Untied Methodist (John 11:44)

A working preacher in Washington, D.C., wrestles with Scripture, the (sigh) United Methodist Church and his soul.

Location: Washington, D.C., United States

Currently the pastor of Foundry UMC in Washington, DC, a wonderful and blessed reconciling congregation. Formerly a United Methodist communicator and editor. Formerly a campus minister. Formerly pastor in Philadelphia for 24 years. Graduate of Albright College and Boston University of Theology. Husband of Jane Malone and father of David, Nancy and Naomi. Resident of Capitol Hill, a wonderful place to live! Articles published in Zion's Herald, a must-read magazine for Methodists, a variety of United Methodist publications, the Christian Century, newspapers.


Numerical Decline

Yesterday I posted last year's membership and attendance numbers from the 37 annual conferences that have provided reports so far to United Methodist News Service (UMNS). UMNS awaits 36 additional reports from the conferences in the United States, so half of the reports are in.

You can see the numbers in yesterday's post entitled "No Comment."

So, okay, in spite of saying no comment, I will comment.

It does not appear we are doing well numerically -- unless conferences with declining numbers tend to meet earlier in the year, and thus submit their reports earlier, so that the 36 conferences yet to report will have better numbers. (Unlikely, but wouldn't this be interesting? We could grow by changing the dates of our annual conference sessions.)

Of the 37 conferences that have submitted their 2004 reports so far, only nine conferences had membership gains last year. Only nine conferences had attendance gains. And these, surprisingly, were mostly not the same conferences.

Only three conferences had both membership and attendance increases -- Alabama-West Florida, Western North Carolina, and Alaska Missionary (which grew from 4,044 members to 4,045, an increase of one, and from an average attendance of 2594 to 2609, an increase of 15).

Even Florida lost members and attendees. This is really quite remarkable when you think about it. We in the Northeast write half of our transfer-of-membership letters to churches in the Florida Conference. Decline in Florida United Methodism makes no sense at all. What are they doing with all those Methodists we send down there to them? What can it mean if even Florida isn?t growing?

Why does there seem to be so much numerical decline and so little growth in our denomination?

I do not buy the argument that numerical growth is proof of correct theology and decline is proof of wrong theology. If so, we should all become Mormons or internet pornographers.

Growth and decline are not determined by whether we are liberal or conservative. Years ago, when I was a conference director of congregational development, I invited the pastors of the 40 churches that had reported the greatest attendance growth over the past decade to meet with the bishop and other conference leaders to tell us why they were growing. The churches invited to the discussion because their attendance had increased the most included every theological variant of the conference.

When I directed congregational development, I was fairly single-minded. I didn't care if a new-church-start pastor was conservative or liberal. My only questions were whether he or she had the capacity to build a congregation and whether he or she was loyal to United Methodism. It seemed to me that no single theological perspective had a greater capacity than others to start churches. This is also what Steve Compton seems to suggests in his book Rekindling the Mainline: New Life through New Churches.

I believe that the numerical decline the United Methodist Church is facing has to do with non-theological issues, and it seems to me these are the most significant ones:

1. Clergy are not expected or trained to grow churches.

For the most part, bishops and district superintendents don't communicate to pastors an expectation that their churches should be reaching new people and growing. Instead, they may well communicate that what they want is happy, non-complaining congregations. Cultural and missional shifts that help stagnated congregations grow often include discomfort.

Some clergy do really dumb things in the name of growth and wound or destroy congregations. Many more clergy accommodate congregations, allowing them to gradually decline. Bishops and district superintendent tend to get more upset about the former than the latter.

I know of no pastor who has ever gotten a phone call from his or her superintendent saying, "You've been at your church two years now, and I haven't heard any complaints about your ministry. Why not?"

For the most part, seminaries --which tend to belong more to academia than to the church-- don't teach students how to grow churches. Most faculty know much more about how to maneuver in the academic world in order to get degrees than they know about how to grow churches. Unlike medical schools and law schools, our seminaries have very few successful practioners on their faculties. Furthermore, in order to support themselves, many seminary students take appointments to small congregations where they learn to be chaplains rather than leaders.

You can spend an entire career in the United Methodist ministry getting appointments one after another without ever being told it is your job to help congregations grow or being trained to do so.

2. High maintenance laity hold many of our congregations in bondage.

Often these are persons, families, or cliques for whom the congregation is an important place to meet their needs for inclusion, recognition, and power. They do so at the expense of welcoming, including, and empowering others.

Meetings in many congregations are hijacked by individuals with extreme needs for attention and control. Others may have poor social skills so as to turn meetings or classes into unproductive or unfocused sessions. Councils and boards can meet month after month and accomplish little because of one or two dysfunctional members.

No one is able --often no one even tries-- to set limits on the dominance of dysfunctional individuals or small groups over congregations. No one insists they get help. Congregations become no fun. These members result in congregations that thwart spiritual growth rather than enhance it.

3. Our real estate often limits growth.

Church buildings that hold only small numbers of people; have grossly inadequate space for Christian education; have little or no parking; look dirty, cluttered, and ugly inside; and are at the wrong locations hinder growth. Other buildings that are beautiful but not functional hinder growth. Emotional attachment to buildings that prevent congregations from relocating in order to reach out to and serve new people hinders growth. Buildings that are allowed to deteriorate while a small group holds on as the neighborhood changes without reaching out to the new people nearby hinders growth.

Shane Raynor quotes a Christianity Today article by Howard Snyder:

"Interestingly, church history shows an inverse ratio between dynamic church multiplication and preoccupation with buildings," Snyder writes. "Emphasis on buildings is generally linked with relatively slow growth or even decline. Rapidly growing movements generally put little stress on buildings, tending toward pragmatism and flexibility, meeting wherever they can."

4. We aren't starting nearly enough new congregations, new campuses for the expansion of existing churches, and multiple services.

New churches, new campuses, and new worship services reach new people. I attended a training recently where I was the only clergyperson participating. One of the other participants who was active in the leadership of a new, very conservative megachurch asked me a lot of questions about my congregation. At the end of the training she told me she would love to belong to a church like mine where she could say what she really thinks. Often she has to stifle her real thoughts and feelings to fit in at her church, she told me.

I asked her why she didn't join a United Methodist church in her community. "Oh, there wasn't room for me in those churches," she said. "I wanted to find someplace where I could make a real contribution."

Lyle Schaller says in The Ice Cube is Melting (p. 31) that to remain on a plateau in size a denomination should organize as many new congregations each year equal to one percent of the number of existing congregations. The United Methodist Church has 350,000 congregations, so to stay the same size we should be starting 350 churches a year. For us to grow would require even more. The actual number of new United Methodist church starts since 1965 has averaged out to less than 75 per year.

This is how Bishop Will Willimon summarizes it:

"Growing denominations have higher rates of new-church development and an increasing average congregation size. Growing denominations plant churches in areas that are 'geographically favorable' -- that is, in areas of high population growth, high in-migration rates, and/or unchurched people groups. ...

"We United Methodists, in my opinion, confirm these hypotheses in that we have a huge number of very small congregations, a decreasing number of large congregations. We tend to have a high proportion of churches that were in areas of population growth a century ago, but are in areas of population decline today."

5. We have low standards of quality.

Worship, preaching, music, Christian education, printed materials, and responsiveness are too often second-rate in our churches, and we don't seem to notice or care. I once knew a church secretary who had the highest quality office equipment available, but still produced Sunday bulletins that looked like they had been mimeographed. This was the way bulletins looked when she was growing up, and this is the way she thought bulletins ought to still look today. She worked hard to make her excellent equipment turn out bulletins that looked like the ones she read in church in the 1950s.

While I think growth is equally possible in liberal, middle-of-the-road, and conservative congregations, I do not think ongoing conflicts like our current debate about sexual orientation help us, especially when we are so divided about the issue that we do not do a good job of interpreting it to the unchurched.

Personally, I would rather be part of a denomination that wrestles with difficult questions, and I think some others out there in the unchurched part of the world would prefer this too. We should explain to the world around us that our disagreements are healthy. We should proudly say that it is a good thing that United Methodists do not hid our heads in the sand, that we do not ducked the hard issues, and that we are not automatically closed to considering change.

Without this kind of interpretation, the unchurched who read about church trials and such ask either, "How can Methodists be so backwards?" or else "How can Methodists be so freewheeling?" We do not (excuse the word) spin this story well. Lately, forces within United Methodism have become so intent on stopping even the talk about sexual orientation that church agencies and communication arms are now too intimidated to speak about the good aspects of being part of a denomination where we can disagree.

Yet, even our disagreements are relatively small matters compared to the other reasons I have listed.

If our clergy aren't motivated and encouraged to grow their churches, if two or three laypersons are allowed to dominate church life destructively, if we are stuck in buildings that can not accommodate growth, if we are not starting new congregations, and if the quality of our worship, music, and programs is second rate, why should we expect to grow?


Blogger jay v. said...

Dean, these comments are excellent and well taken. I would add that I think one other factor in non-growth is the way that our denominational structures hinder innovation, and perpetuate the institution instead of the kingdom. Likewise, our rules on creating new churches are structured around buildings and property rather than ministry. The sign of success in New Church Development (at least here in Vatican City) is more often tied to the construction of a facility than outreach to others.

I have some other thoughts on this that I may blog later.

7:57 AM  
Blogger Dean Snyder said...


Right. We are stuck in a box. We can't imagine church except in a church building, so we define new church starts as successful when they have put up a building, usually one that turns out to limit their growth potential.

And we can't imagine ourselves developing churches outside of the boxes we are appointed to, so our buildings define our ministries.

You'd think our vast properety holdings would be one of our greatest assets, but it doesn't seem to be working that way.

Please blog on this.

10:31 AM  
Blogger Larry Hollon said...

Dean, I think your comments are on-target. It strikes me that our failure to engage in the communications tasks you identify doesn't result in the lessening of controversy nor in a more acceptable presentation of the church or the gospel to the world. It simply results in the loss of our voice on major moral and ethical issues that the world might actually appreciate hearing about from us.

We must find ways to speak to these issues in a way that illuminates our own theological history and contemporary positions.

Secondly, we live within an organizational structure that is outdated for the innovation, creativity and quick responsiveness that is necessary today. This has been commented upon time and again but it seems we're stuck on high ground.

Where creative pastors have moved foward to create responsive Christian communities they are growing and form some of the megachurches in our denomination today. That may not be the desired end result for every local congregation, but surely a responsive, vital and creativity community is, and we should free up pastors to take on the challenge of leading with laity toward that goal.

To do that, as you state, we have to equip them with the training and skills to do it well.

Thanks for a clear discussion of the challenge.

12:55 PM  
Blogger gavin richardson said...

jay called nashville 'vatican city' that's awesome. great incite dean, many thanks.

11:08 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

another great post dean, thanks.

11:39 PM  
Blogger Dean Snyder said...

Larry is right. The real concern about communication is that the church needs to facilitate discussion and discernment about important issues of our time. If issues become such hot potatoes that church leaders and our agencies can't even address them, it is our entire society that is the loser, not just the church. It is more than a matter of interpretation.

9:28 AM  
Blogger John Wilks said...

Good post, Dean. Right on the mark!

People like me in the conservative camp have often blamed UM decline on liberal theology. But the numbers reveal this is simply not so. after all, very few conferences are more conservative than Northwest Texas (the conference I belonged to when I first came to faith, btw) and it is in decline. The folks out their cannot blame liberal theology for their shrinking churches.

Certainly the public face of our bickering between progressives and conservatives hurts us some- but it takes two sides to fight a culture war.

But most of the decline is for the reasons you site, and not theology. After all, most people aren't aware of the inner-conflicts until after they've been in our denomination long enough to become lay leaders. The fighting is not what slows growth.

Your comments about seminary are dreadfully accurate. I am in seminary now and in ministry- and most of what I learn in seminary is only marginally useful in my church situation. In fact, my grades have dropped significantly since I took an appointment because I am now determined to mine every course for usable information, which often requires doing my assignments differently the way prescribed by the professor.

I have come to the conclusion that we'd be far better served requiring our pastors to spend less time in seminary (say just an M.A. in Biblical studies) and more time interning with real congregations. Than can back-end the rest of the 20-30 hours that mark the difference between an MA and an MDiv in continuing ed as we go. I'd rather Methodist clergy be real-world ready than ivory-tower approved anyway, and I suspect I am no where near alone on that.

Just a thought.

2:29 PM  
Blogger John said...

A few thoughts:

1. I think that churches should have services at odd hours. I've worked jobs in the past that, even if I had been a Christian at the time, I wouldn't have been able to attend church. Maybe services on Thursday nights or Monday mornings, or whatever else reflects the working patterns of the community.

2. On seminary: 96 semester hours? Sheesh. Every year these M.Divs get bigger. When is enough enough? John Wilks is right.

3. Dean is right. Let's get more actual pastors teaching in seminaries rather than professors.

3:52 PM  
Blogger the reverend mommy said...

Maybe there is a decline in Florida because they are literally dying out. (Bad humor).

I belong to a conference that has grown by 7 new church starts and membership has grown by 3,971 total members, retired 23 clergy, ordained or comissioned 32, Local Pastor's School of about 40 -- we are the exception.

The parallel question, then is why are we growing and other conferences not?

7:57 PM  
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3:10 PM  

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