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'Town hall' gathering offers snapshot of the church

Emily Reece (left) hosts a "town hall" teleconference for The United Methodist Church as Sandra Lackore waits to present a report on denominational membership, attendance and giving trends. A UMNS photo by Mike DuBose.

By Marta W. Aldrich*
April 18, 2007 | NASHVILLE, Tenn. (UMNS)

The vision for The United Methodist Church in the 21st century includes starting 650 new U.S. congregations by 2012, doubling the number of young people serving as pastors and church leaders, and expanding ministries in behalf of the world's impoverished people.

Those were among the highlights from a first-ever teleconference inviting United Methodists worldwide to an April 17 "town hall" meeting with denominational leaders to talk about the church's membership, ministries, missions and challenges for the future.

The teleconference was timed with the release of a report by the United Methodist Council on Finance and Administration, presenting and analyzing local church data about membership, attendance and giving trends. Called "This is Our Story," the report presents The United Methodist Church as "a faithful, generous people in dozens of nations who continue to make a difference in the lives of people around the world," said Sandra Lackore, the council's chief executive.

Among the specifics outlined in data for 2005 -- the most recent complete data available -- are that:

  • The church's membership is growing throughout the world but shrinking in the United States at a time when 50 percent of the U.S. population has no ongoing relationship with a faith community.
  • Worldwide professing and baptized membership is 13.75 million in more than 50 countries, compared with 11.35 million in 1995.
  • U.S. professing membership is 7,995,429, compared with 8,075,010 the previous year, a decline of nearly 1 percent. Membership has decreased by more than 1.9 members, or 19 percent, since 1974.
  • While 35 percent of U.S. churches grew in membership, 41 percent did not report a single profession of faith.
  • The church gave almost $5.9 billion during 2005 -- representing an increase in giving for the 15th straight year when adjusted for inflation.
  • U.S. giving included more than $200 million for disaster relief and $475 million in additional benevolent giving. U.S. churches reported more than $4.3 billion given as offerings for local church ministry, operations and benevolences, and an additional $1 billion raised through capital campaigns and memorials.
  • Spending on benevolent causes has increased more than 36 percent in the last decade, while staff salaries and benefits increased 46 percent and clergy salaries and connectional clergy support increased about 11 percent. 
  • United Methodists in the United States volunteered their time to more than 600,000 leadership positions in church schools, and more than 138,000 reported lending a hand by working in more than 11,000 Volunteer in Mission groups.

"There is a sense that God is leading The United Methodist Church to do something different," Lackore said, citing the work of the Council of Bishops, the Connectional Table and church boards and agencies to write "a new chapter of our story."

"But the real work of our denomination, and the places where lives are changed, remains in the hands of our churches and the faithful people who call them home. The future of our church depends upon our leadership at all levels capturing this vision and being willing to work hard -- each of us -- lay and clergy."

Opening the door to conversation

Lackore was joined on the town hall panel by Bishop Janice Riggle Huie, the Rev. Jerome King Del Pino of the Board of Higher Education and Ministry, the Rev. R. Randy Day of the Board of Global Ministries, the Rev. Karen Greenwaldt of the Board of Discipleship, Jim Winkler of the Board of Church and Society and the Rev. Larry Hollon of United Methodist Communications.

More than 200 callers participated and, at the close of the presentation, some asked questions about issues ranging from starting new churches to preserving the environment.

"We liked it and we learned a lot," said Jo Ann Ramsey, 70, a member of Skycrest United Methodist Church in Clearwater, Fla., who listened in along with several other members of their church growth committee.

"We're mostly an older congregation, and we wanted to learn more about training and new techniques (of church growth)," she said following the teleconference. "You hear a lot of negativity about the decline of The United Methodist Church, so I was glad to hear the positive comments."

The Rev. Jacqui King, pastor of St. Paul United Methodist Church in Port Arthur, Texas, was glad she tuned in as well. "Although there is great movement in the Texas Conference, it was good to hear about the growth throughout the church on a worldwide scale," King said after the teleconference. "This use of technology is phenomenal and really helps spread the word in an awesome manner."

Among the issues presented was a proposal by the Connectional Table to emphasize four goals -- called the "provocative propositions" -- to set the future course of the denomination's work and life. The proposals will be presented to the 2008 General Conference, the church's top legislative body, and would emphasize developing new leaders; starting new congregations and strengthening existing ones; ministering to the poor; and addressing global health by fighting poverty and expanding access to health care for all.

"We believe these are vital elements for the transformation of the church," said Huie, president of the Council of Bishops.

Leadership, new churches and missions

The Rev. Jerome King Del Pino

Del Pino addressed the church's "leadership crisis" and called this "a crucial moment in history, when seismic demographic, social, cultural and religious shifts are redefining our global reality."

He cited 2005 research showing there were only 850 commissioned and ordained clergy ages 35 or under in the entire United Methodist Church in the United States. "This is only 4.69 percent of current elders and reflects a decline from 15.05 percent of the elders serving in 1985," he said.

"The church must build a streamlined structure for the development of young leaders that will result in doubling the number of young people in positions of leadership as pastors and specialized clergy and lay ministries."

Reminding listeners that "church planting is a biblical mandate," Greenwaldt said the church must invest its leadership and financial resources to start more new churches. Currently, the denomination starts an average of 90 a year in the United States.

She highlighted a new initiative that aims to train 1,000 new church planters to start 650 U.S. churches by 2012. The initiative also aims to train bishops and district superintendents in strategic church planting and to develop a "rich database, a library of best practices" to help them in their decisions.

Day, who oversees global missions, reported the church has mission personnel and projects in more than 125 countries.

The Rev. Karen Greenwaldt

"We are a growing church in Africa, parts of Asia and Eastern Europe," Day said. "I believe that this growth is helping the entire denomination to reconnect with our roots in the theology of (Methodism founder) John Wesley, who taught that personal holiness, the private side of faith, is never complete unless it is also expressed in social holiness, including social ministries and mission."

'An active faith'

Hollon reported on the proposed Initiative on Global Health to address the diseases of poverty and significantly reduce the incidence of malaria and HIV/AIDS. It will include leveraging funding and creating new partnerships to increase health ministry, communicate about health and advocate for changes in public policy.

"It is unlike any initiative attempted before in that it seeks to engage congregations at the grassroots, annual conferences and the general agencies to address the diseases of poverty with the full resources and skills of the global United Methodist community," Hollon said. "It will require deep and meaningful collaboration as well as long-term commitment."

Winkler, who heads the church's social advocacy agency, reminded the church that "ours is an active faith" that must address issues of justice, peace and poverty.

"Our ministry with the poor goes beyond feeding the hungry, sheltering the homeless and clothing the naked. It requires challenging the principalities and powers that profit from the misery of so many," Winkler said.

Organizers said the town hall meeting offered a new forum for presenting a snapshot of the denomination and sparking greater dialogue in an informative and interesting way.

"The willingness of our leaders to be transparent in this forum and to be open to questions from any source is very positive," said Hollon, who oversees the church's communications agency. "Our church leaders are to be recognized for their openness."

*Aldrich is news editor of United Methodist News Service.

News media contact: Marta Aldrich, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.


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'This is Our Story' Report

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Town Hall transcript

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United Methodist General Agencies

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