A recently released study by the Association of Religion Data Archives (ARDA)  has surveyed the congregations who left the Presbyterian and Lutheran mainline denominations because they switched to a stance of affirming same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals.  The study showed that homosexuality was the presenting issue, but not the only issue that caused congregations to depart.

“That the denominations’ changing stances on gay ordinations and same-sex marriages were a key factor in the exodus is without question,” reported the study.  “But new research into why congregations decided to leave reveal differences on sexuality issues were only part of a much larger divide.  Among the broader, longstanding concerns that convinced departing congregations that they no longer had a home in their denominations that Carthage College researchers found were:

  • ‘Bullying’ tactics by denominational leaders.
  • A perceived abandonment of foundational principles of Scripture and tradition.
  • The devaluation of personal faith.”

These findings correspond with what Good News and other renewalists have been maintaining all along.  Differences over homosexuality are symptomatic of deeper theological divides.  That is why many evangelicals perceive differences over homosexuality to be a communion-breaking issue.  Many believe that, if the denomination changed its stance, it would be a repudiation of foundational doctrines about Scripture, sin, and morality, and they could no longer remain in the UM Church.

What is more sobering is to realize the potential cost of such an exodus to The United Methodist Church, based on comparisons with the Presbyterian, Lutheran, and Episcopalian denominational experiences.

Let’s take a look at the numbers.

The Presbyterian Church (USA) lost 270 congregations in 2012 and 2013 and estimates losing over 100 more in 2014 because of the denomination’s endorsement of ordaining gays and lesbians, allowing same-sex marriage, and changing the definition of marriage in the church.  This amounts to 3.5% of the PCUSA congregations leaving in three years.

The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) lost about 600 congregations in 2010 and 2011 following the denomination’s decision to allow the ordination of pastors in same-sex relationships.  This amounts to 5.8% of the ELCA congregations leaving in two years.

The Episcopal Church (which was not included in the ARDA study) gained 10 congregations from 1990 to 2000.  However, in the aftermath of the 2000 General Convention’s affirmation of committed same-sex relationships and the 2003 election of the church’s first openly gay bishop, the denomination’s congregations shrank by 469 or 6.4% by 2009.

If The United Methodist Church underwent a similar upheaval due to a shift in our stance on marriage and human sexuality, based on the experience of our sister denominations, we could expect to lose at minimum anywhere from 1,150 to 2,100 congregations.

If we try to look at the number of members that could be lost (which the ARDA study did not attempt to examine), we come up with the following extrapolations:

The PCUSA decline rate averaged 0.8% per year from 1990 to 2000.  From 2004 to 2009, the decline rate jumped to 2.8% per year.  One can assume that 2.0% per year of members lost was due to the denominational conflict.  (Note that these numbers do NOT include members lost from departing congregations in 2012 thru 2014, which numbers are not yet available.)

The ELCA decline rate averaged 0.2% per year from 1990 to 2000.  From 2004 to 2009, the decline rate jumped to 1.6% per year.  One can assume that 1.4% per year of members lost was due to the denominational conflict.  (These numbers also do NOT include members lost from departing congregations in 2010 and 2011.)

The Episcopal Church decline rate averaged less than 0.5% per year from 1990 to 2000.  From 2004 to 2009, the decline rate jumped to 2.2% per year.  One can assume that 1.7% per year of members lost was due to the denominational conflict.

Taking these numbers, one can propose that The United Methodist Church could lose from 100,000 to 150,000 members per year due to the denominational conflict.  In five years, our membership could decline from 7.4 million to 6.7 million, a loss that would equal twice the number of members in the whole Western Jurisdiction.

My hunch is that these numbers are “conservative” estimates, in that they probably understate the number of congregations and members that the UM Church would lose if it were to change its stance on same-sex marriage and homosexual ordination.  Out of this come four questions:

1)     Is losing 10% (or more) of our membership worth the cost of changing our denominational stance?

2)     If so, wouldn’t it make sense to create a pathway to let congregations and clergy exit the denomination without penalty, able to keep their property and pensions?  What is uniquely Christian about forcing congregations to either surrender their property or sue the denomination?  Can we not create a better narrative for our future?

3)     If not, would those unable to live by our current Discipline be willing to have the courage of their convictions and leave the UM Church (with our blessing and help) to establish a new Methodist Church more in line with their theology?

4)     As an alternative, is there another “way forward” that would allow both progressives and evangelicals to be protected in their conscience, so that both groups could remain in a United Methodist Church?