by Chris Ritter
In the early 20th Century, seven Mainline denominations formed the backbone of an overwhelmingly Protestant American nation. By 1975, the percentage of Americans attending a Mainline Church was down to 31%. Today, something like 10% identify with any of these “seven sisters.” Evangelical churches, surpassing the Mainline mainline market share in the 1980’s, are now themselves in decline. But Mainline denominations are shrinking three times faster. Up until this year, the largest sister, The United Methodist Church, was the only not to experience a major Mainline-era division. As that changes, it might be worthwhile to look at how the separation of the UMC compares.
For the three sisters that maintain a congregational polity, separation happened without national headlines. With no trust clause encumbering local church property, individual congregations were free to migrate away at will. The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), holding the distinction of the fastest-declining mainline denomination, lost to smaller groups like the Disciples Heritage Fellowship. The United Church of Christ (UCC) declined from 8,283 congregations in 1957 to 4,852 today through (in part) a gradual process of disassociation. Like the UMC, the American Baptist Church (ABCUSA) holds an official position on Christian marriage that is traditional. But congregations in this slowest-declining Mainline denomination have exited over refusal by leaders to uphold those standards. In 2006, more than 300 churches from the Pacific Southwest region of ABCUSA voted to withdraw.
The more centralized the denomination, the more difficult the separation. Mainline denominations like The Episcopal Church (TEC) and Presbyterian Church (PCUSA) have navigated separation involving a trust clause tying local church property to the denomination. Some put estimates of legal fees paid by the TEC at $200 million as they sought to retain diocesan and local church property. Although the split with the Anglican Church North America (ANCA) began in 2009, some legal battles are only now concluding. The Presbyterian Church (USA) fared a bit better when it changed church teaching in 2010. A preemptive, 2008 Gracious Dismissal Policy enabled congregations to leave to the Evangelical Covenant Order of Presbyterians without widespread litigation.
It is interesting to note that the PCUSA Gracious Dismissal Policy required congregations to join another Reformed denomination with similar polity so that churches would not go independent. This was their way of helping to preserve the Reformed tradition. The United Methodist Church is taking the opposite approach. Congregations in most places must disaffiliate and become independent before joining the Global Methodist Church. In this way, I think, UMC conferences and bishops are complicit in the erosion of the Wesleyan witness. Why is this happening? With conference-wide exits ruled out of order by the highest court in United Methodism, departures under the limited 2019 disaffiliation provision allow conference leaders to control both the process and price exit. The Wesleyan Covenant Association (WCA) has noted that a third of U.S. annual conferences are making disaffiliation more expensive/onerous than it needs to be. Legal action is underway in Florida, Eastern Pennsylvania, and North Carolina.
United Methodism is unique among Mainline denominations in our centralized clergy deployment system. When the Evangelical Lutheran Church (ELCA) opened ordained ministry to partnered gay and lesbian clergy in 2009, it could reassure congregations that those not agreeing could simply refrain from calling them. United Methodist elders, however, are under a sort of tenure in which employment is guaranteed within the bounds of each conference. Congregations are required to receive those appointed to them. UMC leaders are currently giving assurances to local churches that those that do not want a progressive or gay pastor will not be sent one. “After all, why would we want to send you a pastor that is a bad match?” But bishops and their cabinets are forced to assign clergy from the available stable. And the clergy of the UMC have long been recognized as more progressive than the laity. Anecdotal reports from the last appointment-making cycle indicate that more requests were made for traditional-leaning pastors than could be honored. Following separation, this supply and demand problem will only escalate. Asbury Theological Seminary has often turned out more ordained elders than any of our thirteen official United Methodist seminaries. As Asbury has aligned strongly with the Global Methodist Church, it will be interesting to see how the remaining UMC treats candidates educated at Asbury. Will the University Senate of the UMC continue to endorse Asbury and other more conservative seminaries as an approved schools for clergy?
We also watch the extent to which centralized power structures of the UMC may be employed to change congregational attitudes about human sexuality and Scripture. While the UCC denomination became the first Mainline denomination to officially endorse same-sex marriage in 2005, only 32.6% of member congregations currently list themselves as “open and affirming.” Congregational autonomy is a core value of the UCC and the positions of the denomination have muted local effect. United Methodism, however, is built on the concept of connectedness. Some wonder if and how connectionalism will be used for re-education in the post-separation UMC. We need to watch exactly how General Conference 2024 changes teaching on human sexuality and whether congregations are given a say whether to host same-sex weddings in their facilities. How heavy-handed will be the messaging at conference youth and camping events? How will clergy holding to traditional views be managed?
Being the last to the party should provide Methodists with many lessons on both the positive and negative sides. The time is overdue for a summit of leaders from the UMC and GMC to lay a groundwork for peace and non-coersion. Those involved in lawsuits should sit down with a mediator. Given the universal Mainline experience of principled dissent from majority progressive trends, the policy of forced disaffiliation for exiting churches should be reversed as soon as possible. The Council of Bishops should complete and promote work done on a policy for exits by transfer. The story is now being written on the division of the largest Mainline denomination. We are all co-authors and accountable to God for how things develop.