and more coherent vision.”

The number of disaffiliations has varied greatly by region, with conferences in the southern U.S. seeing most of the church departures. Perhaps not surprising in a denomination whose history so closely aligns with that of the United States, the disaffiliation map is also similar to the red-and-blue maps on Election Day — with the more conservative red areas seeing more church disaffiliations compared to the more progressive blue areas.

Still, the current divide pales in comparison to the big U.S. Methodist split over slavery in 1844, a precursor to the U.S. Civil War. The Rev. Lovett H. Weems Jr., senior consultant for the Lewis Center for Church who is working on detailed reports about church disaffiliations, said the 1844 divide led to about 40% of Methodist Episcopal Church members leaving for the Methodist Episcopal Church South. Denominational records tracked members rather than churches back then.

Ashley Boggan, historian and top executive of the United Methodist Commission on Archives and History, sees an opportunity for the people called United Methodist to use this season of separation to become a new people.

“In our past splits and mergers, it seems clear that we rarely took advantage of these transitional moments to really figure out who we are and to boldly proclaim our identity, our mission, our space in the world,” she said. Even as the Methodist Episcopal Church saw various new denominations break away in its first century of existence, she said, the mother church refused to change for fear of losing more members. “And when you let numbers and fear drive mission, the mission is fruitless,” she said.

Already, many United Methodists appear willing to try something new.

The Northwest Texas Conference has, by far, the highest percentage of church disaffiliations, with about 80% of its congregations severing ties with The United Methodist Church. But even in this area that encompasses the Texas Panhandle, “there is enormous grassroots energy about repopulating that region with points of United Methodist ministry presence,” said the Rev. Paul Nixon, a United Methodist church planter.

Starting on July 20, Nixon is joining with the denomination’s Discipleship Ministries in leading a sold-out Launchpad online course for United Methodists launching new churches and fellowships in the wake of disaffiliations. Twenty-seven teams are registered, representing about 75 participants.

The Western North Carolina Conference has begun a new initiative that harkens back to the old Methodist tradition of circuit-riders. In areas left without a United Methodist presence nearby, the conference is sending forth a new cadre of 16 “Emerging Community Pastors” who, instead of being assigned to existing churches, are assigned to a community or geographic area.

The conference and the neighboring North Carolina Conference also each received grants of $5.25 million from the Duke Endowment to support the creation of new United Methodist faith communities.

For areas left with a diminished United Methodist presence, the Western North Carolina Conference is sending forth a new cadre of emerging community pastors who are appointed to a community, not existing churches. The effort brings the tradition of circuit riders who helped spread Methodism in the early years of the United States. Photo courtesy of the Western North Carolina Conference. 
For areas left with a diminished United Methodist presence, the Western North Carolina Conference is sending forth a new cadre of emerging community pastors who are appointed to a community, not existing churches. The effort brings the tradition of circuit riders who helped spread Methodism in the early years of the United States. Photo courtesy of the Western North Carolina Conference.

The Rev. Lucy Robbins, whose multi-ethnic mission field includes the Biltmore area around Asheville, North Carolina, said she plans to build relationships with the predominantly African American community in Shiloh and reach out to Asheville’s large LGBTQ community.

“As the pastor of the incredible Biltmore faith community, I am excited, eager and hopeful about how we, with the guidance of God’s Spirit, will continue to reach new people in innovative and intentional ways in this new chapter of ministry,” she said.

The Texas Conference, which has seen about half its churches disaffiliate, is already planting new churches in what would have been “United Methodist deserts.” Since late last year, committed lay United Methodists have started nine new faith communities in the conference that stretches from the Houston area to the East Texas Piney Woods.

The people of the Texas Conference are ready, said Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey, who has led the conference since January. “The area is experiencing explosive growth,” she said, “and we have the opportunity to play an important role in re-establishing a United Methodist presence, amplifying our United Methodist witness and reclaiming our United Methodist identity and passion for the mission.”

Goddard of the Holston Conference put it this way: “There’s no reason to waste a good crisis. I really think that we can have a much brighter future having gone through this.”

Hahn is assistant news editor for UM News. Contact her at (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Friday Digests.

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