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.
Having looked at various reasons for the decline of denominational institutions—the unwillingness and/or inability of their constituency to support them and de-legitimization from vested interests—there remains one last set of contributing factors to explore: the impact of crises on denominational institutions, specifically internal denominational conflict and the COVID-19 pandemic.
The basic insight here is that the more institutions fail to serve the purposes for which they were created, the weaker they become. When institutions are unable to produce their intended regular behaviors, it reduces their ability to do the same in the future. Unless skillfully addressed, institutional failure usually begets further institutional decline.
In large part, this is because institutional malfunction delegitimizes institutions by lowering constituents’ expectations and willingness to have their behavior shaped by the institution in the future. Regardless of whether the sentiment on the part of constituents is “That institution won’t work for me” or “I don’t want to work for that institution” or some combination of the two, the result is decreased institutional capacity to shape the behaviors of its constituents.
While such institutional breakdown can happen at any time, crises are particularly fraught situations that make failure more likely.
Unfortunately for its institutions, The United Methodist Church has been in a prolonged crisis in the form of the debate over the place of LGBTQ+ persons in the church. This crisis has undercut the institutions of the church in at least three ways.
First, the conflict between Traditionalists and Progressives in the UMC has led to the polarization of almost everything in the church, including its institutions. Thus, one’s willingness to participate in and give heed to the church’s institutions, from the boards and agencies to the Judicial Council to the appointive process to apportionments, becomes a function of whether one sees those institutions as aligning with one’s own theopolitical stance. Support for institutions is no longer a given part of denominational membership; it is a political statement in an ongoing conflict.
Second, the debate over sexuality has undermined many of the institutions of the denomination because of their failure to resolve the debate. A mutually acceptable for both sides solution may always have been a fantasy, but many institutions within the church have still tried and failed to find such a solution. This includes General Conference, the Council of Bishops, and the Judicial Council. When the highest authorities within the denomination are unable to resolve a crisis, it undercuts the membership’s trust in and expectations of their ability to successfully regulate behavior.
Third, the denomination’s divisions have made it increasingly difficult for any other business to get accomplished. The debate between Traditionalists and Progressives has come to dominate more and more spaces within the denomination, which has reduced the capacity of denominational institutions to produce regular behavior even in matters unrelated to the main debate. There is less time and attention available, so less gets done. This lack of capacity can lead to the inability to carry out even routine other forms of business.
Of course, denominational division is not the only crisis the UMC has faced in recent years. The COVID-19 pandemic has added an additional layer of crisis. And, as in discussions of other sorts of institutions in US society and the world, the pandemic has both amplified and accelerated the pressures already facing denominational institutions. Again, this has taken several forms.
Related to the challenges of denominational division, the pandemic has forced the postponement of many denominational meetings. While necessary, such delays have forced United Methodists to devise other means for making decisions and doing work. In the process, it has raised questions about the value of traditional means for doing so. If it’s possible for the work of the church to get done without meetings of the standard institutions (such as General Conference), and if the main function of those institutions is just to serve as a forum for fighting, how important is it really to have those institutions?
The COVID crisis has revealed another way in which institutional weakness begets institutional weakness. Many annual conferences in the United States have struggled over whether and how to issue guidance to their congregations about in-person gatherings and health precautions during the pandemic. Especially in light of the politization of COVID precautions within secular society, denominational leaders have been faced with a tough choice:
On the one hand, annual conference leaders could issue guidance, knowing that some pastors and congregations would not follow that guidance. But issuing guidance that one knows will not be followed (and cannot be enforced) exposes the weakness of an institution: It shows that the institution is unable to produce regular behavior among its constituents. Moreover, if congregations flaunt annual conference guidance in this area without consequence, it emboldens them to flaunt guidance in other areas as well.
On the other hand, annual conference leaders could not issue guidance or issue guidance that leaves decisions up to pastors and congregations. This avoids exposing the weakness of annual conferences’ inability to produce required behavior. But it ends up weakening the institution in another way: By doing nothing, it raises questions among those who would like guidance about why the institution is not doing anything. If the institution is not going to provide guidance during a crisis, what good is it? Why pay for an institution if it is not going to serve you when you need it most?
The result of these overlapping crises is that the institutions of the church emerge weakened. People have fewer expectations that denominational institutions will try to influence their religious behaviors, and people are less willing to go along with those institutions when they do. And this process compounds upon itself: failure begets weakness, which makes future failure more likely, thereby accelerating decline.
Having now surveyed the variety of forces that are currently conspiring against denominational institutions, I will turn in my next post to the question of whether there is anything that could be done to support or strengthen denominational institutions amid such a climate.