Study: 21st Century Methodists See Dramatic Clergy Changes

Leadership in United Methodist churches has changed dramatically in the 21st century amid membership decline.

A new study by the United Methodist Board of Higher Education and Ministry found that the number of elders in the United Methodist Church dropped 2.25 percent from 2000 to 2005. At the same time, the number of local pastors and deacons increased 31 percent and 28 percent, respectively.

"The study shows the dramatic changes that have taken place in The United Methodist Church in its clergy leadership," said the Rev. Mary Ann Moman, an executive with the Division of Ordained Ministry of the Board of Higher Education and Ministry, according to the United Methodist News Service.

While new leaders are indeed being developed, United Methodist membership in the United States has dropped to its lowest level since 1930 with about 8 million.

However, the new report pointed out that the decrease in membership is not consistent across the country. Among four jurisdictions, the Southeastern Jurisdiction experienced a small increase in membership between 1999 and 2004. The Northern and Western jurisdictions experienced large percentage declines of more than 8 percent in that same time period. Membership in the South is characterized by small percentage changes of less than a 1 percent increase in the Southeast and less than a 1 percent decrease in South Central churches.

Also, the number of churches decreased by 3.5 percent in 2005 compared to 2000.

The statistics suggest that the United Methodist Church may need to consider returning to a circuit system, according to Moman. Such a system consists of a group of clergy who share responsibility to serve a group of churches.

"Local pastors have filled a critical need for leadership in many of our small-membership churches," said Moman, according to UMNS. "It may be time for the church to look at teams of pastors assigned to circuits. This could mean a local pastor would be assigned to a particular church, but there would also be an elder and possibly a deacon on a circuit ministry team. The elder would be responsible for training, support, supervision and would have sacramental responsibility for the membership churches."

Moman is also recommending the circuit system considering the drop in the number of districts in all jurisdictions from 518 in 2000 to 488 in 2005.

"That has implications for the church, too, since fewer districts mean district superintendents supervise more churches," she said. "Again, we might look at circuit deacons who could serve a group of churches and their communities."

With a rise in the number of deacons, Moman said the present system hasn't helped the church get deacons to the places where they are needed most.

The primary mission of the Division of Ordained Ministry of the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, which released and analyzed the clergy statistics, is to invite, equip, and support faithful leaders of The United Methodist Church.

The study comes out ahead of the General Conference meeting, held every four years, which will take place in Forth Worth, Texas, Apr. 23-May 2.