Giving, Membership Decline in Recession

March 11, 2010

By Kathy L. Gilbert*
March 8, 2010 | NASHVILLE, Tennessee (UMNS)

The recession continues to affect giving to The United Methodist Church at a time when the denomination is experiencing its largest percentage decline in membership since 1974.
United Methodist churches in the 63 annual (regional) conferences of the U.S. contributed 84 percent of what the denomination budgeted to support ministries around the world in 2009. The total apportioned was $150.3 million; $126.3 million was collected.
Meanwhile, membership dropped 1.01 percent to 7,774,420 in 2008, according to the latest data from the United Methodist General Council on Finance and Administration. The council coordinates and administers finances for the denomination. Average worship attendance was down 1.83 percent.
What continued, amid sacrifices, was the work of the church, officials said.
"With the economic ups and downs of 2009, church leaders are reporting that ministry happened on tighter budgets, and the people of The United Methodist Church are still supporting the mission of the church," said Moses Kumar, top executive of the council, and Bishop Lindsey Davis, president of the council. 
Fourteen of the U.S. annual (regional) conferences contributed to the church's global ministry funds at the 100 percent level. Fourteen conferences also increased their giving percentage over 2008. In 2008, 18 conferences paid 100 percent.
The conferences at the lowest end include Northwest Texas, 58 percent; Alabama-West Florida, 59 percent; Memphis, 59 percent; and California-Nevada, 50 percent.
Those paying 100 percent are Alaska Missionary, Baltimore-Washington, Central Texas, East Ohio, Greater New Jersey, Illinois Great Rivers, Iowa, North Carolina, Oklahoma Indian Missionary, Peninsula Delaware, Red Bird Missionary, Rio Grande, New York, and Wisconsin.
The conferences that increased their giving over 2008 are Holston, Kansas West, Louisiana, Missouri, North Texas, Northern Illinois, Rocky Mountain, South Georgia, Southwest Texas, Texas, West Virginia, Western Pennsylvania, Wyoming, and Yellowstone.
Membership drops
Statistics reported by local churches and annual conferences indicate that professing membership in 2008 was down 1.01 percent over 2007, the largest percentage decline since 1974, when membership dropped 1.06 percent.
Membership was the highest, 10,789,624, when the Evangelical United Brethren and Methodist churches merged in 1968. It has been declining since the mid-1960s.
There are signs of growth, however.
Eight conferences reported increases in membership, and seven reported increases in worship attendance, said Scott Brewer, executive with the council.
The number of constituents – persons who are not officially members of the church, but for whom the church assumes pastoral responsibility – increased 1 percent over 2007, with 36 conferences reporting increases in this category.
"We assume that increasingly, people getting active in churches today are more reluctant to officially become a member of the church," Brewer said. "This indicates the picture may not be as bleak as the membership data alone indicates."
Churches with memberships of 100 and fewer reported a decline in membership of 2.25 percent, while churches with 3,000 and more members increased membership by 1.9 percent.
Spending in the local church was down 3.63 percent from 2007, with expenditures down in all categories except spending on lay staff compensation and benefits, which saw no change.
2011 budgets
The 2011 apportionments distributed to annual conferences are 2.68 percent lower than originally approved in the budget by the 2008 General Conference, the denomination's lawmaking body.
"The apportionment formula is designed to adapt to changing economic conditions," Brewer said. "We expected spending in the local churches to be below expectations for 2008, and it was. By apportioning less than was originally budgeted, we hope we can aid more conferences and churches in fully paying their part of the apportionment covenant.
"It is clear from the data that 2008 was not an easy year for our churches. The reductions in spending reported in the statistics and the stories we hear from individual churches tell us that many congregations had to make tough decisions in the face of some difficult situations. However, it is also clear from the data that the work of The United Methodist Church continues on. Ministry is still happening, lives are still being touched, and we are still making disciples." 
*Gilbert is a news writer for United Methodist News Service in Nashville, Tennessee.