Wednesday, September 29, 2021

The UMC and Institutional Decline: Opposition from Vested Interests

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.

Last week, I began to explore possible reasons why the institutions of The United Methodist Church are in decline, at least in the United States. For the purpose of this analysis, I am defining decline as a reduced capacity to produce regular behaviors among the constituency of the UMC, which is primarily its members.

Last week, I examined the case for a loss of institutional relevance as a factor in explaining decline. That analysis looked at the constituency of the UMC’s institutions generally, and it focused on the willingness of that constituency to pay the costs of time, effort, and money needed to sustain institutions.

Yet, looking at the constituency of an institution as a whole misses important details. No institution’s constituency is monolithic, and different groups within that constituency will have varying attitudes towards the institution. When a specific group within the general constituency has a unique set of interests in and attitudes towards an institution and the motivation to pursue those interests independently of the interests of the constituency as a whole, that group forms a vested interest within the constituency.

Part of the reason for the decline of UMC institutions comes from the actions of four different (and largely distinct from one another) groups of vested interests and their impact on the perceived legitimacy of the UMC’s institutions. Institutions require not just resources to keep functioning but also perceived legitimacy. Rules, beliefs, and norms are an important part of institutions. But these all require a sense of legitimacy to influence people’s behavior. People largely do not adhere to norms that they see as illegitimate. Thus, a loss of perceived legitimacy leads to institutional decline.

One vested interest within the constituency of an institution is those running the institutions. This is particularly true for institutions as organizations. While in many cases, the interests of those running an institution overlap with the interests of the general constituency, there is also a possibility that an institution may be “captured” by elites running it and, as a result, the functions of that institution may be altered to serve the interests of those elites and not the interests of the general constituency. When that happens, it de-legitimizes the institution and makes the general constituency less willing to pay the costs of maintaining an institution, leading to decline.

This is a favorite critique of conservatives within the UMC of the boards and agencies and of the bishops. According to conservatives, the actions of boards, agencies, and bishops reflect elite liberal interests that are “out of touch” with the general membership of the denomination, thereby making them illegitimate sources of authority. UMW’s continued strong direct financial support by members despite liberal social positions suggests that the critique of elite liberal capture leading to alienation of general membership is not true in all cases, or at least not for the reasons conservatives allege.

Still, that does not mean that insider capture of institutions never occurs. Certainly, bishops and agency executives tend to differ from the general membership of the church in matters such as education and life experience, which gives them different perspectives, and they are closer to and more invested in church institutions than the average lay person. That means that what institutional leaders understand as in the best interests of their institutions does not always align with or make sense to those more peripherally connected to those institutions, who may therefore view leaders’ positions as illegitimate.

Conservatives themselves represent another vested interest within the denomination that has contributed to the decline of its institutions. As suggested above, conservatives object to many of the functions of boards, agencies, and bishops for ideological reasons. Since the formation of Good News in the mid-1960s, conservatives have had a sense that the institutions of the denomination are closed to them and do not reflect their interests.

Therefore, conservatives have been engaged in a long-term effort to de-legitimize many of the institutions of the denomination. The various lines of critique advanced by conservatives against boards, agencies, bishops, apportionments, and other aspects of the denominational infrastructure are well known to those familiar with the UMC.

The impact of this campaign of de-legitimation is that constituents of UMC institutions who are influenced by conservative leaders are less likely to conform their behaviors to the institutions of the UMC, regardless of the nature of those behaviors. In other words, it is not just that conversative-influenced members refuse to participate in particular behaviors they see as objectionable. Instead, because of de-legitimization, they are less likely to cooperate with all aspects of denominational institutions.

The other thing that conservatives have done to undermine the institutions of the UMC is to start alternative institutions. As a result, conservative UMC members have alternatives for shaping their worship, small group, mission participation, conferencing and other church behaviors. To give a concrete example, they don’t need to purchase Sunday School materials from the United Methodist Publishing House; they can buy them from Seedbed.

A third vested interest (or set of vested interests) also feels that the institutions of the denomination are closed to them and do not reflect their interests. This vested interest includes racial, ethnic, and sexual minorities within the church. Unlike the conservatives, however, these groups are generally interested in reforming the institutions of the church to make them more open, rather than tearing them down.

While many no longer remember this, the first action of Black Methodists for Church Renewal was to protest the General Board of Global Ministries and demand that GBGM devote more attention and funding to issues related to racial justice in the United States. BMCR did not want to abolish GBGM or replace it with an alternative mission agency, but they did have a sharp critique of the agency as an institution. One can think of more recent examples in the sorts of critiques of bishops and conferencing advanced by those supportive of gay marriage and gay ordination.

While the intention of these critiques may be to reform rather than undercut institutions, the critiques advanced can still have the effect of de-legitimizing those institutions in the eyes of those sympathetic to the critiques. This de-legitimizing then also has implications for United Methodists’ behavior when they are less willing to pay apportionments or use the church’s logo or allow the mechanisms of General Conference to happen.

A fourth vested interest, one which overlaps at different points with the two previous vested interests, is megachurches. Megachurches, regardless of their theopolitical ideology, have incentives to either actively or passively resist some of the institutions of the denomination.

Megachurches have an incentive to actively resist the frequent change of pastors that is implied by the appointive system and to resist the paying of apportionments, which can be quite expensive for megachurches. While most megachurches do still pay apportionments, they frequently function as exceptions from the general system of itinerant ministry, which has the effect of weakening itineracy as a denominational institution.

Moreover, even when not trying to oppose the institutions of the denomination, the model of megachurches can end up corroding them. Megachurches are built on their own brand, not on the brand of their denominational affiliation. Moreover, megachurches have the funds to create their own resources and programming separate from those offered by denominational institutions. While some megachurches are good about supporting denominational agencies or about sharing their material with denominational networks, conforming to denominational norms is essentially optional for most megachurches, and there are almost always ways in which they do not do so.

That refusal to follow denominational norms is itself a weaking of denominational institutions, but when megachurches are held up as the exemplars of success within the denomination, that further weakens denominational institutions. The implicit message is that there is no need to follow denominational norms in terms of worship, programming, and resources, since some of the most successful churches in the denomination do not do so.

The point here is not to offer a moral critique of any of these vested interests. Depending on one’s theo-political views, the motivations of these various groups will be seen as good, bad, or indifferent. My overall point is simply to point out that the cumulative impact of de-legitimization (and occasional withholding of funds and effort) by these vested interests weakens denominational institutions.

Yet there is another set of significant forces that have been pushing United Methodist institutions towards decline, forces that originate not within the constituency but beyond it. I will examine these forces next week.

1 comment:

  1. "UMW’s continued strong direct financial support by members despite liberal social positions suggests that the critique of elite liberal capture leading to alienation of general membership is not true in all cases, or at least not for the reasons conservatives allege."

    Perhaps, but it could also be that the local UMW units generally have no idea what the larger UMW does or supports.