by Chris Ritter
A global pandemic is providing an unscheduled stop-over on the road to the United Methodist disunification. Even without a fifteen-month delay in General Conference, divorce was never going to be quick, simple, painless, or cheap. I have long predicted details will linger unresolved a decade or more following passage of whatever legislation provides for parting. The pause, however, refocuses us all on the existential threats facing all parties in our conjoined denomination.
The Methodist Ice Cube
For some time we have been approaching a viability threshold where the basic structures of our denominational life will no longer be sustainable. In 2011 Lovett Weems warned about a “Death Tsunami” coming upon the UMC due to the demographic trends facing the church. In 2004 the late Lyle Schaller wrote The Ice Cube is Melting in reference to the then forty-plus-year decline in United Methodism. In the United States, our ice cube is now spinning in a 1200 watt microwave. The triple whammy of denominational dysfunction, decline, and COVID-19 disruption brings us to a tipping point earlier than could have been guessed.
Thumb through the annals of any U.S. annual conference to see our pre-COVID reality. In my own Illinois Great Rivers Conference, attendance dropped 33% over the past decade. Dial down further in the data and you will find once vibrant congregations that slipped into maintenance and then decline. It is not just that these churches have lost X%, but the congregants who remain have aged and lost capacity for reaching new people. Churches grow at the edges… new people reaching new people. Those faithful souls that keep the lights on are not those who can likely engineer a turnaround. Most of our congregations are cut flowers.
Some congregations will use COVID-19 as a moment of reset. Far more will realize they have nothing substantive to repackage. Take away the habit of going to church and the trappings of bygone glory and you see the message that once built the church is no longer there. Mainline-ism depends upon a culture that wants to hear a pop sound in a classic format… like Taylor Swift on 8-track. But what happens when the culture itself is over the idea of church for church’s sake?
Our annual conferences, most teetering on the edge of financial viability, are being pushed over the cliff by COVID. Elderly populations of worshippers, the bread and butter of our aging denomination, are less able to connect. Camping programs are folding. (In the IGRC example, our camping ministry reported 3200 participants in 2009. Last year that number was 1420 in spite of what was supposed to be a major programatic revamp. This year the number is much closer to zero due to COVID.) Mission programs are paused. What is left is the most expensive clergy deployment system on the planet. Our current system guarantees that the clergy leadership who brought us to this point will remain in charge until the last dog dies.
The general church, fed financially by faltering annual conferences, is experiencing plummeting revenues. I understand that Global Ministries, our mission agency, recently cut their staff by an additional 30%. Before COVID, GCFA was planning on cutting $80 million and submitting the smallest quadrennial denominational budget in 30 years. Now cuts will need to be even more drastic. We don’t know where the bottom is, but we are sure the present denominational model would not be sustainable even if COVID, decline, and separation were not happening simultaneously.
“Decline” has become an inadequate descriptor for this “tipping point” moment when the whole system no longer works. In the 1970’s the U.S. economy faced the combined threat of high inflation and stagnation of economic output. The word “stagflation” was coined as a descriptor of our shared misery. What is a single word capturing United Methodism’s triple state of division, decline and disruption: “Divcluption”?
There are prescriptions for treating each of our maladies. For division, the leading option is called The Separation Protocol and calls for structural division to happen as quickly as legislatively possible. Depending on your ideology, there are various options for addressing decline (I have recommended some myself.) But there is no strategy with even the faintest hope of taking the church, as currently constituted, to a place of fruitful health from where we are now. United Methodism as we have known it is gone. We now are left to sort ourselves into new working groups through division so we can try our separate prescriptions for recovery.
Out of Chaos?
It was an adage of the Clinton Administration to “never waste a crisis.” Earlier this month I tuned into the webinar called “Out of Chaos… Creation.” The conveners, a group of GC delegates, named the unique character of our current “Methodist Moment” and lifted the hope that this could be the birth pangs of something new. These are strident progressives anticipating a bigger voice in the post-separation UMC. I interpret the effort as coalition-building for reframing the mission of the post-separation UMC around intersectional and environmental justice. This goal is only achievable once a significant number of traditionalists are gone.
It is a compliment to the UMC institution, I suppose, that a group still wants to take it over. But let’s not mistake this for a new vision.
Schaller’s The Ice Cube is Melting was a response to United Methodism at Risk: A Wake-Up Call by the late Leon Howell, editor of the progressive Christianity and Crisis. Howell warned of conservative groups (IRD, Good News) attacking cherished institutions of the church and setting up a shadow government of sorts. Schaller, in response, said that the UMC is comprised of “residents of Jerusalem” and “residents of Athens.” These groups better figure out how to live together (or peaceably divide) because the whole denomination is circling the drain. One side blaming the other (as a strategy to boost their own power) would not fix things.
However real the negative impacts of intramural battles, the blame for decline cannot be laid there. People fight over what they care about. This fight has morphed into a low grumble as we pass one another in the hall. Those annual conferences best aligned on the right and left are nonetheless in decline (if by different orders of magnitude). It is fond thinking that, free of progressives, traditional Methodism will suddenly flourish; just as it is wishful thinking that the exit of conservatives will leave progressives with the pristine church that will fire the soul of social change. Magical thinking is not legitimate hope.
A Sardis Moment
The movie Apollo 13 is famous for the line, “Houston, we have a problem.” But the more important scene is when the engineers at NASA get in a room to figure out what to do about it. Flight Director Gene Krantz (Ed Harris) announces: “I want you all to forget the flight plan. From now on we are improvising a new mission. How do we get our people home?” With so much blown apart, they had to figure out what systems were still operational enough to sustain life.
In Revelation 3:2, the church of Sardis was challenged to “strengthen what remains.” There are U.S. churches within United Methodism that are doing amazing ministry, reaching people for Jesus, producing new leaders, and deploying people for ministry. We have many pastors who called, gifted, and effective. Strong mission partnerships exist. There are denominational leaders and staffers who have vision, drive, and Kingdom vision. These folks need to be freed to do their best work… independent of any goal of denominational institutional maintenance.
We are no longer trying to build or preserve the UMC. We are refitting the individual working pieces for a future in the new mission in an uncertain landscape just over the hill. This is a time to return to foundational New Testament principles of the faith. Might some of us, by God’s grace, go from ice to steam?
When current challenges get too overwhelming to contemplate, I remember the parts of the world where a more toothsome version of United Methodism is flourishing in spite (or maybe because of) some notable obstacles. In the Next Christendom, Phillip Jenkins chronicles Christianity’s shift to the global south and posits: “God goes where He is wanted.” In the divine economy, we can never really grieve what is passing away. Human systems always fall apart. The Gospel of Jesus Christ remains… and it is marvelous in our eyes.