Last week, a United Methodist News article dropped about a challenge to General Conference actions in 2019, showing that there was evidence that vote tampering allegations could have changed the result of one petition which became church law. The article focuses on that topic, which is great, but one overlooked paragraph includes a bombshell to a basic tenet of United Methodism:
The commission also plans to initiate conversations on membership statistics with the Council of Bishops and the General Council on Finance and Administration, the denomination’s administrative agency. An annual conference’s number of professing members helps determine its number of General Conference delegates, but the membership data available can be out of date and unreliable.
Here’s why that matters.
The United Methodist Church is a representative democratic institution, meaning that 800ish delegates from the regions of United Methodism meet every four years to vote on its doctrine and polity at General Conference. The next one is May 5-15, 2020, in Minneapolis.
While the UMC is not really representative or democratic, it tries to be, and that means that they need to have some way of allocating decision-making ability. When it comes to General Conference, there’s only one number that matters: membership.
The number of church members in the regions of United Methodism gives the proportional number of votes at General Conference, and thus power in the United Methodist Church. For 2020, a populous conference like Oklahoma gets 14 votes split between clergy and laity, whereas a smaller conference like Pacific Northwest gets 2 votes. Like the House of Representatives in the U.S. Congress, population determines number of votes.
So a question: What if it was revealed in the 2010 census that Oklahoma (the state) artificially inflated its population so it would retain more members in Congress? That would be scandalous, right?
But what happens when the numbers don’t add up…in the Church?
If members matter to United Methodist representation, what happens when a member of a church becomes inactive and no longer considers themselves part of the church? What happens to their membership? While the pastor can reach out, while friends can try to connect, while people can try to determine if they moved away, there’s only TWO ways to remove them from church membership:
- Self-removal by written notice from the member, or
- Vote of the yearly gathering of a local church community (a charge conference).
A membership audit, required to be held yearly by the Discipline (¶231), helps churches of any size maintain their membership roles and deal with inactive members by removing them by charge conference action. My congregation follows the Discipline and we remove members every year via charge conference action as a direct result of an annual membership audit.
Doesn’t everyone else do this, uphold the Discipline?
11% 10% of Methodism
Back in 2015, Hacking Christianity studied the data and it turned out 88.2% of the churches did not follow the Discipline and have a membership audit. Out of 32,608 churches, only 3,847 removed people by Charge Conference action (2013 figures). 11.8% of the church had a charge conference membership audit. Eleven percent!
It’s now 2019, and looking at 2017’s numbers (the latest available, and four years after the last dataset), we see the numbers are not any better. 3,216 churches out of 31,299 churches reported membership audits, which drops us to 10.2% of churches reported membership audits that resulted in removal of at least ONE person.
The numbers of compliant churches are in a downward trend. Remember these are churches that reported at least ONE member removed by charge conference action that year (it is unreasonable to expect a robust and accurate membership audit would not return at least ONE member for removal).
- 2009: 4,480 churches
- 2010: 4,319 churches
- 2011: 4,232 churches
- 2012: 4,074 churches
- 2013: 3,847 churches
- 2014: 3,691 churches
- 2015: 3,491 churches
- 2016: 3,337 churches
- 2017: 3,216 churches
In short, the Discipline-mandated practice of maintaining membership rolls is no longer being practiced in large, large swaths of United Methodism.
There’s something fishy here.
The lack of incentive to uphold the Discipline
The problem is that membership matters when it comes to allocating power by General Conference. So it is in a region’s best interest to not do membership audits. I heard of a DS who encouraged a church to not report so many deaths in one year as it would negatively impact their numbers and they should hold off reporting some until the following year–even though they were dead now.
The structure of the UMC rewards membership. The polity of the UMC requires accountability and accuracy in membership numbers, but there’s no institutional inclination to do this. In fact, the opposite is true: doing robust membership accounting is both time-consuming and always–always–results in membership loss. This may not be a mass conspiracy so much as benign neglect, hoping that being lax on enforcement will benefit the area rather than hurt it.
However, it is a massive problem when only 10% of United Methodist churches do membership audits each year. In our increasing mobile and aging population, it’s inconceivable that more churches are not losing members in this way. And if entire regions are holding onto inactive rolls and receive a boost in their representation at General Conference–well, that’s a huge issue!
What to do:
- Local churches should ensure their Membership Secretary (¶234) is doing their job and do intentional work on your membership list…every year.
- Bishops must hold Cabinets accountable to encourage every church to do a membership audit (¶231). It may reflect numbers you are afraid of, but it will go a long way to encourage honesty in reporting.
- General Agencies who track membership should report when a congregation has gone five years without a membership audit. That list would greatly help the above two circles know where to ask.
The numbers will hurt. The congregation memberships will go down.
But that’s not how to think of this: it’s an opportunity for engagement and pastoral care. Whenever my local church gets the list of members who haven’t attended in 3 years, that becomes a pastoral concern and we contact those inactive members to the best of our ability and see what’s going on or if there are life changes that we can care for. Local churches are not only missing out on a huge way to care for its members, but also on honesty in representation to General Conference
Reset the Church in 2019?
The credibility of the General Conference depends on our representative system being accountable and accurate. When representation is based on membership, and annual conferences have no reason to lower their memberships by enforcing charge conference membership audits, then we wonder if General Conference is truly representative. Are there regions of United Methodism that are artificially inflated? Are there megachurches with huge numbers on their lists that haven’t darkened the door in years or a decade?
Maybe 2019 charge conference is the year to do a full-scale audit, reset the actuaries, see the real data, and allow the next General Conference to be more representative and accurate. Many churches do a two-year process, so starting it in 2019 will end the second reading in 2020 in time for 2021 reallocation of delegates. It will hurt for everyone numerically, but it will be more honest, and will help every local church reach out in Christian love to those who have fallen off the rolls.
That sounds like a win-win to me.
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- This is a rewritten/updated post from 2015 (link).
- “The statistical data included herein were provided at no charge by the General Council on Finance and Administration of The United Methodist Church (GCFA) and may be obtained directly from GCFA, PO Box 340020, Nashville, TN 37203-0029. This data is proprietary and is owned by GCFA and may not be used in any commercial or exploitative way, to make a financial profit, or in a manner that defames the United Methodist denomination or its agencies or organizations. GCFA does not endorse any particular use of the data or accept responsibility for its interpretation or analysis by another.”