Editor’s note: This is the first in a series about the issues and events that were front and center in the lives of United Methodists in 2013.
By Sam Hodges*
Getting a handle on the organizational health of a large, worldwide denomination is not easy. But key developments in 2013 indicate vigorous responses to the challenges facing The United Methodist Church.
What’s more, the end of the year saw the General Council on Finance and Administration report that worldwide professing membership in The United Methodist Church reached a record high of 12.5 million at the end of 2012.
“The results for 2012 largely fit within the pattern we already know about, where the primary source for growth in membership is in the Global South. That’s both Africa and the Philippines,” said Scott Brewer, associate general secretary for connectional relations.
In the United States, membership continues its slow steady decline, with GCFA reporting 7,390,691 members at the end of 2012, down from 7,481,383 the year before. That decline of a little more than 1 percent is representative of the trend in recent years.
Both globally and in the United States, the denomination saw better-than-projected growth in church starts.
The United Methodist Board of Global Ministries reported the start of 574 worshipping communities in Southeast Asia, Eurasia, Africa and Latin America, beating the original goal of 400 church starts for 2008-2012. Global Ministries announced a goal of 600 starts for the next quadrennium.
Meanwhile, Path 1, the church starting initiative of the United Methodist Board of Discipleship, said it has heard from 37 U.S. conferences, reporting a total of 91 church plants so far in 2013. The Western Jurisdiction already has doubled its 2012 total.
“While we often hear about the innovative ‘out of the box’ plant, the majority of new plants are traditional and reaching many new people and making new disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” said the Rev. Douglas Ruffle, associate executive director of Path 1.
A plan for growth
Don House, a Texas economist who has been in various lay leadership positions in the denomination, praises the emphasis on church starts but argues it won’t be enough to reverse declines in the United States.
House announced this summer his own plan to recruit about 1,000 churches willing to invest in growth strategies beyond what they now spend. Drawing on extensive analysis of data and trends, he promises an upturn in worship attendance in the United States by 2021 — if he can get that many churches to invest more in programs and non-clergy staff such as adult education leaders and youth ministers.
In a recent phone interview, House said five Texas churches are on board already, with a handful of others to begin by year’s end. He hopes to have another 199 churches, with representatives from all five U.S. jurisdictions, on board by the end of 2014.
House is among those who believe membership is a flawed indicator. He puts much more stock in worship attendance. GCFA plans to release more statistics, including on worship attendance, early in 2014.
Signs of vitality
The denomination’s Vital Congregations initiative continues to provide through its website information on how individual congregations are performing in worship attendance and other key categories, though debate continues about what really are the best measures of church vitality. Leaders released a study that drew on interviews with pastors and others in churches identified as using innovative strategies to become more vital.
Meanwhile, the official ethnic caucuses of the church, such as Methodists Associated Representing the Cause of Hispanic Americans, worked toward strategic plans. A MARCHA meeting in August highlighted the growing Hispanic presence in the United States and the need for the church to respond to that reality in a variety of ways.
The six national plans for ethnic ministries pushed on as well. For example, Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century released a November report touting its improved financial situation, a new collaborative coaching network and the sustaining of seventeen congregation resource centers.
Cautious optimism seemed to be the financial analysis of most annual conferences. A summer survey showed more conferences planning to increase their budgets slightly in 2014 than planned to have a flat or trimmed budget.
Another encouraging sign — from both a financial and humanitarian standpoint — came in October when The United Methodist Board of Pension and Health Benefits announced crossing an important threshold in providing pensions for clergy and clergy spouses around the world. The Central Conference Pension Initiative reached its $25 million fundraising goal with a $217,000 contribution from the United Methodist Board of Discipleship directors.
That means, once all pledged contributions are received, the fundraising initiative is complete. The money will provide a foundation for the long-term security for clergy in Africa, Asia and parts of Europe.
Looking toward Portland
Finally, any assessment of the state of the church would be incomplete without a reference to General Conference, the quadrennial church law-making gathering. Plans for General Conference 2016, in Portland, Ore., began this year to gear up in earnest.
The Commission on the General Conference set a target of 850 delegates. That’s about 15 percent fewer than participated at General Conference 2012 in Tampa, Fla., a change that should help rein in expenses.
With the shifting demographics of the church, the United States will see a modest decline in its percentage of delegates from 2012, while the percentage from Africa will rise, again modestly. The Rev. L. Fitzgerald Reist, secretary of the General Conference, announced the delegate allotments last month.
The Council of Bishops got in on the planning, choosing West Ohio Bishop Gregory V. Palmer, a former council president, to deliver the episcopal address in Portland.
Looking even farther out, the Commission on the General Conference in November chose Minneapolis as the site for the 2020 General Conference.
*Hodges, a United Methodist News Service writer, lives in Dallas. Contact him at (615) 742-5470 or firstname.lastname@example.org.