Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Not so many Methodists

There has been a lot of speculation on whether the ELCA’s current financial woes are the result of the approval of gay clergy at last summer’s churchwide assembly. The other explanation, of course, is that it’s the result of the country experiencing the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression.

Supporting the latter view is the report this week from The United Methodist Church that both its income and its membership have dropped significantly. National church receipts in 2009 were 84% of what was budgeted. This accelerated a trend from the previous year. Spending in local congregations dropped 3.63% in 2008 (the most recent year available for local data). UMC officials attributed the drops to the recession.

Of perhaps bigger concern is the full percentage point drop in membership in 2008, the largest since 1974. UMC membership has dropped from a peak of 10.8 million in 1968 to the current 7.8 million—a 28% decline in forty years.

An interesting category the UMC tracks are the number of people considered “constituents,” people somehow affiliated with UMC congregations but who are not members. This figure increased 1%. Church executive Scott Brewer interprets this (correctly I believe) as evidence of the growing number who are involved with churches but are reluctant to become church members.

I think he goes awry, however, when he concludes that this increase means “the picture may not be as bleak as the membership data alone indicates.” There is no reason to see an increase in “constituents” as a prelude to increased membership. Rather, it simply confirms the trend experienced by most churches that people’s relationships with churches are increasingly distant and temporary. Younger adults, especially, choose selectively among church activities and move in and out of church as they choose. The life-long church member is becoming a very rare breed.

One other statistic of interest was membership changes at the extremes of congregation size. “Churches with memberships of 100 and less reported a decline in membership of 2.25 percent, while churches with 3,000 and more members increased membership by 1.9 percent.” Small congregations have, until recently, been the backbone of mainline churches. One of the legacies of the Great Recession may be to permanently change that makeup. Not only are small congregations not competitive in a time of cafeteria Christianity, they are now financially unworkable, absent a large financial endowment. It seems almost certain that mainline denominations will increasingly be made up of fewer yet larger congregations.


Rev. Dr. Barbara Doerrer-Peacock said...

As a clergy with one foot in the UCC and the other with the Methodists (by virtue of serving a couple of dually affiliated parishes) you are right on, Doug. However, you didn't mention the impact specifically of the cost of paying for a pastor. That might be included in your financial down-turn...but that too has skyrocketed...(with insurance costs - not necessarily salary!), and most of us don't settle for "pounding" any more (a pound of chicken, a pound of zucchini) left on our doorsteps. A lot of our definition of "success" is defined not by faithfulness or discipleship but how well we can finance ourselves (the B's - butts in the pews and bucks in the plates!)

Doug said...

You are absolutely right, Barb. I guess because I have written about clergy costs so many times before I didn't feel like harping on it again LOL. And this has become very personal because I will likely be leaving my current congregation within the next year or so for just that reason. As a council member said, "We like you but we can't afford you."

The whole future of professional, full-time clergy is very much up in the air. And what's even worse for new seminary grads is their astronomical student loans. Go through all that for a minimally paid FT job or even part-time? You just can't make the numbers work.

Here in the ELCA, our smaller congregations are starting to drop like flies. Those still around are increasingly either lay led or have very part-time (often retired) clergy leadership. Larger congregations can still support full-time pastors but many of them have been reducing their staff size significantly.

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