There is an increasingly resonant voice in the United Methodist conflict emerging from both congregations and pastors.
It is a voice not being heard.
It does not receive invitations to the negotiating table.
It is a voice becoming too loud to ignore.
“We want out!”
As the United Methodist Church continues bent on being a one issue denomination (and that issue is not Jesus Christ); many churches across the theological spectrum have simply had enough. Exacerbated by the rancorous St. Louis General Conference, fearful of a repeat in 2020 and fueled by decades of decline in the American church, many have lost confidence in a process that can’t seem to right itself and positional leaders who can’t seem to lead. “Just wait until the next __________ and we will get this all fixed” simply doesn’t ring true anymore. It never gets fixed. In fact, it keeps getting worse.
Thousands of individuals have already left the UMC; our collective decline in the American church over a thirty year span is staggering. In my own conference, weekly worship attendance has declined by 41%; Professions of Faith by 67% and baptisms by 66% since 1992. Confirmation Classes? Down by 71%. Granted, many have died but plenty have walked. Our most consistent statistical feature in the American portion of the church is that it costs more and more to accomplish less and less each year. Costs, clergy entitlements and apportionments go up; worship attendance, professions of faith and baptisms go down. This is unsustainable by any measure and failing the Great Commission by every measure.
Many anticipate eventually leaving the UMC but are not going to simply trickle away as others have previously done. They intend to leave with their pastor, their congregation and their property. They don’t care about the equitable division of denominational assets and they don’t care about the Boards and Agencies. They have stopped writing, posting, tweeting and blogging. They are not mad but they are done. They have worked through the grieving cycle.
Seven Reasons Churches Want Out
- They are tired of the fight
- They see no end in sight
- Local congregations are suffering
- Churches no longer wish to fund what negatively impacts their mission
- Churches want autonomy over their decreasing resources
- They can’t “un-see” the dysfunction manifested in St. Louis
- They have seen what has happened to the other Mainline denominations
In the aftermath of the debacle that was General Conference 2019, some have been surprised by how few churches have asked to withdraw from the UMC. I do not find this surprising in the least. There is really no clear way out. Many feel trapped. The vast majority will give the 2020 General Conference a chance to play out.
Six Reasons Why Churches Have Not Left
- Church property is held in trust The Trust Clause basically has you forever making automobile payments and the bank still owning your ever aging and unreliable car. For a non-debt strapped church to leave at present probably means to abandon their building. Most churches are not going to do it. They shouldn’t have to.
- There is no clear and standardized exit ramp The now defunct Taylor Plan was not gracious financially and only applied to churches who disagreed with the current denominational stance on human sexuality. Many churches who want out agree with the denominational stance. The issue for them is not just human sexuality, it is perpetual dysfunction.
- Some are hoping for a gracious, clear and standardized exit ramp to come out of GC 2020 I think this is a pipe dream. Farmers don’t just let their milk cows walk out of the barn; denominations don’t either. I suppose it could happen but I am not counting on it.
- Lack of negotiating tools We have learned from other Mainline meltdowns that congregations who have money in the bank, sit on substantial assets, are not in 100% agreement around theology and who do not have long-term pastoral leadership have a much harder time getting out than those who are fiscal liabilities. If there is not an exit ramp; many congregations will make one. If they make one, litigation may be their only option.
- Litigation is a terrible option Mainline denominations have spent millions suing their own churches who want to be shed of them. It is abysmal stewardship. It is a fool’s play by any measure. Secular courts should not decide the future of the church.
- Lack of clarity concerning the “pull” While many feel the “push;” the “pull” seems more ambiguous. Many wish to exit the dysfunction but where would they go? Independent alliances? Loose associations? Autonomous congregations? A new denomination? Some negotiated split of the UMC? And even if they knew where they wanted to go, how would they get there?
I do not know anyone who believes the United Methodist Church has a viable future in its present embodiment. I used to know a lot of folks who believed we could figure this out; then I knew a few and now I don’t know any. An increasing number of “non-institutional” United Methodists don’t believe the mission of the church is to prop up a flailing denomination.
The question entering GC 2019 was, “Can we stay together?”
The question entering GC 2020 is, “Can we amicably separate?”
But the question for many is, “Who wants to stay in a dysfunctional denomination?”
As churches consider their options in 2020, leaving all together will certainly be among them.
These voices deserve to be heard.
-Rev. Shane L. Bishop, a Distinguished Evangelist of the United Methodist Church, has been the Sr. Pastor of Christ Church in Fairview Heights, Illinois since 1997.