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.
Throughout this fall, I have been exploring the issue of the decline of denominational institutions in The United Methodist Church. In these posts, I have followed Patrick Wyman’s definition of institutions: (https://patrickwyman.substack.com/p/what-are-institutions-and-why-are): “An institution is a system of rules, beliefs, norms, and organizations that together generate a regularity of behavior.” I have defined institutional decline, then, as a change by which institutions are no longer able to produce the same sorts of behaviors that they have previously or at least not to the same extent.
Note that not all forms of institutional change constitute institutional decline. Institutions have a bias against change because their purpose is focused on “regularity of behavior.” Yet, some changes may be neutral or may even help institutions be better able to generate regular behavior. Indeed, since the world changes all the time, some institutional changes are a necessary response to external forces to ensure that the same sorts of behavior continue to be generated regularly.
Thus, we can define institutional strengthening as changes to an institution that increase or maintain its ability to generate regular behavior. Institutional strengthening is the opposite of institutional decline, though both are forms of institutional change.
We might think about three forms of institutional strengthening: institutional maintenance, institutional expansion, and institutional renovation. Institutional maintenance includes relatively small, routine changes in an institution that are designed to preserve its ability to produce existing regular behaviors. An example is a change in provider for clergy health insurance with the aim of keeping costs and benefits the same. Institutional expansion includes changes to increase the amount or extent of an existing regular behavior. An example is starting new Walk to Emmaus chapters and holding more walks in existing chapters. Institutional renovation is reconsidering which behaviors an institution should produce and how it should produce them. An example is an annual conference ceasing support for a children’s service agency and instead promoting the formation of Fresh Expressions in congregations.
Most of the time, institutions and their leaders are focused on maintenance and expansion. This is as it should be. Institutions exist for regularity of behavior, and both maintenance and expansion take as a given the nature of that regular behavior. Institutional renovation calls it into question. It is impossible to always be in renovation mode, since if an organization were constantly questioning what behaviors it should produce, it would be ineffective at producing any regular behavior.
Institutional maintenance and expansion, however, have their own limitations. Some of these limitations can ironically end up creating an additional set of forces leading to institutional decline, and maintenance and expansion are not sufficient strategies for all situations.
One result of a focus on maintenance and expansion is a general trend towards institutional complexity. Like many institutions in the United States, the institutions of the UMC have evolved towards greater comprehensiveness (that is, anticipating as many scenarios as possible and prescribing actions in those scenarios) and towards legal protectionism (that is, guarding against the threat of lawsuit).
These two driving forces – greater comprehensiveness and legal protectionism – are a byproduct of institutional maintenance and expansion. Institutional maintenance tries to address unique scenarios that raise questions about the regular behaviors of an institution. Maintenance in the form of greater comprehensiveness eliminates “glitches” that might disrupt those regular behaviors. Institutional expansion creates new scenarios in which an institution’s desired behaviors are generated, thus also expanding institutional comprehensiveness. Legal protectionism often goes along with the elaboration of possible challenging scenarios and seeks to guard against threats that could disrupt an institution’s ability to function.
The result of these two trends is a preference for formal rules instead of informal norms and thus an increasing number of rules for the operation of institutions. The upshot of such developments is that while institutions are not necessarily more expensive to operate than they were fifty years ago (though in some instances, they are), they do require more specialized knowledge. Therefore, fewer constituents have the knowledge necessary to maintain those increasingly rule-bound institutions.
To put it in concrete terms, while the percentage of local church budgets collected in apportionments has gone down by 50% in the last 50 years, the length of the Book of Discipline has gone up by 50%. Denominational bureaucracies are less expensive to the local church, but all of the institutions of The United Methodist Church are more opaque to the average lay person or even the average clergy person.
Therefore, there are fewer people willing and able to navigate the complex procedures required to serve as conference delegates or to participate in denominational committees. With denominational institutions comprehensible to fewer people, that increases the chances of both loss of relevance and elite capture for those institutions. Thus, when maintenance and expansion lead to increased complexity, that can actually lead to rather than prevent institutional decline.
Moreover, even when institutional maintenance and expansion avoid such pitfalls, there are inherent limits to what they can accomplish. Maintenance and expansion seek to preserve and expand institutions as they are. Thus, they are ill-equipped to address questions of institutional relevance. They assume that the behaviors an institution seeks to produce are the right behaviors to focus on, even if there is less call for such behavior among an institution’s constituency.
Moreover, maintenance as a strategy is generally inward focused. It seeks to make relatively small, internal changes to ensure smooth organizational functioning. Therefore, it may be unable to address significant challenges that result from disruptive pressures from an organization’s external environment. Such pressures, since they originate from beyond an organization, are outside the realm of what maintenance seeks to control and indeed may be beyond an organization’s ability to control at all.
Therefore, institutional renovation is occasionally necessary. Institutions benefit from periodic reassessment of their functions and constituency to ensure continual adjustment to their environments. Without renovation and the periodic attention it brings to questions such as institutional relevance and external environment, it is impossible for organizations to adequately balance the tensions that inevitably build up between an institution and its environment. Renovation will not free institutions from all external pressures but can help ensure that the amount of pressure is manageable.
It remains an outstanding question, though, of how and when an institution determines a major revision is necessary. I would argue that The United Methodist Church is at a point where it requires institutional renovation, not merely maintenance or expansion of its existing institutions. I will elaborate in my next post.