Wednesday, May 29, 2019

United Methodist Connectional Ministry and Content (Un)Bundling

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.

In my previous piece, an overview of the United Methodist apportionment system, I argued that apportionments could be thought of as “United Methodist subscription fees” rather than as “church taxes.” Apportionments are a way in which local churches buy into the set of services and ministries that The United Methodist Church, through its annual conferences, boards, and agencies provides. Most of these services and ministries are ones that individual congregations could not provide on their own.

Yet, as detailed in that piece, the apportionment system is in significant flux as the GCFA board has recommended a significant cut to the amount of general church apportionments and as United Methodists explore possible divisions and reconfigurations of the denomination as a whole in the wake of General Conference 2019.

The possibility of denominational division in particular raises significant questions about how and what connectional ministry will be financed in the future. Will boards and agencies go with one portion of the current church into a successor denomination? Will successor denominations pick and choose to support particular boards and agencies, which could be shared across denominations? Will annual conferences pick and choose? Will individual churches?

Thinking about apportionments as subscription fees allows us to think about the possible funding futures for connectional ministries in a helpful new way: through the metaphor of content bundling.

Content bundling has long been a practice, first in cable television and now through streaming services. The notion in content bundling is that users purchase access to a “bundle” of content – movies, TV shows, etc. They can then choose which programs to watch from among that bundle without having to pay further fees. Nobody watches the whole bundle, and there is always content that any given user would not have paid to have access to, but overall the bundle approach provides for a wide array of options at lower cost for the individual viewer and reliable revenue streams for the content producer.

Almost as long as there has been content bundling, there has also been debate about “unbundling”: giving users greater discretion to pay for specific content or types of content. Unbundling allows consumers to decide whether they want to pay for HBO or save money by not subscribing, but it also allows producers to charge more for unbundled services.

The ultimate in unbundling is the pay-per-view approach, wherein the consumer pays for each individual piece of content she or he views. Rather than subscribing to Amazon Prime and having access to all the content included as part of that price, she or he pays $2.99 to rent individual movies through Amazon.

The apportionment system has been the ultimate “bundling” approach to connectional ministry for United Methodists. Local churches have paid one apportionment fee and then had access to all of the ministry content available through districts, annual conferences, jurisdictions, and the general church. Yet the connectional ministries of The United Methodist Church were a bundle: local churches could either buy into all of them or none of them. The same is less true for the relationship between annual conferences and the general church, since annual conferences have more discretion over which general church funds they pay into, but the principle remained one of bundling.

One way to interpret the time of change that The United Methodist Church is going through is that it is an unbundling of the United Methodist package. In the future, it is likely that congregations or annual conferences will have greater freedom to select which components of United Methodism they want to buy into, in both affiliation and financial senses.

Much of the discussion I have seen thus far has assumed this unbundling will lead to a complete pay-per-view approach: This group will want to support that particular board, or perhaps even that particular program. The notion is that churches/annual conferences/denominations would evaluate each individual institution and/or program and determine whether they wanted to support that particular institution/program.

Yet unbundling does not necessarily mean no bundles. It is possible for unbundling to mean the breaking up of a larger bundle into various smaller bundles. Instead of one cable price, there is the basic cable bundle with a variety of additional optional packages: the sports package, the premium package, the movie channel package, etc.

Thus, if United Methodism is becoming unbundled, perhaps the question to ask is what smaller bundles of United Methodist services and ministries will congregations or annual conferences be able to choose from? Is there a basic bundle of United Methodism? Will annual conferences offer bundles of services and ministries for local churches to choose from and financially support, or is the annual conference the basic bundle of United Methodism?

On the general church level, is there a financial/administrative bundle that consists of services from GCFA and Wespath? Are the monitoring services of GCSRW and GCORR part of the basic administrative bundle, or are they an add-on? What sorts of bundles exist for mission? Is Global Ministries and UMCOR its own bundle, or are there other components to mission added into the bundle – perhaps new church starts at Discipleship Ministries? Is there an educational bundle with GBHEM, the Ministerial Education Fund, the Black College Fund, and the Africa University Fund?

Does this metaphor of content bundling help us think in new ways about international relations within United Methodism? Is participation in General Conference part of the basic bundle, or is it an optional add-on? Can General Conference itself be unbundled so that groups can choose to participate in some portions of collective decision-making and not others?

It seems that this ministry bundling approach to United Methodism has a couple of advantages for both local congregations/annual conferences on the one hand and annual conferences/general boards and agencies on the other.

The advantage for local congregations and annual conferences of buying into bundles rather than individual programs is the same as it is for content viewers: it allows for low-cost exploration of new content. Congregations and annual conferences can be exposed to new forms of ministry through United Methodist ministry bundles that they may not have considered previously but may be interested in exploring, especially if they can do so in a cheaper and easier way.

For annual conferences or boards and agencies offering the bundles, bundling their programming provides for greater predictability and reliability in their income, which translates into greater freedom to develop new forms of ministry.

In other words, for both those selecting bundles and those offering bundles, ministry bundling is a way to encourage innovation, exploration, and development of new ministries. Bundling is a way of keeping the church open to being led in new directions in God’s mission rather than being confined to the status quo of what is already popular. Thus, there are significant missional and theological grounds why bundling could be a good idea.

Of course, bundling will not solve all the church’s financial problems. My next piece will look at the consequences reduced apportionment funds could have at both the annual conference and general church level.

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