Thursday, July 30, 2015

White American UMC, Non-white global UMC

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Assistant Professor of Religion and Pieper Chair of Servant Leadership at Ripon College.

The Pew Research Forum recently released data on the most and least racially diverse religious groups in the US. As it turns out, the UMC is one of the whitest religious groups around. We're whiter than Presbyterians, than Mormons, than the UCC, than Episcopalians. It turns out the American UMC is even whiter than American Jews. Only Lutherans, with their traditional association with Northern European ancestry, are whiter.

This is obviously a problem for the UMC domestically, both for reasons of equality and reasons of demographic trends. Our whiteness raises questions about racial justice in our denomination. It also portends further numeric decline in an increasingly non-white American future.

The whiteness of the American UMC is also a problem, though, as the UMC seeks to map a global future. While most American UMC members (60% of the global church) might be white, most African (30% of the global church) and Filipino (5% of the global church) members are not. White Americans will need to learn to relate to non-white, non-Americans on a more equal footing.

There are a number of thorny issues involved in transitioning the UMC to be a less American-centric denomination, even were the world completely free of biases. Differences of nationality and culture would be enough to snarl these issues even more. But when issues of race are added in, the complexities become that much more difficult.

I'm not saying that all or even most American United Methodists are actively racist. I am saying that when you have a group of people (white Americans) who have little experience of interacting with racial others in their denomination or thinking through their racial privileges within the context of church, and then expect them to do so across not only racial but international boundaries, that will be a challenge.

It's a challenge that the UMC must take up, however. An overwhelmingly white future is not an option for the UMC, in the United States or as an international body.


  1. The UMC has diligently pursued just that membership that has the financial wherewithal to support its corporate administrative structure, pay for a full time professionally trained ministry, and cover the massive debt taken on for church building in the last 40 years. And in the US that constituency is white. Until we have a much leaner structure, the possibility of clergy who don't have expensive degrees and commensurate salaries, and we lose our addiction to the nonsensical "if you build it they will come" mentality we will be trapped in our demographic and (as you note) relatively unable to relate to the rest of the world.

  2. Robert, I appreciate how your comment highlights the ways in which seemingly race-neutral institutional decisions can have significant implications for the racial composition of the UMC. The UMC's racial problems arise not only from (subconscious) bias, but from the economic and political choices we make.

  3. @David, I thank you for the data and perspective. As a data scientist, data without alignment to principles is noise. And unfortunately the issue with race conversations is we do not have a common definition of racism upon to hold leaders and gatekeepers accountable. The statement "UMC's racial problems arise not only from (subconscious) bias, but from the economic and political choices we make" is VERY powerful in the light of the data. IMHO, the key principle is that the power (of choices) held by 1 culture to the exclusion of other cultures is a measurement upon to make a claim of a racist institution. Anyone not alarmed by the data is not seeing how powerful God is at work.

    1. Thanks, Francis. I think you're right that issues of racism in the UMC are primarily issues about what economic and political choices are made and who is and is not a part of making those choices. Fortunately, as you point out, God is powerful, and we may pray that the Holy Spirit continue to open the denomination up to a wider range of voices so that we may discern how and where God is calling us in the future.