by Chris Ritter

Whatever else the Separation Protocol is, it represents a unique “open enrollment period” wherein United Methodist congregations may elect to join a new denomination.  Such an option has never been presented to our 30,000 congregations and few are prepared to understand the stakes. Marketing at the denominational level has already begun. Pastors are a primary source of information, but the benefits of the denomination for clergy are different than for congregations. This series of posts is intended as a primer to help laity sort through issues of denominational alignment. We start with the advantages provided by the UMC to the local church.

The Big Picture

Denominations are autonomous branches of Christianity, each with their own rules, standards, culture, and beliefs. Some denominations are “congregational,” meaning that final authority rests with the local church. Participation in these denominations is more or less voluntary. Other denominations, like the UMC, are more interconnected and hierarchical. Conferences assess each local church a portion of the financial burden for the work of the conference and denomination. Local church properties are legally tied to the annual conference through a denominational trust clause. There are ways to leave, but (as with a marriage) these are neither cheap nor easy.

The Separation Protocol is legislation coming to the next UM General Conference, scheduled for August/September 2022.  Upon passage of the Protocol, each annual conference would be empowered to take a vote on whether to align with a new denomination. One option will be to remain in a post-separation United Methodist Church that will lean decidedly more progressive in terms of theology and human sexuality. The other primary option will be to help comprise a new, leaner Global Methodist Church with traditional approaches to theology and marriage. Congregations unhappy with the denominational choice of their annual conference may hold a church conference (an all-member meeting chaired by the district superintendent) to consider an alternative alignment. See a comparison chart of the two denominations here.

Branding

Denominations have historically provided identity. The denominational “brand” is shorthand for a set of normative characteristics like theology, history, ethos, and structure. Branding was extremely important in the day when denominational loyalties ran high. People moving from one town to another would tend to automatically seek out a congregation of the same denomination. Like a Michelin or Goodyear, United Methodism enjoyed one of the top brands. We are the largest of seven “Mainline” denominations that once represented the U.S. Christian mainstream. Attending a church of a Mainline denomination provided assurance of sound theology, stability, and respectability. 

Like Sears and Roebuck, organizations once engrained in U.S. culture can fall on hard times.  In 2014, Pew Research reported that only 9% of the American population attended a Mainline denominational church (down from 30% in 1970). These “seven sisters” together now represent a minority of Protestantism (Protestants as a whole comprise 43% of the U.S. population… United Methodists comprise perhaps 2%). U.S. culture is increasingly post-denominational. Growing congregations, if they belong to any denomination at all, tend to downplay that affiliation. To the larger U.S. culture, denominations are negatively associated with bureaucracy, irrelevant rules, stale worship services, aging/in-grown congregations, and questionable theology and practice.

The formation of the UMC in 1968 was an experiment in theological pluralism. We kept the full-freight, top-heavy institution that was designed for our heyday. But we set a course for a wide tent in terms of actual belief.  Over time, the denominational brand ceased to meaningfully describe the local experience. Regional differences have always existed, but tensions arose in our annual conferences over the core definitions of Christian faith. Today we seem defined more by our disagreements than what we share in common. Some congregations display signage or other symbols to seemingly communicate: “Please don’t confuse us with those other United Methodists.” The largest congregations in Illinois, Mississippi, Indiana, and Georgia have either disaffiliated from United Methodism in the past few months or are in the process of doing so. The fact that they have done so at significant financial cost tells us that they view the United Methodist brand as much more of a burden than a blessing.

But denominational identity will, I predict, be a major factor in many decisions on alignment. Although the UMC is only one of eighty Methodist denominations, it is the largest and the only one many of us have ever known. United Methodists tend to view themselves as democratically-minded, pro-education, socially conscious, and egalitarian sorts of people. Both denominations, I am sure, will seek to embody these values.

Structure

Another classic benefit of the UMC denomination for the local congregation is structure. United Methodists have a play book, the Discipline, that defines how they are to operate locally. Bishops and district superintendents serve as a built-in referee when conflicts arise. United Methodist congregations divide much less often than congregational churches. (Of course, splits in congregational churches have also tended to multiply the number of those congregations.) Significant authority is given to the pastor to select lay leadership. The 501(c)3 for each congregation is the same throughout the conference.

Structure provides stability. United Methodists tend to move at a slow, deliberate place. (Even separating from one another takes a very long time.) There is less drama in United Methodist congregations as compared to some of our counterparts. Some might say we are better and keeping things from happening than making things happen.

Resourcing

Denominations like the UMC provide resourcing. We have a denominational publishing house and our general agencies produce materials for the local church (officer training materials, HR help, child safety protocols, etc.) The abundance of Christian curriculum from other sources has tended to lessen demand for denominational resources over the years. And the materials provided by denominations are generally available to anyone. Some have suggested an inverse relationship between church growth and reliance upon denominational curriculum. But these claims are difficult to quantify. I think it is fair to say that the larger a congregation, the less they tend to exclusively rely on what the conference or denomination offers. And local churches fund these denominational resources whether they use them or not.

Of course, the most significant resourcing the denomination provides the local church is in the selection of their pastor. We pastors are loathe to admit it, but pastoral leadership is by far the single largest factor in congregational vitality. United Methodist congregations mostly leave the selection process to the prayerful work of the bishop and cabinet. It is important to understand these appointments are made from a pool of clergy guaranteed a placement. This means that there are factors in the appointment-making process that go beyond the wants and needs of the local church. There are clergy in good standing that require and assignment regardless of their track record of effectiveness.

The UMC denominational clergy deployment system is the most expensive ever devised. It justifies itself with the promise of seamless transitions without extended vacancies. With clergy shortages and falling salaries due to decline, this promise is getting harder for annual conferences to keep. The largest congregations often leverage their influence to get a bigger voice in the appointment process. Some even hire a search firm to work alongside the bishop. We’ll have much more to say about clergy deployment in future posts.

Shared Mission

A final advantage of denominational life is a program of shared mission. Denominational mission agencies allow local churches to contribute to large projects that would be difficult to manage alone. (UMCOR, our disaster relief organization, is a prime example.) Some mission projects are built into the baseline giving expected of the congregation. The UMC/conference also vets and manages projects that congregations might consider funding over and above their apportionments.

One argument for denomination-specific mission programs has been assurance of theological alignment. But our desire for a big theological tent has tended to cut against this logic.  A pitched battle, for instance, was held over several General Conferences on whether UMC entities should be part of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice.  The issue here was not one of money but whether the name of our denomination should be lent to this cause. Evangelicals often wish our mission work was framed more around evangelism and Gospel proclamation in word as well as deed. Much of our work is carried out with Christian motivation, but with no overt Christian message attached. Progressives have often been frustrated by (and rebellious of) denominational bans on money being spent toward LGBTQ inclusion. “Missions” is a word that has lost its meaning due to it varied usage. The ample numbers of large mission agencies that are not denominationally affiliated have also tended to degrade shared mission in the UMC. In the 1990’s, the General Board of Global Ministries had annual income of over $130 million. That number today is less than $30 million.

There is talk about both the UMC and the GMC continuing to share in support of UMCOR following separation. Some conferences, like Iowa, Minnesota, and the Dakotas are forging plans to share conference-owned campgrounds and the like. The Illinois Great Rivers Conference recently amended the bylaws of its Preacher’s Aid Society Fund & Benefit Fund so that it can serve clergy on either side of a future division. If separation is amicable, there are many ways resourcing can be shared.

Conclusion

In U.S. culture, denominations aren’t what they used to be. This is certainly true of the UMC. But denominations still carry significant freight in term of identity and ministry style. We need to remember that our sister Mainline denominations have divided before us and over the same set of issues. We can learn from these examples. Congregations considering their denominational alignment should seek to understand all the ways that the annual conference and denomination relate to the local church.  In Part Two, we will continue our cost/benefit analysis by exploring at the burdens that a denomination like the UMC places upon the local congregation.