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.