The latest statistics on United Methodist Women’s membership for 2016 reveal a steady slide in local UMW participation. These numbers are reported by the General Council on Finance and Administration and are based on the yearly information that all local churches are required to submit.
Over the last nine years, The United Methodist Church has lost an average of 249 congregations per year. (Interestingly, the peak loss years occur in the year after General Conference.) At the same time, UMW has lost an average of 543 congregations per year that no longer have an active UMW unit – twice as fast a decline. Currently, less than half of the nearly 32,000 United Methodist congregations actually have an active UMW unit. This is despite the requirement in the Book of Discipline that every local church shall have a unit of UMW.
This is a flashing neon sign that something is terribly wrong.
UMW membership is declining at the rate of 4.6 percent per year. That means there are more than 25,000 fewer UMW members each year. In many cases, this is due to the death of members and their not being replaced by new, younger members. In some cases, the loss of members (and the failure to attract new ones) is due to disenchantment with the liberal social policy agenda and progressive theology that the national UMW tends to promote.
UMW is losing members at five times the rate that the general church is losing female members. At the end of 2016, it had lost more than 200,000 members — nearly one-third of its membership — since 2008. At the current rate, UMW would disappear by the year 2034.
The most important issue is to foster women’s ministries that enable women to come to know Jesus Christ as their personal Lord and Savior and to grow in their faith. For example, the Renew Network is Good News’ program for encouraging and equipping United Methodists to revitalize women’s ministries in their local churches. You can find devotional, teaching, and Bible study resources on the Renew website.
As for the UMW, the decline in membership has not affected its financial security. This is so because only about 55 percent of UMW income comes from direct member giving. The rest comes from income off of investments, publications, and facility rental income. In addition, UMW has benefited from the sale of sizable properties, gaining over $14 million in 2015 and $34 million in 2016. This contributes to a sizable reserve of over $90 million, which enables UMW to spend more than it takes in each year. Each year in recent history, UMW has run a deficit. In 2015 it spent $9 million more than it took in. In 2016, the deficit was $7.4 million.
It almost appears that the finances of the Women’s Division will outlast its membership if the stock market remains robust.
Although the UMW program lacks appeal to younger women and the future looks to be in jeopardy, the financial surplus cushions UMW from having to take a hard look at its approach, meaning that the organization is not yet ready to make the drastic changes needed to recover its vitality.
I once served as pastor of a small church with a healthy endowment. That endowment enabled the church members to disregard the decline in their church until membership reached about 25 people. At that point, the endowment was not enough to sustain the church’s operation, and the church eventually closed. Tragically, that church waited too long to deal with their membership decline. By the time they were ready, it was too late, and the decline could not be reversed. One hopes that UMW leaders are not lulled into a false sense of confidence, and that they will soon be ready to reevaluate and change the programs and practices that have led to this decline — before it is too late.