Wednesday, September 22, 2021

The UMC and Institutional Decline: Declining Institutional Relevance

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 explored the decline of institutions, defined as “system[s] of rules, beliefs, norms, and organizations that together generate a regularity of behavior.” I indicated that The United Methodist Church as a denomination is composed of many institutions, and these institutions have experienced decline in the sense of no longer being about to produce the same regular behaviors as in the past, at least not to the same extent as previously.

Yet the question remains: Why have the institutions of The United Methodist Church experienced decline over the past several decades?

To answer that question, it is necessary to begin with an observation: Institutions require resources of time and money to keep running. Although most institutions are set up to continue indefinitely, that continuation is only possible because of the time, effort, and money that humans are willing to devote to the maintenance of those organizations.

A wisely established institution will include the dedication of time and money for its own maintenance as one of the regular behaviors that it seeks to generate. Thus, when institutions are running well, people willingly contribute the time and money necessary to keep them running well, often without thinking much about it.

As an analogy, think about a subscription service. Most subscription services are set to automatically renew every month, with the money being directly withdrawn from your credit card. Netflix as an institution is set up to make your regular financial contribution as easy and thoughtless as possible. While theoretically, you could cancel Netflix at any point, practically, you probably don’t ask yourself every month, “Should I continue to subscribe to Netflix?”

Similarly, while people do need to contribute time and money to the perpetuation of institutions, for the most part, they are not asking themselves every month or year, “Should I continue to put in this time and effort?” They simply do it because of the inertia of habit.

Nevertheless, even when the maintenance of institutions is routine and incentivized by those very institutions, it is still possible for an institution’s constituency to collectively decide that they are no longer interested in doing the work or paying the money to keep an institution going. Or the constituency decides that they’re no longer interested in having their behaviors shaped by that institution and would like to shape them another way. Thus, for instance, people decide they’d rather shop online rather than put in the effort to drive to the mall, and therefore malls as institutions face hard times. Such decisions need not be conscious but can instead be the cumulative effect of many small decisions that over time shape patterns of behavior.

Hence, one possible explanation for the decline in church institutions—from general agencies to the hymnal to the system of itineracy and beyond—is that United Methodists are no longer interested in putting in the effort to keep those institutions going, no longer interested in having their behavior shaped by a denomination, and/or are more interested in shaping those behaviors around other principles (congregational, secular, consumerist, etc.) than denominational ones. In other words, United Methodist institutions have lost relevance with their constituency, which is United Methodists generally.

There is credence to this theory, as a quick review of United Methodist history shows. The institutions of the UMC by and large took on their present form by 1972 and have had only minor adjustments in the 50+ years since then. Prior to 1972, most major church institutions in our denominational predecessors were majorly revised for one reason or another at least every 30 years.

The functions the current UMC institutions were created to perform were all functions that made sense in the world of the late 60s and early 70s. Yet while there has been only tweaking of most church institutions since then, much in the world has changed. Think about how much of the rest of the collective behaviors of US Americans are different than they were in 1972, let alone the relationships among US Americans and other parts of the world. There have been profound transformations in most economic, governmental, political, social, and other institutions since 1972. That there have not been the same profound changes in the institutions of the UMC makes it plausible that these institutions have lost relevance over time.

Moreover, we can think of particular examples of instances in which new institutions have arisen that have provided an alternative and more attractive way for United Methodists to achieve the same ends.

For instance, short term mission trips as an institution have replaced older forms of mission involvement through the sending and support of long-term missionaries. It’s not that United Methodists don’t want to be involved in mission anymore; it is that there are new possibilities for how to do that now that were not as widely in 1972 but have now become available because of technological and social changes in the surrounding world.

Another example might be the increased use of contemporary worship music in US church services, a transformation facilitated through the rise of CCLI as an alternative institution to the hymnal. CCLI was founded in 1988, the year before the current United Methodist Hymnal was published. Over time, the power of the UMH to generate musical behaviors in UMC worship services has declined as the power of CCLI to do so has risen.

In some instances, the services church institutions were set up to provide have largely been taken over by the government, non-profits, or businesses. This transition can represent a successful secularization of church functions, though it still deprives church institutions of their purpose.

As an example, we no longer rely on the church to provide hospitals and retirement homes. While these were an innovative way for the church to care for society when introduced a century or more ago, now these functions are routinely supplied by other sources: government social security and healthcare programs, private hospitals, and secular insurance and retirement investment options.

In other instances, the call for the services provided by church institutions or the willingness of constituents to pay for those services has decreased as a result of social and ideological shifts, within the church and in the world at large.

Thus, for instance, itineracy as a form of ministry service is less attractive now in a world where dual-career households are common than it was 50 or more years ago, when single-income households were much more typical. Social shifts around employment have made the institution of itinerant ministry less attractive for potential ministerial candidates.

As another example, an increased emphasis on choice, customization, and individuality has pervaded American culture in recent decades, affecting everything from how products are marketed to how government-sponsored college savings plans operate. In a world of increased emphasis on choice as an ideology, sticking to the denominational norm for any type of church-related activity is less attractive since it inhibits congregational or individual free choice.

Yet just because decreased relevance to the general constituency is a factor eroding support for denominational institutions does not mean that we should assume that it is the only factor. Instead, in two following posts, I will examine the role of vested interests in the fate of institutions and the role of a constituency’s ability to maintain institutions as a separate issue from its desire to do so.

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