Some members and congregations are leaving because the future of the United Methodist Church, including the Northern Illinois Annual Conference, does not seem worth the investment of prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.

This is the third in a three-part series seeking to answer a question asked by a long-time United Methodist at a meeting last month for a congregation considering disaffiliation.

They would soon vote on whether to remain United Methodist or not. And she wanted an answer:

Why are “these people” wanting to leave and why do they hate the United Methodist Church so much?

She was experiencing the conflict, pain, and overall disruption of her church home. What was so important that it could tear decades-long relationships apart?

Knowing I was aligned in some way with the “dissident network”, she asked me directly, almost accusatory: “Why can’t we all get along? This is crippling our church.”

Though my inadequate and incomplete answer seemed to fit the available time between worship services over a cup of coffee, her question lingers in the air for all church members, congregational leaders, pastors, and observers. After many conversations with individual United Methodists and many congregational meetings, I’ve distilled what I’ve come to conclude are the three primary reasons church members and congregations choose to leave. There are other related reasons, I am sure, but the question of “why do these people what to leave?” deserves a clear response.

Here’s my third in the three part-series, “Why Can’t We All Get Along?”

Reason # 3: “The future of the United Methodist Church, including our annual conference, does not seem worth the investment of my/our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.”

As one of the final steps to become a member of the United Methodist Church, individuals are asked, generally in a setting of public worship, the following question:

“Will you be loyal to the United Methodist Church, and uphold it by your prayers, your presence, your gifts, your service, and your witness?”

Increasing numbers of current United Methodists are saying, “Not anymore” and joining the growing number of former United Methodists.

How come?

Three reasons come to mind immediately:

They Ain’t Buyin’ What We’re Sellin’

Peter Drucker, often considered the “man who invented management”, concluded that there are two questions for every enterprise that predict whether or not it will succeed.

Question 1: What business are you in?
Question 2: How’s business?

Reversing the questions helps us put our finger on a fundamental reason people conclude that the UMC is not worth the investment of their prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.

Though the stated “business” of the United Methodist Church is “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world”, our chronic and dramatic numerical decline is incontrovertible proof we have been failing for decades. The current season of disaffiliations has only accelerated the dramatic decline. We are joining other formerly mainline protestant denominations in the US on the path to being a footnote in Christian history. For example, our own Northern Illinois Conference of the UMC has seen a decline of slightly more than 60% in worship attendance during the past ten years. A decline of this magnitude, mirrored in other regions as well, has a significant impact on the financial strength of the denomination. Our denomination’s General Council on Finance and Administration has recommended making cuts of 38%-42% across the board of our United Methodist general agencies in planning for the 2024-2028 quadrennium. And, at the recent meeting of the United Methodist Council of Bishops in Chicago our episcopal leaders seemed to be having a hard time preparing for the post-disaffiliation denomination, despite the calls to “pivot” for a new chapter. (Council of Bishops Meeting in Chicago, Spring 2023)

The original mission of The Methodist Societies was to “spread Scriptural Holiness across the land.” The case can be made (but won’t be made here for sake of brevity) that within the UMC, Scripture has become optional, and holiness has become inconvenient; so we are left with joining whatever parade of social improvement or political innovation is going by at the moment. Rather than contending for the gospel of Jesus Christ in ways that are winsome, winning, and transformative, we have in many respects alternated between the options being a Society of Nice People (think of so many existing but now faltering fraternal organizations) or a network of half-hearted, aspirational Political Activists (think protestors, picketers, and political campaign workers).

The conclusion of some of the United Methodists leaving the denomination is that their church has fallen victim to the general malady of political tribes battling with each other. The “mission” seems to have become gaining control of the denomination rather personal salvation through faith in Jesus Christ which becomes the flywheel of transformation for the community and culture in which the church exists.

Intramural squabbling over an organizational carcass is not what members signed up for. They want something worth investing themselves in. And, clearly, we are not it.

A Ship That Cannot Right Itself

One of the liturgical and artistic images of the church through the ages is the Ark (think Noah). Some have quipped that the comparison of the Church to Noah’s Ark is apt because “if it wasn’t for the storm outside, you couldn’t stand the smell inside.” It’s another way of saying that the church, any church and every church, is always in need of ongoing repentance, reformation, and renewal.

But let’s press the analogy a bit farther:
All marine vessels, whether a 14’ open fishing boat or a large ocean-going cargo ship, have “scuppers”; that is, self-bailing drains or powered bilge pumps or even an empty coffee can (memories of fishing with my father-in-law) or the like to get the water out of the boat that inevitably finds its way into the boat. Without a scupper system of some sort or some built in flotation capability the vessel will, eventually but inevitably, sink. My pressing of the comparison, poor though it is, points out that marine vessels of all types and sizes have a means to right themselves so they are not swamped and, finally, capsize.

The Church has “scuppers”, too. The canon of Scripture (“canon” means literally the criterion by which to judge and assess), the ecumenical creeds of the Church universal (like the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Chalcedonian Definition), and the various branches of the church, such as the Methodist part of the family, for example, have our Articles of Religion, Wesley’s Standard Sermons, and his Notes on the New Testament as the scuppers to deal with false teaching, compromised morality, and cultural accommodation. They help to keep us upright.

In addition, we have our constitutionally authorized accountability mechanisms such as, for example, the Boards of Ordained Ministry, the University Senate that assesses what our seminaries teach our pastors, the Judicial Council that resolves questions about the “laws” of the United Methodist Church, and the administrative apparatus for dealing with complaints against our pastors. Even the much-pilloried Trust Clause was developed by Mr. Wesley to ensure that the pulpits of Methodist preaching houses would be faithful to Methodist doctrinal understandings.

All of this massive, detailed apparatus was built into the United Methodist Church and its foundational forebears in order to keep the church upright and, if the church, its members, leaders, or teachers, should wander off or promote a counterfeit gospel of one sort or another, we’ve had the “scuppers” on board to deal with the situation and right the ship.

Tragically, the United Methodist Church today has either scrapped its scuppers or disabled them.

Once we have determined that the Scriptures, Ecumenical Creeds, Doctrinal Standards, and the like are part of the problem because of their social, cultural, or historical location, we set ourselves up for the inevitable capsize.

At present there seems to be no way for United Methodism to hold itself accountable. There can be no repentance, reformation, or renewal. There is only chasing after the latest trend in the parade of ecclesiastical novelties. The Good Ship United Methodist cannot right itself.

And many people know that when a vessel cannot right itself, it is time to get off the vessel

The Shallow Pool of Available Pastoral Leadership

It’s common for many United Methodists to think they can protect their local church from the dynamics of the larger denomination. They might pray, “May the Lord bless and keep our Bishop…far away from us.” For better and for worse, however, United Methodism is a connectional system. Being “connectional” means the pastors appointed are trained, in all cases, at seminaries approved by our denomination. At present, however, these seminaries, with a few notable exceptions, are aligned with the progressive theological project that generally dismisses, disrespects, and denies traditional/evangelical/orthodox Christian commitments, sources of authority, moral teaching, and missional priorities. Our failure in “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world” can often be traced to the uncomfortable recognition that many of our appointed pastors have no experience in leading a person to saving faith in Jesus Christ or fruitfulness in actually, personally helping others become fully devoted disciples of the Lord Jesus.

Related to this is the additional recognition that our seminaries train pastors to be managers rather than leaders. Our bureaucratic denominational structure reinforces clergy expectations that their appointment to a church will largely be consumed with managing what others have done before the newly appointed pastor arrived. Our congregations, to be fair, are little help at this point. Manyof our local churches want a chaplain to officiate at Sunday worship, weddings, funerals, and special events on the annual church calendar. We prefer pastors who are “keepers of the aquarium” rather than those who leading a “fishing expedition” to reach new people (Matthew 4:19). But honestly, why would we expect UM congregations to be interested in “The Great Commission” (Matthew 28:16-20) or “The Great Expansion” (Acts 1:8) when our pastors seem largely content to be something akin to a department manager at Sears rather than a passionate, Holy-Spirit called and gifted, well-trained, risk-taking, apostolic, Jesus-shaped, pastoral leader? Large, mature, bureaucratic institutions/organizations generally regard innovative, risk-taking, passionate leadership as an aggravation to be removed or silenced. Compliant management, good; effective leadership, bad.

The dearth of pastoral leadership within the UMC that is grounded in the “faith once delivered to the saints” (Jude 3-4), engaged with the opportunities and obstacles of contemporary culture, and skilled, passionate, and capable to lead a congregation in its apostolic ministry, is glaring. Many United Methodists in declining/dying congregations are no longer willing to settle for the appointment of a pastor the district superintendent describes as “the best available at the time.” Such a shallow pool of pastoral leadership means things will likely not improve in the future. The predictable result, which we are experiencing in this season of disaffiliations, is increasing numbers of individuals and congregations leaving in order to find a network of Christ-followers who develop and deploy passionate, skilled, apostolic pastoral leaders. These individuals and congregations know in their bones, somehow, that Jesus died for more than the next congregational fundraiser.

They want more out of church than propping up a local unit of a failing institution. They want to be sent together, under the influence of the Holy Spirit, for the healing of the world in Jesus’ name. And they are unwilling to settle for anything less.

The long-time layperson asked me,
“Why are these people and congregations wanting to leave the United Methodist Church?”

Three reasons predominate:

Reason # 1: “The United Methodist Church, including our annual conference, doesn’t seem to be a Christian church any longer.”

Reason # 2: “The leaders of the United Methodist Church, including our annual conference, can no longer be trusted.”

Reason # 3: “The future of the United Methodist Church, including our annual conference, does not seem worth the investment of my/our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness.”



Interim President
Wesleyan Covenant Association
1 Corinthians 15:58

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