There is a report going around from the Lewis Center ( a church and ministry research and leadership development center at Wesley Theological Seminary). It gives us a quantitative look at some of the aspects of the disaffiliating churches so far.
Here is a concise summary from the report (full report linked here):
The areas in which disaffiliating churches appear to vary most prominently from United Methodist churches as a whole include:
• Disaffiliating churches are less likely to have an active elder as pastor.
• Disaffiliating churches are more likely to have a male pastor.
• Disaffiliating churches overwhelmingly have a majority white membership.
• Disaffiliating churches are overwhelmingly in the South.
• Disaffiliating churches are in less heavily populated counties.
The reality is, this does not tell us a whole lot, but it can lead to jumping to conclusions. This is particular true for the rural (less heavily populated counties is code for rural, or at the smaller urbanized areas) and non-elder. There are also things to be said about region, sex, and gender, but I’ll let other people deal with that.
What I do think we can learn from this, at least in terms of rural and non-elder, is who we need to resource, and what matters to the image of the denomination. What we can do to respond instead of slandering and shaming various demographic groups in a report, is to figure out how to better support, empower, and connect with these churches. Yes, some of it will come down to theological and political stance regarding the issues of human sexuality, but honestly, more of it comes down to feeling like they are supported by the denomination and are part of the process.
So with these numbers, I don’t need to see you talking about rednecks, dying churches, and uneducated clergy. I want to see us working to come up with ways to offer support, connection, education, for our rural churches and non-elder clergy, who both feel like second-class citizens in the system.
We have the creativity, the resources, and the money to do this, we just have to make it a priority.
3 thoughts on “Disaffiliation Rumors, Myths, and Opportunities – #8: The Lewis Center Report”
At the same time, wouldn’t the cost of disaffiliation be prohibitive for many rural churches with aging and declining congregations? It would be my guess that despite theological and ideological differences, some will not be able to leave nor desire to simply due to economic concerns.
I think this is a reality for so many churches. Instead of charging, we might do better to actual do true discernment processes to help people really decide who they are as a church. This needs to be molded to cultural realities of rural churches, urban, etc, but feels better than, take a vote, pay the fee, and change your name.
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It’s interesting, but I don’t think we can draw much meaning from it. I would have liked to have seen Growth and Decline over a longer period than 2018-2019 since UMC worship attendance declined 24 percent in the decade before the pandemic (2009-2019).
It did make me think of your recent post regarding rural/small churches. My wife has often said guaranteed appointments can sometimes leave churches with “too much pastor,” i.e. an elder they cannot afford, leaving them with no resources to help grow the church. We were appointed to two rural churches while she was in seminary and her first two years as a probationary elder. She worked hard, and both churches grew to where they were each able to afford an elder when we left. Churches can grow, but we’ve left the debate over human sexuality blind us to the fact we have to be more effective in how we share God’s love and bring hope to the world.