Friday, February 10, 2023

UM & Global Announces Hiatus

UM & Global is announcing that, as of this post, it is going on a hiatus. We are taking a break from our publication schedule while we address some technical issues with the site and re-evaluate our editorial purpose. In the meantime, you can continue to follow @globalumc on Twitter for reposts of news related to mission and worldwide Methodism.

The primary impulse for this hiatus is that the platform the blog uses, Blogger, is now only being minimally supported by Google, its parent company, and has lost features. In particular, the function that sends notifications of new posts to readers has disappeared. Several of you have commented to me on its loss, and analytics show that this does seem to be impacting our site traffic. Currently, there is no alternative notification system available on Blogger. I want to explore other possible platforms for the blog, but since UM & Global is (and has always been) a one-person team run in addition to other full-time duties, I lack the bandwidth to do that while also continuing to produce regular content for the site.

On another level, this is a chance to not just tweak features but rethink how the blog functions. There has been a lot that has changed about the world, about The United Methodist Church, about mission, and about online fora for discussion since the blog launched. Indeed, the rise of new online platforms such as YouTube, podcasts, Substack, and various social media outlets has challenged the idea of what a blog is and should do. A hiatus will also create space to think about how UM & Global fits into the information landscape within and beyond the church in 2023.

Furthermore, a pause to reassess the purpose and function of the blog seems well timed given the accomplishments of the blog and the landmarks it has reached. UM & Global launched on March 3rd, 2013, so we have published for ten years now, and this is our 1200th post! Over those ten years and 1200 posts, the site has hosted a lot of good writing by about 120 different authors. Whatever comes next for the blog, this body of work is an accomplishment that all those who have contributed to the blog can be proud of.

I am not yet sure what the timeline for the hiatus or the next steps will be, but I anticipate that one way or another, there will still be demand for reflective, high-quality analysis related to “fostering conversations about the global nature of The United Methodist Church,” as the tagline for the blog has been. When we come back from this hiatus, UM & Global will continue to advance that mission.

Dr. David W. Scott
Blogmaster, UM & Global

Wednesday, February 8, 2023

An Appreciation of My Congregation

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 my last post, I wrote that in order for our congregations to continue to reach new people, we need to be able to talk about what goes right in them, not just what goes wrong. As a practice of that, I want to share an appreciation of some of the many things that go right at my congregation, Decorah First United Methodist Church, even amidst a decline in members and worship attendance.

My wife once described a church she served as “the type of Methodists who like to drink coffee and do good.” I think Decorah FUMC has a lot of that type of United Methodist, though I would add sing and learn to the list of things that the congregation likes to do. So, I will talk about singing, drinking coffee, learning, and doing good, or if you prefer church words, worship, fellowship, discipleship, and mission, as I have experienced them at Decorah FUMC and as I have come to know them as Methodist practices.

One of my distinct impressions of Decorah FUMC growing up was the singing. Not only was there a good choir, but the congregation would sing in four-part harmony during the hymns, singing “lustily and with good courage,” as John Wesley instructed. Even now, a much smaller choir continues to offer anthems as an important part of the service, and you can hear the voices of those around you during the hymns.

As I have come to learn more about Methodism and other Christian traditions, I have learned that Decorah FUMC’s emphasis on singing is perhaps to some extent an influence from our Lutheran neighbors, with their strong choral traditions, but also something intrinsic to Methodism. For a tradition co-founded by Charles Wesley and claiming some of the other top hymn writers of all time (Fannie Crosby, Charles Tindley, etc.), singing comes naturally.

But it wasn’t just that we sang, it was the joy expressed in the singing that stuck with me. The church I grew up in was generally a joyful church. They made plausible Psalm 122:1, “I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD!’” There is less joy and more weariness in the church these days, but the old joy still pops up every now and then.

This joyfulness taught me something important about Methodism and about faith. It taught me that church should be a blessing and not just an obligation. And it taught me the importance of emotion in experiencing one’s faith. Methodism has always been a tradition that combines head and heart, and growing up around joyful Christians helped me internalize that.

Drinking Coffee
After the singing (and the rest of worship) is over, most folks at Decorah FUMC head downstairs. The church is part of that large group of US Protestant churches that believe that coffee time is the third sacrament. Of course, despite what my children might tell you, the real point of coffee time is not the treats or the coffee (organic and fair trade though it may be), but the opportunity to sit around a table and talk with other congregants.

Every church has its cliques and its social customs that feel foreign to outsiders, and I expect Decorah FUMC is no different than others in that regard. But I have experienced their fellowship to be open, warm, and meaningful.

I remember as a kid watching my parents interact with their friends at coffee time and learning from those models of Christian adulthood. Then as a teenager, I remember the thrill of sitting at a table without my parents and talking to other adults who treated me seriously and with respect and affection. It was an important step in forming my own identity. Now, I appreciate the chance to talk with people I wouldn’t otherwise during the week – people with different ages, abilities, and life histories than me. Each of these experiences of fellowship fits with the larger Methodist emphasis that religion must be a communal experience. One cannot be a solitary Christian.

Decorah FUMC has always scheduled Sunday school for after coffee time. Those faith formation options for children and adults have ebbed and flowed over the years, and they are not always confined to Sunday mornings. Church members have formed a long-running book club, and there are a variety of occasional presentations on a wide range of topics related to the practice of faith in the world. This is perhaps not surprising for a congregation with an overrepresentation of teachers.

As I’ve come to know more about Methodism throughout the world, this also strikes me as representative of Methodism as a tradition broadly: the emphasis on learning and education. This expresses itself in various ways, from starting Sunday schools to starting universities, but Methodists care about education.

I’m currently in the middle of teaching a short Sunday school session on mission at my church, and it’s reminded me of another thing I appreciate about Decorah FUMC. It’s a church that’s interested in learning and, as part of that, willing to talk about faith and how to live out one’s faith in the world. Most of the people at Decorah FUMC do not subscribe to a privatized faith that is only something internal. They are interested in talking with other church members about how to better understand and live out their faith.

While the church has not had (to my knowledge) a formal “discipleship system” or “Wesleyan accountability groups,” but this is the work of discipleship, overflowing into in the lives of the congregants. This, too, is very Wesleyan: an emphasis on discipleship that impacts people’s everyday practice of their faiths.

Doing Good
It is this fourth category, doing good, where Decorah FUMC perhaps shines the brightest. The congregation has always been and remains civic-minded, willing to volunteer, generous, and serious about mission.

Decorah FUMC did not and does not have the town’s wealthiest or the most prominent college professors on its rolls. Instead, it has had a lot of teachers, small business owners, nurses, and a smattering of other professionals. In other words, the congregation has had a lot of the civically oriented middle class among its members.

These are the sorts of people who volunteer for things and serve on committees and generally help keep the gears of the local community turning. They helped launch the local Habitat for Humanity organization, serve on the library board, help keep the food pantry running, and the like. Not all of this happens through the church, but it is still a form of local mission.

As I have learned more about Methodism, this strikes me as quite frequently Methodism’s place in the religious ecology of communities. It may begin among the “upwardly mobile poor,” but in many places, Methodism comes to be characterized by people who care about the common good, the health of the community, and who have enough to contribute to that common good without necessarily having a lot left over. Sometimes those contributions to the community are organized through the church; sometimes church members make them on their own.

As part of caring about its community, Decorah FUMC has long been a generous congregation. My first experience of church committee work was serving on the mission committee in high school and being impressed by the number of organizations in the community that the church helped support. Now, I am the treasurer of the local food pantry, and I know that the tradition of generosity continues in the church.

Nor is it just money that the congregation gives. It is generous about the use of its space, too, hosting everything from AA meetings to preparations for the community Thanksgiving meal to holiday celebrations for students from the local college to concerts to community forums on various topics.

Yet Decorah FUMC has never believed that mission is just about giving money or letting others use their space. Instead, over the past several decades, the church has subscribed to a notion of mission that has emphasized personal relationships. I know that this practice of personal relationships in mission has impacted how I understand mission and how I have taught others about mission.

I remember the United Methodist Congolese student at the local college that the congregation helped support during and beyond her studies. I think of the church’s commitment to the Ulster Project, which sought to foster reconciliation between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland by forming relationships among youth from the two groups. I remember how the church showed up for families impacted by the immigration raid in nearby Postville, IA, the largest such raid in the nation’s history. First and foremost, I think of the congregation’s now 25-year-long commitment to a sister congregation relationship with a congregation in Central America.

It is this commitment to mission, this dedication to putting faith into action for the sake of others, that strikes me as most characteristic of Methodism. Methodism is a missional movement, as its proponents have repeatedly emphasized throughout the years. I am grateful to have been molded into that tradition of Methodism by Decorah FUMC and further grateful that I am now able to share that understanding back with them and with others throughout the world.

Monday, February 6, 2023

A Defense of My Congregation

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.

One of the unexpected upsides of the pandemic for me and my family has been the opportunity to move back to my hometown, Decorah, IA. Along with that move, I’ve been able to resume my connection to the church I grew up in, First United Methodist Church of Decorah.

Being a part of Decorah FUMC has not only been a nice opportunity to reconnect with people who have been an important part of my spiritual development, it has also been a unique opportunity to reflect on the challenges that have faced American Christianity in the past 25 or 30 years as they have played out in this congregation.

Like many United Methodist churches (and like many churches of other denominations), Decorah FUMC is a smaller and older congregation than it was when I grew up in it. While it’s easy to interpret that statement in entirely negative ways, I think it’s worth saying a word in defense of the church, a word about why the church does not deserve to shoulder all the blame for that change.

I make this defense of my congregation not because I think it is unique, but rather because I know it is not. From my wife’s experiences as a pastor, my knowledge of the ministry of other pastors, my teaching of Course of Study, and my reading of stories about United Methodist and other churches in the United States, I think what is true in Decorah is true in a lot of places. I’m able to make this defense for Decorah FUMC because I know it better than other congregations, but a lot of what I have to say carries across congregations.

Changes in Attendance
Although The United Methodist Church and only mainline denominations have been losing members since the 1960s, Decorah FUMC, like a number of other United Methodist and other mainline congregations, was actually doing really well through the 1990s. Indeed, the 1990s were something of a heyday of members and ministries for several United Methodist congregations that I know, including congregations across the theological spectrum.

Since the 1990s, though, membership and attendance has dwindled, at Decorah FUMC and at most of the other congregations I know for whom the 90s was a heyday. Attendance at Decorah FUMC peaked at somewhere around 120 a week in the 90s. Currently, it’s probably somewhere between 40 and 50 on a given Sunday.

While that drop may seem dramatic, it’s more typical than one might think. One Hartford Institute for Religion Research study found that the median worship size for US congregations across denominations fell by just over 50% between 2000 and 2020. Another recent Hartford study has shown that average attendance has decline by a further quarter compared to pre-pandemic.

Put these two figures together, and one would expect Decorah FUMC to have attendance in the average low 40s these days just based on national trendlines. As dramatic as this drop in attendance figures may seem, it’s not exceptional. It’s normal.

Small and Rural
Both of the Hartford Institute for Religion Research articles cited above make clear that drops in typical attendance have been especially pronounced for smaller churches and churches in rural areas or small towns. Decorah FUMC fits both these categories. Indeed, given the unique challenges of rural and small congregations, Decorah FUMC is doing somewhat better than one would expect.

Rural churches often don’t receive a lot of attention. Most Americans live in suburbs; only 14% live in rural areas and small towns. But 47% of American congregations are in rural areas and small towns. That means while the typical American Christian may be in the suburbs, the typical American church is not.

This is true for United Methodism as well. One of the legacies of the circuit riders is that the UMC has churches in most small towns in America. There are about the same number of UMC churches in the United States as there are post offices. The typical UMC congregation is small and located in a rural or small-town setting.

While detailing all the challenges of rural and small-town life in 21st century America would go far beyond this essay, a pervasive sense of dwindling and decline applies to many aspects of rural life. Businesses close. Young people move away. Schools are consolidated. The population ages and declines. Why should churches be exempt from these trends?

Here, too, Decorah FUMC is indicative of broader trends. Decorah, IA, is in many ways a successful and thriving small town compared to others. But the population has been static since 1980, with a recent dip from declining enrollment in the local college. There are fewer people in the surrounding county now than there were in 1870. In a static to declining population, even maintaining church membership is a challenge, especially given national trend lines away from religion.

This is especially true given the outmigration of people from small towns. Looking through pictures of the confirmation classes from the years my brothers and I were being confirmed, I see that probably 75% of the kids who grew up in Decorah FUMC have moved away. It’s not that other young people haven’t moved to town since, but the experience of moving can be disruptive those with weaker church attachments. Newer young people moving in are less likely to affiliate with a church than the young people who grew up in a congregation but are now moving away.

Focusing on young families (the golden grail of so many churches) reflects another challenge that small churches have. As churches contract, it becomes harder to maintain a critical mass of young families. My family has been the only young family in some churches we’ve attended, and my kids have been the only kids under 10 in those churches. It can be rough.

For parents who care about passing on the faith to their kids, there is an incentive to switch to another church with more kids and perhaps a Sunday school. Even when I was in high school, the attraction was palpable of the larger, Lutheran youth groups when compared to the small band of Methodists. I know other families in Decorah who were connected to First United Methodist Church but switched to other churches than still had a larger attendance so that their kids would have age-level peers in church.

Exegeting the Experience
Am I making excuses and saying that it’s okay that membership and worship attendance at Decorah FUMC have dropped? No! I sincerely wish it was different. It breaks my heart to see the congregation a fraction of its former self, especially because I know the faith of those who have been a part of the congregation and the good work that the congregation has done.

What I am saying is that I don’t think we should place all the blame for these changes on the congregation itself. Has the congregation made mistakes in the past 25 or 30 years that have cost it members? Sure. Every organization makes mistakes, and the congregation and its ministers have made mistakes too.

But the congregation has also done things right and tried new things in the past 25 or 30 years, things that the experts say should lead to growth and vitality. They experimented with a new, non-traditional worship experience. They’ve been heavily involved in their local community. People are willing to talk about their faith. They have welcomed new members. When I look around on Sunday, a good portion - probably between a quarter and a third - of the people in the pews were not yet there when I was growing up.

And many of the factors affecting the congregation are far beyond its control. It cannot control the educational, economic, and cultural incentives that make young people decide to leave town. It did not control the 2019 General Conference, though its outcome did cost the church members. It certainly didn’t control the COVID pandemic, though that’s been the most disruptive impact on church attendance in living memory. And, while everyone bears some responsibility for the larger cultural shifts away from church attendance and membership, it is unfair to hold individual congregations responsible for solving a problem that US Christianity as a whole has not been able to.

Decorah FUMC is a good congregation, and it has done good ministry and continues to do good ministry, even as its numbers have declined. And as hard as it may be to see empty pews, what’s even harder is to see good, faithful people feeling like they have failed because of those empty pews.

Yes, evangelism should be a practice and a value of the church. But to fault every congregation that is not growing amidst a tidal surge in the opposite direction, especially congregations in areas with real demographic limitations to growth, is cruel. We cannot expect every congregation to be like those in growing suburbs. And to insist that they must is to abdicate responsibility for really engaging with the reality of nearly half of American congregations.

Nor is it productive to make congregations feel bad because they have fewer members. No one wants to join a floundering or failing organization. Telling congregations that they have failed because they have lost members is counter-productive to the goal of bringing in new people. Christianity is about good news, not about fulfilling obligations even though the experience is sort of a downer.

To continue to reach new people, we need to focus on what goes right at our churches, not just what goes wrong. So, in my next post, I’m going to write an appreciation of Decorah UMC and celebrate the things that go right there, and in so many other United Methodist congregations in the United States.

Friday, February 3, 2023

Recommended Reading: How To Save the Planet

The European Methodist Youth Climate Team has created a 4-page guide to creation care entitled "How To Save the Planet." The European Methodist Youth Climate Team had been active around environmental issues in the lead-up to the COP27 meeting and issued a statement after that meeting. This new guide (written in English) is an extension of their previous work.

The guide presents 15 practical and spiritual steps that Methodists (and others) can take for "meaningful action on climate change." The steps range from advocacy to changing personal consumption habits to caring for those impacted by climate change. Throughout, there is an emphasis on cultivating the spiritual habits and dispositions and the theological undergirding for such work.

This guide is sure to be a helpful resource as a conversation starter for individual Methodists, Methodist congregations, and other settings where Methodists are committed to caring for God's creation.

Wednesday, February 1, 2023

Bolivia and the Challenges of Church Financing

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.

The Swiss UMC published a profile of the recently-elected Methodist bishop of Bolivia. The Evangelical Methodist Church in Bolivia is an autonomous Methodist denomination with historic connections to The United Methodist Church and on-going partnerships with Swiss United Methodists through the Swiss mission and development agencies, Connexio hope and develop.

One thing in particular struck me about what Bishop Medardo Vedia Gutierrez said about his vision for the future of the church in Bolivia. He argued that the church needs to become less financially reliant on its school system to pay for the ministries of the church.

Some background is important here. Methodism in much of South America was heavily influenced by William Taylor, a Methodist world-traveling evangelist, missionary, and eventually bishop. Taylor recruited most of the missionary personnel that forwarded the development of Methodism in South America in the later nineteenth century.

Taylor was a strong proponent of self-supporting mission. That is, he wanted mission to be primarily funded by local sources, not by donations from the United States. In South America, the main source for local funds to support Taylor missions was operating schools. Taylor missionaries made running schools (especially English-language schools) a primary focus of their work.

When leadership of Methodism in South America passed from missionary to local hands, these schools continued and continued to be an important part of South American Methodism, both as a source of revenue and as a marker of identity.

Thus, Bolivian Methodism's reliance on income from its school system has deep historic roots.

There have been real advantages historically to this system of church financing. It has made churches, even those serving poorer groups, less financially dependent on the United States, which has meant more freedom to make decisions locally.

But every strategy has its limitations, and the pandemic exposed the limitations of this strategy for church financing. During the COVID shutdown, income for Methodist schools in Bolivia fell sharply, which means that money to support the church in Bolivia dried up as well. That put a pinch on both the schools and the church.

Hence, Bishop Gutierrez would like to cultivate more congregational giving and more members and congregations to give and thus reduce the church's financial dependency on the schools. The challenge with congregational giving, however, comes when congregational members themselves have limited financial resources to share with the church.

This example from Bolivia is a good reminder: there is no perfect model for financing the activities of the church. Churches have had varying means of paying for the work they do throughout the centuries, and each of these means have had advantages and disadvantages.

Perhaps the goal, though, is not to find the perfect model for church financing that can apply universally, but rather to do the work of discerning what model can best support the mission and ministry of the church in a particular context at a particular time.

Running schools has had real advantages for Methodism in Latin America, but COVID caused a shift in the context. That calls for a rethinking of financial models, as Bolivia is doing. May God bless Bishop Gutierrez and the Bolivian church as they seek to continue to be faithful and wise in shifting contexts.