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Creating a new history: the “lost cause” mythology of the United Methodist Church

There is a current trend of leaders within the United Methodist Church to tell their story as to why the denomination has failed. Predictably, the UMC leaders are casting blame on others rather than looking inward to see what caused the problems and how they can stem future losses.

With nearly 1/3 of its churches closes since 2019, the United Methodist Church must face the unpleasant reality that it can no longer be a viable denomination given the precipitous drop of local churches, and hence, the loss of income. In preparing for the April 2024 General Conference, the financial picture is sobering. The proposed budget for the next quadrennial is 42% less than the last budget passed by the General Conference. This proposal will likely be adjusted further as most of the churches who departed from the United Methodist Church in the past four years were healthy large churches who provided the bulk of the funding for the local conferences, and the churches remaining are hemorrhaging attenders

The interesting theme line coming from the denomination is that the reason for disaffiliation is the rise of the Global Methodist Church and the friction arising out of the issues related to gay marriage. Yet this is only part of the story.

What has been ignored by the United Methodist press is the underlying reasons for the churches to leave that was identified over a decade ago by a Towers-Watson in its comprehensive report analyzing all of the problematic issues of the denomination published in 2010.  The link to the nearly 300 page report through UM News is no longer active, but a link to the Appendix that speaks to congregational vitality, only, is here.

The takeaway from the Towers-Watson survey and report is that the reason for the denomination failing was a complete lack of trust in the denomination. As Bishop Robert Schanase noted in the blog “Ministry Matters,” on April 1, 2012:

“The Towers Watson Report details many contributing factors to our decline, including a crisis of relevancy, lack of clarity about our mission, rampant mistrust, organizational distance between the people in the pews and the governance of our denomination, structural systems that are not conducive to our mission, and difficulty reaching young people.” 

Put another way by Rev. Jeremy Smith in his blog “Hacking Christianity,” in 2020,

“[f]rom top to bottom, we are a denomination that doesn’t trust each other. It’s from the bottom-up as laity don’t trust where their apportionment dollars go. It’s institutional as jurisdictions keep the south from getting an untrustworthy northern (or–egads–western) bishop. From the caucus groups sowing discontent to the average Methodist middle, trust is a currency that is not being used as often as it should. So it is this lack of trust that keeps us from just saying “Oh yeah, let’s pass these three, no problem.” Any solution to the sequence question needs to address BOTH the UMC delegate’s lack of trust AND not be so watered down with safeguards as to not effect the change we need.”

All of the problems identified in the decade old Towers-Watson Report came with solutions that could have resolved many of the issues present today and may have foreclosed the disaffiliations that occurred in the past four years. Yet, the leadership of the denomination failed to address the issues, and as a result, the denomination has failed.

It is clear that the lack of trust between laity, clergy and bishops and the failure to address the problem, is the driving reason for local church disaffiliation and the demise of the denomination.  

It is easy for those loyal to the denomination to look outward and cast blame on others for the demise of the denomination. That is why they are recreating history, following the playbook of the “lost cause” post-civil war. And the United Methodist are doing their best to demonstrate for history that the failure of the denomination was not caused by them. Yet the facts remain that all of the underlying issues that led to the destruction of the denomination were identified years prior, ignored, rejected, and left behind – when those who led the denomination could have fixed the issues and kept the churches in it. History will tell the true story of the failure of United Methodist denomination and debunk the framing of it through the UMC’s “lost cause.”

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