Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Making Sense of UMC Membership Numbers

Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.

GCFA recently released delegate counts for the 2020 General Conference along with the membership and clergy numbers on which these delegate counts are based. UMNS put out a news story based on this membership data, and I’m sure many others will be combing through it. I wanted to share several observations not highlighted in the UMNS article.

1. The Democratic Republic of the Congo continues to be the great driver of membership growth in the UMC. The Congo Central Conference added nearly half a million members in the last four years, and total membership in the Congo Central Conference now stands at 3 million. This is further evidence that we need to be more specific when we talk about “African” church growth. Even more so than becoming a US-African denomination, the UMC is becoming a US-Congolese denomination.

2. The Congo Central Conference and West Africa Central Conference were the only two central conferences/jurisdictions showing numeric growth in the last four years. West Africa’s growth was driven by very strong membership growth in Liberia and good growth in Sierra Leone. Both countries are seeing the fruits of rebuilding after long civil wars. It’s significant that, although there were individual annual conferences here and there in other central conferences/jurisdictions that grew, overall the trend lines for the UMC were down around the world. Some of that may have been due to new reporting standards (see below), but it complicates the simplistic narrative of “the US and Europe are declining, and Africa and the Philippines are growing” and thus should lead United Methodist leaders to pay more attention to specific dynamics on the ground in various places around the world.

3. This was the first time that membership numbers (and therefore delegates) outside the US were based off of local congregation records instead of numbers provided by annual conference as a whole. Though not without problems, this approach is a more accurate reporting fashion. There was a lot of curiosity as to how this new approach would affect the overall membership numbers, especially in Africa. There were places where the numbers seem to have declined because of this new procedure (East Africa, South Mozambique), but overall the African numbers proved fairly consistent with past figures. Interestingly, there was a much larger drop in the numbers from the Philippines. The membership figures under the new system were 1/3 lower than under the old. My sources tell me this is more reflective of the change in reporting rather than any large defections from the Filipino UMC, but more research could be done.

4. According to these figures, the denomination has 12.5 million members and 66 active bishops serving 66 episcopal areas. Still, not all episcopal areas are the same. The four largest episcopal areas are all in Africa (North Katanga with 1.23 million members, South Katanga with 985,000, Cote d’Ivoire with 677,000, and East Congo with 447,000). Over 1/3 of United Methodists live in just these four episcopal areas. Over 1 in 12 United Methodists worldwide lives in the North Katanga episcopal area alone.

5. The second smallest episcopal area membership-wise is also in Africa. The Eastern Angola episcopal area has a mere 7500 members in it. It is the only one of the five smallest episcopal areas not in Europe. I’m sure there are political/ethnic/historical reasons why the Eastern Angola episcopal area exists, and I don’t expect it to be eliminated. Nevertheless, the discrepancies between it and the largest episcopal areas in Africa indicate some of the challenges the Standing Committee on Central Conference Matters faces as it tries to decide where to put four new African bishops. These most recent membership figures will surely feed into that process. It will be interesting to see what comes out.

1 comment:

  1. David,
    Thanks for your insightful examination of the membership reporting from annual conferences, especially noting the uneven growth among the African conferences that we often assume are all experiencing the same rapid growth rates. Not sure that the new reporting requirements requiring greater dependence upon local church registries yield greater accuracy especially where so many new congregations are flourishing and fleeting under the inspired but unaccountable leadership of evangelists. The best indicator for measuring the institutional growth or true strength of annual conferences is the number of pastors serving in full connection. Trained clergy leadership in full conference membership appointed to local churches is the key to long term sustainability and vitality. When that number is growing statistically, the congregations served as well as the extension ministries they support are benefitting from connectional concept claimed by United Methodism.
    Robert Harman