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.

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