Wednesday, October 27, 2021
In a series of previous posts, I have depicted United Methodist denominational institutions as declining, crumbling even, beset by a host of long-term pressures from both within and beyond the denomination, all of which have been compounded in recent years by crises of denominational division and the COVID-19 pandemic. I have argued that these pressures towards decline are far beyond the ability of these institutions to manage through an approach of incremental and inward-focused maintenance.
Instead, the time has come for major denominational renovation. Renovation is a process in which an organization undertakes extensive rethinking of its institutions, their purposes, and how they go about achieving their purposes by trying to produce certain types of regular behavior. The last time the UMC substantially renovated its institutions was in 1972, in the wake of the merger of The Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church. Nearly 50 years later, it is far past time to do so again.
The need for institutional renovation stems from the nature of the forces producing institutional decline in the UMC. I have argued that the decline of institutions in the UMC is a result of decreased institutional relevance, the delegitimization of institutions by special interests in the denomination, a decreased ability of members to pay the time and effort costs associated with denominational institutions, and the failure of denominational institutions to respond adequately to moments of crisis.
Maintenance, however, has led to institutional complexification, amplifying opportunities for elite capture of institutions and a decreased ability by average constituents to participate in those institutions. Maintenance cannot address questions of institutional relevance. Since maintenance is internally focused, it is a poor strategy to address external challenges, such as the time squeeze limiting members’ ability to give of their time and money. Finally, the failures of denominational institutions in recent crises are further evidence that a more significant response to institutional decline is required than further maintenance.
We are past the point of maintenance. We need substantial renovation.
Yet in this regard, the UMC is fortunate. A division with the Global Methodist Church represents an opportunity for the remaining UMC to enter a process of institutional renovation. Mergers have consistently been an occasion for Methodism to periodically revamp its institutions. Having missed the chance to do that with the merger with Cote d’Ivoire in 2008, the UMC will have to content itself with a division as an opportunity to reassess its institutions.
And an opportunity it is. Traditionalists recognize the opportunity they have to revamp denominational institutions by establishing a new denomination; those remaining in the UMC should not miss the opportunity they have to make overdue changes while there is fluidity in the denomination.
Yet to recognize this division as an opportunity, those remaining in the UMC must avoid scapegoating their anxieties about and frustrations with denominational institutions in either of two ways.
First, they must avoid scapegoating Traditionalists for the dysfunctions of denominational institutions. As previously described, Traditionalists have de-legitimized denominational institutions, but they are far from the only force pushing those institutions towards decline.
In this regard, it is important to avoid thinking of the division itself as the thing that will relieve pressures on denominational institutions. While division will alleviate one current crisis and will reduce some of the pressures from special interests, it will by no means solve most of the challenges of the denomination’s institutions, which result either from external societal forces or from having a system of denominational institutions that has not been substantially updated in a half century. Division creates a window of opportunity for changes to strengthen the denomination; it is not itself the solution to all the problems in the denomination.
Second, those staying in the UMC must avoid scapegoating leaders for the dysfunctions of denominational institutions. It is easy to attribute the current situation of institutional decline to a failure of leadership. While not without truth, such a view can be dismissive of the magnitude of challenges facing denominational institutions and the extent to which denominational institutions are geared towards maintenance as a primary strategy.
The biggest failure of institutional leaders in the UMC has perhaps been too great a fidelity to the institutions of the church as they currently exist. In this regard, they are caught in a paradox: They are selected to care for and maintain institutions as they are, which by design are supposed to be consistent and not change much. Yet, by resisting changes for the sake of institutional preservation, leaders subject those institutions to on-going pressures that, over time, have substantially weakened them, making them more vulnerable to collapse.
Moreover, focusing on the culpability of leaders misses a significant point. Whoever may deserve blame for the current situation (and I have suggested that it is a broad group), determining blame is not the same as determining a strategy for how to address institutional decline. Regardless of the errors up to this point, right now it is time to rethink our institutions.
If those remaining in the UMC are convinced that denominational renovation is necessary, there are a variety of ways to go about it. Work on the Global Book of Discipline could become a platform for rethinking the church’s structures.
General Conference could create a series of commissions to work on denominational revamping, as the 1968 Uniting General Conference did. There could be an extra session of General Conference to support the work of those commissions, as there was in 1970.
General Conference could even pass an amendment at its next meeting (to be approved in annual conference voting) to allow for a future General Conference to function as a constitutional convention, which could allow major changes to be passed more efficiently than the normal one-resolution-per-paragraph method and perhaps with less possibility of judicial review blocking any major denominational revisions.
My point here is not to advocate for one strategy for implementing the work of systemic and extensive renovation of The United Methodist Church’s denominational institutions. My point here is simply to insist that that renovation must happen, by whatever means possible. The alternative is further institutional decline. Those who love the church must be willing to let it change or risk condemning it to a slow death.
Monday, October 25, 2021
As part of the "Get Your Spirit in Shape" podcast series, Joe Iovino interviewed Patrick Streiff, Bishop of the Central and Eastern Europe Central Conference. Their conversation included Bishop Streiff's experiences growing up in Switzerland, his intellectual influences, his study of John Fletcher, and his work as a bishop in one of the most nationally, linguistically, and culturally diverse parts of The United Methodist Church. The interview provides an interesting glimpse into some of the experiences of European United Methodists.
Friday, October 22, 2021
The first episode included an interview by Rev. Kennetha Bigham-Tsai of Dr. David N. Field, Ecumenical Staff Officer for Faith & Order and Theological Dialogue for the Council of Bishops and occasional UM & Global contributor. Dr. Field spoke about mission, theology, and his life experiences in South Africa, Zimbabwe, and Switzerland.
The second episode featured occasional UM & Global contributor Rev. Dr. Jacob Dharmaraj interviewing Rev. Dr. Kabamba Kiboko. The two spoke about Bible interpretation, with Rev. Dr. Kiboko drawing on her experiences as a Congolese woman serving a multicultural church in Ohio.
The third episode involved an interview by Rev. Dr. Dharmaraj of Dr. Filipe Maia. Dr. Maia, who was born in Brazil and currently teaches at Boston University, spoke about the role of reason in faith and the process of individually and communally putting faith and reason in dialogue.
Wednesday, October 20, 2021
Throughout this fall, I have been exploring the issue of the decline of denominational institutions in The United Methodist Church. In these posts, I have followed Patrick Wyman’s definition of institutions: (https://patrickwyman.substack.com/p/what-are-institutions-and-why-are): “An institution is a system of rules, beliefs, norms, and organizations that together generate a regularity of behavior.” I have defined institutional decline, then, as a change by which institutions are no longer able to produce the same sorts of behaviors that they have previously or at least not to the same extent.
Note that not all forms of institutional change constitute institutional decline. Institutions have a bias against change because their purpose is focused on “regularity of behavior.” Yet, some changes may be neutral or may even help institutions be better able to generate regular behavior. Indeed, since the world changes all the time, some institutional changes are a necessary response to external forces to ensure that the same sorts of behavior continue to be generated regularly.
Thus, we can define institutional strengthening as changes to an institution that increase or maintain its ability to generate regular behavior. Institutional strengthening is the opposite of institutional decline, though both are forms of institutional change.
We might think about three forms of institutional strengthening: institutional maintenance, institutional expansion, and institutional renovation. Institutional maintenance includes relatively small, routine changes in an institution that are designed to preserve its ability to produce existing regular behaviors. An example is a change in provider for clergy health insurance with the aim of keeping costs and benefits the same. Institutional expansion includes changes to increase the amount or extent of an existing regular behavior. An example is starting new Walk to Emmaus chapters and holding more walks in existing chapters. Institutional renovation is reconsidering which behaviors an institution should produce and how it should produce them. An example is an annual conference ceasing support for a children’s service agency and instead promoting the formation of Fresh Expressions in congregations.
Most of the time, institutions and their leaders are focused on maintenance and expansion. This is as it should be. Institutions exist for regularity of behavior, and both maintenance and expansion take as a given the nature of that regular behavior. Institutional renovation calls it into question. It is impossible to always be in renovation mode, since if an organization were constantly questioning what behaviors it should produce, it would be ineffective at producing any regular behavior.
Institutional maintenance and expansion, however, have their own limitations. Some of these limitations can ironically end up creating an additional set of forces leading to institutional decline, and maintenance and expansion are not sufficient strategies for all situations.
One result of a focus on maintenance and expansion is a general trend towards institutional complexity. Like many institutions in the United States, the institutions of the UMC have evolved towards greater comprehensiveness (that is, anticipating as many scenarios as possible and prescribing actions in those scenarios) and towards legal protectionism (that is, guarding against the threat of lawsuit).
These two driving forces – greater comprehensiveness and legal protectionism – are a byproduct of institutional maintenance and expansion. Institutional maintenance tries to address unique scenarios that raise questions about the regular behaviors of an institution. Maintenance in the form of greater comprehensiveness eliminates “glitches” that might disrupt those regular behaviors. Institutional expansion creates new scenarios in which an institution’s desired behaviors are generated, thus also expanding institutional comprehensiveness. Legal protectionism often goes along with the elaboration of possible challenging scenarios and seeks to guard against threats that could disrupt an institution’s ability to function.
The result of these two trends is a preference for formal rules instead of informal norms and thus an increasing number of rules for the operation of institutions. The upshot of such developments is that while institutions are not necessarily more expensive to operate than they were fifty years ago (though in some instances, they are), they do require more specialized knowledge. Therefore, fewer constituents have the knowledge necessary to maintain those increasingly rule-bound institutions.
To put it in concrete terms, while the percentage of local church budgets collected in apportionments has gone down by 50% in the last 50 years, the length of the Book of Discipline has gone up by 50%. Denominational bureaucracies are less expensive to the local church, but all of the institutions of The United Methodist Church are more opaque to the average lay person or even the average clergy person.
Therefore, there are fewer people willing and able to navigate the complex procedures required to serve as conference delegates or to participate in denominational committees. With denominational institutions comprehensible to fewer people, that increases the chances of both loss of relevance and elite capture for those institutions. Thus, when maintenance and expansion lead to increased complexity, that can actually lead to rather than prevent institutional decline.
Moreover, even when institutional maintenance and expansion avoid such pitfalls, there are inherent limits to what they can accomplish. Maintenance and expansion seek to preserve and expand institutions as they are. Thus, they are ill-equipped to address questions of institutional relevance. They assume that the behaviors an institution seeks to produce are the right behaviors to focus on, even if there is less call for such behavior among an institution’s constituency.
Moreover, maintenance as a strategy is generally inward focused. It seeks to make relatively small, internal changes to ensure smooth organizational functioning. Therefore, it may be unable to address significant challenges that result from disruptive pressures from an organization’s external environment. Such pressures, since they originate from beyond an organization, are outside the realm of what maintenance seeks to control and indeed may be beyond an organization’s ability to control at all.
Therefore, institutional renovation is occasionally necessary. Institutions benefit from periodic reassessment of their functions and constituency to ensure continual adjustment to their environments. Without renovation and the periodic attention it brings to questions such as institutional relevance and external environment, it is impossible for organizations to adequately balance the tensions that inevitably build up between an institution and its environment. Renovation will not free institutions from all external pressures but can help ensure that the amount of pressure is manageable.
It remains an outstanding question, though, of how and when an institution determines a major revision is necessary. I would argue that The United Methodist Church is at a point where it requires institutional renovation, not merely maintenance or expansion of its existing institutions. I will elaborate in my next post.
Monday, October 18, 2021
As we said in our last post, one must have passion as a Christian medical missionary. Passion for one’s profession and passion for the Christian mission are interdependent in order to achieve the desired effect (mission practice in relation to that particular profession), despite the difficulties of practicing medicine in mission settings.
A general example is to consider a situation where a sick or injured patient needs treatment and does not have enough funds for his or her treatment in a higher health centre. But a similar treatment can be rendered to that patient in a lower centre at a lower cost, based on several factors like the patient’s social status (poverty) and the missionary’s compassion (for the sake of Jesus Christ) and determination to do a good job professionally, even to the point of improvising equipment due to lack of adequate equipment (passion for profession).
Mission hospitals of the United Method Church are usually located in rural areas. A few may be found in the cities in some countries. In such situations, the rural area might have grown to become cities around the preexisting hospital. Medical missionaries should be ready not to reside in cities.
For us, we have never served in cities but in rural mission centers, so our patients are poor. Though the hospitals have to survive, medical charges have to be made, putting into consideration the social status of the community. In considering the poor social status of the patient, we end up offering free treatment and/or scheduling payment plans. Other sources of income for the hospital will be through donations, and in some countries, limited government support. Financial and material support for hospital supplies is very important to missionary to meet work needs.
With this poverty is the associated problem of neglect and hunger. There are patients who not only don’t have money for medical bills; they don’t have food to eat. They range from younger people to some who may be physically challenged and neglected, to the elderly who are neglected by their children and relatives.
We have had to get involved in social work, which includes provision of groceries to the underprivileged in the community. Like Christ, we not only have to treat; we have to provide food. This has led to what looks like a permanent feeding project for the pregnant women who come to wait for labor and delivery in our hospital’s pregnant women waiting home.
Basic medical equipment is not always available in mission hospitals. This situation should not deter one from getting things done and moving on. I have therefore learnt to be ready to improvise so long as it is safe for the patient at that point intime.
Some years ago, I had decided to assist a young man who sustained compound fracture of the leg (tibia and fibula are the long bones of the leg) following his inability to go to the next level of care where there could be an orthopedist or a General Surgeon and where he could be treated better. He said he did not have money to go there and would prefer to go home.
My idea was to do the normal traction for six to eight weeks. Some days later, I found an “External Fixation set” for management of compound fractures in our Central Sterilization Department. I was excited I could use it for this patient, and I got ready to take him to the operating room. The surgery was going on well until I got to the final stage when our theatre nurse said there was nothing to tighten the nuts which holds the various parts of the External Fixation set together, thereby putting the bone fragments in place. Yet I couldn’t stop the surgery.
The only idea was to send for the hospital driver to get me the vehicle spanners sizes 12, 13, and 14 washed. We quickly got them sterilized by putting them in a metal kidney dish, poured methylated spirit (alcohol) and setting them on fire. After the alcohol burnt up, I was sure the spanners were sterile. the #13 spanner fitted perfectly with the nuts, and it was used to tighten them well. The patient was successfully sent home after 3 weeks when the wound healed, and the fixation set was removed at six weeks.
Medical missionaries must be ready to take up multiple tasks in the hospital/place of assignment. The same applies to the institution’s employees. This is due to frequent shortage of staff in such institutions. Though most medical missionaries each have their area of specialty in medicine, everyone works as a General Practitioner because the number of patients is overwhelming compared with the number of available doctors.
It must have originated from the fact that in early days of establishing a mission center, usually first by evangelism, the team may have one medical doctor (early or later) who would provide medical services. The services surely will start with consultations and treatment of simple ailments. As time goes on, the doctor is confronted with more complex ailments which this doctor is expected to treat. In order to assist the patients, the doctor may have to set aside his specialty, so to save life and considering that surrounding hospitals may not be able to handle the case.
The mission work system prepares the doctors to be versatile, being ready to solve the medical needs of at least 80% of the patient population. Besides, one never knows where he will find himself with a need to render medical assistance. Most patients treated get better, and a few will need specialist attention, which falls outside the scope of the specialty of the medical missionaries. In that situation, such patients are referred, followed by possible financial assistance.
Within our family, we don’t have any challenges. This is because my wife and I are both missionaries and both in the health profession. It may not be easy for professionally discordant couples, but God has blessed us with a strong partnership in serving God.
Friday, October 15, 2021
Short-term medical missions, in which teams of medical professionals travel from the West to a developing nation to provide services for a week or two, are a common model of both church and secular mission. However, like many aspects of mission work, such trips have been disrupted by the pandemic over the past two years. While there are negative outcomes to such disruptions, they also provide a space for rethinking mission practice. A recent post on NPR's Goats and Soda blog titled "COVID is changing medical fly-in missions — and it might be for the better" shares examples of how that rethinking of short-term medical missions is happening. In brief, the pandemic has accelerated pre-existing trends towards focusing on developing local medical expertise and capacity, rather than focusing on provision of services by Western experts. New communication technologies have made such capacity-building work possible even without Western travel, though the article notes that travel can still play a role in the work of building relationships across contexts. Focusing on the growth of local expertise and capacity provides for a more sustainable and equitable long-term approach to the provision of medical services. While the article's main examples come from secular work, those involved in church-related short-term medical mission projects would do well to consider the implications for their own work.
Wednesday, October 13, 2021
Having looked at various reasons for the decline of denominational institutions—the unwillingness and/or inability of their constituency to support them and de-legitimization from vested interests—there remains one last set of contributing factors to explore: the impact of crises on denominational institutions, specifically internal denominational conflict and the COVID-19 pandemic.
The basic insight here is that the more institutions fail to serve the purposes for which they were created, the weaker they become. When institutions are unable to produce their intended regular behaviors, it reduces their ability to do the same in the future. Unless skillfully addressed, institutional failure usually begets further institutional decline.
In large part, this is because institutional malfunction delegitimizes institutions by lowering constituents’ expectations and willingness to have their behavior shaped by the institution in the future. Regardless of whether the sentiment on the part of constituents is “That institution won’t work for me” or “I don’t want to work for that institution” or some combination of the two, the result is decreased institutional capacity to shape the behaviors of its constituents.
While such institutional breakdown can happen at any time, crises are particularly fraught situations that make failure more likely.
Unfortunately for its institutions, The United Methodist Church has been in a prolonged crisis in the form of the debate over the place of LGBTQ+ persons in the church. This crisis has undercut the institutions of the church in at least three ways.
First, the conflict between Traditionalists and Progressives in the UMC has led to the polarization of almost everything in the church, including its institutions. Thus, one’s willingness to participate in and give heed to the church’s institutions, from the boards and agencies to the Judicial Council to the appointive process to apportionments, becomes a function of whether one sees those institutions as aligning with one’s own theopolitical stance. Support for institutions is no longer a given part of denominational membership; it is a political statement in an ongoing conflict.
Second, the debate over sexuality has undermined many of the institutions of the denomination because of their failure to resolve the debate. A mutually acceptable for both sides solution may always have been a fantasy, but many institutions within the church have still tried and failed to find such a solution. This includes General Conference, the Council of Bishops, and the Judicial Council. When the highest authorities within the denomination are unable to resolve a crisis, it undercuts the membership’s trust in and expectations of their ability to successfully regulate behavior.
Third, the denomination’s divisions have made it increasingly difficult for any other business to get accomplished. The debate between Traditionalists and Progressives has come to dominate more and more spaces within the denomination, which has reduced the capacity of denominational institutions to produce regular behavior even in matters unrelated to the main debate. There is less time and attention available, so less gets done. This lack of capacity can lead to the inability to carry out even routine other forms of business.
Of course, denominational division is not the only crisis the UMC has faced in recent years. The COVID-19 pandemic has added an additional layer of crisis. And, as in discussions of other sorts of institutions in US society and the world, the pandemic has both amplified and accelerated the pressures already facing denominational institutions. Again, this has taken several forms.
Related to the challenges of denominational division, the pandemic has forced the postponement of many denominational meetings. While necessary, such delays have forced United Methodists to devise other means for making decisions and doing work. In the process, it has raised questions about the value of traditional means for doing so. If it’s possible for the work of the church to get done without meetings of the standard institutions (such as General Conference), and if the main function of those institutions is just to serve as a forum for fighting, how important is it really to have those institutions?
The COVID crisis has revealed another way in which institutional weakness begets institutional weakness. Many annual conferences in the United States have struggled over whether and how to issue guidance to their congregations about in-person gatherings and health precautions during the pandemic. Especially in light of the politization of COVID precautions within secular society, denominational leaders have been faced with a tough choice:
On the one hand, annual conference leaders could issue guidance, knowing that some pastors and congregations would not follow that guidance. But issuing guidance that one knows will not be followed (and cannot be enforced) exposes the weakness of an institution: It shows that the institution is unable to produce regular behavior among its constituents. Moreover, if congregations flaunt annual conference guidance in this area without consequence, it emboldens them to flaunt guidance in other areas as well.
On the other hand, annual conference leaders could not issue guidance or issue guidance that leaves decisions up to pastors and congregations. This avoids exposing the weakness of annual conferences’ inability to produce required behavior. But it ends up weakening the institution in another way: By doing nothing, it raises questions among those who would like guidance about why the institution is not doing anything. If the institution is not going to provide guidance during a crisis, what good is it? Why pay for an institution if it is not going to serve you when you need it most?
The result of these overlapping crises is that the institutions of the church emerge weakened. People have fewer expectations that denominational institutions will try to influence their religious behaviors, and people are less willing to go along with those institutions when they do. And this process compounds upon itself: failure begets weakness, which makes future failure more likely, thereby accelerating decline.
Having now surveyed the variety of forces that are currently conspiring against denominational institutions, I will turn in my next post to the question of whether there is anything that could be done to support or strengthen denominational institutions amid such a climate.