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.