By Linda Green
A UMNS Report
Concerns over shrinking United Methodist membership in most of the church's regional U.S. jurisdictions-and strategies for reversing those overall trends-were pervasive as the denomination's annual conferences convened in 2007.
Sixty-three U.S. conferences, including Indiana's North and South conferences, met during May and June as lay and clergy representatives from local churches gathered to approve regional budgets, speak on social issues, establish conference programs and address administrative and stewardship matters. They also elected most of the 992 clergy and lay delegates that will attend the 2008 General Conference, the top lawmaking body of The United Methodist Church that meets once every four years and will convene next spring in Fort Worth, Texas.
Sixty-six United Methodist conferences outside of the United States meet annually as well, but not always during May and June.
The issue of church growth was frequently addressed-consistent with the denomination's plan to make building and revitalizing congregations one of its four areas of emphasis at the dawn of the 21st century. The United Methodist Church has more than 8 million members in the United States and 11.5 million members worldwide.
In all, at least 32 annual conferences celebrated plans to start new churches and revitalize and redevelop existing ones. At least 13 began campaigns to support camping and campus ministry or received reports about campaigns and efforts under way.
Celebrating new churches
The sessions also included celebrations of new church growth and updates on initiatives already in place. The Florida Annual Conference celebrated the launch of nine churches in 2006 and 10 new churches in 2007. The conference has a goal of 23 new church starts by the end of the year.
Since 1995, Florida has created 86 new churches-56 percent of which are congregations with racial, ethnic or language diversity.
Much United Methodist growth in recent years has been in Africa. The North Katanga Conference in the Democratic Republic of Congo reports starting 150 new congregations in the past year.
Five new church groups were registered during the East Russia and Central Asia Annual Conference session.
Indiana United Methodists chartered the first Hispanic congregation in Indiana as the Christian Getsemani United Methodist Church in Fort Wayne, and the South German Annual Conference gave the green light to found a special church for young people in 2008 in Karlsruhe.
In addition to new church starts, 11 annual conferences celebrated growth in membership through profession of faith, baptism or transfer of membership, plans to grow members and efforts to stem the rate of membership loss.
Spring and summer are the most common months for getting married, and United Methodist conferences got engaged or are moving toward unions. Thirteen annual conferences approved plans to reduce districts, increase districts, maintain districts, examine conference boundaries or reorganize in other ways.
The size of the East Africa Annual Conference compelled members to vote to divide into four annual conferences. The action was forwarded to the Africa Central Conference and General Conference for review.
Indiana United Methodists voted to combine their north and south conferences after a decade of discussion and debate. They will consider a plan of implementation at next year's annual conference sessions and could meet as a new unified conference as early as 2009.
Conversations among the Troy, New England, North Central New York, Western New York and Wyoming annual conferences are under way to explore jurisdictional boundaries. There is growing interest in the possibility of all or part of Vermont merging into the New England Conference. A special session of the Troy Annual Conference will be held Oct. 6 to act on the proposal and, if approved, the plan will be submitted to the 2008 Northeastern Jurisdictional Conference.
United Methodists in the two annual conferences in Michigan received an update from a transition team developing a plan for a new single annual conference in 2009, and the annual conferences in the Northeast passed petitions and resolutions to include Bermuda within the boundaries of the Northeast Jurisdiction.
Mergers of churches and decommissioning of churches in Louisiana are due to damage from Hurricane Katrina, paving the way for new emerging ministries.
Linda Green serves as a United Methodist News Service news writer based in Nashville, Tenn. This story was compiled from annual conference reports.