Considering Methodist Options
By Thomas Lambrecht
By the end of this year (2022), about 2,000 local churches will have disaffiliated from The United Methodist Church. Hundreds more will do so next year. Where will they end up? A few will remain as independent Methodist churches. The vast majority will align with another Methodist denomination. But which one?
The leading candidate for most congregations is the Global Methodist Church (GMC). As one who helped in a small way to form that denomination, it is my recommended option to local churches. It was founded by United Methodist renewal leaders who have been in the struggle for years and in some cases decades. The GMC was formed in such a way as to address some of the shortcomings we have experienced in the current United Methodist crisis. I believe it is well positioned to give good leadership and resourcing to local congregations for ministry in the 21st century.
There are other options, however. Two prominent churches have aligned with the Free Methodist Church. Within the Wesleyan sphere, other options include the Church of the Nazarene, the Wesleyan Church, and the Congregational Methodist Church.
The purpose of this article is to compare a few important variables in each of the denominations, so that congregations have a realistic idea of what each has to offer. One should explore more deeply those denominations that are of interest, since some positive factors might be offset by other negative factors, and vice versa. But the variables I have chosen to highlight might be non-negotiables, or at least very important, in deciding whether to explore a particular denomination further.
Since the root of the divide in United Methodism is doctrinal, it is important to look at the doctrines of any potential denominational homes. All the denominations mentioned above, including the UM Church and the GMC, espouse Wesleyan doctrine on paper, including a clear traditional definition of marriage and human sexuality. What has caused division in the UM Church is the failure to ensure that clergy and bishops maintain their preaching and teaching within the boundaries of our doctrinal standards.
The GMC promises a more robust doctrinal accountability. In addition, the GMC has added the Apostles and Nicene Creeds to its doctrine, emphasizing the continuity that the GMC has with historic, traditional Christian doctrine.
With a lack of anecdotal evidence at this point, it is difficult to discern how faithful the other Methodist denominations are to their doctrinal statements. My assumption is that they take doctrinal accountability more seriously and their preaching and teaching stays within the boundaries of their doctrines.
As United Methodists are experiencing, the presence of a trust clause means that the denomination has first claim on the local church’s property and requires denominational approval for disaffiliation, as well as for the sale, purchase, renovation, or mortgage of local church property. The current waves of disaffiliation would not be the wrenching battle that it is without the trust clause and the denomination’s ability to make the process difficult or even impossible in some places.
The GMC has no trust clause. The congregation has complete control of its property in every way. In addition, there is a simple and straightforward process for local churches to disaffiliate from the GMC, should that ever become necessary.
The Free Methodist Church is allowing churches who transfer into the denomination to maintain control of the property they bring with them. Any new property acquired by the congregation while in the Free Methodist Church is subject to a trust clause.
The Wesleyan and Nazarene Churches both have a trust clause giving the denomination control of local property. The Congregational Methodist Church does not have a trust clause.
United Methodist bishops are elected for life, except in a few of the central conferences outside the U.S. Retired bishops continue serving on the Council of Bishops, with voice but without vote. As such, retired bishops continue to have a strong impact on the decisions and directions of the Council.
The GMC will have bishops elected for a term to be determined at the convening General Conference. It will probably be a term limit of 12 years served as an active bishop. Retired bishops will not have a continuing official role in guiding the denomination.
Free Methodist bishops are elected to four-year terms and eligible for reelection. Nazarene leaders are called General Superintendents and six are elected to four-year terms and eligible for reelection. The Wesleyan Church has one General Superintendent for the entire denomination, elected to a four-year term and eligible for reelection. The Congregational Methodist Church has one president with minimal authority, since it is a very small denomination and operates with a congregational polity.
In The United Methodist Church, clergy are appointed by the bishop with the involvement of the district superintendent and some level of input from the congregation that can vary from one conference to another. In the GMC, appointment will also be by the bishop with the involvement of the district superintendent, but with a much greater and more consistent level of input from the congregation. It is further proposed to the GMC convening General Conference that churches be allowed to seek out their own pastor if they desire, with the assistance and final approval of the bishop. Whereas United Methodist clergy appointments are usually made on a year-by-year basis, GMC appointments will be made as intentionally longer-term appointments, affording the local church more pastoral consistency.
The Free Methodists Church are appointed by a Ministerial Appointments committee chaired by the bishop. That committee includes both laity and clergy from the annual conference. Pastors serve until a change is requested by the local church or by the pastor, or until a missional need elsewhere calls for a change.
Both the Wesleyan and Nazarene Churches have a congregational call system for clergy. They extend the call for an indefinite term, with review at least every four years. The Congregational Methodist Church also has a call system, with pastors being called to an open-ended term of service.
Denominational Financial Support
United Methodist congregations generally pay between 7-15 percent of their budget to the annual conference, jurisdiction, and general church. While many churches do pay 100 percent of their apportionments, the average collection rate for apportionments runs between 75 and 90 percent for the annual conference as a whole.
The GMC is initially asking churches to give one percent of their operating income to the annual conference and one percent to the general church. There is a cap of no more than five percent to the annual conference and 1.5 percent to the general church. Mission giving will not be through connectional giving, but through direct giving to partner annual conferences, districts, projects, and congregations in other areas.
Apportionments for Free Methodists amount to between 10 and 13 percent of local church income. For the Wesleyan Church, it is 11 percent. The Nazarene Church expects 15 percent, which also includes the pastor’s pension. The Congregational Methodist Church congregations give whatever they decide to give beyond the local church, and there is minimal denominational structure.
One important factor is the size of the denomination and whether there will be enough churches and clergy to allow for supportive fellowship, cooperative work, and adequate resourcing of the local church. Another consideration is whether an influx of United Methodist members and congregations would overwhelm a denomination’s current culture.
Of course, no Methodist denomination rivals the size of United Methodism, which currently has about 6.2 million members in the U.S., along with approximately 30,000 congregations (2020). There are also over 5 million members outside the U.S. in Africa, Asia, and Europe.
It is estimated that 3,000 to 5,000 congregations will disaffiliate from the UM Church by the end of 2023. We have not yet compiled the membership numbers of disaffiliating churches, but a conservative estimate is that those disaffiliating churches represent 300,000 to 500,000 members. If perhaps 80 percent join the GMC, that would yield a denomination of 240,000 to 400,000 members by the end of 2023.
The largest of the other Wesleyan-oriented denominations is the Nazarene Church, with 637,000 members in 5,280 congregations in the U.S. (2016). Globally, the Nazarenes have 2.67 million members in 30,600 congregations. It is a truly global denomination, with congregations in Central and South America, Africa, Eurasia, and Asia/Pacific. Looking at just the U.S. part of the church, however, if substantial numbers of United Methodists joined the Nazarenes, they could make up a significant percentage of the members.
That situation is even more pronounced for the other Methodist-oriented denominations. The Wesleyans have about 125,000 members and 234,000 total attendees in 1,500 congregations in the U.S. (2019). The Free Methodists have 77,000 members in 1,050 congregations (2015). The Congregational Methodist Church has about 15,000 members in 150 congregations.
Size considerations and unique denominational distinctions were important factors in the need to start the Global Methodist Church. If all the disaffiliating United Methodists decided to join one of the existing Methodist denominations, it would be very difficult. 400,000 United Methodists joining the Nazarenes would create a church of 1.037 million in the U.S., of which 39 percent would be former United Methodists. If they joined the Wesleyan Church, there would be 634,000 members, of which 63 percent would be former United Methodists. We would dwarf the Free Methodists or Congregational Methodists.
It is unlikely any of those denominations would welcome that many new members from another denomination. The impact would be devastating on the culture of the receiving denomination. It would be like having a congregation of 100 members experience 65 or more new members joining it all at once. Those new members would want to have a significant voice in how the church is organized and run, which could cause resentment by the existing members and would unquestionably change the character of the congregation. Avoiding this awkwardness was one of the primary drivers in the need to start the GMC.
Another factor in this alignment decision is that each of the existing Methodist denominations has its own history and tradition. Many of us are used to United Methodist history and tradition, dating back to John and Charles Wesley (1740’s) and Francis Asbury, William Otterbein, and Jacob Albright (1790’s). The Wesleyan Church (1843), Congregational Methodist Church (1852), Free Methodist (1860), and Nazarene (1908) all have their own set of “founding fathers and mothers” and their own history and tradition. They do share Methodist history from the Wesleys until the time of their own founding, often as a separation from the Methodist Church. Joining one of these other denominations would be to adopt that history and tradition as one’s own.
When two people get married, they each bring their own family history and tradition with them on a relatively equal basis. Together, they start something new and create some elements of new history and new tradition to build on what they received. They both learn each other’s family history and tradition and respect that history and tradition.
Joining an existing Methodist denomination, however, would be like getting married and leaving one’s own history and tradition behind, while learning and adopting a new history and tradition that is well over a century old. That other Methodist denomination would not feel inclined to “catch up” on our United Methodist history and tradition, so we would not be on an equal basis. We would be adopted into a new family and learn a new way of doing things that has been established through a long evolution.
By contrast, joining the Global Methodist Church offers the opportunity to be in a denomination where we all have the shared history of United Methodism and the shared experience of going through disaffiliation together. Building on that shared history and experience, we would all be on an equal basis in forming new traditions and new ways of doing ministry together, rather than adopting something that is already set up.
There are pros and cons to both approaches. Some people like having all the questions settled and long established, so would be attracted to joining an existing denomination that has a set pattern of life and ministry. Other people want to have a voice in deciding how things will be done going forward, so would be attracted to a new denomination where their voice could make a difference.
All these factors and many more play into the decision of what denomination to align with. As I have written before, it is much healthier to be part of a denomination, rather than being simply an independent congregation. Hopefully, the above (admittedly biased) reflections and information can be helpful in making that decision.
For further information and research, see the following websites:
Global Methodist Church – globalmethodist.org
Free Methodist Church – fmcusa.org
Wesleyan Church – Wesleyan.org
Church of the Nazarene – Nazarene.org
Congregational Methodist Church – cm-church.org
A chart form of the above comparisons is available HERE.