Methodists seek better pastors, vital churches to fight shrinking rolls

NASHVILLE — Better pastors. Healthier churches. Less bureaucracy.

United Methodists hope that combination will help turn around decades of declining membership and attendance, according to a Call to Action proposal being discussed by Methodist leaders.

The proposal blames a lack of leadership for the denomination’s struggles. The church has lost 2.89 million members in the United States since 1970, dropping to 7.8 million today. The report’s authors say the drop is killing the church’s effectiveness.

Shrinking membership and budget shortfalls have caused a crisis, said Bishop Dick Wills of the Tennessee Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.

“The United Methodist Church as it is today is not financially sustainable,” Wills said. “It is growingly irrelevant to the culture.”

Methodist leaders hope the new report will push the denomination to change, said Tammy Gaines, vice president of business operations for the Nashville-based United Methodist Publishing House. Gaines said that for years, Methodist leaders have known their denomination had troubles. But they’ve been unable to turn things around.

“The statistics show that we’ve been stuck in a rut for years,” she said. “Hopefully, this will un-stick us.”

Promoting healthy local churches is a key component of the proposal, put together by a team of 16 Methodist leaders. They relied on research from the business services firm Towers Watson, which analyzed data from 32,000 Methodist congregations. It found about 15% were so-called vital congregations, with strong preaching and lay leadership, and a mixture of contemporary and traditional worship. Those churches tend to have growing memberships.

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