Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Structure, Financing, and Early Methodism

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.

Many are the voices who call for United Methodists to return to the ways of the early Methodism movement, either in England and/or in the United States.

These voices usually present some theological conviction or devotional practice associated with Methodism’s first several decades, when it was a rapidly growing movement. These arguments assert that if only we modern United Methodists could again believe as the early Methodists believed or practice our devotional lives as they practiced theirs, then we, too, could see the same some dramatic membership growth and spiritual revival that the early Methodists experienced.

While such arguments are not necessarily wrong, they often tend to be overly simplistic and ignore important differences in culture and worldview between people living in the eighteenth century and people living in the twenty first. Devotional practices, therefore, are perhaps easier to reclaim than theological systems, tied as those are to views of the self and society which have shifted dramatically, especially under the impact of modernity.

Yet there is another set of potential problems with such calls to return to the salad days of early Methodism. While a focus on theology and devotion are important and should be central to any truly faithful approach to Christianity, we cannot ignore issues of organizational structure or financing as an important scaffolding for theology and devotion. Yet calls to return to early Methodism routinely do so.

Early Methodism had intense and emotional religious convictions. It had a well-developed system of devotion built around small groups. It was also amazingly unstructured by the standards of the twenty-first century, owned few buildings, and relied on ministers who were paid largely in kind.

Scholars often talk about Wesley’s organizational genius as one of the aspects that made Methodism work. That is true; Wesley’s approach to classes, bands, and itinerant preachers was the stroke of genius that ensured Methodism’s growth. Yet, while early Methodism may have been well-organized relative to other evangelical movements of the eighteenth century, that does not mean it had anywhere near the level of organizational complexity that local congregations or the denomination as a whole had developed by the mid-twentieth century.

Early Methodism had class leaders, who functioned perhaps like lay leaders, but it also lacked finance committees, Sunday School Superintendents, children’s coordinators, office assistants, SPRCs, church archivists, VBS coordinators, choir directors, someone to handle church mailings, nursery staff, outreach coordinators, mission committees, administrative councils, sound board operators, finance secretaries, and in many cases, trustees.

And that’s just at the local congregation level. We could make similar lists for annual conferences and the general church.

Many Methodists would be willing to jettison several of the above-mentioned groups and positions, but I know of no one who would like to do away with the entire lot. It would be impossible to carry on all of the programming or functions that we’ve come to expect of our churches without them. In some cases (trustees and treasurer), it might not even be legal to do without them.

Then there’s the issue of buildings. Many, even most, early Methodist groups either met in people’s homes or in other public venues like courthouses and the forest. While there were some early Methodist chapels, these were the exception rather than the rule, and the buildings were pretty crude in many cases – just large halls. No kitchen, no Sunday School wing, no office space. This made them cheaper, but again they provided no where near the level of amenities that we think of as basic to a church building in modern America.

Finally, there’s the issue of pastoral salaries. While Methodist ministers, most of them itinerant, were always theoretically paid some level of salary, practically they were often unable to collect it from their congregations. They were frequently paid in kind, through food, a place to stay, and perhaps some clothes. They could supplement their incomes through selling books to their parishioners. They had no health insurance and no pension.

While many would like United Methodists to regain their bygone theological fervor and reimplement our disused devotional systems, few if any want us to scrap all of our committees and leadership positions, sell most of our buildings, and be served by itinerant pastors we see once a month whom we are then responsible for feeding, housing, and clothing while they are in town. Few pastors want to give up their health insurance, pension, and paycheck to oversee such a system.

Yet it is at least possible that the theology and devotional system won’t work in the same way without the structural and financial strategies that went along with them. If we want Methodism to grow exponentially, but then we require that growth to include all the expenses and volunteer time associated with 21st century approaches to doing churches, then we may have set for ourselves an impossible task.

I am not saying that organizational complexity, pension systems, or buildings with electricity, plumbing, and air conditioning are always bad things. I am, however, saying that they come at a price and we do ourselves and others a disservice by pretending they don’t.

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