Today’s post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott. It is the third of a four-part series on money and relationships in the global church. Dr. Scott is Director of Mission Theology for the General Board of Global Ministries. The opinions expressed here are his own and do not represent official positions of Global Ministries.
Over the past couple weeks, I have been raising the question of how United Methodists can face the problem of vast economic inequality in the church in a way that preserves relationship between rich and poor without turning those relationships into ones of dependence solidifying inequalities of power. Last week’s post examined the asset-based development approach, which is a way of relativizing the economic resources shared by the rich by recognizing the value of other, non-economic resources. Today’s approach, reducing the church structures required globally, is a means to reduce the need for economic resources to be shared from the rich to the poor.
The United Methodist Church and its predecessors, along with Western Protestant missionaries generally, have promoted through their civilizing missions a rather expensive model of being church based on Western modernity. People joke about the UMC being nothing but committees. Yet this joke gets at a truth: The United Methodist Church is organized in a particular way that presumes various aspects of a modern voluntary organization – committees, officers, by-laws, etc. And this is to say nothing about the buildings, programming, and paid staff that also go along with how we understand church.
The rub is that all of these – buildings, programming, paid staff, non-local committee meetings – require financial resources. As detailed last week, other assets are necessary for the work of the church, and these other assets must be recognized as such and valued accordingly. Still, financial assets are needed, and the more buildings, programming, paid staff, and non-local committee meetings you have, the more money you need to fund them. Such buildings, programming, staff, and meetings are not necessarily bad, but we make a mistake if we assume they must characterize the church everywhere and at all times.
If the church in all locations is required to have a certain level of these expenses that exceeds local abilities in poor countries to pay for them, then the church in those countries must rely on the church in rich countries to underwrite this approach to church. In this case, the church in poor countries must not only beg for money to help carry out ministries in society such as health and education ministries, it must rely on the church in rich countries for the basic operations of the church. When the church in a poor country cannot pay for its on-going basic operations, it becomes dependent on the church in rich countries in ways that psychologically, morally, and spiritually distort both poor and rich.
If a church (either a congregation or a regional body) lacks the funds to pay for all of its basic operations, there are two solutions to that problem: increase revenues or decrease costs. I’ll look at possible ways to increase revenues in next week’s post, but for this week, I want to talk about the other half of the equation: decreasing costs.
I would like to make a distinction between decreasing costs and cutting costs. The latter is a management technique arising out of modern capitalism that seeks to do the same things while spending less by realizing greater efficiencies in process. By the former I mean a wholesale rethinking of what costs are necessary in all parts of the church around the globe and jettisoning those that are not necessary in particular local contexts.
While United Methodists are tied to a modern, organizational understanding of the church, it is important to point out that the church hasn’t meant the same thing in all places and times. While the church has certainly required some level of resources to operate and the church in some places and times has had great wealth relative to its surrounding society, that is not to say that all churches have always required the same level of resources that are required to pay for several full-time staff, a modern building with utilities, an array of professionalized ministries, and frequent national and international travel.
One way to decrease the costs of being church is to decide that some of these components are not universally necessary or not necessary in the same quantities as we currently have them in the UMC. This could mean reducing professionalized ministries, full-time ministers, required committee meetings, etc. I say this not to make a case for getting rid of any particular one of these options, but to give a sense of the range of what could be possible.
Moreover, I am not calling for rich Western United Methodists to unilaterally tell poor United Methodists, either in other countries or in their own home countries, that they will no longer pay for things that the poor United Methodists hold dear. What I am suggesting is that all United Methodists support and encourage local adaptation and contextualization of the church that takes into consideration the economic conditions of the church along with its social, political, and religious conditions.
To some extent, such adaptation already happens. Church does means something different in a village church in Mozambique than it does in a suburban megachurch in Texas, and that is well and good.
Yet to continue this process of adapting the church to its local economic and other conditions would also require some changes to the Book of Discipline, which often stipulates a model of church based on a presumed American level of financial wherewithal. Such changes are part of what’s going on with the effort to create a Global Book of Discipline. Thus, that effort is to be commended and encouraged.
In this process of adaptation, rich United Methodists must not presume to determine for poor United Methodists what structures they should have locally. They should listen to poor United Methodists to find out what parts of church structure they find necessary, relevant, and sustainable in their contexts. In so doing, rich United Methodists must adopt a posture of listening and learning. Certainly, they can engage poor United Methodists in conversations about financial sustainability, but these much be conversations and not proclamations on the part of the rich.
Adopting less expensive local adaptations of church and its ministries would mean that money is less a factor in relationships between different branches of The United Methodist Church, since fewer poorer branches would be dependent upon richer branches for their very existence. Moreover, to the extent that money does flow from richer United Methodists to poorer United Methodists, it can be part of asset-based partnerships to transform the world and not just keep the lights on. Thus, adaptation of church structures can yield not only greater equality, but greater mission as well.