By Rev. Thomas Lambrecht
As the 2016 General Conference approaches, progressive United Methodists are pulling out all the stops to push for a change in the denomination’s position that would allow same-sex marriage and the ordination of practicing homosexuals. They seem to be taking this course in total disregard of any possible negative consequences for the future of United Methodism.
The United Methodist Church is already facing a projected drop in membership of about 130,000 members per year in the next few years. That is the equivalent of eliminating the Arkansas Annual Conference or the Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference every year! What would be the impact on U.S. membership of a shift in the denomination’s positions on marriage and sexuality?
The Presbyterian Church (USA) provides a cautionary example that continues to unfold. According to a recent article in Charisma based on analysis in the Presbyterian Layman, the PCUSA has lost nearly 285,000 members in the three years since they granted denominational approval for same-sex marriage and the ordination of non-celibate homosexuals. This represents the loss of 100,000 more members than the previous three-year period. Over the past three years, the denomination has lost nearly 15 percent of its membership.
In the wake of the radical PCUSA decision, hundreds of PCUSA congregations have withdrawn to unite with a more evangelical Presbyterian denomination. Additionally, thousands of more conservative members have left the PCUSA to join the independent church down the street.
The picture is not getting any brighter for the PCUSA. Denominational officials project membership losses for 2015 and 2016 of 100,000 per year, with losses of 75,000 per year in 2017-2020. Carmen Fowler LaBerge, President of the Presbyterian Lay Committee observed that “year over year losses of more than 90,000 members per year is institutionally unsustainable. To put it into perspective, that’s the equivalent of closing an average of 1,000 PCUSA churches a year.” Since 2005, the PCUSA has lost over 645,000 members. Projected losses of 500,000 over the next five years will bring the total loss to 1.15 million members, cutting the denomination’s 2005 membership nearly in half.
Predictably, it is not the loss of members that is stirring the Presbyterian pot, but the loss of revenue from per capita assessments (their equivalent of UM apportionments). Revenue to the national PCUSA is projected to drop from $13.5 million in 2012 to $11 million in 2020. Under proposed budgets, the national PCUS will run a half-million-dollar deficit in 2016, with deficits exceeding $1 million starting in 2018. In the absence of drastic budget cuts, the unrestricted reserves are projected to run out in 2021. In the meantime, denominational askings are proposed to rise 23 percent by 2018 from their 2010 level. By 2020, the askings will be 30 percent higher than 2010. Where there are fewer members, they will need to pay proportionately more to keep the denominational machinery going—or the machinery will begin to be dismantled.
What if this took place in The United Methodist Church? What if the UM Church adopted the Connectional Table proposal to permit same-sex marriage and ordination? What if the same fallout happened to U.S. membership in our denomination that took place in the PCUSA?
Can you imagine being down to 3.5 million members in the year 2030 from the current 7 million? Can you imagine losing or closing over 10,000 congregations (one-third of the current total) over the next ten years? Can you imagine the need to raise apportionments by one-third over the next 15 years, even with yearly budget cuts? By 2030, U.S. membership would be less than one-third of the global United Methodist makeup (unless the more conservative churches in Africa, Eastern Europe, and parts of the Philippines also withdrew from the denomination). The ministries of our denomination would be left at only a shell of their former strength.
Is this picture of precipitous decline the preferred future of progressive United Methodists? Despite the cautionary example of not only the PCUSA, but also The Episcopal Church, the United Church of Christ, and the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America, progressive UM’s insist that “it won’t happen to us.” The idea that “we’re different” is only a whistling in the dark denial of reality. The United Methodist Church consistently polls as more conservative at the grass-roots level than any other mainline denomination. If other mainline churches suffered such grievous turmoil and membership loss in the wake of adopting gay-affirming stances, what basis is there to think that the UM Church would react any differently?
One hopes that progressives and sympathetic moderates will take another look at the damage done to other denominations before persisting in trying to inflict the same on our own UM Church.
NOTE: for a previous blog on the PCUSA membership situation, see “Changes in PC(USA) Bode Ill for Methodism”
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