United Methodists are facing major decisions about our legacy and future in the coming months and years. Myriad actions taken over many past years have set up a classic win/lose situation, particularly regarding human sexuality, quite common in today’s politics but strangely out of character with the generous spirit of our Wesleyan heritage.
Many United Methodists expect schism because that’s the kind of secular world we live in today. This is truly a moment for a Wesleyan third alternative.
People often ask if we know the impact that changing positions on human sexuality has had on other denominations. The most comprehensive analysis I’ve seen is by John P. Marcum who spent many years working with Research Services for the Presbyterian Church (USA). (”W(h)ither the Mainline? Trends and Prospects.” Review of Religious Research, June 2007, 119-133)
What happened in other denominations?
Marcum divided mainline denominations into two groups based on whether they had changed their policies on human sexuality in ways that led to members, particularly entire congregations, leaving the denominations. He found two very different overall patterns of net membership change for the past 15 years. “The denominations affected by schism, as a group, show sharp net declines that increase from less than 1% in 2000 to more than 3% in 2010 and beyond,” he reports. The other denominations “collectively show an increase in net losses as well, but much more gradual, from around 0.5% in the early 2000s to a little more than 1% by 2015.” (124)
The impact comes from congregations leaving rather than only individual members.
Two denominations, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) and PC(USA), provided Marcum with sufficiently detailed data to separate losses due to congregations leaving the denominations from losses due to individual members leaving congregations. Between 2009 and 2015, the ELCA lost 688 congregations with 320,059 members, a total of around 5% of all congregations and 16% of gross membership losses for that period. In the PC(USA), the 513 congregations leaving between 2007 and 2015 (also around 5%) had almost 175,000 members, or 12% of the denomination’s gross losses for those years. Over the past several years departing congregations have been responsible for one-third of net losses in the ELCA and one-quarter in the PC(USA). (124) Membership losses from individuals leaving (as opposed to entire congregations) has remained relatively stable in these two denominations, Marcum reports.
What might this mean for the United Methodist Church?
1. Congregations leaving is a “big deal.”
United Methodists have little experience with congregations leaving the denomination. For the most part, the United Methodist pattern has been that people leave the same way they join: as individuals. They don’t take the church with them. This practice comes from a historic and legal understanding that the property of United Methodist churches is held “in trust” for those who wish to worship as United Methodists in that community.
While the “trust clause” has been generally upheld within the denomination and the courts, some changes have undercut its power. In long established congregations, the trust clause meant a great deal because normally these churches held property with value and often little or no debt. For newer churches, the denomination, through annual conferences and districts, would often purchase land for the new church or help finance a first building. However, today conferences often have less leverage. For example, a new church may own no land and meet in a rented space. All someone needs to do to move such a congregation from the denomination is a pastor trusted by the people and the email list of participants. Or, take a congregation that has bought land and built one or more buildings with significant debt. If a pastor is willing to walk away from that property and take the congregation, the property left for the conference comes with massive debt and no prospect for payment. In these cases, the rules and leverage tend to change.
2. The easier it is to leave, the more congregations will leave.
Polity matters. Mainline churches have differing polities, and those differences matter in what number of congregations leave. A researcher intimately acquainted with both the United Church of Christ and the Episcopal Church told me that “the easier you make it to leave, the more congregations will leave.” He cited the relative ease for UCC churches to separate from their denomination compared to the more difficult process for Episcopal churches.
It should be hard for a congregation to withdraw from their denomination. The burden of proof should be on those seeking to leave and take a congregation with them. After all, those interested in leaving have many other options for themselves among churches and denominations that share their beliefs and values. These options usually include some Wesleyan traditions.
Congregations rarely consider such a major schism without the active promotion of someone, often, though not always, the pastor. Pastors, who themselves have multiple denominational options for their ministries, should have to reckon with the implications of such schismatic leadership for the legacy of a congregation that often spans generations of clergy and laity.
Moving too quickly to the option of leaving removes the needed impetus to stay with the struggle and undermines the historic, though inadequately lived out, goal of unity among Christians.
3. Schism never looks so inevitable in retrospect.
This is not the first time that United Methodism in the U.S. has faced schism. Looking back, there are not many instances in which we can take pride. Historians note that social and cultural factors often shaped divisions more so than the narrative of disunity focused on theology and social issues made at the time.
There are also times when people might have left and did not. The establishment of the racially segregated Central Jurisdiction by The Methodist Church in 1939, without a single vote for the proposal from African American delegates, left African American congregations with every reason to leave. They did not. It is hard to imagine the United Methodist Church today without the contributions of those churches and the leaders they produced over the past decades.
A less noble example can be seen from the early days of my ministry in Mississippi in the 1960s as The United Methodist Church was forming. The new denomination would abolish the Central Jurisdiction despite continued opposition from many white southern leaders, particularly in my annual conference. Remember that this was also a time of much racial change and conflict within Mississippi that has been documented well. Tension and resentment ran high. It was not helped by clergy and laity who stoked the flames of schism through their recalcitrant rhetoric.
Were it not for the property trust clause, virtually every white United Methodist church in Mississippi would have left the denomination in the 1960s. This is not hyperbole. It is reality. I was there. Today those churches are among 1,000 churches led by an African American bishop that contribute significantly to the rich diversity of United Methodism.
Think about all those laity who would have left with their congregations if their churches could have taken their property. At that moment, they probably were not very happy about denominational policies with which they disagreed. They resisted for a time through withholding apportionments and not using denominational literature, but they stayed. They stayed because there was something stronger that held them to their congregations despite frustration. Most would look back on those days with some different feelings today as time has given them a better perspective than they had amid change. They stayed with those with whom they differed long enough to figure out the issues together.
Some individuals left those churches, but most did not. They stayed and remained family despite a major family tussle. They could tolerate the fighting but did not want to break up the family. That’s where most United Methodists are today, in my opinion. Almost every congregation has within it people with major differences not only on sexuality issues but on a range of other topics. Vital congregations have learned to navigate these differences with sensitivity and integrity in most cases. The last thing they need is to be forced into decisions to disrupt their congregational life because denominational leaders, sometimes including their pastors, cannot show the same generosity of spirit.
Many United Methodists expect schism because that’s the kind of secular world in which we live today. It will be very hard for churches to lead the world in breaking down the dividing walls of hostility, as Ephesians puts it, while perpetuating division ourselves and building more walls. This is truly a moment for a Wesleyan third alternative.
4. A time for humility, grace, and remembering what’s important.
If any era should lead United Methodists to embrace a humble spirit and to show grace toward others within the denominational family, it is the last fifty years. Many of us have forgotten our reason for being. We have forgotten we are called into a passion for scriptural holiness and reform of the nation. John Wesley’s “essentials” were never so expansive as some would make them today. He always feared that secondary things would overshadow his abiding passion that all come to know the love of God revealed in Jesus Christ.
The threat for the United Methodist Church is not primarily in losing members. All churches and denominations lose members. What determines if a denomination expands its witness to more people rests primarily with what United Methodists are doing so badly today — reaching new disciples for Jesus Christ. We are distracted by so many things that we have forgotten the “one thing that is needful,” as Jesus said to Martha in her moment of anxiety.
It’s not that the contentious issues of today are not important. They are very important. But when there is no unifying purpose and vision that all share, despite differences, then a vacuum is left within the collective capacity of our life together. When that occurs, the differences that will always be present expand to take up inordinate space and energy and crowd out the unifying vision. Our unity has never been and can never be based on anything but Christ. In Christ we trust that in due season we will see more fully what is now seen only dimly.