This is the sixth in an occasional series of articles comparing the different ways in which Methodist/Wesleyan denominations historically related to The United Methodist Church structure themselves as global bodies. Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Director of Mission Theology at the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions and analysis expressed here are Dr. Scott's own and do not reflect in any way the official position of Global Ministries.
This series of blogs has looked at four denominations and compared them to The United Methodist Church and each other: the African Methodist Episcopal Church, The Wesleyan Church, the Free Methodist Church, and the Church of the Nazarene. The previous post in the series shared some concluding thoughts about what it means to be a global Methodist/Wesleyan denomination. This post will share additional concluding thoughts. These thoughts, however, will not be about being a global church; instead, they will examine church size.
The previous post noted that both in the early twentieth century and in the 1960s and 70s, United Methodists and their predecessors focused on merger rather than crafting international polities. These decisions to pursue merger have had implications not only for the global nature of the church but also organizational consequences that have affected the church regardless of location.
This post is not meant to be a critique of the ecumenical spirit that was a part of previous Methodist mergers. Ecumenism is both authentically Methodist and an important part of the Christian witness to the catholicity of the church.
Nevertheless, other scholars have suggested that ecumenical motives were not the only ones at play in past Methodist mergers. There was also a desire to build a bigger and hence more influential church. This desire for influence was a desire for cultural and political power in the United States and thus US-focused. The consequences of such a desire for size and influence have affected the UMC, and not entirely in positive was.
In fact, comparisons with other Methodist/Wesleyan bodies show two negative aspects to United Methodist’s historic choices for size and influence:
1. The UMC is not only bigger than other denominations; it has more loci of power.
The UMC is relatively top-heavy in its leadership. The number of bishops or general superintendents in other denominations varied, but it ranged from 6 to 20. In comparison, the UMC has 66 bishops. Most of these people are faithful, Spirit-filled people; that’s not the point. The point is just that there are more of them.
This plethora of bishops is a consequence not only of denominational size but also of choices made. First, it is a consequence of the system of missionary bishops that the MEC created but then never fully thought through, in part because of the impending 1939 merger. It is also a consequence of the 1939 merger and the desire of both the Southern and Northern churches to not be led by each other’s bishops.
As a consequence of both choices, the UMC has moved toward a de facto diocesan system of bishops instead of some sort of itinerant general superintendency. This shift has meant more bishops and more administrative functions associated with bishops in each episcopal area.
The United Methodist Church also has more boards and agencies than its sibling denominations, and the boards and agencies have greater autonomy than in other denominations, many of which have a single board model. This is not a criticism of our bishops or our boards and agencies; they all do good and faithful work. Again, the point is that there are more of them.
Here again, size is a factor, but so are historical choices. The UMC has more boards and agencies with greater independence because it often pioneered their creation. Especially the Methodist Episcopal Church had the size and resources to invent a lot of the components of what became the standard template for modern church bureaucracy. That is an accomplishment.
I do not think that The United Methodist Church should undo the accomplishments of its predecessors by eliminating boards and agencies in some sort of purge fueled by anti-bureaucracy ideology. All of our sibling denominations have boards and agencies to help them carry out their ministries. Boards and agencies are an important part of how denominations work together.
What is important, however, is the ways in which boards and agencies communicate and coordinate with each other. There have been significant efforts over the last decade here, and more efforts are on-going. The boards and agencies are significantly less siloed than they once were.
Neither bishops nor boards are bad in and of themselves. Having so many of them, though, means that there are multiple and sometimes conflicting sources of power in the denomination. While this arrangement can ensure a level of democratization, it also relates to my second point:
2. Smaller denominations are more focused in their mission.
Reading through the books of discipline for all four comparative denominations, I got a sense for what ethos united them as a denomination beyond their bureaucratic structures. I’m not sure the same can be said for the UMC.
In part, that’s because the UMC has always been a diverse tradition. In part, that’s because of the large number of leaders and agencies we have. But more than anything, I think it’s a function of size. The UMC and its predecessors have repeatedly favored numeric growth over focused mission, whether that was through pursuit of church mergers or relaxing standards on class meeting attendance. Thus, we’ve had a lot of members with a lot of different ideas about how to be Methodist.
There have been positive aspects to choosing size (ecumenicity, inclusivity, etc.), but there have also been costs. Indeed, the costs have become especially evident as United Methodism has found itself wondering what it means to be United Methodist, where the church should focus, and how (or whether) the church can move in the same direction, questions highlighted by long-running American membership decline and long-running debates about homosexuality.
I am not arguing here that the UMC should break up into smaller denominations for the sake of mission. While that is a possibility, and there would be some benefits, there are certainly costs involved in that choice, too, and I do not suggest that those costs are better.
Instead, I think that the present moment represents an opportunity for the UMC to ask how to (re-)structure itself in a way that will not emphasize preserving the most cultural power and largest group of members possible but instead emphasize enabling its members to pursue the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world in ways that are contextually relevant and recognizes the equality of different units of the church to determine for themselves what those ways are. This is a tall order, but if the UMC wants to continue to be a global denomination, a sense of shared mission is essential.