How big is the United Methodist split, really?
Liberal United Methodist officials have been trying to discourage congregations from disaffiliating from the UMC and especially scare people away from the Global Methodist Church by misleadingly suggesting that hardly anyone is doing the former or joining the latter. This sometimes inaccurate rhetorical downplaying of how big the United Methodist split is becoming is apparently intended to provoke a sort of “reverse bandwagon effect.”
But at this point, there are three clear truths about the United Methodist split.
- The United Methodist Church’s split is ongoing.
- Now with more than 3,100 congregations and growing, the Global Methodist Church has become a sizable global denomination.
- With 6,225 American congregations having disaffiliated from the denomination so far, the United Methodist split is major.
Indeed, sociology professor and religion statistics guru Ryan Burge has observed that the UMC’s break-up “can only be described as the largest denominational schism in the last fifty years.”
The United Methodist split has already become so big that there is no option to simply remain united with everyone who had been in the UMC. Deciding between the increasingly liberalized post-separation United Methodist Church vs. the Global Methodist Church is a choice between which parts of the previously unified UMC you would want to remain connected to, now that it is no longer possible to stay together with everybody.
(Of course, going independent means losing connections to both sides.)
Let’s take each of these three main points in order.
First, the split is ongoing.
After all, there are still about two dozen U.S. annual conferences whose bishops, to their credit, have scheduled special sessions in the remainder of 2023 to approve additional congregational disaffiliations. This will reduce the number of traditionalist congregations trapped in a denomination in which they no longer fit.
In the bigger picture, however, leading United Methodist bishops have chosen to ensure that the denomination’s separation is proceeding in a much more lengthily drawn-out, acrimonious, and messy manner than necessary.
The Protocol of Reconciliation and Grace through Separation was effectively a chance to “just rip off the band-aid,” handling the sometimes-uncomfortable difficulties of separation all at once—and then moving on. It would have allowed different segments of the UMC to sort themselves between the orthodox Global Methodist Church and the liberal, post-separation United Methodist Church, all within a relatively short time frame, while minimizing the degree to which anyone would have been coerced into remaining trapped in one or the other.
When liberal leaders cynically and self-servingly broke their word to abandon the Protocol, after the major concessions from traditionalists were effectively secure, this shattered trust. Furthermore, numerous U.S. annual conference officials have imposed draconian additional barriers to effectively block disaffiliation for many at this time.
But such barriers do not really stop separation from happening – they make the separation take place in a slower, more painful way.
And amidst much misleading spin, a major liberal United Methodist caucus recently had the honesty to admit that with the UMC’s liberal new direction, eventually “We may lose Africa and the Philippines.”
Secondly, some perspective is needed about the size of the Global Methodist Church.
The GMC recently reported that it has now grown to more than 3,100 congregations and 3,400 clergy, “with more added weekly.”
Some liberal United Methodist leaders have been trying to scare-monger people away from the GMC. A “Stay UMC” propaganda website for North Alabama (on a page that says “We will try to update this page as often as possible”) still dismissively suggests that the Global Methodist Church is not actually “a real entity.” Retired Bishop Will Willimon snarkily assured Christian Century readers that the Global Methodist Church is “destined to be one of the smallest Methodist bodies in the world.”
Yes, the GMC is currently smaller than the UMC.
But now Global Methodism is legally established as a church, with official doctrine and rules, organized into numerous annual conferences, and recognized by the U.S. Department of Defense as a denomination that can endorse military chaplains.
Joining the GMC means partnering with a vibrant, growing connection of congregations already stretching across the United States as well as Africa, Canada, Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and the Philippines.
How does the GMC compare to other Methodist denominations?
This World Methodist Council chart lists membership statistics for 73 member denominations.
Per official statistics from the UMC’s General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA), in 2020, the 29,598 congregations of American United Methodism had a total of 6,268,310 members. This averages out to 211.78 members per congregation.
As explained below, there are reasons to be skeptical of the propaganda claiming that Global Methodist congregations are relatively smaller. But even if the average Global Methodist congregation had 100 members, less than half as many as in the UMC, then the Global Methodist Church’s 3,100 congregations would have 310,000 members. This would rank it as the 19th largest World Methodist Council denomination, larger than three-fourths of the others. If GMC congregations are actually the same size as American United Methodist congregations, then the GMC has some 656,523 members, making it bigger than all but 10 of the 73 WMC member denominations.
Hardly “one of the smallest Methodist bodies in the world”!
Furthermore, some of the UMC’s flagship evangelical megachurches have now joined the GMC, such as Crosspoint Church in west Florida, Crossroads Church in the Pittsburgh area, Christ Church in Memphis, and the Woodlands Methodist Church in Texas.
What about other U.S.-based denominations?
Based on number of congregations, the GMC is currently smaller than the UMC, the African Methodist Episcopal or AME Church (with 7,130+ individual congregations globally), or the 4,474 organized congregations plus 745 “Not Yet Organized Churches” of the Church of the Nazarene in the USA and Canada (see page 3).
On the other hand, there are several very small Methodist denominations other than the GMC which some disaffiliating congregations have considered joining—denominations whose combined size is smaller than the Free Methodist Church’s 856 U.S. congregations. And the GMC now has many more congregations than the Wesleyan Church in North America (1,731) and American Free Methodists combined.
The GMC is now roughly equal in size to the “3,000 congregations throughout the United States” of one of the UMC’s close Pan-Methodist Commission sister denominations, the Chrisitan Methodist Episcopal (CME) Church.
The GMC is approaching the size of another such Pan Methodist denomination, the African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AME-Z) Church, with its 3,700 congregations.
Beyond the Methodist family, the UMC has deemed the Uniting Church of Sweden and the Northern and Southern Provinces of the U.S. Moravian Church to be significant enough to make full communion partners. The former has some 640 congregations while the latter, when it formalized its partnership with the UMC in 2018, had 85 congregations. The GMC is several times larger than these UMC partner denominations combined.
The GMC has about the same number of congregations as the historically prominent, mainline Christian Church (Disciples of Christ), which counted 3,119 congregations in 2021.
Another U.S. mainline Protestant denomination and close ecumenical partner of the UMC is the United Church of Christ (UCC). There are now already far more Global Methodist congregations in Texas alone than the 376 congregations of the UCC’s entire nine-state Southern Region (see page 4/6).
Unlike some of these other denominations, the GMC is rapidly growing.
In addition to GMC church plants, many are still coming in from United Methodism. The Protocol would have resulted in relatively quicker transitions of United Methodists into Global Methodism. Now, the main influx of Global South believers leaving United Methodism is expected to come later. In the States, many need some time after disaffiliation to decide to join the GMC.
Thirdly, the United Methodist schism has already become quite large.
You would not know it from some of the rhetoric. In January, before some annual conferences had offered any disaffiliation opportunities, a prominent article proclaimed the laughably premature judgment that this was “Not a real schism.” Some denominational officials have picked pointless arguments over whether this qualifies as a “schism,” a “split,” or something else. In March, a prominent liberal United Methodist leader declared that he “ultimately expect[ed] 14% of UMC’s will disaffiliate.”
But as of this writing, the United Methodist News Service reports that 6,225 American United Methodist congregations have had their disaffiliation agreements ratified by their annual conferences.
A helpful baseline is the 29,598 congregations that American United Methodism had in 2020, as recently reported in the Statistics section of the UMData.org website of the UMC’s General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA). This was before 99 percent of these disaffiliations.
Whether or not we count the 67 congregations who disaffiliated in 2019 or 2020, the American United Methodist congregations who have disaffiliated so far amount to more than 21 percent of the UMC’s American congregations in 2020.
The disaffiliation of 21 percent of U.S. United Methodist congregations does not mean that anywhere near to 79 percent of American United Methodists are on board with the denomination’s new direction.
Rather, it means that already, 21 percent were so opposed by what they saw in the denomination’s direction that they disregarded the re-assurances and “Stay UMC” pleas of their own denominational leaders and did very difficult work to successfully organize entire congregations to crawl across broken glass to get away.
There is simply no credibility in empathy-lacking liberal attempts to dismiss the difficulties of disaffiliation, when liberal dissenters from official United Methodist doctrines and morals have made clear that they have seen the bare requirements of Paragraph 2553 (to say nothing of the draconian additional barriers some liberal conferences officials have imposed) as far too difficult for themselves to utilize.
And this 21 percent does not count the many leaving individually or in groups, without their entire congregations.
Some have tried to dismiss those disaffiliating as a bunch of small congregations.
It can be more challenging to build consensus in larger congregations.
But the fact that many disaffiliating congregations are small reflects the UMC’s reality.
Official statistics from GCFA show the size categories of American United Methodist congregations in 2017.
In membership, about half of American congregations (49.8 percent) counted less than 100 members and over 25 percent had less than 50, while only three percent had more than 1,000. In average worship attendance, a strong majority (57.9 percent) had fewer than 50 people and one fifth had fewer than 20 people, while less than two percent had more than 500. And American United Methodist congregations have generally become smaller since then.
In reviewing the official list of the 100 top-largest American United Methodist congregations in 2020, based on membership, I note that 26 have left since then.
In 2019, the last year before the COVID-19 pandemic, Len Wilson produced a list of the 25 fastest-growing large congregations in American United Methodism, measured by worship attendance. Since then, 11 of these 25 have successfully disaffiliated from the UMC.
So while some 21 percent of American United Methodist congregations have disaffiliated, 26 percent of the largest-membership congregations and 44 percent of the fastest-growing large congregations have disaffiliated.
The UMC’s largest and fastest-growing congregations have been disaffiliating at much higher rates than other congregations!
The geographic spread of disaffiliation is much more complicated than the infamous 1844 North-South schism in American Methodism over slavery. (And even that split was not as neat as some may imagine.)
But for some perspective on the size of the split, the exodus of 6,225 congregations so far is larger than the total 2020 numbers of congregations in the 22 numerically smaller U.S. annual conferences combined. If 22 of American United Methodism’s 53 annual conferences disaffiliated, one could hardly claim with a straight face that this was “not a real schism.”
Similarly, the number of congregations who have disaffiliated nationwide is greater than the combined total, again using 2020 statistics, of the entire Western Jurisdiction (1,596 congregations) and the South Central Jurisdiction minus Louisiana (4,599 congregations). How is it “not a real schism” when the UMC has already seen the exodus of the numerical equivalent of every congregation in Alaska, Arkansas, Arizona, California, Colorado, Hawaii, Idaho, Kansas, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, Oregon, Texas, Utah, Washington, and Wyoming?
On the one hand, liberal denominational officials have been surprised to see how many American United Methodists could not go along with the UMC’s new direction. And they have been slow to realize how much of Africa and the Philippines will eventually leave, as the UMC is already losing much of its presence in Eastern Europe.
On the other hand, the UMC is not going out of business anytime soon. Even if the next General Conference extends another disaffiliation opportunity, I expect the UMC to keep the majority of its U.S. congregations (or at least their buildings) and to remain one of the largest denominations in America for some time.
So how big has the United Methodist split become? Big enough that whatever happens next, the orthodox Global Methodist Church and liberalized United Methodist Church now offer the previously unified UMC’s factions the chance to build the sort of denominations they have always wanted.