Wednesday, September 15, 2021

The UMC and Institutional Decline: What Are Institutions, and What Is Institutional Decline?

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.

The United States is, it seems, in a time of institutional decline. There has been a lot of (digital) ink spilled in the last five years about the turmoil in and disruption of political institutions in the United States. But already twenty years ago, sociologist Robert Putnam was writing about the impact of declining social capital on civic organizations and other communal institutions.

As many commentators (Putnam included) have noted, a decline in institutions in general is bad for religion, at least in its institutional variety. Yet it is particularly problematic for denominational religion. Congregations, which are most Americans’ primary connection to institutional religion, are their own set of institutions, but denominations add an additional set of institutions to those of the congregation. Thus, denominations are doubly threatened by institutional decline: It can impact both the denomination and its constituent congregations.

If, then, the United States is in a period of general decline in multiple forms of institutions, that trend is likely to have significant importance for The United Methodist Church as a denomination.

To get a better grasp on what is at stake for The United Methodist Church, though, it is necessary to get a better handle on the scope of the problem: What exactly are institutions, what does it mean for them to decline, and why do they decline?

Historian Patrick Wyman, drawing on the work of economic historian Avner Greif, has defined an institution in this way ( “An institution is a system of rules, beliefs, norms, and organizations that together generate a regularity of behavior.” While many might think an institution is the same as an organization, Wyman’s definition gives a broader scope.

Applied to the UMC, this definition highlights the wide variety of institutions at work in the denomination. Certainly, the boards and agencies as central organizations count as institutions. But so do things like the appointive system of ministry, episcopal oversight, the paying of apportionments, the practice of conferencing, and The United Methodist Hymnal (1989). Each of these works in its own way to create regular behaviors among United Methodists, ranging from worship to pastoral ministry to finances to mission.

Institutions exist to serve a particular constituency. In the case of denominational institutions, that constituency is ostensibly the members of The United Methodist Church. Yet the issue of identifying an institution’s constituency is actually more complex. There are subgroups within the nominal constituency (say, for instance, clergy and laity in the UMC), and an institution may impact the behavior of those outside of its nominal constituency as well, which may then give them a vested interest in the performance of that institution. For example, the UMC Social Principles (which are a form of institution) are against gambling, which impacts not only United Methodists but also non-United Methodist who may try to expand gambling in an area, only to encounter opposition from United Methodists.

To say that institutions exist to produce regular behaviors is to say that institutions are intended to influence the actions of individuals and groups on an on-going basis. Regularity implies predictability and persistence. In order to “generate a regularity of behavior,” then, institutions are generally set up to continue indefinitely. Changes in behavior make them less regular, so institutions have a bias against change. Institutions are set up to continue; change is in many ways the exception.

One sees this persistence in most of the institutions of The United Methodist Church. Episcopal oversight is not a limited-time practice in the UMC; it’s a central feature of the denomination, intended to persist over time, even as there have been shifts in what episcopal oversight looks like in the 200+ years of American Methodism. Similarly, while the amounts asked and collected in apportionments vary from year to year (or quadrennium to quadrennium), there is no sense that apportionments are going to be a feature of the church for these four years, and then they will stop, to be replaced by something else. Even when it comes to denominational hymnals, where it has been common practice to issue a new hymnal every generation, the concept of a hymnal as a means to shape worship has carried throughout (most) of Methodist history.

Of course, as acknowledged, change does happen to institutions, in big and small ways, suddenly or gradually, because of internal and external factors. Even though institutions are set up to produce regularity, some amount of change is not incompatible with that purpose. The world in which institutions exist is always changing, so it is impossible for those changes not to influence institutions in some ways. Institutions could only be truly unchanging in some sort of abstract, ahistorical sense. Nor is all institutional change is bad for the institution; some change allows them to adapt to continue to serve their function.

Decline, however, is a particular form of institutional change. Institutional decline is a loss of institutional power to generate regular behavior. Institutions decline when they are no longer able to produce the same sorts of behaviors that they have previously or at least not to the same extent.

Hymnals can provide a good example. For most of history, the official denominational hymnal had significant power to shape what sorts of songs Methodist congregations sang; the liturgies used for communion, marriages, and funerals; and even the order of worship services. Yet the denominational hymnal’s role as an institution that sets norms for United Methodist worship behavior has declined. Due to the advent of contemporary worship, a growing recognition of the significance of ethnic and global worship styles, the availability of worship resources online, and other factors, the hymnal is a less significant force in shaping the worship activities of any given United Methodist congregation on any given Sunday. Depending on your view, this development may be good, bad, or indifferent, but regardless of its moral valuation, it represents a form of institutional decline.

At the extreme of institutional decline is institutional failure or institutional collapse. In these cases, an institution completely ceases to exist. Were the United Methodist Publishing House to close permanently without a designated successor organization, that would be an example of institutional collapse. Institutional collapse is the most dramatic form of decline and gathers the most attention.

Yet, while institutional failure is sudden, it is usually preceded by a long period of institutional decline that is the result of subtle shifts that happen over time due to long-standing pressures. To take the example of the Publishing House again, if it ever does close, it will not be a case of brisk sales and comfortable revenues one day and then closed the next. It will be the result of years of falling sales, shrinking budgets, and reduced staffing and capacity.

As the examples of The United Methodist Hymnal and the state of the United Methodist Publishing House suggest, many, perhaps even most, United Methodist institutions are indeed facing decline. Moreover, this decline goes beyond the numeric decline in the number of US United Methodists. It’s not that UMC institutions are in decline because there are fewer US United Methodists to generate regular behavior among. It’s also the case that UMC institutions are struggling to generate regular behaviors among the US United Methodists that remain in the same ways that they have in the past.

That leaves the question of why. The answers, it turns out, are multi-faceted. I will examine them over the course of a series of subsequent blogs.

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