Rev. Dr. Amy Valdez Barker: A reflection on the numbers

Rev. Amy Valdez Barker, PhD.
Executive Secretary
The Connectional Table

Reflection on the numbers

At the end of the previous quadrennium, I was known as the “numbers lady,” in our denomination as I sought to bring attention to the numbers that were being reported across the connection in relation to Vital Congregations.  As a trained researcher, I have always had an affinity for wondering what the numbers were telling us.  I am very clear that the numbers don’t tell the whole story, but they do point to indicators in our cultural and contextual landscapes that we ought to pay attention to as leaders of the church.  Here’s what has caught my eyes as we prepare to bring together the story of our United Methodist Connection. 

We are a growing denomination.  Over the past 10 years, we have had a 24% increase in membership throughout our entire connection.  Africa Central Conference has leapt by 329%, while Northern Europe and Eurasia have lost nearly 30% of their membership.  Each of our regions has a story to tell and while one part is challenged and another part is blessed with growth, we belong to a connection in which all parts of the Body of Christ matter, those experiencing pain in loss and those experiencing pain in growth.  How do we tell this story?

We are in many places around the world.  We have 133 Annual Conferences in four regions of the world.  These annual conferences are led by 66 active bishops, who are supported by countless numbers of laity and clergy offering their gifts as principled Christian leaders who are seeking to help make Disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. 

In the USA, the numbers tell an interesting story.  There are 46 bishops leading 57 Annual Conferences in 5 Jurisdictions.  Numerically, 26 of the 57 Annual Conferences (a little more than 45%) paid 100% of their apportionments to the programmatic arm of the denomination. 
By Jurisdiction, here are the percentages of AC who paid 100%:
  • North Central = 54% (6/11)
  • Northeast = 80% (8/10)
  • South Central = 27% (4/15)
  • Southeast = 27% (4/15)
  • Western = 50% (4/8)[1]

Out of the USA Annual Conferences, 44.2% (23) grew their budgets between 2014 and 2015.  55.8% (52) of Annual Conferences reduced their budgets. 
  • 61% of the total worshippers in our UMC in the US also participate in Christian formation opportunities.
  • 48% of the worshippers involved in mission in the UMC in the US are also involved in mission experiences. 
  • 30% of our congregations in Annual Conferences in the US are growing. 

This begins to reflect the quality of discipleship taking place in our UMC.  The hope-filled narrative is that people are growing in their love of God through Christian formation experiences.  This may be related to the generosity we are experiencing in the number of Annual Conferences paying 100% of their apportionments.  48% of the worshipping population in the US is involved in loving their neighbor through mission experiences.  This may also be related to the fact that so many people in our connection are visiting one another in cross-cultural, mission and ministry experiences. Places in Africa are growing by leaps and bounds.  Many Annual Conferences in the African Central Conferences note that they have partnerships with Annual Conferences in US.  These partnerships are signs of our vital connection.  We could learn from our colleagues in Central Conferences about growing in mission and ministry in other contexts around the world.  We are stronger when we work together for the God’s mission through The UMC. 

We can choose to see some of these numbers through the lens of crisis and despair.  We, as a church, can respond with fear and trembling.  Or we can choose to see some of these numbers as glimmers of hope, auras of possibility, and steps in which the Holy Spirit is creating something new in the people called United Methodist for the lost, the broken and the needy in our world today.  We started out the quadrennium with an invitation to consider the Divine imagination[2] leading us in the vision for the work of The UMC.  I am hopeful that this vision will continue to lead us and guide us into General Conference.  How do we unlock and allow for the Holy Spirit to enable “permissionaries on the bleeding edge”[3] of the church to lead us into the mission field?  How do we inspire hope and possibility, rather than allow and contribute to the narrative of fear, crisis and despair?  Robert Schnase offers a starting place:

Permission-giving leaders shift from “How can I change those people to get them to do what I want?” to “What are the changes I’m willing to make to unleash people for ministry?” - Robert Schnase, Bishop of the Missouri Episcopal Area

In such a complex system as our beloved United Methodist Church, we must release one another as permission-giving leaders (permissionaries).  None of us knows the full picture of the complexity of our UM connection.  We may get glimpses of it from our own cultural, contextual lens in which we operate, but we will never be able to fully conceive all the people, the places, the relationships that must take place for a vital connection to work for the mission of making Disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  This is hard work!  So, let us trust God to unleash the work of the Holy Spirit in places and spaces where creativity and wonder can grow!  The Divine imagination of innovation is a wonderful image for the 21st Century Church in our 21st Century Mission field!!

[1] Statistical data courtesy of GCFA Research and Statistics department
[2] Vision offered by Bishop Bruce Ough at the first CT meeting of the 2013-2016 Quadrennium.
[3] Term coined by Mark DeVries and Kenda Creasy Dean from Ministry Incubators.

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