Wednesday, October 27, 2021

The UMC and Institutional Decline: A Call for Denominational Renovation

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.

In a series of previous posts, I have depicted United Methodist denominational institutions as declining, crumbling even, beset by a host of long-term pressures from both within and beyond the denomination, all of which have been compounded in recent years by crises of denominational division and the COVID-19 pandemic. I have argued that these pressures towards decline are far beyond the ability of these institutions to manage through an approach of incremental and inward-focused maintenance.

Instead, the time has come for major denominational renovation. Renovation is a process in which an organization undertakes extensive rethinking of its institutions, their purposes, and how they go about achieving their purposes by trying to produce certain types of regular behavior. The last time the UMC substantially renovated its institutions was in 1972, in the wake of the merger of The Methodist Church and the Evangelical United Brethren Church. Nearly 50 years later, it is far past time to do so again.

The need for institutional renovation stems from the nature of the forces producing institutional decline in the UMC. I have argued that the decline of institutions in the UMC is a result of decreased institutional relevance, the delegitimization of institutions by special interests in the denomination, a decreased ability of members to pay the time and effort costs associated with denominational institutions, and the failure of denominational institutions to respond adequately to moments of crisis.

Maintenance, however, has led to institutional complexification, amplifying opportunities for elite capture of institutions and a decreased ability by average constituents to participate in those institutions. Maintenance cannot address questions of institutional relevance. Since maintenance is internally focused, it is a poor strategy to address external challenges, such as the time squeeze limiting members’ ability to give of their time and money. Finally, the failures of denominational institutions in recent crises are further evidence that a more significant response to institutional decline is required than further maintenance.

We are past the point of maintenance. We need substantial renovation.

Yet in this regard, the UMC is fortunate. A division with the Global Methodist Church represents an opportunity for the remaining UMC to enter a process of institutional renovation. Mergers have consistently been an occasion for Methodism to periodically revamp its institutions. Having missed the chance to do that with the merger with Cote d’Ivoire in 2008, the UMC will have to content itself with a division as an opportunity to reassess its institutions.

And an opportunity it is. Traditionalists recognize the opportunity they have to revamp denominational institutions by establishing a new denomination; those remaining in the UMC should not miss the opportunity they have to make overdue changes while there is fluidity in the denomination.

Yet to recognize this division as an opportunity, those remaining in the UMC must avoid scapegoating their anxieties about and frustrations with denominational institutions in either of two ways.

First, they must avoid scapegoating Traditionalists for the dysfunctions of denominational institutions. As previously described, Traditionalists have de-legitimized denominational institutions, but they are far from the only force pushing those institutions towards decline.

In this regard, it is important to avoid thinking of the division itself as the thing that will relieve pressures on denominational institutions. While division will alleviate one current crisis and will reduce some of the pressures from special interests, it will by no means solve most of the challenges of the denomination’s institutions, which result either from external societal forces or from having a system of denominational institutions that has not been substantially updated in a half century. Division creates a window of opportunity for changes to strengthen the denomination; it is not itself the solution to all the problems in the denomination.

Second, those staying in the UMC must avoid scapegoating leaders for the dysfunctions of denominational institutions. It is easy to attribute the current situation of institutional decline to a failure of leadership. While not without truth, such a view can be dismissive of the magnitude of challenges facing denominational institutions and the extent to which denominational institutions are geared towards maintenance as a primary strategy.

The biggest failure of institutional leaders in the UMC has perhaps been too great a fidelity to the institutions of the church as they currently exist. In this regard, they are caught in a paradox: They are selected to care for and maintain institutions as they are, which by design are supposed to be consistent and not change much. Yet, by resisting changes for the sake of institutional preservation, leaders subject those institutions to on-going pressures that, over time, have substantially weakened them, making them more vulnerable to collapse.

Moreover, focusing on the culpability of leaders misses a significant point. Whoever may deserve blame for the current situation (and I have suggested that it is a broad group), determining blame is not the same as determining a strategy for how to address institutional decline. Regardless of the errors up to this point, right now it is time to rethink our institutions.

If those remaining in the UMC are convinced that denominational renovation is necessary, there are a variety of ways to go about it. Work on the Global Book of Discipline could become a platform for rethinking the church’s structures.

General Conference could create a series of commissions to work on denominational revamping, as the 1968 Uniting General Conference did. There could be an extra session of General Conference to support the work of those commissions, as there was in 1970.

General Conference could even pass an amendment at its next meeting (to be approved in annual conference voting) to allow for a future General Conference to function as a constitutional convention, which could allow major changes to be passed more efficiently than the normal one-resolution-per-paragraph method and perhaps with less possibility of judicial review blocking any major denominational revisions.

My point here is not to advocate for one strategy for implementing the work of systemic and extensive renovation of The United Methodist Church’s denominational institutions. My point here is simply to insist that that renovation must happen, by whatever means possible. The alternative is further institutional decline. Those who love the church must be willing to let it change or risk condemning it to a slow death.


  1. It hasn't been traditionalists who have made the institutions and bureaucracy of the UMC irrelevant and fruitless, as most traditionalists tend to "do ministry" at the local church level, NOT in conference or denominational positions.

    Here's a questions for those who remain in the psUMC: Can they avoid the temptation to continue to mandate everything from the top down (based on the assumption that they "know better" and are more woke than members in the local churches of flyover country)? If they insist on pontificating from on high, they will find themselves to be irrelevant again very quickly.

  2. Hello David, thanks for these articles. You are bringing up some important issues. I wonder if you plan to address the underlying problem which, if not addressed, will make all these other renovations irrelevant? Namely, the current collapse of the United Methodist species. We simply aren't reproducing ourselves in the West. Clearly the denomination is reproducing in the Philippines and a handful of countries in central Africa. But apart from those 6 or 7 countries (so much for being a global church) the UMC is in the midst of species collapse. Will you address the need to new vision regarding mission and evangelism that centers on making disciples for Jesus? I'd love to hear more of your thoughts.

    1. Thanks for the question, Jack. Given the significance of what you're asking, I think I'll reply in a compilation piece next week rather than try to cram too many thoughts and links into this response. Look for more next week!