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.