Archives for December 2013

Where We Stand Today: A Survey of Quadrennial Membership Changes

When the numbers come out for the delegation for General Conference, it represents a good opportunity to step back and take a look at the bigger picture of our membership trends.  Sometimes we get caught up in the short-term, year-to-year numbers, and we forget to take a longer view.  With that in mind, I would like to examine how this past quadrennium compares with the quadrennium before it in terms of church membership.  (I know there are many other aspects of church numbers that could be compared, but I will focus on this one indicator as possibly representative of the overall trends.)

Note that the numbers used to allocate the delegates are from 2012, which is only a three-year “quadrennium,” compared to the four-year period of 2005-2009 for the previous quadrennium.  This is because delegates are being elected a year earlier in some annual conferences in the U.S. and abroad.  I took that difference into account in my figures below.

United States

The first thing to note is that six U.S. annual conferences grew in membership over the past quadrennium.  This is roughly 10% of the 59 U.S. annual conferences.  The growing conferences are:  Indiana, Central Texas, Louisiana, Oklahoma Indian, Kentucky, and North Georgia.

This chart compares the annual growth rate for each quadrennium—it is the simple growth rate, not the compound growth rate.

Jurisdiction

Ann. Membership 2005-09

Ann. Membership 2009-12

North Central

– 1.9%

– 1.9%

Northeast

– 1.8%

– 1.8%

South Central

– 0.5%

– 0.6%

Southeast

– 0.3%

– 0.9%

Western

– 2.0%

– 2.3%

Total U.S.

– 1.0%

– 1.2%

The northern jurisdictions remained constant in the rate of membership loss in this quadrennium, compared to the previous one.  South Central Jurisdiction slightly increased their rate of membership loss.  The Southeastern Jurisdiction tripled its rate of membership loss in this quadrennium, currently losing members faster than the South Central.  The Western Jurisdiction has the most rapid membership loss and increased the rate of loss in this quadrennium.

North Central Jurisdiction

Seven of the eleven annual conferences in this jurisdiction declined at a rate faster than the average.  The highest rate of decline was for Wisconsin, which declined at 3.2% per year, nearly double the jurisdictional average.  There was one growing annual conference in this jurisdiction; Indiana grew 0.4% per year.

Northeastern Jurisdiction

Five of the ten annual conferences in this jurisdiction declined at a rate faster than the average.  The highest rate was for Upper New York, which declined at 2.6% per year.  There were no growing annual conferences in this jurisdiction.

South Central Jurisdiction

Eight of the fifteen annual conferences in this jurisdiction declined at a rate faster than the average.  The highest rate was for New Mexico, which declined at 2.0% per year, more than triple the jurisdictional average.  Growing annual conferences were: Central Texas (0.4%), Louisiana (0.1%), and Oklahoma Indian (0.03%).

Southeastern Jurisdiction

Five of the fifteen annual conferences in this jurisdiction declined at a rate faster than the average.  This indicates that the jurisdictional decline was due to a few annual conferences losing a higher number of members, rather than a widespread decline in all the annual conferences.  Florida led the way with an annual decline of 3.6%, four times the jurisdictional average and representing nearly 32,000 lost members.  North Alabama was next at 2.7%, three times the jurisdictional average.  North Georgia (0.7%) and Kentucky (0.03%) were the growing conferences.

Western Jurisdiction

Five of the eight annual conferences in this jurisdiction declined at a rate faster than the average.  The highest rate was for Pacific Northwest, which declined at 3.8% per year.  There were no growing conferences in this jurisdiction.

Annual Trends

The good news is that the Northeast and North Central Jurisdictions decreased the number of members they are losing each year by 7-10%.  The bad news is that the other three jurisdictions increased the number of members they are losing each year.  The Western Jurisdiction is losing 7% more members a year.  The South Central Jurisdiction is losing 19% more members per year.  And the Southeastern Jurisdiction nearly tripled the number of members lost per year, up 189%.

These are sobering trends that indicate how urgent it is for our church to recover its doctrinal integrity and creative, Holy Spirit-empowered ministry.  It is also why the four-decade-long conflict over theology and moral teaching in our church is so debilitating.  That conflict is siphoning off energy and resources that could be going toward increasing the effective ministry of our churches.  We need to resolve that conflict, so that it doesn’t continue to eat away at our church’s membership.

What do you think?  I can also answer some specific questions you might have about the membership statistics.

When Can a Trust Not Be Trusted?

Simpsonwood Retreat Center

The United Methodist Reporter recently reported that the North Georgia Annual Conference is considering whether or not to sell the Simpsonwood Retreat Center located near Atlanta.  The 227-acre property has been used for 40 years by the church as a setting for a retreat ministry, as well as the annual conference offices.  Members of the community have also enjoyed its walking trails and outdoor picnic pavilion, and groups like the YMCA and Girl Scouts have used its facilities for their programming.  The property is thought to be extremely valuable for development into a housing tract because of its pristine character and location along the Chattahoochee River.

What makes this case significant is that, in order to sell the property, the North Georgia Annual Conference had to go to court to remove deed restrictions placed on the property by the original giver of the land.  Miss Ludie Simpson sold the land to the conference for $1.00 in 1973, provided that the North Georgia Conference “shall hold the property conveyed herein intact except [it] may deed property without cost to Wesley Homes, Inc.”  In August of this year, the conference went to court to have the restriction removed, claiming that the covenant is “no longer valid.”  A judge agreed.  Local residents are now attempting to fight that decision.

I am not qualified or informed enough to comment on the legal aspects of this case.  What troubles me, however, is the ethical issue of breaking a trust.  When people give gifts to the church, they expect that any conditions placed upon that gift will be honored.  Since they will not be around to ensure that those conditions are honored, they “trust” the church to do so in their absence.  That is why gifts like these are called a trust.

What happens when the church cannot be trusted to keep its word?

Just a few years ago, there was a dispute over the trust created by people who gave the United Methodist building in Washington, D.C. to the General Board of Church and Society (GBCS).  The building and its proceeds were to go toward advocating for abstinence from alcohol and related problems.  Instead, for many years, GBCS used the proceeds to support all of its many programs of advocacy on a wide variety of issues, of which abstinence from alcohol or drugs was a very small part.

GBCS also went to court to remove the restrictions on the building and its proceeds.  They were opposed by some then-current and former GBCS board members, as well as the district attorney for D.C.  The judge, however, sided with GBCS and broke the trust, removing the restrictions.

As the United Methodist Church’s financial situation gets tighter in the years ahead, due to falling membership and revenue, the temptation will be there for congregations and church agencies to access resources that have been restricted.  We need to consider very carefully the ramifications before taking such a course.

First, there is the moral issue of keeping our promises to people.  In Psalm 15, David asks, “LORD, who may dwell in your sanctuary? Who may live on your holy hill?”  The answer, in part, is “He whose walk is blameless and who does what is righteous, who speaks the truth from his heart … who keeps his oath even when it hurts.”  Keeping our promises is part of the bedrock of moral integrity and one of the characteristics of a righteous life.

Second, if our people begin not to trust that we will honor the promises we make when we receive their gifts, they will stop giving them.  People will not entrust us with their resources if they do not trust that we will use them as we say we will.  Breaking trusts might free up some resources in the short run, but it will dry up the flow of resources to the church in the long run.  Once the church has lost that trust, it will take a long time to restore it.

There are times when a trust’s conditions are no longer able to be fulfilled and that trust needs to be broken.  I question whether either of the situations above meet that “last resort” criterion.  One instance of breaking a trust is an incident.  Two instances indicate a trend.  More instances would establish a pattern—one that we should be very reluctant to establish.  What do you think?