Churches on either side of Methodist schism share much in common — but geographical and racial divides are stark

Staff Photo by Robin Rudd / Chattanooga's historic St. Elmo United Methodist Church is seen Oct. 21. While some United Methodist churches are leaving the denomination, the St. Elmo congregation is planning to stay.

The 6,000-plus U.S. churches that split from the United Methodists as of June were disproportionately white and Southern but also had more in common — from median attendance size to growth rate — with churches that opted to remain in the denomination, a study published this month found.

The findings were similar to those the same research group released this past winter based on a far smaller sample of about 2,000 churches that had at that point been approved to leave the denomination.

Produced by the Wesley Theological Seminary's Lewis Center for Church Leadership, the study is a high-level analysis of an ongoing — and for many, highly disturbing — schism over cultural and theological values in one of the nation's largest Protestant denominations. The study compared churches officially approved for disaffiliation with a pre-pandemic baseline, drawing on self-reported demographic and financial information.

The vast majority of United Methodist churches have opted thus far to remain so. But with an end-of-2023 disaffiliation deadline approaching, churches that have formally left represent a significant breakaway faction from a worldwide denomination, which as of a couple years ago was aligned with more than 30,000 U.S. churches and roughly 6 million Americans.

United Methodist congregations nationwide — and in pockets abroad, according to the denomination's news outlet UM News — have voted to leave the denomination amid debates over church sanction of same-sex marriage and gay clergy. Many theological conservatives describe the issues as flash points for deeper disputes about scriptural authority, though this narrative is in turn rejected by many who oppose the split.

(READ MORE: In Chattanooga and beyond, United Methodist Church split echoes Presbyterian past)

As in many of the church schisms of U.S. history — Northern and Southern Methodists split around 1844, for example — this one maps to a degree onto geography. As of 2019, 63% 0f U.S. United Methodists resided in the denomination's South and Southeastern jurisdictions, but the population accounts for 77% of those aligned with churches that have disaffiliated, the study found.

Disaffiliation advocates point to more liberal parts of the nation where United Methodists bodies are openly flouting church rules forbidding openly gay clergy.

The region around Chattanooga has seen significant defections, with possibly more to come. In the Holston Conference, spanning from a sliver of North Georgia through and beyond East Tennessee, 1 in 3 churches were approved to leave in April. The North Alabama Conference of the United Methodist Church has lost about half of its member churches to disaffiliation since December. The North Georgia Conference sought to block a huge group of its churches from leaving, but the effort failed when a judge sided with plaintiff churches in a high-profile lawsuit.

Who goes?

While disaffiliating churches are more likely to be in less populated counties — only one of the Holston Conference's 264 disaffiliating churches was in Chattanooga proper — that does not mean departing congregations tend smaller than their remaining United Methodist counterparts.

The Lewis Center study found the median worship attendance of disaffiliating churches and those remaining churches to be identical. When observers note that many departing churches are small, they overlook the fact that many United Methodists churches that have not disaffiliated are also small, Lovett Weems, who authored the study, said by phone Tuesday.

Other similarities stood out. The study found death rates, a proxy for analyzing the age of membership, were the same between disaffiliating and remaining churches. The two groups had the same financial outlook, too. Even the percentage of churches showing attendance increases were roughly the same — though disaffiliating churches had been growing slightly more.

The study noted another common, if for Christians discouraging, statistic: 61% of churches, whether they've ended up disaffiliating or not, reported no professions of faith in the study's baseline year.

Where there were differences, they mapped not just onto geography, but gender and race. Disaffiliating churches are more likely to have male pastors, for example, and those pastors were less likely to be active elders in the church. In 2019, about 90% of United Methodist churches had a majority white membership. Yet 97% of the disaffiliating churches have been majority white, the study found.

In practice, Weens said, the majority ethnic group in United Methodist churches tends to represent the overwhelming bulk of a given congregation. Roughly 3% of U.S. United Methodist churches are majority Asian, Hispanic, Native American or Pacific Islander. About 7% of nonwhite United Methodist congregations are majority African American, and Weems said these are disproportionately based in the South.

Weems said African Americans, while sometimes theologically conservative, have been remarkably loyal to the United Methodist Church despite a history of discrimination. He suspects a wariness toward church splits.

"It all I think probably smacks too much of 1844 again," he said.

Contact Andrew Schwartz at [email protected] or 423-757-6431.