The Western Jurisdiction is small, scrappy, and hungry amidst the United Methodist Church, but don’t let the false rhetoric and “playing with figures” keep us from loving the Church.
It’s happening again: the mistrust and the mistruths about the Western Jurisdiction of The United Methodist Church are being brought up, just in time for its every-four-years meeting as a Jurisdiction.
How does the rag tag Western Jurisdiction in need of a shower endure the scorn of the global UMC superpower? We endure because we’re doing exciting and needed ministry–but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t speak the truth when we are being unfairly maligned.
Confessing Correlation without Causation
The Confessing Movement is a caucus group that supports the continued discrimination against LGBTQ persons in The United Methodist Church. One of their tactics to support this stance is to allege causation between progressive values and numerical decline. Their most recent email noted advancements for progressive values in New England and New York, followed breathlessly with articles on their numerical decline. When they referenced the Western Jurisdiction actions, they reported as such:
While all sections of the country are experiencing membership decline in the UM Church, the decline in the Western Jurisdiction is reaching frightening levels. The whole jurisdiction, made up of the states of California, Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Hawaii, Utah, Montana, Idaho, Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico, now possesses less than five percent of United Methodists in the U.S. The total membership is 20,000 fewer than a single annual conference, North Georgia.
As often happens with these groups, the numbers are documented, but the story the numbers tell needs more context. And that story is of a scrappy jurisdiction that has overcome the myriad ways how The United Methodist Church has hobbled it.
An Intentional Minority
The narrative is the West’s progressivism has led to its small size. That’s not true.
Here’s the 2014 numbers of each jurisdiction in the United States:
- North Central – 1,215,108
- Northeastern – 1,210,946
- South Central – 1,667,506
- Southeastern – 2,766,694
- Western – 322,939
- TOTAL 7,183,193
As you can see, the West *is* the smallest region by far, about 29% the size of the next smallest jurisdiction.
But what were the numbers when the jurisdictions were finalized in 1968 to incorporate the Central Jurisdiction and the Evangelical United Brethren Church? From the 1969 General Minutes:
- North Central – 2,658,104
- Northeastern – 2,235,702
- South Central – 2,127,747
- Southeastern – 3,043,581
- Western – 722,595
- Military Service Personnel – 1,895
- Total – 10,789,624
The truth is the West was not created to be an equal jurisdiction to the rest–it was 33% the size of the next smallest jurisdiction. It was created to have significantly smaller representation than the rest of Methodism due to its unique ministry context. It did not become that way due to progressive values. The West was only 6.6% of United Methodism at its inception. Falling to <5% is not as far a fall as the emails would have you believe.
A Baseline, not a Bane
Furthermore, percentages hide the real story of numerical decline. The number of Methodist members actually lost since 1969 and the percentages are:
- North Central – 1,442,996 (54%)
- Northeastern – 1,024,756 (46%)
- South Central – 460,241 (21%)
- Southeastern – 276,887 (9%)
- Western – 399,656 (55%)
- TOTAL lost membership: 3,604,536
Over 45 years, the West has lost the most percentage-wise, but the second least numerically, while Central Time Zone America has been devastated, losing four times as many Methodists as the West. Disciples generate disciples, and the Southeastern Jurisdiction’s created size indicates one advantage over the rest of Methodism in that regard.
Isn’t it odd that we point at the West as shrinking the most when numerically that is not the case? The Confessing Movement is located in the North Central Jurisdiction. It’s too bad they spend their time harping on other jurisdictions when it is their jurisdiction that has lost the most members since 1968. Specks and logs.
Enduring the Rough Edges…
Since its inception, the West had to endure as a minority voice, which plays out in at least three more ways:
- The West has overcome being under-resourced from the rest of the denomination. The West is persistently under-represented in resources and voices, while burdened with higher percentages of costs than the Bible Belt. We have fewer people, which means fewer collective dollars to run the programs for youth, children, senior adults, and others that the Bible Belt enjoys.
- The West has overcome a denomination whose policies on LGBTQ persons hamstrings our ministry. People are smart and Google “Methodist beliefs” when they hear of good things a UMC is doing. No matter how much good a church is doing in the West, we lose any credibility with culture because we discriminate against LGBTQ people. Our ministry context rejects us and our good work in ways that the Bible Belt culture does not…yet.
- The West has overcome being spread thin over a huge geographic region. We hold the first and second largest episcopal areas (Greater Northwest and Mountain Sky), and our overwhelmingly rural context leads to a lot of isolation and administrative headaches. While other annual conferences have far more people and administrative complexity, their districts aren’t 7 hours across as in Idaho, or only reachable by airplane as in Alaska.
These are all factors as to why the West has so much set against us…and yet we are still able to model for the rest of The UMC about how to be the church for the future.
…while being the Cutting Edge
The West has substantial achievements compared to the rest of United Methodism.
- The Western Jurisdiction has a better ratio of “Professions of Faith to Members” than any other jurisdiction. It only has 45 members per new profession of faith in the West…in the Southeastern Jurisdiction, it’s 70 members. On average, each western Methodist church is more efficient at professions of faith.
- The Western Jurisdiction has the highest percentage of vitality for its churches. While other jurisdictions have more congregations, bigger and more financially strong…according to the denominations’ criteria, the West has the highest percentage of vital churches.
- The Western Jurisdiction’s per capita church involvement is the highest in United Methodism. Rev. Anthony Tang of Desert Southwest blogged during General Conference 2012 that if you divide the average worship attendance by actual membership, on average each western Methodist attends church more often than any other jurisdiction.
- Finally, The Western Jurisdiction’s per capita giving is the highest (by several percentage points) in United Methodism. See page 552 of the Advance DCA 2012. While the West has fewer members and total giving, on average each western Methodist gives more to the General Church than any other jurisdiction.
There’s a difference between quantitative and qualitative church growth. I know the North and South are bigger quantitatively, but the numbers above show the West might be stronger qualitatively. Something to celebrate!
Why so much hate on the West?
With all these joys, we wonder why so much disdain and rhetoric is set against the West, which already has the whole system of Methodism set against it. The West makes up less than 5% of Methodism…that’s it. Why are these larger jurisdictions so concerned with a smaller (some would say, insignificant) portion of United Methodism?
The truth is there’s a lot of bad news out there for the church. Perhaps the UMC has found a scapegoat in the small Western Jurisdiction and believe that their ills will be over when the scapegoat is destroyed. According to Girardian theory, when a groups’ dominant power structure is challenged…
…There is a point where there is so much group violence that unanimity (and thus peace and the avoidance of the collapse of the group) can only be restored when all become fixated on someone who can be held responsible for the collapse of unity and order within the group and then expelled, permitting the establishment of a new social unity over against the expelled one…they believe in the culpability of the rejected one (or group), and continue to bolster up this belief by forging prohibitions, myths and rituals.
To me, this is a textbook example of Girardian scapegoat theory: a majority culture taking out their organizational angst on a minority group in United Methodism. For arch-conservatives who see their inherited dominance slip through their fingers, it’s quite easy to point those fingers at others while claiming they have no power in the UMC (that they own).
Love Overcomes All
The West is doing amazing, creative work. We’ve got a church in a bar, a church which allows persons experiencing homelessness to sleep on its property (another opens up its parking lots), a shared meal fellowship, a modern-day circuit of churches, and more! We love the church and are pulling out all the stops to guide it to its best future.
And we’re doing all this even though:
- For the entirety of the existence of The United Methodist Church, we’ve been a tiny minority with little power to influence policy.
- Our societal credibility is stunted by LGBT exclusion in our polity.
- Our Western Bishops are threadbare, covering massive land-masses.
- The discipling resources coming from Abingdon and Cokesbury are not amplifying the regional resource people that we need.
When you see the successes alongside the institutional roadblocks, no wonder so much of United Methodism tried to gerrymander us away and to defund us even more at General Conference 2016 (they failed). If the Western front lines of United Methodism had actual resources behind us, imagine what a progressive Wesleyan powerhouse The UMC would be.
As the American jurisdictions meet this week to elect bishops and discern together as jurisdictions the way forward, I’ll be meeting with the West in Arizona. We’ll be electing the best bishop from the candidates, while finding other ways to carve out our space for creative minorities in The UMC. My prayers will be with all the jurisdictions as they seek to find ways to live together.
Thoughts? Thanks for reading and for your shares on social media.
Excellent overview, Jeremy. Thanks for naming these distortions and the sloppy analysis often mouthed against the WJ. As someone who has been in ministry in the WJ and NCJ, your analysis is spot on. Sloppy research and scapegoating seem to be the stock in trade for Confessing Movement folks.
Interestingly, much of the “membership growth” in places like Florida or Georgia mirrors the decline in places like Indiana, Michigan and Ohio. Snow birds and retirees perhaps?
Another phenomenon that is little discussed is the way the racial-ethnic representation for General Church boards and agencies has been dependent on the diversity of the West! Hidden in the easy analysis from the Confessing movement is the demographic REALITY that the West has the lowest levels of religious affiliation of any area in the nation.
Any fair minded review would have to acknowledge the significant financial contributions to general church endowments and general church mission appeals.
Of course, there is ample organizational and sociological research demonstrating that renewal comes from the margins. Thank God for the creative liminality of the West.
One last word — as the demographics continue to shift and sort in the national UMC, it may be that the south and middle south are more and more diverse and open to more progressive perspectives (snow birds and their children anyone?). We progressives need to take care not to make the same mistake of labeling a region in one particular way — change is coming and, for the UMC in the US it is not moving in the direction the Confessing folks would like. Perhaps it is out of this anxiety they practice such sloppy analysis… they want hold on and “make the UMC great again.”
One of the things IRD and the Confessing movement like to tout is growth in churches/conferences/denominations which tend to be more conservative/fundamentalist. While valid, there’s a huge problem with hanging your hat on that concept, and the stats about the actual numerical declines bare that out.
So what’s been happening in western Christendom is that many denominations and churches have been a bit slow to change and become more welcoming, combined with the anti-this and that and politicization of religion by the more fundamentalist churches, a lot of young people have been driven away from religion in general. We know this from the Pew studies. Then as the mainline denominations have adopted more welcoming doctrines, more conservative members have left those denominations/conferences/churches to find a home in a more conservative church. And young people haven’t been flocking back to any church. It’s going to take a while to overcome the stigma I think.
This means the conservatives have been able to tout this as a sign they are “winning” the argument. The problem is, we also know most of these more conservative people who are leaving welcoming churches to go to more conservative churches tend to be older, and those churches are not back-filling with younger members. In short, demographics will catch up with that growth spurt (which is actually now starting to level off). Those folks will die at a faster rate than the people in other churches (statistically). So, I wouldn’t hang my hat on the current shifts in membership for a long-term future.
Now, the challenge is this, for all the jurisdictions. Can we get young people to come back, or is a generation lost. There is a ray of hope I’ve seen in (I think) a Barna study as well as a Pew study. As young people age, their church attendance tends to creep back up. So, maybe these young folks will come back, and I suspect they won’t come back suddenly going from caring about their gay friends to hating them, and wanting to be “protected” from them.
Just my unscientific take on things.
This is a great analysis! Thank you.
Just one small correction: New Mexico is not in the Western Jurisdiction, as the quote from the Confessing Movement indicates (I wonder, is this evidence that the “West Hating” Confessing Movement has not done its homework?) Maybe New Mexico should be in the W.J., but it is attached to South Central, which also claims a small corner of Arizona! And, by the way, Arizona is the location of this week’s session of the Western Jurisdictional Conference.
I am hesitant to jump into a discussion which can be very divisive. But against my better judgement, let me make a comment. I served 43 years in California-Nevada including 8 years as conference statistician. Now I am retired in Arizona. What I have noticed is that declining churches have higher per capita giving rates and higher attendance to membership. As a beloved church declines, usually due to changing demographics (failure to meet the needs of a changing neighborhood), members give more and come more to keep the congregation going. The Western Jurisdiction has many, many declining congregations and few exciting outreaching congregations, either conservative or liberal. These are some of the reasons for decline. The media elevates the gay issue above all others. Most people living their church lives are not that concerned about it. To hear the media, the only reason we hold a General Conference is to discuss that issue.
While New Mexico is not in the Western Jurisdiction, the great state of Wyoming is. Don’t forget Wyoming!!! We may the least populated state, but there are United Methodists here!