Monday, October 28, 2019

The UMC and Jared Diamond’s Upheaval, Part 1: Defining the Crisis

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.

I recently read Jared Diamond’s book Upheaval: Turning Points for Nations in Crisis. In it, Diamond examines a variety of national crises, historical and contemporary, and assesses those nations on twelve factors impacting a nation’s ability to resolve a crisis. Diamond has adapted these twelve national factors from individual factors identified by crisis therapists as relevant to whether or not individuals can successfully resolve personal crises.

This got me thinking: If Diamond could adapt these individual factors to examine how nations respond to their crises, could this set of factors be further adapted to examine how organizations respond to their crises? More specifically, what might these twelve factors tell us about The United Methodist Church as an organization and its ability to successfully resolve the crisis in which it finds itself?

The factors that Diamond identifies for nations are as follows (see Table 1.2 on p. 62), with notation on how I intended to adapt these factors to examine the UMC as a denomination, mostly by a simple substitution of denomination for nation:
1. National [denominational] consensus that one’s nation [denomination] is in crisis
2. Acceptance of national [denominational] responsibility to do something
3. Building a fence, to delineate the national [denominational] problems needing to be solved
4. Getting material and financial help from other nations [denominations or organizations]
5. Using other nations [denominations] as models of how to solve the problems
6. National [denominational] identity
7. Honest national [denominational] self-appraisal
8. Historical experience of previous national [denominational] crises
9. Dealing with national [denominational] failure
10. Situation-specific national [denominational] flexibility
11. National [denominational] core values
12. Freedom from geopolitical [financial, legal, and cultural] constraints

Diamond also raises several other questions regarding nation’s abilities to resolve crises (p. 66-7), which are worth quoting here:
•    "the crucial role of political and economic institutions
•    "questions about the role of a nation’s leader or leaders in resolving a crisis
•    "questions more generally about group decision-making
•    "the question of whether a national crisis leads to selective changes through peaceful resolution or through violent revolution
•    "the question of whether different types of national changes are introduced simultaneously as part of a unified program, or else separately and at different times
•    "the issue of whether a national crisis was triggered by internal developments within the nation, or else by an external shock from another country
•    "the problem of achieving reconciliation (especially after a crisis involving a war or mass killings) between parties that were in conflict – reconciliation either between groups within a country, or else between a country and its neighbors."
While I am not going to address each of these questions individually for the UMC, issues of leadership, decision-making, and conflict are relevant to my assessment of the factors for crisis-resolution.

Before turning to an analysis of how the UMC rates on the various factors for crisis-resolution, it is worth saying a bit more about what exactly the crisis in the UMC is, or at least how I am understanding it for the sake of this thought exercise.

It might seem obvious to many that the crisis in The United Methodist Church is the long-standing debate over the role of LGBTQ persons in the church, which has come to a head following the special called General Conference in 2019. Specifically, the questions at the heart of this debate are whether the church should ordain non-celibate LGBTQ persons and whether UMC ministers should perform gay weddings. Disagreement over these two questions reflects a larger set of diverging theological, cultural, and ecclesiological understandings. Yet it is debate over these two questions specifically that has led to the threat of a denominational schism.

While this issue is certainly the central issue in the crisis that the UMC is facing, it is not the only one. There are two other issues that I believe form important parts of the crisis that the UMC is experiencing and affect how the UMC responds to its debates over the role of LGBTQ persons in the church.

The first of these additional issues is the issue of the world-wide or global nature of the church. The UMC has members in four continents, several dozen countries, and many cultures and languages. Moreover, the number of members from outside the United States and their representation at General Conference has increased significantly in recent decades.

Members from outside the United States should by no means be blamed for the present debate over the status of LGBTQ persons, but it is fair to say that the process of resolving questions about the status of LGBTQ persons in the church, possible futures for the church, or any other issue is significantly complicated when people from multiple cultural, national, and linguistic backgrounds are involved in the decision-making process. Thus, another important aspect of the UMC’s present crisis is reflected in the questions: When shall we make decisions together across cultural, national, and linguistic boundaries, and when should decisions be made more locally? When we do make joint decisions, how should those decisions be made? The UMC’s current answers to these questions seem to many to be inadequate.

The final issue in the UMC’s crisis is the long-term decline in membership in the United States and associated impending decline in funding for the activities of the church. The United Methodist Church has famously been declining in its US membership, which is the largest bloc of its membership, since its formation in 1968. This long-term decline has heightened the stakes in the debate over the place of LGBTQ persons in the church for many Americans. For many, the debate is not just about justice, holiness, or ethics, but rather feels like it is about the very survival of the church.

Until recently, an increase in affluence among US members allowed the church to continue to expand its budget for joint denominational ministries, which is 99% funded by the US. Yet even prior to US churches and members withholding apportionments in protest of General Conference 2019, it was clear to observers that the UMC had reached peak apportionments, and the amount for joint mission and ministry would decline in the future. This factor of money also makes the debate over the role of LGBTQ persons much more complicated than it would be if the UMC were composed entirely of financially self-sufficient annual conferences, central conferences, and other bodies.

Thus, the UMC is facing a crisis over its future that is fueled by debates over the status of LGBTQ persons in the church, questions about cross-cultural and international decision-making, and fear and anxieties about declines in US membership and financial giving. It is perhaps worth noticing that all three components of this crisis are long-standing, even though the crisis seems to have come to a head following the special called General Conference earlier this year.

Having set forth the scope of the crisis that the UMC is facing, I will turn in subsequent posts to an assessment of how the UMC does on the factors impacting its ability to resolve the crisis.

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