After the Traditional Plan Passes What Could the UMC Look Like In a Few Years?

By Paul A. Djupe, Denison University

Meeting in St. Louis, the United Methodist Church voted to retain and tighten their current rules in opposition to same-sex marriage and openly gay clergy. This is quite surprising from one perspective because the majority of UMC identifiers are in favor of same-sex marriage in the United States at almost identical rates to the larger population. However, members of the international UMC are not nearly as supportive. Additionally, one has to wonder if the delegates in St. Louis were an accurate representation of rank and file United Methodists or did they represent a subset that was more highly engaged and somewhat more conservative.

I thought I would take a look, a last look most likely, at what the UMC looks like now in the US, and then simulate what it might look like in the near future as members and also congregations cut ties.

As a result of its pioneering evangelism strategy of circuit riding and dogged church founding, the UMC enjoys the greatest geographic spread of any other religious organization in the United States as can be seen below. There are not many counties in the US where there is not a single UMC congregation (the gray’d out counties).

The concentration by state shows the relatively even spread of the UMC across the US. It is higher, about 10 percent, in West Virginia and Iowa, but the coverage is enormous. Note, too, that the UMC has considerable presence in states that have not been supportive of expanding gay rights. Yet, while the map below shows lower concentration levels of United Methodists in the Midwest and West, those could encompass a large share of United Methodists who support same sex marriage.

That is what the following map shows. UMC affiliates are just like the population, showing support for same-sex marriage in states where that is a more common stance. The West, North-central states (MN, IL, IA), and the Northeast all feature more support for same-sex marriage among UMC affiliates. There is far less support in the South and Great Plains.

I have little doubt that many members are going to leave. When the ELCA embraced openly gay clergy in committed relationships in 2010, the estimate was about 10% of congregations de-affiliated and about 1 million members left.

There is simply no way to tell without new data what exactly will happen in this case. A reasonable, but naive guess is that they will suffer about the same fate as the ELCA. That’s what the map in the left panel represents (in raw numbers) – about 10% of the denomination means that 20% of those who favor same-sex marriage depart. The rate is constant across states, so the coloration represents the fact that there are more UMC affiliates in some states and different portions of them favor same-sex marriage as shown in maps above. Tens of thousands of members leave in big states, especially California, Texas, Florida, and Pennsylvania. But the high concentrations of gay rights supporters mean the UMC has far less of a presence in the West, Midwest (especially further north), and the Northeast. All told, the UMC loses about 1.1 million adherents.[1]

A better guess is that they lose more members than that. I suspect they’ll lose double the amount as the ELCA did. There are several differences that mount. The liberal wing is larger in the UMC than was the conservative side of the ELCA. The liberal wing is also on the side of expanding rights, which is a dominant mode and powerful frame in American political life. Additionally, churches with younger overall congregations will be more likely to depart. This decision also comes at a time when national ties are frayed as they have not been in a long time, national trust continues at a low point, and people are walking away from traditional ties like never before. The rapid growth of non-denominational churches is one telling way to index this constellation of forces. There is an outside possibility that all of those who United Methodists who are in favor of same sex marriage might depart. That may add up to something more like 40% of those in favor of same-sex marriage leaving. The total loss in that scenario would reach to something like 2.2 million members lost.

At one end of the spectrum is the speculation, as Williams and Dias write in the New York Times, “Some pastors and bishops in the United States are already talking about leaving the denomination and possibly creating a new alliance for gay-friendly churches.” That, effectively, already exists, though people more often call it the Episcopal Church. It has some different ways of organizing the denomination and theology, but it’s welcoming even of Lutherans so it’s not far off. In any event, it will be interesting to continue to study the organization of religion as it fractures around salient political issues – a long tradition in the US.

Paul A. Djupe, Denison University Political Science, is an affiliated scholar with PRRI, the series editor of Religious Engagement in Democratic Politics (Temple), and co-creator of religioninpublic.blog (see his list of posts). Further information about his work can be found at his website and on Twitter.


Note

1. The attempt to attach survey percentages to raw numbers of adherents in the states is a fraught practice. I took survey percentages of the state populations from the 2016 CCES (which fortunately has reasonably large samples for the states), then gained estimates of the adult populations of the states in 2018 (so, I subtracted the percentage of children in the total population). That figure of the adult population was * the UMC proportion yielding an estimate of the raw numbers of UMC affiliates. From there, I used the proportion of the UMC who favored same-sex marriage in 2016 to do the math for potential losses.

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