Monday, November 25, 2019

The UMC and Jared Diamond’s Upheaval, Part 5: Group Cohesion and Conclusion

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.
Having laid out an assessment of the crisis that the UMC is facing, and having laid out the framework that Jared Diamond used in his book Upheaval to assess nation’s abilities to effectively resolve national crisis, I will now examine those factors (adapted for denominations instead of nations) as they apply to The United Methodist Church. I will look at the factors in a different order that Diamond listed them, grouping them instead into four related categories. This post will look at the fourth category:

Denominational Factors Related to Group Cohesion
Finally are two factors related not to a crisis itself, but to the group experiencing it: How strong are the senses of denominational identity and a shared set of denominational core values? Diamond writes about national identity being a particularly important factor for nations resolving crises.

6. Denominational identity
Up until 2019, a sense of denominational identity was rather high in The United Methodist Church. For many leaders and active participants in the UMC, it was important not just that they were Christians or that they were in the Wesleyan/Methodist family, but that they were specifically United Methodist. This is shown, for instance, in attachment to the cross and flame logo or denominational touchstones like the hymn “O For a Thousand Tongues to Sing” or pride in UMCOR.

There was not necessarily strong agreement as to what constituted the core of that identity, and indeed that has been a matter of significant debate. Nevertheless, most parties did have a sense that a United Methodist identity, however defined, was important to them.

It is this sense of denominational identity that has kept the various parties within the UMC at the table. None were willing to walk away because each had a sense that there would be a real loss associated with no longer being part of this denominational identity.

That has changed for many US American United Methodists since General Conference 2019. Many US Americans have begun to question how important it is to them to be specifically United Methodist and to consider futures in which they are no longer part of the UMC.

This decrease in the perceived importance of denominational identity makes it less likely that the denomination will successfully resolve its crisis as an organizational whole. It increases the possibility that the crisis will be resolved by some leaving the denomination, singly or in groups.

11. Denominational core values
While, as noted above, certain touchstones of United Methodist identity are widely shared – the cross and flame, UMCOR, etc. – there is significant debate over the core of denominational identity. Nowhere is that more true than the area of denominational core values.

Debates over the status of LGBTQ persons in the church have highlighted the differences in what different groups of United Methodists perceive to be the core values of the denomination. Kendall Soulen and others have analyzed the debate between traditionalists and progressives as the consequence of different framings of the situation that emphasize either holiness and obedience or justice and liberation. Mission is a core value for many United Methodists, but that value is understood and practiced differently.

The issue of shared core values becomes even more complicated when one takes into account the international nature of the church. As I have shown for Filipino United Methodists, even when Filipinos share core values with American Traditionalists, Centrists, or Progressives, they way they understand those values and connect them to one another differs from the way US American United Methodists approach these core values.

Thus, shared core values for the denomination as an ideological and international whole may not exist.

This brings us to the end of the twelve factors identified by Jared Diamond as relevant to whether and how nations resolve crises. Assuming these factors have some validity for denominations as well as nations has allowed me to take stock of the UMC’s strengths and weaknesses as it attempts to resolve its current crisis of division over sexuality, declining US membership and giving, and difficult international decision-making.

Diamond does not intend his schema as mathematically predictive, and neither do I for my adaptation of his framework. It is impossible to say that if a nation or denomination has X number of factors in its favor or if it just has factors Y and Z, then it will certainly surmount its crisis. Thus, a review of the crisis-resolution factors in the UMC cannot lead to a definitive prediction of whether or nor the UMC will resolve its current crisis, let alone how.

Nonetheless, it is possible to briefly summarize some findings. While my survey of the twelve factors did identify some assets that the UMC has as it tries to resolve its crisis, the UMC also faces challenges in almost every one of these twelve factors. This should give us pause about the prospects of the UMC successfully resolving its current crisis.

In acknowledging that the UMC may not successfully resolve its current crisis, it is important to keep in mind what the opposite of resolving that crisis means. The opposite of resolving the crisis is not schism or the expulsion of one party. These scenarios resolve the crisis in one fashion or another.

No, the opposite of resolving the crisis is for the crisis to continue. That is the real danger for the UMC.

Friday, November 22, 2019

Recommended Readings: Opposition to "Red-Tagging" of National Council of Churches in the Philippines

The National Council of Churches in the Philippines is an ecumenical council of mostly mainline Protestant churches, including the Philippines Central Conference of The United Methodist Church. The Philippine government recently declared the NCCP a front for communist organizations, a move taken in response to the NCCP's criticism of the government's extrajudicial killings of mostly poor citizens in its drug war and its oppression of indigenous peoples in the Philippines. This move by the government increases the risk of government persecution of Christians, including United Methodists, who faithfull speak out on behalf of the poor.

This move has been widely condemned by faith groups around the world. Below is a rundown of responses:
The NCCP's own statement
World Council of Churches statement
National Council of Churches in Christ in the USA statement
Global Ministries statement
UMNS story on the situation

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Maclane Heward: The Foundations of UMVIM: Michael Watson, the Red Scare and the Social Gospel

Today's post is by Maclane Heward. Mr. Heward is a doctoral candidate in the History of Christianity and Religions of North America at Claremont Graduate University. It is part of an on-going UM & Global series on UMVIM and short-term mission.

Michael Watson stands prominently among the many individuals who brought about the formation and growth of the United Methodist Volunteers in Mission (UMVIM) program. Surprisingly just a few years before Watson took his family on his first short-term mission experience, he himself considered leaving behind his childhood faith in search of something “more to [his] liking.” The purpose of this brief post will be to illuminate one particular experience that became formative for Michael Watson as he became perhaps the most significant figure in the establishment of UMVIM.

Watson, having been raised by a mother who had a heart for mission, began his medical practice after his discharge from the US Marine Corps and his completion of medical school in the small South Carolina town of Bamberg in the late 1950s.

Watson became fast friends with a like-minded young minister by the name of George Strait. Strait and Watson shared more than just their status as young enterprising Methodist bachelors, they were significantly missionary-minded and felt that the opportunities for Methodists to be involved with missions beyond simply financing them would allow the laity “more meaningful participation in the life of the church.”[1]

A “strange thing happened” in 1960 when Watson was elected the South Carolina Annual Conference’s Minimum Salary Commission which placed him on the Conference’s Board of Missions. With Strait already participating on the board as the District Mission Secretary, the two individuals now had a voice in sharing their ideas regarding lay involvement in missionary pursuits. Among other activities, they “decided to enlighten the General Board of Missions with [their] inspiration” to send the laity into mission service for short periods of time. The letter sent seemed to fall by the wayside as it was never responded to.

During the same period of time, the late 1950s and early 1960s, The National Council of Churches (NCC), had come under increased scrutiny due to its supposed involvement in Communism. As the church was a member of the NCC, suspicions arouse regarding its involvement in communism. One study conducted in 1954 found that the “Methodist church, a member of the National Council of Churches, was the least likely among Protestant groups to support Joseph McCarthy and his subcommittee.”[2] Thus, in the minds of some, it was the most likely to house communist infiltration.

It was at this time that Watson became so disconcerted with the possibility that the church was somehow involved with communism that he began looking for a new church home among other denominations. His fellow congregants in Bamberg shared his anxiety and appointed Watson the chairman of a special committee to research and report on the infiltration of the NCC by communists.

So while Watson was investigating the NCC, he was also looking into other denominations. Dissatisfied with each denomination he investigated, Watson began researching the beginnings of Methodism. He learned that Methodism began during the Industrial Revolution in England, a “time when man’s inhumanity to man was at its zenith.”

While originally concerned that if Methodism was not communistic, it certainly leaned socialistic, the process of learning about the church’s beginnings caused Watson to be “no longer… suspicious of [Methodism’s] Social Gospel, but … Proud of it and realized that this had been [his] position all the time!” Looking again at the critics of the NCC, Watson with his new paradigm was able to see the conflict over the NCC as a conflict between liberal and conservative theological ideologies, a conflict that he had not previously known existed. He came to see the accusations of communist infiltration as the attempts of the “Righteous Right.”[3] His report to the Board of Stewards in Bamberg concluded “there was just a difference of opinion and perspective that had been carried beyond the bounds of truthfulness by some of the critics.”

His research and the increase outside criticism of the NCC led to the SEJ Conference leadership appointing him to give a report on the NCC at the UMC Conference. Watson’s report informed the conference on the NCC and concluded that “the NCC was in reality cooperative Protestant Christianity in America” and was part of a worldwide movement of “Christian cooperation.”[4]

Two significant outcomes took place as a result of Watson’s investigation into communism in the NCC.

First, Watson himself became aware of his deep connection and commitment to the Methodist church. As part of that commitment to Methodism, Watson learned that involvement in social issues and in humanitarian efforts was at the core of how Methodism began; the Social Gospel was not just a thing the church did—for Watson it was the core of what the church did.

Second, because of previous time constraints, Watson left immediately after his conference report was received by standing ovation. In his absence he was voted in as the official delegate to the NCC from the Methodist Church.

This appointment greatly expanded Watson’s interactions with decision makers in the Methodist church and other mainline denominations across America. During each of his interactions with executives from the Methodist church he would steer the conversation toward his “favorite subject—using volunteers in [the Methodist] mission program.”[5]

Though nothing came directly of these conversations—seemingly because of the aversion of Methodist executives to the use of volunteers in a work done by professionals—his associations led him to an appointment as a member of the Methodist Committee on Relief (MCOR, which would later become UMCOR after the merging of the Methodist church and the Evangelical United Brethren church in 1968).

Watson’s involvement in UMCOR played directly into lay participation in short-term mission (STM) experiences. Having learned of Watson’s commitment to using volunteers, James Thomas, a UMCOR staff member, called Watson just months after his appointment to UMCOR and informed him of a volunteer opportunity. Thomas, an official representative of the church, was essentially inviting Watson on the first UMVIM trip. Watson’s reaction: “After 14 years, we at last had a mission challenge. I could hardly wait to tell George [Strait].”[6]

[1] Michael Watson. “A Journey of Faith,” September 1, 2009, 2. See also Thomas L. Curtis. From the Grassroots: A History of United Methodist Volunteers In Mission. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, 2000, 34.
[2] Thomas Aiello, “Constructing ‘Godless Communism’: Religion, Politics, and Popular Culture, 1954– 1960,” Americana: The Journal of American Popular Culture 4, no. 1 (Spring 2005): See also Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab, The Politics of Unreason: Right Wing Extremism in America, 1790–1970 (New York: Harper & Row, 1970), 230.
[3] Watson, “A Journey of Faith,” 4.
[4] Watson, “A Journey of Faith,” 4.
[5] Watson details the dominos that fell in consequence of his presentation on communism in the NCC. “The acceptance of membership on the NCC General Board led to a series of events that included 12 years as a member of UMCOR, eight years as a member of the Board of Missions/Board of Global Ministries, membership in five Jurisdictional Conferences and three General Conferences and three years as a member of the Board of Directors of Church World Service. I also served as the U.S. delegate to the Methodist Church in the Caribbean and the Americas meeting in Nassau, The Bahamas, and to the British Methodist Conference meeting in Nottingham, England. I was elected to membership in the World Council of Churches meeting in Upsula, Sweden, and the World Methodist Council meeting in Honolulu, Hawaii, but was unable to attend those meetings.” Watson, “A Journey of Faith,” 5.
[6] Watson, “A Journey of Faith,” 6.

Monday, November 18, 2019

The UMC and Jared Diamond’s Upheaval, Part 4: Ability to Learn from Crisis

Having laid out an assessment of the crisis that the UMC is facing, and having laid out the framework that Jared Diamond used in his book Upheaval to assess nation’s abilities to effectively resolve national crisis, I will now examine those factors (adapted for denominations instead of nations) as they apply to The United Methodist Church. I will look at the factors in a different order that Diamond listed them, grouping them instead into four related categories. This post will look at the third category:

Denominational Factors Related to Ability to Learn
As Peter Senge and other leadership and organizational theorists have shown, an organization’s ability to successfully adapt and respond to change depends upon its ability not only to act, but to learn from its actions, current and past. Organizations that can learn are better able to adapt and respond to change and thus more likely to survive. Three of the factors identified by Diamond have to do with organizational learning – from previous crises, from failures, and from other organizations.

8. Historical experience of previous denominational crises
This factor asks whether there are previous crises that The United Methodist Church (or its predecessor denominations) has successfully faced from which it can collectively learn lessons and develop a sense of resiliency. There are certainly previous crises in the predecessors of the UMC from which lessons might be learned or resiliency be obtained.

The previous crisis that is most frequently invoked in discussions of the UMC’s current crisis is the split between the Methodist Episcopal Church and the Methodist Episcopal Church, South in 1844 over the issue of slavery. Commentators draw a range of lessons from this division, and it is not clear that there is a consensus on what the lesson of that split was for our current situation. Moreover, that the two denominations did not merge again until 75 years later, and that there were problems with that merger related to underlying issues of race and regionalism indicate that this split is perhaps not the sort of model all hope applies to the current situation.

Changes in church teaching and practices on divorce or clergy smoking tobacco are also sometimes held up as historical examples that the church can successfully resolve dissent over practices related to sexuality, marriage, and ordination. That is true, and the denomination should take some consolation from that, though these issues did not become crises at the same level as our current crisis.

The church could also perhaps learn from the fundamentalist/modernist controversy, which strained most of American Protestantism, but affected Methodists less than other denominations. Some scholars have undertaken to do so, but those lessons are not ones widely discussed.

Other previous crises in the church – especially those leading to splits in the church, such as the variety of holiness departures from the Methodist Episcopal Church, the Evangelical Association/United Evangelical Church split, or the United Brethren in Christ/United Brethren in Christ (Old Constitution) split – have faded significantly from collective memory and do not seem to be a source of lessons for the present.

It is worth noting that all the examples cited above are from the United States. These examples will not have the same resonance with United Methodists outside the US. Instead, local and regional experiences will lead to other lessons drawn about how to resolve crises, as I have shown for the recent Filipino schism. Knowledge of these crises and the lessons drawn from them are not likely to be shared beyond a particular region.

9. Dealing with denominational failure
According to Diamond, dealing with failure involves the patience to try possible ways to resolve a crisis and the ability to tolerate failure in the process. One could include in this factor the ability to learn from failure, both failures in resolving the present crisis and past collective failures.

However, in the present UMC, failure to resolve the current crisis has seemed to increase emotional tensions within the denomination. General Conference 2016, the Commission on a Way Forward, and General Conference 2019 all failed in their own ways to resolve the denomination’s current crisis, especially as it manifests in the debate about the status of LGBTQ persons in the church.

Rather than the church seeing these failures as teachable moments from which it could learn, the failures have left United Methodists, especially in the United States, with limited remaining patience to try additional solutions to the current crisis to see if they work. Many US United Methodists now want a resolution to the crisis in the next year or two, or else they intend to leave.

The denomination’s attitude towards its current failures can be seen as part of a larger pattern of ignoring or minimizing failures rather than learning from them. Failures are either recast as successes or are edited out of our collective history.

Most United Methodists do recognize the failures inherent in the way that the denomination and its predecessors treated women and people of color, especially in the creation of the segregated Central Jurisdiction. And United Methodists do draw lessons from the movements for ordination of women and the abolition of the Central Jurisdiction. Yet, the focus on these pieces of United Methodist history is often on successfully getting past these failures, e.g., by talking much more about the events that led up to the dissolution of the Central Jurisdiction rather than those that led up to its creation.

Other failures that might be relevant to our current crisis have largely been edited out of our collective history. The financial and membership failures associated with the collapse of the $2 billion (in today’s money) fundraising campaign and the evangelistic campaign both associated with the Mission Centenary, and its long-lasting consequences for the world-wide nature of the church have been intentionally forgotten because the church was unwilling to grapple with this failure. The COSMOS (Commission on the Status of Methodism Overseas) process has also largely been forgotten (outside of this blog) after its failure to move the church to a new model of international decision-making.

5. Using other denominations as models of how to solve the problems
In some ways, The United Methodist Church is trying to do something no other denomination has done – resolve a debate on sexuality as an international denomination. In that regard, there is no model for the UMC. Yet, in looking at the components of the problem, there are models from which the church can draw.

Notably, other mainline US denominations have gone through crises over the status of LGBTQ persons within them, and those crises have been resolved, in one way or another. United Methodists frequently cite the examples of the Episcopalians, Presbyterians, Lutherans, and UCC. Less well known is the similar Moravian crisis. United Methodists seem to be committed to learning from these other models.

None of these other denominations are international, though the Episcopalians and Moravians are part of world-wide communions, and the international structures of these two traditions have intersected with how these two denominations resolved their crises over the status of LGBTQ persons in the church.

There are also models from other denominations of how to structure international decision-making within an international Methodist/Wesleyan denomination. The AME Church, AME Zion Church, The Wesleyan Church, the Free Methodist Church, and the Church of the Nazarene have all adopted different models for international decision-making. None of these models were adopted in the midst of debates over sexuality, however. Furthermore, most United Methodists are not familiar with these models and are thus not actively trying to learn from them.

There are no real models for successfully solving one component of the UMC’s crisis – the decline in US membership and giving. No other major US denomination has turned around long-term membership decline.

There are, however, perhaps still some models that are worth examining, both in other denominations and within the UMC. The Fresh Expressions movement in England and elsewhere is a model that many United Methodists are exploring as a means to counteract membership decline.

Moreover, as I have previously argued, examining the practices of racial and ethnic minority UMC churches in the US may yield models, as the total membership of these churches has continued to grow, even while white American membership has declined. Little work has yet been done, though, in trying to identify such models, and the mere suggestion of learning from racial and ethnic minorities has prompted resistance by some in the church.

Friday, November 15, 2019

Where Are the Central Conferences in the WCA's New Denomination?

The Wesleyan Covenant Association last week released its draft Book of Doctrines and Disciplines, which provides the framework for a new denomination that the WCA expects will form out of the current turmoil in the UMC, either as a result of a split or as a way for individual departing congregations to regroup.

The WCA has stated that their preference is for a split along the lines of the Indianapolis Plan, which was endorsed by both the WCA leadership team and last weekend's Global Gathering. Under the terms of the Indianapolis Plan, the new denomination would include not only US Traditionalists, but also many from the central conferences, who become part of the new denomination by default.

The expectation that United Methodists from the central conferences will become part of this new denomination raises a fair question: What would the draft Book of Doctrines and Disciplines (D&D) mean for United Methodists in the central conferences?

First, a disclaimer: the D&D as released is a DRAFT. Significant sections, including one on conferences, are yet to be written. Existing sections may be significantly modified. Yet, despite this caveat, the draft D&D contains enough to have some sense of the implications for the central conferences.

Second, a note about authorship. The WCA stated that a 16-person team wrote the draft D&D, but they did not state who these 16 people were. 15% of the WCA Council is from the central conferences, and there have been people from the central conferences speaking at all WCA events. Yet, given the overwhelmingly American nature of both the Council and Global Gatherings, it is likely that the writing team for the D& was overwhelmingly American.

Moreover, the recent Global Gathering does not appear to have been streamed in any central conferences, so there appears to be limited involvement by the United Methodists from the central conferences in affirming the draft D&D.

However, if the central conferences except for Western Europe were to join the new denomination, along with, say, 25% of US membership, then Methodists from the central conferences would represent 75% of the membership of the new denomination.

Thus, there's already an issue in a (likely) largely US group making decisions that will impact a largely non-US group. That pattern is not confined to the WCA but is unfortunately all too common in the UMC as a whole.

Let's turn now to what the draft D&D says. I'll discuss four points:

1. Central conferences and episcopal areas, as they are now, cease to exist.
The draft D&D refers only to annual conferences and regional conferences. Regional conferences are primarily about overseeing shared ministry. They do not have the power to elect bishops or adapt the D&D, and thus are significantly different from central conferences, as they currently stand. Moreover, the draft D&D envisions bishops serving a single annual conference, not episcopal areas of more than one annual conference. This leads to my second observation:

2. Ending episcopal areas would force a massive reorganization of the central conferences.
Currently, in many places outside the US, bishops serve multiple annual conferences. Requiring each annual conference to have its own bishop would either result in many more bishops or many fewer annual conferences outside the US, or both. To cite just one instance, would the 2,000 United Methodists in Poland get their own bishop, or would they become a district of some transnational annual conference?

In whatever way such questions are answered, this new denomination would require a massive reorganization of current UMC central conference structures. Any such reorganization is likely to have significant economic, legal, and church political implications.

3. There is not currently any indication that people outside the US will be able to adapt the D&D.
When the section on Conferences is written, this power may be given to annual conferences outside the US, but currently the draft D&D makes no provision for adaptation by context.

This raises at very least some legal and logistical questions. The draft D&D includes extensive rules around trusteeship. Will these rules meet the legal requirements for all countries in which this new denomination would function? The draft D&D requires an online database of all pastors and open appointments. Will this apply to remote congregations in the DRC as well?

In general, the draft D&D seems to repeatedly presume a US context of formal organizational rules and procedures, easy printing enabling frequent use of forms and paperwork, and easy internet access. These conditions do not exist in many parts of the UMC around the world.

4. Bishops are significantly weakened in the new denomination.
Under the draft D&D, bishops are term-limited to twelve years. They also have curtailed powers, including a hybrid call/confirmation system for pairing clergy with congregations instead of the current appointment process.

Bishops, especially in Africa, are currently positions of great power and usually great respect. Bishops in Africa serve for life after winning 1-2 elections. They frequently have the power to appoint not just clergy, but leading laity as well.

Thus, the proposed reduction in the powers of the bishop would go over much differently in Africa than in the anti-institutional, anti-bureaucracy culture of the United States. Of course, views will differ among Africans, and Filipinos and Europeans will have still other views, but this change is not likely to be as welcome in the central conferences as in the US.

In short, the draft Book of Doctrines and Disciplines struck me as overwhelmingly US-centric and often unaware of the consequences its proposed changes would have for the central conferences.

This raises an open question: Does this proposal mark the end of the road for the coalition between US Traditionalists and United Methodists from the central conferences, especially Africa?

That coalition has been founded on mutual opposition to homosexuality. But we've seen with the African bishops' statement opposing a split and opposing plans written without central conference input, that the interests of US Traditionalists and Africans are sometimes opposed to one another.

US Traditionalists may find that joint opposition to homosexuality is not enough to incentivize most Africans and Filipinos to follow them into a new denomination that would make radical changes to the church in their lands, changes that they had, at most, a minor role in determining.

The African bishops' statement said, "We cannot allow a split to further reduce us to second-class citizens in a church that only needs us when they want our votes. As Africans, we have the right of self-determination and we have the right to speak for ourselves and determine who we want to be." Whatever the future of the UMC in the US, Africa, and elsewhere, we should take Africans at their word when they speak of self-determination.

Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Recommended Viewing: Mission Volunteer Videos

Today's post is part of an on-going UM & Global series on UMVIM and short-term mission.

Global Ministries' Mission Volunteers program has put out a series of ten videos related to various aspects of the program. Mission Volunteers is a program for what might be called "intermediate-term mission," with individuals or couples serving for between two months and two years. Thus, it's longer than the typical 1-2 week short-term mission trip but usually shorter than the placement for a long-term missionary. Like short-term missions, Global Ministries facilitates placements, but Mission Volunteers serve at their own initiative and expense, not as commissioned and supported Global Ministries missionaries.

The 2-3 minute videos cover theological, spiritual, and cultural considerations related to serving, as well as technical aspects of the program, such as the application process. Here is a complete list:

Expanding Cultural Awareness

Application Process

Theology of Mission

Spiritual and Emotional Health


Social Media

Accident and Health Insurance

Health, Safety and Travel

Financial Support and Budgeting

Culture Shock and Reentry

Monday, November 11, 2019

The UMC and Jared Diamond’s Upheaval, Part 3: Ability to Act in Crisis

Having laid out an assessment of the crisis that the UMC is facing, and having laid out the framework that Jared Diamond used in his book Upheaval to assess nation’s abilities to effectively resolve national crisis, I will now examine those factors (adapted for denominations instead of nations) as they apply to The United Methodist Church. I will look at the factors in a different order that Diamond listed them, grouping them instead into four related categories. This post will look at the second category:

Denominational Factors Related to the Ability to Act
The next set of factors that Diamond identifies as relevant to successful crisis-resolution impact the range of actions that a nation or denomination may take. A denomination may be motivated to action by its identification of a crisis and its acceptance of responsibility for addressing that crisis, as in the first set of factors, but that motivation must play out by considering the range of actions that are or are not possible. Factors related to the ability to act either delineate restrictions on denominational action or assets that may allow a denomination to consider a wider array of actions. The three factors here are denominational flexibility, freedom from constraints, and help from other denominations.

10. Situation-specific denominational flexibility
Diamond questions whether it is really appropriate to speak of nations as having a general disposition towards flexibility or inflexibility. Perhaps it is more appropriate to speak of traditions of flexibility within organizations such as denominations; perhaps not. Nonetheless, I will attempt to do so.

In general, the structures of The United Methodist Church have been fairly stable since 1972. This includes international decision-making structures, financial structures, and structures of organization and leadership, including boards and agencies. Although there have been changes in the Book of Discipline related to sexuality since 1972, in many ways the contours of that debate were set in 1972 as well and have continued since then.

There have been a few significant changes in the UMC since 1972 – the autonomy of the Methodist Church in India, the replacement of the General Council on Ministries with the Connectional Table, and the merger with the Methodist Protestant Church of Cote d’Ivoire. Yet, as Darryl Stephens has shown for the Cote d’Ivoire merger, these changes have not caused wide-spread rethinking of the denomination.

Moreover, some major proposed changes to how the denomination functions that initially seemed possible have been shot down, including making the US a central conference (passed by General Conference and voted down at the annual conference level), reorganizing the boards and agencies as part of Plan UMC (passed by General Conference and overruled by Judicial Council), or ending guaranteed appointment (passed by consent of a General Conference committee and then voted down by the whole body).

Other significant changes, such as a revamp of the Social Principles (up for vote at General Conference 2020) or the development of a Global Book of Discipline (deferred to General Conference 2024) are still in process, and it is too early to know their fate.

Thus, the main contours of the denomination have been in place since 1972, and the denomination has not shown much flexibility since then.

12. Freedom from financial, legal, and cultural constraints
As laid out in my description of the crisis faced by the UMC, the denomination is facing demographic and financial pressures that result from the decline of membership in the US. These pressures result from larger cultural constraints on Christianity in the United States. In the US broadly, adherence to Christianity is declining in both percentage and absolute terms.

The resultant membership and financial pressures act as constraints on the range of option that the UMC considers for its future. Money is indeed an object, both in the US and elsewhere, and at most levels of the church, from the congregational to the general agency. Thus, most actors are weighing their options in the light of the financial implications for their specific organizations and rejecting those options they see as having deleterious financial effects.

A concern for the impact on membership and giving is perhaps most acute at the most local levels. Pastors leading congregations in the US are rightly concerned about whether the crisis in the UMC will trickle down to their congregation, costing them significant numbers of members in a way that would undermine the health of their congregations.

In Europe, where membership is already quite small, there is also a significant concern for how the UMC’s current crisis will impact future membership and the viability of various forms of church organization, from the congregational through to the central conference.

Still, despite the legitimate financial and membership concerns felt by many United Methodists in the face of the present crisis, it is worth noting that the UMC has a wider latitude to operate relative to other denominations. While the departure of, say, 20% of its American membership would no doubt have significant and in some cases severe consequences, it would still leave the UMC the largest mainline Protestant denomination in the United States.

In addition to the financial and membership constraints on the UMC, there are also significant legal and cultural constraints on the denomination related to its stance on homosexuality. As I have detailed for Africa, the Philippines, and Europe, the laws about homosexuality and predominant views of homosexuality in the surrounding culture differ significantly across the United Methodist globe. In some places, the church faces fairly significant legal and cultural opposition to anything that could be construed as acceptance of homosexuality. Especially for places like Russia where the church is small and fragile and there is significant disapproval of homosexuality, the church is quite limited in the range of options it can consider for a viable future.

In general, I think this is one of the things that US American United Methodists most fail to understand about their coreligionists elsewhere. US Americans are used to having fairly few constraints on their actions, both as individuals, as a nation, and as a church in a nation with a strong tradition of separation of church and state. It is difficult for US Americans to understand the sorts of legal and social constraints on the UMC elsewhere, especially in settings where the UMC is a small and barely tolerated minority.

4. Getting material and financial help from other nations
This is the factor for which the comparison between nations and denominations seems the least apt. Nations give and receive a variety of material and financial aid between each other all the time. It is rare for denominations to directly aid one another. Instead, denominations more often behave like competitors than allies.

Nevertheless, one might imagine related denominations in the United States taking steps to aid ideologically similar fellow Christians in The United Methodist Church.

Perhaps this could take the form of full-communion mainline Protestant partners preparing to welcome progressive clergy and/or congregations leaving the UMC.

Perhaps this could take the form of Wesleyan/Holiness churches arranging to support departing traditionalist congregations or to use traditionalist para-denominational services (publishing, conferences, etc.) in a way that allows them to transition into services for a new traditionalist denomination.

Such forms of assistance seem to happen on an ad-hoc basis already, though no wide-spread initiatives currently exist. Thus, this form of assistance is not likely to significantly impact how the UMC addresses its current crisis.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Recommended Reading: Nordic Perspectives on Methodism

The third book in the series Nordic Perspectives on Methodism has been released, and unlike previous issues, which were print-only, this one is available as a reasonably-priced e-book on Amazon. The title for this entry in the series is "The Younger Generation and their Walk with God." (Previous entries looked at the nature of Methodism and perspectives on diakonia and service.)

The book was edited by Christina Preisler, an elder in the Denmark Annual Conference. It contains articles by authors from throughout the Nordic and Baltic Episcopal Area, including Anne Thompson, Meeli Tankler, and Maria Thaarup. A fuller description of the book is available both on Amazon and in this book release announcement (in Danish) from the Denmark AC. While containing scholarship from Europe, the book is in English.

Often, it is difficult for those in the United States to access scholarship and other discussions about the church that occur in the central conferences. With its use of the English language and its publication as an e-book, this volume represents one of the more accessible opportunities for US United Methodists to learn how other United Methodists outside the US are thinking about ministry.

Wednesday, November 6, 2019

Recommended Viewing: "On the Brühl" Documentary

Discipleship Ministries has developed a 16-minute documentary entitled "On the Brühl." The documentary follows Rev. Barry Sloan, an Irish Methodist minister serving under appointment in Chemnitz, Germany, and his work with the INSPIRE Fresh Expression in the Brühl neighborhood. The documentary is likely to be interesting to viewers for several reasons: its portrayal of life in modern Germany, the cross-cultural dynamic of an Irish minister serving in Germany, and its portrayal of a Fresh Expression.

Monday, November 4, 2019

The UMC and Jared Diamond’s Upheaval, Part 2: Recognizing 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.

Having laid out an assessment of the crisis that the UMC is facing, and having laid out the framework that Jared Diamond used in his book Upheaval to assess nation’s abilities to effectively resolve national crisis, I will now examine those factors (adapted for denominations instead of nations) as they apply to The United Methodist Church. I will look at the factors in a different order that Diamond listed them, grouping them instead into four related categories. This post will look at the first category:

Denominational Factors Related to Recognizing and Responding to the Crisis
First are a set of factors that relate to recognizing and responding to the crisis, answering the following questions: Is there a crisis? Why? Should the church respond? How extensive should that response be? Unless a denomination agrees that there is a crisis and that it should respond in some way, a crisis cannot be resolved. The identified reason and extent of a crisis are also key in shaping the resolution.

1. Denominational consensus that one’s denomination is in crisis
It might seem that the UMC does indeed have a consensus that the denomination is in crisis. Traditionalists, centrists, progressives, and liberationists in the United States all agree that there is a crisis and that the current state of the church cannot continue. Something must give.

Most Europeans, I think, would also agree that questions about the status of LGBTQ persons in the church and related questions about international polity and financing must be addressed, though perhaps with less of a sense that the future of the denomination depends upon this issue.

Yet it is not clear to me that United Methodists in the Philippines or especially Africa have the same sense of crisis in the UMC as United Methodists in the US and Europe do. Most African United Methodists have limited information about the UMC in the US and only experience debates about sexuality at the occasional general church meetings they may attend. Moreover, in many places in Africa, the church is growing rather than declining.

Thus, while top-level African leaders certainly are aware of the scope and magnitude of the crisis in the UMC, I do not think that sense of crisis goes much beyond the top level. For most African United Methodists, the crisis the UMC faces is actually about local political and economic conditions or competition with pentecostals.

Since Africans represent 30% of the votes at General Conference, this difference between Africans on the one hand and US Americans on the other over the extent and nature of a crisis in the UMC may significantly hinder the denomination’s ability to resolve the UMC’s crisis as I (as a US American) have defined it.

7. Honest denominational self-appraisal
Understandings of some aspects of the current crisis of the UMC are widely shared – there is little debate over the specifics of demographic trends in the US, financial trends globally, or specifics of what church polity says and how it is practiced (which are not the same). Most of this understanding is at the level of facts.

On a deeper level, there is little agreement amongst various factions within the United Methodist church about the underlying explanations for those facts, limiting the extent of honest denominational self-appraisal.

In particular, most of the narratives that the various parties (US traditionalists, US progressives, US centrists, Africans, etc.) attribute the crisis to the actions of other parties and downplay the actions of that group. Each group blames the other(s) for the crisis and is unwilling to honestly admit the role that they have had in creating or sustaining the crisis.

Furthermore, it seems to me that partisans on both sides of the US ideological spectrum tend to scapegoat the debate over LGBTQ persons in the church, making a successful solution to this conflict the key to addressing all other issues related to US membership and financial decline and to international decision making. This assumption seems unrealistic to me.

It also seems to me that some US United Methodists make unrealistic assumptions about their ability to continue to determine the terms of discussion in the UMC long-term, whereas some African United Methodists make unrealistic assumptions about the US ability to continue to subsidize ministry elsewhere long-term.

Thus, in some important ways, United Methodists are not honest with themselves about the reasons for their current crisis.

2. Acceptance of denominational responsibility to do something
Among those United Methodists who agree that the denomination is in crisis, it seems that all of them have accepted responsibility to resolve that crisis in some way, even if they are unwilling to accept responsibility for having caused it. American caucus groups such as Good News, UMC Next, the WCA, and UMForward; European annual and central conferences; and African and Filipino bishops have all made statements, put forth plans, or initiated processes to respond to the crisis of the church.

Yet to assume responsibility to do something without accepting responsibility for having had a role in causing the crisis is to set up one’s own group as the savior and all others, therefore, as the ones in need of saving. This undercuts the possibility of cooperation with others.

If anything is missing in terms of denominational responsibility to do something, it is a sense that for the denomination to do something, various groups must work together rather than independently. Much of the action that has happened to address the UMC’s crisis is action taken by specific groups by themselves and not in concert with others.

3. Building a fence, to delineate the denominational problems needing to be solved
At times, at least for US American United Methodists, the debate over the status of LGBTQ persons in the church can feel all-consuming. This debate, while primarily focused on the two questions of gay ordination and gay weddings, can seem to impact almost all other areas of the church. Indeed, if the church splits, most other areas of polity may be impacted.

Moreover, to the extent that US membership and financial decline impact all United Methodist institutions beyond the local church level, and many local churches themselves, it can also feel like there are no fences around this aspect of the crisis.

To the extent that these perceptions are true, this represents a failure to build a fence around the issues needing to be addressed.

Yet, it should be remembered that this sense of the all-pervasiveness of the crisis is primarily a US sense. United Methodists elsewhere have less of a sense that this crisis is all-consuming, requiring changes in all aspects of what it means to be a United Methodist. This is true even when they acknowledge that the crisis exists.

Moreover, looked at another way, there are key United Methodist practices and characteristics that are not impacted by our current crisis of the sexuality debate, global decision-making, and US membership and financial decline, even in the United States. While the long-term fate of some of these facets depends on what shape possible new denominations might take, things like a belief in connectionalism, an emphasis on free will and personal responsibility, and the practice of itineration are core features of United Methodism that are by and large not presently affected by the crisis.

Friday, November 1, 2019

Recommended Readings: United Methodists Against Domestic and Gender-Based Violence

October was National Domestic Violence Month in the United States. Both Church and Society and United Methodist Women have resources for US Americans to take action on this issue within the United States.

But it is not only in the US that United Methodists are standing against domestic violence and other forms of gender-based violence. Indeed, just within the past year, here is a rundown of countries where there has been news about UMC efforts to combat domestic and gender-based violence:


Cote d'Ivoire

Democratic Republic of Congo (East Congo Episcopal Area)

Democratic Republic of Congo (South Congo Episcopal Area)




Sierra Leone

South Africa

United States (Wisconsin)


Certainly, the members and ministers of The United Methodist Church are not perfect in their gender attitudes in any country. But that should not cause us to overlook what a significant force the UMC is on behalf of the rights of women in many countries, especially across Africa.