Wednesday, April 11, 2018

Money is the biggest problem in the global church today

Today’s post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott. It is the first 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.

The United Methodist Church has a big problem.

No, it’s not the debate over sexuality.

No, it’s not the long-term membership decline in the US or flat membership most places in the world.

It’s not overly bureaucratic boards or creeping congregationalism or theological confusion or any of the other problems commonly named in the denomination.

It’s a huge problem that stabs at the heart of how we relate to each other as a global church, yet it’s also a problem that we don’t talk about. It makes us so uncomfortable, that we avoid even recognizing this problem as one.

This problem is money.

Specifically, the problem is the vast economic inequalities between the different branches of the church and the relational and spiritual distortions caused by these inequalities.

To be fair, The United Methodist Church is not alone in this problem. We live in a world of vast disparities in wealth, the result of a capitalist system designed to accumulate ever greater amounts of wealth for those who already have it. Many indicators show that wealth distribution globally is becoming ever more unequal. The tiny number of ultra-wealthy hoard every larger percentages of the world’s total wealth, while millions live on pennies a day.

Yet even taking the ultra-wealthy out of the picture, the financial disparities between the United States and the Democratic Republic of Congo, or between Norway and Liberia, are still stark. The US’s per capita gross domestic product (GDP) is 72 times that of the Congo. Norway’s is 78 times that of Liberia.

The UMC operates in several of the world’s wealthiest countries, but also in several of the poorest countries in the world. The world’s inequalities are our inequalities. We cannot pretend that the problem of wealth is a problem only for the Bill Gates of the world; it is a problem for the Western church generally. While our missionaries may come from everywhere and go everywhere, our money does not.

Again, this problem affects more than just United Methodists. This problem applies to World Christianity as a whole. The World Council of Churches has been wrestling with how Christians can be in partnership with one another across vast economic inequalities for decades. Yet the World Council of Churches has at least been facing and trying to come to grips with this problem. Despite statements in the Book of Resolutions, The UMC as a whole has yet to fully acknowledge this problem as such.

Wealth inequality in the church is a problem for several reasons. To begin with, there are the many, many biblical teachings on wealthy, poverty, and economic justice that speak of God’s concern for the poor. Money is an overriding concern for Jesus and the rest of the Bible, but rarely for the Western church. A full review of the Bible’s teachings on money is beyond the scope of this post but suffice it to say that our current capitalist world does not reflect the biblical ideals of a just economic community. Moreover, John Wesley reflected this biblical concern for the poor in his own ministry.

Second, as Jonathan Bonk and others have pointed out, wealth disparities in mission can distort the very message of the Gospel and how it is heard and understood, both by those with wealth and by those without wealth who encounter wealthy ambassadors of the Gospel. Many United Methodists would disparage the prosperity gospel, but how often do wealthy Western United Methodists unwittingly propagate just such a gospel by implying that the result of becoming Christian is to become like wealthy Americans?

Vast wealth inequalities also make it impossible to have healthy relationships among branches of a global church with dramatically different financial resources. Wealth inequality places the church in a dilemma:

On the one hand, were rich United Methodists not to share any of their resources with poor United Methodists, it would destroy relationship because it would imply that the rich did not care about the poor.

Yet, if rich United Methodists do share their resources with poor United Methodists, it is difficult to do so in a way that does not create patron-client relationships between rich and poor. In such relationships, the poor become subservient to and dependent upon the rich, who then have disproportionate power over the poor. Such power imbalances are difficult to reconcile with a Gospel and a polity that theoretically affirm the worth of all, regardless of how much money they have.

As I said at the beginning, the problem of money is a big problem. There are not a lot of easy solutions. The problem of money may even be more difficult to resolve than the debate over sexuality in the church.

Nonetheless, over the next three weeks, I will look at three possible partial solutions. The first is asset-based approaches to relationship building; the second is reducing the amount of church structure required in all locations; the third is a self-supporting approach to church and mission. The first approach seeks to create more equitable approaches to sharing. The second and third seek to reduce dependency by poorer branches of the church on the richer branches. None of them is the entire solution, but all may be pieces of how we as the church can build a just, loving, and equitable global fellowship.


  1. I'll be interested in the next post, because one necessary part of the discussion is a shift from a focus on money to a focus on assets. Disparities in wealth (as money) tend to follow disparities in valuing assets, since money is simply a measure of the value a culture assigns to an asset. Perhaps most importantly is that in US culture (as Galbraith has shown) once money has been acquired those who possess it are seen as more valuable assets than those who don't. Being rich is seen as a sign of superiority that in turn justifies inequality. Of course it isn't just money. Possession of a degree is seen as indicating value. (see the tin man).

    This is why under the auspices of the Fund for Theological Education in the Central Conferences we are embarked on a program to make the intellectual assets of the global church available globally and (I hope) recognize that possession of brick and mortar seminaries filled with degree holding faculty doesn't give the US a monopoly on the assets for theological education. To the contrary, it is impoverished relative to the world of wisdom and knowledge beyond its borders.

    1. Dr. Hunt, what role, if any, are online theological libraries/resources playing in the theological education program? Even a quick search turns up multiple resources from various seminaries, libraries and book publishers. How will the program assure some adherence to Methodist/Wesleyan theological standards?

    2. Robert, you hit on an important part of the problem - that those with money assume they possess other assets as well. All that and more coming next week. I hope that post will deliver.

  2. Picking this up for UM Insight, possibly as today's lead article. Like Dr. Hunt, I'm looking forward to your post on asset-based economics in the church. When I was editor and vice president at the United Methodist Reporter (2000-2005), I attempted to encourage our senior staff to look at asset-based management as an alternative. I was fresh out of SMU's Cox Business School's management seminars at the time, so it was a new concept for me. Unfortunately, since UMR's business plan focused on deriving revenue from local churches and annual conferences, our attempts to shift the balance proved unworkable in our setting. Nor were we able to overcome the employees' mindset that those who produced the ink-on-paper-product were less valued than those who provided the content (i.e., writers and editors). Employees found the idea that they were "human assets" to be deployed according to missional needs to be disruptive to their work community and demeaning to their self-esteem, despite our best efforts to reassure them that any job changes resulted from the value of their skill sets. In other words, employees valued themselves not only for their skills, but for those skills used ONLY in their current job contexts. They didn't want to have to change the way they did things, even when it improved both their work environments and job performance. I'll be very interested to see how you propose to deal with these deep-rooted attitudes.

    1. Cynthia,
      Thanks for the republication and for the story from UMR. I think it's fascinating that employees resisted the effort to value their human assets. I think it's a great example of what a difficult change in mind set asset-based approaches can be on all sides.