Congregations Leaving Over More than Sexuality

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?

18 thoughts on “Congregations Leaving Over More than Sexuality

  1. Thanks for the great analysis Tom. I think it is safe to say that the losses would be steeper in the UMC. However even your conservative estimate should be a cautionary note for UM leaders.

  2. In regard to those “broader, longstanding concerns” cited in this blog post:

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

    Expanding on the 2nd point above, there is a “dumbing down” of Theology. My observation is that most UM ministers either have a woeful ignorance of Christian orthodoxy or mold their expressions of faith to the lowest levels of spiritual development of their parishioners. Otherwise, how would one explain re-baptisms, apocalyptic/rapture preaching, and minimization of the Eucharist. Also, Methodists were once a singing people and the hymnody spoke the faith. Many Methodists are now a “standing & watching a performance people” and are told they are praising. The congregants are then subjected to a proof-texted feel good “message” and sent on their way.

    Purported differences regarding same sex unions and homosexuality are “…an outward and visible sign of an inward and spiritual ‘decay’…” It is reasonable to assume that UM congregations & clergy reflect society as a whole and – while maybe not at the same ratios as the broader public – both congregations and clergy have persons of different sexual orientations.

    Points 1 & 3 are one. I believe the UM Episcopacy has surrendered its leadership to the mob of boards and committees and in the process exacerbated the decline of the local congregation and the quality of pastors and preaching.

    1. As cited in this blog and many other posts, it is clear that the church is becoming better known for what it is against, rather than what it’s for. That’s sad. It’s time that our churches do what Jesus commanded us to do in John 13:34 – “”A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another.”

      The ministries in our churches are falling apart because their leaders spend more time condemning people for their faults rather than loving them into a relationship with Jesus that can help them overcome those same faults.

      It’s time for all of us to take a look in the mirror and consider where we can best spend our efforts. In many cases, it may be time for us to move on to another area of ministry.

      1. John, I’m not sure which leaders you are talking about. Most of our leaders I’m hearing from don’t seem to condemn anything except failing to be politically incorrect, which is apparently the unpardonable sin. Lying to people about what the Bible says, failing to speak and live the truth in love, is as bad as condemning people for their faults, whoever may be doing that.

        Fortunately, there is another way. We can live and speak the truth in love, out of loving relationships (Eph 4:15). We can share with all people the Good News of forgiveness and freedom from sin through repentance and faith in the Risen Christ (Mk 1:14,15; Rom 10:9). That is what people need, and what a lot of people really want, and that includes people who happen to be homosexual.

        I am for people. I am for people finding freedom, abundant and eternal life, in Christ.

        Let us love one another as Christ loves us. For we love because He first loves us. It is in our love for Christ that we can love others. And if we love Him, we will keep His commands. (1 Jn 4:7-12 ,Jn 15:7-14, 14:15).

  3. I see a lot of talking about keeping pensions if we split. It is my understanding that as long as you have the minimum required years….a pastor’s retirement is control by the Federal government and must be paid. I know this a side issue… but one I have been hearing a lot.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Charlie. I understand that our pension plan does not fall under the federal laws ensuring that. However, the plan itself says that what money is in your account is yours. What is unclear to me is what happens to the “defined benefit” part of the pension plan that was reintroduced a few years ago. Those benefits, like the pre-1982 benefits, are paid based on years of service by the annual conference. Not sure what happens when one leaves the annual conference and the ministry in the UMC. But what is lost for clergy pensions under this situation should be rather small.

      1. Tom, to conclude what is lost for clergy pensions under the pre-1982 benefits should be rather small, as one who has 30 years of his pension dependent upon pre-1982 benefits, that is not a small amount of my pension. Furthermore, when your annual conference takes $ 5 million dollars out of that invested money and shares it with another conference to fund their pension program and when it is returned it is placed in a Endowment Fund to help pay the health benefits of retired pastors. This sounds good but when we retired we were told that we would probably receive a 6% increase each year because the money had been producing such benefits. The first two years of my retirement we received between $1000.00 to $2,000.00 bonus check and haven’t seen another one since. Plus , since loaned money has been returned and invested as described above, our increase in pre-1982 benefits has been 2% not 6%. Some of our older pastors and widows of pastors have been hurt the most by this process. John

  4. Concerning some Bishops and assorted Elders and Deacons, we have gone from Apostolic Succession to Apostasy Succession in the ordination process. I have been in the Methodist church for over seventy years and have sat under preachers from liberal seminaries struggling to interface their uninspired drivel with the people of faith that are on the battle front everyday against the forces of evil. Little wonder they lust after those things that defy the teachings of the Apostles whom Christ ordained. The new “ology”, just like the Common English Bible that was thrust upon us, is crowd sourced and in many cases is not a true translation of what the original writers said or thought. Jim Jones threw a Bible on the floor and said, “We are not going by that any more, we are going by what I say.” (Or words to that effect.) He subsequently led more than 900 people to their deaths. Even so, our spiritual death is much more serious than our physical death.. This, perhaps, is the reason that the “evil one” assails us so strongly..

    1. Mr. William, thank you for staying, praying, and working so long! I myself am only half way to 70 in chronological age and barely a decade in the Church. I have recently learned about the “crowd sourced translation” this worries me as well but short of learning the original languages myself I am left with reading many translations with word study worthy dictionaries beside me. Peace and good health to you sir! Merry Christmas!

  5. I am a member of a smaller UMCOR church (350), I am retired now but have been very active in the local church. I know that our congregation would lose members if the Disciipline were changed. I, personally, could not financially support a church that did not follow the Word. It is difficult because I know many awesome gay people. Difficult to show love and hold the doctrinal line without offending.

    1. Jacquelyn, it is because we love people that we hold the doctrinal line. What people who are homosexual need is the same thing everyone else needs, and that is forgiveness and freedom from sin through repentance and faith in the Risen Christ (Mk 1:14,15; Rom 10:9). If we love people we will speak the truth in love (Eph 4:15), not tell them what we think they want to hear.

      Those in our denomination who think being politically correct is more important than being Scriptural would have us think all people who are homosexual want to be told the homosexual lifestyle is not sinful nor anything to repent of, but is okay and good. But I’m not convinced that all people who are homosexual want that, and I refuse to stereotype them in that way in order to be politically correct; in fact, I think that is insulting.

      So take heart, and as you build relationships with those awesome gay people you know, live truthfully and the time will come when you will be able to speak truthfully, if it is not already here for you. God bless.

  6. My pastor has made it clear that if the Book of Discipline changes on the issue of recognition of same sex unions/marriages, we would leave the denomination. This is a quite sizeable church in the Houston area (2500-3000 average weekly attendance). Prepare for a massive split if this were to occur.

    1. It would seem that the Wesleyan Church would be a good landing if orthodox Methodist congregations are bullied out of the general church.

  7. I withdrew my membership in the Methodist church. And yes bullying exists in the Methodist church. I left for a few reasons:

    1. A fellow church member said to me in Sunday school in response to my comment that rituals and traditions are important to Catholics, “but, are they (Catholics) Christian?”

    2. I am an IRS employee. The IRS email scandal, President Obama and other politics were frequent topics. I felt antagonism and anger directed at me. I thought Sunday school was supposed to be about Christ.

    3. The Minister at our church gave the Sunday pulpit to Congressman Pete Olson. There was a upcoming election which Congressman Olson won. Congressman Olson spoke on his faith. Irrespective of The congressman’s topic, it was good politics to be seen in a conservative church before an election.

    Congressman Olson supported the government shutdown.

    Bottom line, church is about Christ’s mission. Sunday school is about Christ’s mission. I converted to Catholocism. I know the Catholic Church’s mission is entirely Christ driven.

    And yes, the current antagonism contaminates and distracts from Christ’s mission. I have grown weary of the anger. I sought and found peace in the Catholic Church.

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