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.
For the past two weeks, I have been exploring 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 have defined decline as a reduced capacity to produce regular behaviors among the constituency of the UMC, which is primarily its members.
My previous two posts have looked at choices, motivations, and strategies among United Methodists that have had the effect of weakening institutions, either by reducing the time and effort members choose to devote to them or by delegitimizing them as a source of norms.
For this analysis, I want to look at a series of forces outside the denomination that have reduced the ability of United Methodists to support their denominational institutions, even when they see those institutions as legitimate and are motivated to contribute time, effort, and money to those institutions.
These are forces that originate within the economic and social structures of American society that have left denominational members (and potential members) with less time and energy to devote to the maintenance and continuation of denominational institutions, even if, all other things being equal, they might be interested in doing so.
The key insight here is that many church institutions, from local congregations up through denominational bodies, have traditionally relied on significant amounts of volunteer labor to function. Volunteer labor has supported everything from charitable work to Sunday schools to committees to the two weeks plus prep time it takes to serve as a General Conference delegate. Moreover, much of the institutions of the church are structured around people being able to contribute such volunteer labor on a regular basis. Yet economic and cultural factors have reduced the time and energy available for such regular volunteer labor from several different groups: women, retirees, the working class, and the middle class, especially parents.
While women in the workforce may seem like a given nowadays, it is worth remembering that in 1972, when most of the institutions of the UMC were set, female paid workforce participation in the United States was 44%. For the past two decades, it has been around 60%. The change is slightly more dramatic for married women. This transformation has been about both cultural factors (more opportunities for women) and economic factors (families have increasingly relied on women’s wages to maintain or expand their earning power).
While there have certainly been beneficial aspects to women’s paid employment, more women in the workforce means left fewer women available to serve as volunteers to keep denominational institutions going. It’s one thing to organize Sunday school in your congregation or serve as the treasurer for the annual conference UMW when working in the home. It’s another when working 40-50 hours a week outside the home.
The reduced availability of homemakers as a source of volunteer labor has put greater emphasis on another traditional pool of volunteers: retirees. Yet here too, there have been economic and cultural forces eating into the ability of retirees to contribute their time and efforts to churches and denominational institutions, as older Americans are working longer and filling their retirement years with additional commitments.
After decades of falling, the average age of retirement and the percentage of US residents over 65 in the workforce have been creeping back up in the past two decades. While there are a variety of reasons that older adults might choose to work, financial constraints are one reason. Changes to retirement plans over the past several decades have moved toward less generous benefits and have shifted much of the financial risk associated with saving for retirement toward individuals. Even among those individuals who do retire, the Baby Boom generation has embraced a model of “active retirement,” with increased travel and leisure activities that take them away from regular church commitments.
Economic and cultural developments impacting working adults have also left them less able to contribute the volunteer time necessary to maintain denominational institutions, though for different reasons in different groups.
Working-class Americans have been increasingly alienated from mainline Protestantism, and institutional religion in general, over the past several decades for a variety of social and cultural factors. Yet even working-class people who are part of United Methodist churches may be less able now than in years past to partake in and contribute to the institutions of the denomination.
While life has always been precarious for those among the poor and working classes in the United States, the amount of precariousness has increased in recent decades. Low wage jobs increasingly have erratic and unpredictable schedules, often including work on Sunday mornings, thus making regular participation in church and its institutions difficult. There’s a difference between working a regular shift at a diner that was closed on Sundays in 1972 and working at a fast-food restaurant that’s open seven days a week in 2021, but where you never find out your shift schedule more than a week in advance.
The social and economic safety net to support poor and working-class Americans has also been steadily dismantled over the past four decades. Even where it remains, it has often been made intentionally more difficult to navigate to discourage people from using it. Thus, much of the surplus time and energy of working-class church members may be used up trying to navigate obtuse government and school bureaucracies to arrange the supports they and their families need instead of dedicating that surplus to helping ensure the smooth functioning of church institutions.
Thus, life for lower-income Americans has become increasingly chaotic with fewer supports. Some working-class Americans would likely be interested in being part of United Methodism and its denominational institutions but find themselves unable to pay the time costs involved.
Finally, there are middle-class Americans, who also find themselves with less time and energy, especially with the rise of always-on-call work cultures, increased expectations on parents, and decreased support for families.
There has been a proliferation of think pieces in the past decade about burnout, especially as a phenomenon among middle-class and upper middle-class professionals. This is a group that traditionally might have had the flexibility to take time from their jobs to dedicate to church efforts. Yet new technologies such as laptops and smart phones and increased economic anxieties about middle-class instability, among other forces, have driven these professionals to working more, having fewer “off” hours, and having less mental and physical energy for endeavors outside of work, such as church.
In addition, for middle-class parents, there are increased expectations around active parenting compared to fifty years ago and frequently fewer supports for parents. Moreover, the economic anxieties of the middle class have driven parents to enroll their children in an increasing number of activities, including on Sunday morning, to try to ensure that their child will have an opportunity to get into the right sort of college that ensures the right sort of job that will make a middle-class lifestyle still possible for them. Thus, middle-class parents are run ragged, with little left over to devote to church.
All these economic and cultural forces (combining personal choices and structural pressures) which take more from people and make them responsible for a greater load of their well-being and that of their families leaves all these groups – women, retirees, the working class, and the middle class, especially parents – with less to dedicate to the church. Yet, as discussed in a previous post, denominational institutions, like all other institutions, require time, energy, and money to persist. When time and energy are increasingly squeezed out of people, denominational institutions must suffer.
The forces I have described over the past three posts have operated in the best of times. Next week, I will examine the impact of COVID and other crises on church institutions.