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professing members helps determine its number of General Conference delegates, but the membership data available can be out of date and unreliable.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.
Thanks for reading, commenting, and sharing on social media
- 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.”
As a church secretary, it’s hard for me to believe that churches are not paying attention and auditing their numbers (especially when forms allow you to make corrections without having to provide reasons for the mistakes). The churches I’ve been part of or worked for consider this an important part of annual reports, as well as providing an accurate basis to consider what are sustainable ministries. That said, I have worked at a church or two where membership records were a mess; people were removed from membership but without documentation in annual reports or membership files.
Why would any church want to pay apportionments on members who aren’t members?
Maybe it’s the fact that DS and AC don’t like to see declining numbers – nor do Bishops and their cabinets. (“The truth? You can’t HANDLE the truth!). So there is a real disincentive to report those declines regardless of the possible savings on apportionments those corrections would achieve.
Which is more important, nickels or noses?
Our Annual Conference has not used membership as a factor in apportionments (just either income or expenditures instead) for more than 10 years. Why should I go to the trouble (and possible hurt) of removing people from a meaningless roll?
Don’t you send out communications to members, email lists, etc? I’d think that all of that would be part and parcel with having up-to-date lists.
My work-church moved to a new church management software, and suddenly we can see so much more clearly which professing members haven’t shown up in years and/or have no known contact info. However, removing them all through charge conference action would be a significant hit to the membership rolls! I foresee conversations between the database staff and the senior pastor on how to balance, manage, and/or communicate the drop in numbers.
Our Annual Conference designates delegates according to the lay equalization formulas to give clergy and laity equal votes at Annual Conference. How might this change the General Conference representation? What if it were active clergy only?
There needs to be a suitable way for the pastor and SPRC together to follow Matthew 18 instead of the Book of Discipline. It will never happen though. There were a dozen people that needed to be literally removed from the membership in my previous appointment. Nasty, vindictive, hateful and dishonest members. But short of someone going and getting re-baptised somewhere else, the pastor and SPRC have very little power to create safe communities when we are mandated to keep the wolves.
What does “active” mean? Many various definitions.
100% agree! Let’s get a current and accurate membership count as the discipline requires … Surely you must realize that the most accurate membership count would provide even greater General Conference voting delegate power to the more theologically conservative regions of the world where UMC membership is actually growing and the church is actually making disciples for the transformation of the world. Yes! Let’s get that count right, proportion the GC delegates accordingly and then live with the decisions made at GC. Thank You Jeremy!
We should also define what ‘membership’ means – across all regions of the world, so as to be talking apples and apples. And have them audit as well.
While we’re doing that, it would be nice to get an actual accounting of where members stand with respect to the UMC, Traditionalist Plan, General Agencies, schism, etc etc. Just having the data helps in making decisions, even unpopular ones.
With all of that in hand, then the chips can fall where they may.
Jeremy, i think you’re overlooking the major outrages about membership reporting. Many annual conferences in the central conferences to not have systems for reporting membership from local churches, and thus membership is estimated from the bishop’s office. It results in incredible escalations of membership totals, such as East Congo reporting in increase of membership from 408,654 in 2017 to 564,951 in 2018 (in time for calculations for general conference representation.
On the other end of the spectrum, look at Northwest Russia Provisional, a conference with 351 members (that’s lay members, not clergy members) and 2 general conference delegates. In fact, there are 1,784 lay members in Russia, smaller than nearly all US districts, but because they are in 4 annual conferences, they have 8 votes at general conference. A US conference would need at least 120,000 members to have the same total votes in general conference.
In all of Eastern Europe there are 9,869 lay members spread across 10 conferences. 20 general conference votes for the Traditionalist Plan, which only impacts the US church.
General Conference is not legitimate.
More interesting news from East Congo:
The membership figure looks fantastic and incredible — in the old meanings of both words.
Ha! A goal in my last church was to reduce membership from 1650 to under 1000; fell 35 short of the goal…of course the related goal was increased worship attendance, which modestly grew from 715 to 769 at my retirement after 8 years, downtown church shifting toward half racial/ethnic minority worshippers. That is central to shifting a church from the notion of membership with benefits (hatch-match-dispatch rituals on demand) to discipleship with servanthood. My conference also had shifted from counting members to budget expended to determine apportionments (a word never heard in Heaven). Attendance is a relevant metric; you reach 0% of those who never show up. But that requires honest counting, and I followed a clown at an earlier church who bumped the reported attendance nearly 20% each week…kinda like Trump’s inaugural attendance figures. Any multi-national organization that limits major policy decisions to a 10 day window once every 4 years…has no future apart from profound and painful change.
Scott Brewer (former agency bureaucrat)
Jeremy, bravo on highlighting what I agree is the bigger story in Saturday’s article. As someone who used to collect these statistics and calculate the allocation of delegates for General Conference, there are a lot of questions that deserve to be asked about how conferences are collecting this data. That goes for annual conferences around the world, by the way.
The decline of quality in membership data shouldn’t surprise anyone and I think there are both organizational and economic reasons for this. Bishops and cabinets pay less attention to membership and put most of their focus (and scrutiny) on worship attendance (which is even easier to fudge, by the way). Cabinets have also become more reliant on weekly and annual data in their appointment-making, which makes the stakes of these reports for pastors much higher. Let’s be honest, pastors are generally not rewarded for accurate their reporting if the numbers trend downwards, even if its membership data no one’s paying much attention to.
But I think the major driver in this is more economic than organizational. Over the past 30 years, there has been a big push to switch our apportionment formulas from membership to expense or income-based methodologies. There are lots of reasons to make that sort of switch (mostly around finding metrics that more accurately assess a conference or congregation’s capacity to pay), but the membership-based formula did create a sort of cost/benefit relationship between increases in professing membership and increases in apportionments. That relationship is severed when we shift to expenditures or income. As these formulas have changed, there is no economic incentive for a church to carefully maintain its rolls.
Jeremy’s solutions are nice, but they require a understaffed and stressed system to make membership audits a priority and I don’t see that having a great deal of impact. It might be time to reconsider our approach to these formulas and look at ways to reconnect general funds apportionments to professing membership, or link it to representation at General Conference. The general funds apportionment formula for conferences outside the US uses membership as well as taking prevailing economic conditions in an area into consideration, a similar model could also be used for US annual conferences.
Whatever we do about it, I suspect we have not heard the last of this story.
What does it matter when we have the much larger problem of many have made it very clear that they do not need to abide by what General Conference decides? Right now numbers feel important because the UMC has degenerated into competing and conflicting theological factions jockeying for position and control–something “right numbers” cannot fix. No matter what General Conference decides, there is going to be a faction crying foul. Face the bigger reality: We have absolutely no common ground on which to build a future.
Jeremy, Thanks for pointing out that bad things happen when the Book of Discipline is not followed……