Today's post is by UM & Global blogmaster Dr. David W. Scott, Mission Theologian 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.
As I argued in my previous piece, the cancelation of the proposed May 8 special General Conference is an indicator that General Conference may not pass major legislation when next it meets in person, currently scheduled for August 2022. In this piece, I would like to explore the implications for the denomination if that were to happen.
Before I do so, though, I should clarify what I mean by “pass major legislation.” Here I have in mind legislation that would significantly change the structures or operating procedures of The United Methodist Church. Such legislation includes the Protocol, the Christmas Covenant, changes to the Book of Discipline statues on gay marriage and gay ordination, reorganization of the boards and agencies, and approval of a Global Book of Discipline.
Although some would consider a budget for the church a major piece of legislation, I am considering that as routine legislation. General Conference always passes a budget; hence it is routine, even as it has major impact on the work of the church. The bar to passing routine legislation, even when that legislation is significant, is lower than the bar to passing legislation that would cause major changes in the denomination. Institutional inertia both discourages changes and encourages routine acts.
What, then, would the implications be for The United Methodist Church if it is unable to pass major legislation at the next General Conference? I suggest that it would leave a hollowed-out connectional system, in which connectional structures continue to exist, but without the significance, power, or meaning currently in them.
A General Conference that proves unable to pass major legislation at a critical point in the church’s history will show the failure of General Conference as a source for addressing the felt problems of the members and component organizations of the denomination. The bishops, who have already had a lot of criticism leveled at them, are likely to sustain more if General Conference is unable to act. Thus, the two main top-level authorities will be further undercut. To be sure, the denomination will continue to have future General Conferences and bishops, but fewer will look toward them as a means to solve the problems of the denomination. Instead, more people will look to more local levels of the church as a site for ministry initiatives, problem solving, and decision-making.
Without passage of the Protocol, the exit path for Traditionalists (and the much smaller group of Liberationists) is much steeper and more difficult. Some congregations, districts, and annual conferences that might otherwise want to leave may find themselves stuck within the UMC for financial and legal reasons while remaining connected to others who do leave to form the Global Methodist Church. This arrangement may mean that the WCA and similar organizations continue to exist to serve the remaining discontented Traditionalists within the UMC. It also means that episcopal areas, annual conferences, and districts will continue to be sites of conflict between unwillingly remaining Traditionalists and others happier to stay within the denomination. Thus, significant conflict within the church will continue, both at the General Conference level and at various regional levels.
It is almost certain that there will be less money within the connectional system. Any budget that does get passed as a piece of routine legislation will be smaller, and churches are less likely to be willing to pay apportionments into a system that they see as dysfunctional, conflict-ridden, and unable to produce results. This is likely true no matter what General Conference passes or does not. Yet without major legislation, it will be more difficult for boards, agencies, annual conferences, and other entities to do ministry in creative ways that could better leverage reduced funds. Instead, they will be forced to continue to serve current ends less effectively, given their reduced budgets.
Reduced denominational funds will have implications for United Methodism in the central conferences. In some places, The United Methodist Church is relatively self-sufficient and growing. There, it will continue to prosper, though with less emphasis on its worldwide connections and more emphasis on United Methodism as an identity within the local religious economy. Elsewhere, loss of funds and reduced connection to the worldwide church will diminish the reputation of the church as a source of good in society and/or deplete patronage resources available through the church. More church members will decamp for other denominations, perhaps one of the forms of pentecostalism that are currently making such significant inroads among Methodism around the world.
Congregations in the United states will continue to face headwinds in attracting and retaining members, both from the larger cultural environment and the specific problems associated with the United Methodist identity, to the extent that members or potential members are aware of that identity. Much of the successes within the United States will be at the local church level. Dynamic churches that have found a way to prosper within the current system of United Methodism are likely to be able to continue to do so, though they may use the term “United Methodist” to describe themselves less and less frequently. As in the central conferences, the emphasis will be less on worldwide connection and more on a congregation’s identity within the local religious economy. Struggling churches will continue to struggle and eventually close.
Almost all of what I have described above is continuations of current trends within the denomination. And that is really the danger of General Conference being unable to pass any major legislation. Things will continue as they have been, only more so. More top-level disfunction. More fighting at denominational meetings. More loss of membership in the United States. More challenges with financial sustainability in parts of the central conferences. More budget reductions and staff cuts at agencies. More nationalism in the central conferences and congregationalism in the United States.
The system of United Methodism will not collapse, but it will crumble. People will, however, continue to live and worship within that crumbling system. Some will leave, both in the United States and around the world, but many will stay. The groups that remain within the crumbling shell will have less to do with one another. There will continue to be spots of spiritual vitality, but there will also be a lot of people pining for the glory days of yesteryear, dreaming sad dreams of how the Spirit moved when they were young.
This is not an uplifting picture of the future, and I have been struggling to see where God will be at work in the midst of this system. I recognize, though, that God being at work does not mean a happy ending to all stories. Despite Americans’ relentless optimism and desire to focus on the good even amidst disasters, sometimes things end badly. When Jeremiah prophesied that God “will make Jerusalem a heap of ruins, a lair of jackals,” it was bad news for a city that very soon would see a significant portion of its population violently removed. Jerusalem did not completely collapse, but it certainly experienced some heavy crumbling.
Yet, Isaiah prophesied that even the jackals which Jeremiah foresaw taking over Jerusalem would honor God. And 70 years later, exiles would return to that crumbled city and rebuild it. Moreover, God had been with God’s people in other cities and would continue to do so.
The United Methodist Church may end up hollowed out. But God will still be in the world, including in the hollow and hurting places within the UMC. And perhaps in 70 years, the children or grandchildren of those who will go out weeping shall come home with shouts of joy after all.