The United Methodist Church has been going through a slow-motion but accelerating schism since the 2019 General Conference enacted Paragraph 2553. This new church law grants congregations “a limited right” to disaffiliate from the denomination and keep their properties, as long as they do so before 2024. Now that thousands of U.S. congregations have done this, some broad disaffiliation patterns can be observed.
I recently put together this chart of the differing disaffiliation rates in the 53 U.S. annual conferences. I decided not to put this information on a map, since that can be visually misleading. The relative geographic size of a conference does not necessarily correspond to its relative size in active church members. Instead, I listed each conference ranked by relative size in terms of total average worship attendance in 2018, immediately before the adoption of Paragraph 2553. Disaffiliations were minimal in 2019 and 2020. More than 99 percent occurred after 2020. So it is helpful to focus on what happened with the congregations in each conference after 2020.
One important caveat is that disaffiliations are not over. In many conferences, so indicated with an asterix, additional disaffiliations are still reportedly expected in a special annual conference later this year and/or through a conference-specific policy allowing disaffiliations next year. In two other conferences, so indicated with a super-scripted “L,” many congregations are currently engaged in a lawsuit over the conference effectively blocking the exit doors.
Conferences may be grouped into four broad categories for the extent of their disaffiliations. In 19 annual conferences, coded in red text, the impact of disaffiliations has been relatively minimal, with less than 10 percent of congregations having disaffiliated (so far). In another 10 annual conferences, coded in black text, at least about 10 percent but less than 20 percent of congregations have disaffiliated, which is a significant separation, but limited enough for the rest of the annual conference to largely continue much as it had previously. In another 16 annual conferences, coded in green text, less than 40 percent but at least 20 percent of congregations have disaffiliated, which is enough of a major split for these conferences to look noticeably very different. And in another seven conferences, coded in blue text, at least 40 percent of congregations have disaffiliated. When you factor in the remaining United Methodist congregations who have also seen individual members personally disaffiliate in this same period, these conferences have lost at least about half of their people.
The least surprising disaffiliation pattern is how conferences that are known as more conservative have seen greater percentages of their congregations joining the mass exodus of theological traditionalists. But the overall theological leanings of an annual conference can be difficult to measure in a clearly objective, accurate, quantifiable way.
Furthermore, in all categories of conferences across the country, including conferences that have already seen a large percentage of disaffiliations, there are still additional other congregations who may like to disaffiliate but have found their way blocked so far.
Furthermore, we see some interesting general correlations, with exceptions, between an annual conference’s disaffiliation rates and overall size. Conferences that were larger in their total Sunday worship attendance before the split began have generally seen higher percentages of congregations disaffiliate. The conferences with minimal disaffiliations are disproportionately concentrated among relatively smaller annual conferences.
Several possible explanations are plausible for this disaffiliation pattern. Perhaps this reflects how conferences with fewer people have shrunk as much as they have in large part from having already driven away many conservative as well as moderates, prior to 2019. Thus, these conferences already had limited constituencies for whom disaffiliation would be a natural option. Perhaps this reflects how it is easier to feel anonymous and disconnected in a larger conference, so that losing connection with such a conference can feel less disruptive. In many cases, it likely reflects how officials of smaller conferences feel more pressure to prioritize seeing how much money they can greedily hoard for themselves, regardless of how much they hurt the impacted congregations and ministries.
This leads to another notable disaffiliation pattern. With some variation, in the big picture, the more difficult conferences have made disaffiliations, the fewer disaffiliations they have seen.
Thus, it is extraordinarily disingenuous for anyone to suggest that the percentage of congregations currently remaining United Methodist truly reflects how many United Methodists actually want to remain in the denomination or support its liberal new direction.
This disaffiliation pattern instead suggests that a great many others remain heavy-handedly trapped in the denomination, and would disaffiliate if only they were given a fair chance to do so.
It is difficult enough for anyone to meet the bare requirements of using Paragraph 2553: (1) making the often heart-wrenching decision to leave your denomination and annual conference, (2) building a super-majority consensus in a congregation-wide discernment process, (3) paying usually significant exit fees, and (4) waiting on your annual conference to let you go. Indeed, after the 2019 General Conference, theological progressives—meaning those who strongly disagree with the UMC’s historic, still-official doctrinal and moral standards—almost unanimously declared that these requirements were too difficult for them.
A few annual conferences have found ways to make disaffiliation a bit easier, primarily by finding responsible ways to reduce exit fees. Many others largely followed Paragraph 2553’s bare terms. But other conferences have made disaffiliation much more difficult, by demanding major additional exit fees (on top of what Paragraph 2553 already requires), making the timelines and deadlines needlessly difficult, and/or suppressing information about how congregations can disaffiliate. Some conferences have been so extreme in their additional demands that they have made disaffiliation nearly impossible, or truly impossible for many (such as by demanding a congregation pay a total of “$60,000 per member – an amount they could neither raise nor borrow”). And two conferences have made disaffiliation truly impossible, by not having any clear policy for congregations to disaffiliate.
For details of these widely disparate conference disaffiliation policies, I am indebted to previous documentation by the Revs. Jay Therell and Thomas Lambrecht.
It should be remembered, however, that several of these conferences have made dramatic changes to their disaffiliation policies in the middle of this season of separation (including after Therell’s and Lambrecht’s articles were written), sometimes to be more punitive, other times to be less punitive. Furthermore, aside from conference-wide policies, some bishops have interfered in particular congregations’ discernment processes to make disaffiliation especially difficult for them.
Some other discussions of disaffiliation patterns have highlighted relatively low rates of disaffiliation among predominantly non-white congregations. However, such analyses paint very incomplete pictures when they completely ignore how many theologically traditionalist ethnic congregations have been targeted by bishops seeking to derail their disaffiliations, and/or are located in conferences with prohibitively difficult disaffiliation policies—such as Northern Illinois (which demanded an average of about half a million dollars from disproportionately ethnic congregations seeking disaffiliation, over and above 2553’s required costs), New York, or the Western Jurisdiction.
A few of these conferences merit further clarification. While the numerically tiny Oklahoma Indian Missionary Conference has had no disaffiliation policy, I was recently informed that its trustees were working on establishing something. The Peninsula-Delaware Conference amended its policy to require disaffiliating congregations to immediately pay for half of the value of their properties (for which they had already paid on their own, in most cases), which makes disaffiliation effectively impossible for most congregations. However, they had a “grandfathering” agreement through which congregations who began the disaffiliation process by a particular early point were not subject to this penalty. South Carolina has blocked all disaffiliations of non-liberal congregations through most of this season. It was only relatively recently that that conference shifted to allow congregations to leave this year, but only if they scrambled to meet a tight deadline and paid major, unfairly punitive additional exit fees. The South Carolina policy, however, also allows additional disaffiliations after this year.
In North Georgia, disaffiliations have thus far been largely limited to those who chose to begin the process back when renewal leaders were discouraging traditionalists from disaffiliating, because we then expected the “Protocol” separation proposal to allow separation on fairer terms. But then liberal leaders reneged their previous support of the Protocol and cynically filibustered General Conference until 2024 in order to kill any possibility of the Protocol being adopted. Subsequently, Bishop Sue Haupert-Johnson dictatorially declared that no one else there would be allowed to use Paragraph 2553. Her successor, Bishop Robin Dease, chose to continue this blanket blocking of all disaffiliations. While Dease recently relented, this extended “pause” has prevented any disaffiliations of any other congregations there (with two exceptions) until North Georgia’s upcoming November special session.
One insufficiently studied factor in this split has been how, in many ways, disaffiliations have been a populist revolt against the heavy handedness of bishops and wider clerical elitism in the UMC.
In numerous annual conferences, their 2019 delegate elections showed a stark divide between clergy (especially elders) and laity. In eight annual conferences, at least the clear majority of General Conference delegates elected by the lay members were known as firmly theologically traditionalist, while not one of those elected by clergy was. These include South Carolina and North Georgia, which are special cases, as just noted. Otherwise, all of these conferences demonstrating such a stark clergy/lay divide have seen above-average disaffiliation rates: Peninsula-Delaware in the Northeastern Jurisdiction (26 percent of its congregations), East Ohio (38 percent) and Indiana (31 percent) in the North Central Jurisdiction, and Louisiana (37 percent), New Mexico (24 percent), and east Texas (51 percent).
Remember, while the delegates liberalizing the UMC through recent bishop elections and the approaching General Conference are disproportionately chosen by clergy, disaffiliation is ultimately a decision of the laity. When we talk about the people of the United Methodist Church, over 99 percent are laity.
The longstanding divide in theology and morality between the UMC’s clergy and laity was never sustainable. After simmering for many decades, it has now exploded in many places.
Others are welcome to consult the data and share their own conclusions about other patterns they see in disaffiliations.