Why the American UMC Is Dying a (Somewhat) Slow Death, and Concerned Leaders’ Best Response (Pt. I)

Part 1 of this 2-part post illustrates the problem. I hope you’ll continue to part 2, as part 1 by itself may sound merely depressing or hopeless. I have great hope for change, but I believe it will come in a very different form than most are advocating today.

Last year, I had a front-row seat to a cause of the American UMC’s slow death. I write with the hope that we are not too late for change. My final goal is to give advice and encouragement to others working in the system: those not yet ready to give up; those with a great vision, if not hope, for the UMC’s future; those who believe in God’s powerful work through Wesleyan theology, apostolic evangelism, and discipleship unto holiness.

The Problem

The American UMC is a dying institution. This is hardly debatable. Membership and attendance numbers have steadily declined for a century, only mitigated by mergers. The average age of members has steadily risen. No one believes these are the “glory days” of American Methodism, whether measuring by numbers or by religious experience. Given the most recently reported average age of members (57), our death may come more quickly than expected, as the next generation passes and contributions rapidly decline.

In dying institutions, change only comes from (a) a bold, loud leader at the top, (b) the bottom up, or (c) rock bottom. As the below illustration demonstrates, top-down change won’t work without a bold, loud, and trusted leader supporting it. Unless urged by their leader, such a large majority will revert to status quo. The only other time people will embrace change is when they know they are in crisis. Our majority does not yet realize our crisis. By the time they realize it, will it be too late to change our failing status quo?

An Illustration of the Problem

Two years ago, I was asked to serve on a task force for our conference. I declined. I had spent too much time on too many committees that had no apparent effect. But I was assured that this would be different. We had an opportunity to make significant change to a failing structure in the conference – our college chaplaincies and Wesley Foundations. These consume 8% of the current budget. (Those are failing structures that catch the Bishop’s attention!) The Bishop had acknowledged the inherent flaws in the current structure and commissioned a group to recommend major changes. I saw the opportunity to serve on a committee that would make a difference and accepted the invitation.

Over the next 18 months, we consumed no less than 500 cumulative hours of task force members’ time in meetings, teleconferences, research, document drafting, presentation prep, etc. Some members were already among the conference’s experts in this area: one Wesley Foundation director, three former directors, three former board chairs, a college president, and the conference staff person and chairman, who had each overseen this area for the past six years. All agreed that the existing system was fraught with problems and frustration and must change. In time, we developed a plan that would require significant change but allow for great opportunity. The plan gave us hope for starting new ministries, better resourcing some of our most needy existing ones, and providing real accountability where little had existed before.

Last year, we brought our recommendations to the Annual Conference. Some who were unhappy with the new proposal organized an effort to reject it. People stood on the conference floor and talked about the great importance campus ministry had played in their lives, urging us not to make change that could jeopardize that.

In the end, the members of Annual Conference were presented the choice of keeping a system they understood and have seen work in the past or accepting a new proposal that they could not fully understand in the short time available to present it. They amended the new proposal to the point that it looked like that old, familiar system, with a few minor variations. Then they happily approved it. Their amendments essentially mandated we keep in place our failing system.

I already have some regrets about our approach and presentation (e.g. choosing not to share some of the dirty laundry of the present situation), but I believe we were fighting a losing battle from the start.

This experience was exactly what I needed. I was clinging to the belief that significant change in the UMC could happen from the top down. This vote helped me to fully realize that we are a democracy – a large democracy – unready for significant change. Large democracies do not vote for major change. [See, more recently, the debacle that was GC2012.] It brings too many fears. It moves too far from too many people’s comfort. The majority cannot effectively be educated to the point that they understand the problems that make such drastic change necessary and the reasons proposed solutions might do better.

In the end, fifteen minutes of debate trumped 18 months of work. The majority, with little real awareness of the issues we face, voted against the group of experts who were commissioned to solve those issues. Given equal voice, uncertainty and change will lose to heartstrings and status quo almost every time. This proposal was the only proposal for any significant changes at last year’s Annual Conference. Its death serves as illustration of the slow death we are choosing as a denomination.

The Solution

We cannot expect life-giving, course-altering change to come out of a General, Jurisdictional, or Annual Conference. We have little reason to hope that the right task force or committee decision will set us on a great new path. We must instead embrace change from the bottom up, before we hit rock bottom. The following post will address the potential for that kind of change.

Those reading this may sense some frustration in my own experiences, and this is undoubtedly true. Large expenditures of effort with little result are disappointing. Some who have experienced similar difficulties may be reminded of their own discontent. The goal of this article, though, is not to vent my frustrations and encourage others in their own. Instead, I write expecting that many others have experienced — or will experience in the coming months — similar frustrations and are looking for answers.  Part 2 will attempt to provide encouragement and direction for anyone dealing with similar concerns.

Derek says:

As long as there is that many people voting on tough issues I bet more stuff will get voted down that needs to be passed. We like safety and letting eveyone know hey are ok rather thAn really accomplishing something.

Derek says:

I wish that had past. One of my biggest regrets is not asking you all from the floor to share specifics. I do disagree with that if you had aired the dirty laundry I think it would have been much more likely to pass and if the presenter had been more clear in his presentation it would have been more likely to pass.

This goes back to the feelings post you just posted on Facebook. We are worried about hurting one another’s feelings. In order for effective change to happen we need to point out results or lack their of in a blunt yet loving way and allow people to feel what they will. Yes, change does have to come from the ground up, but we also have share everything even if people do not want to hear it.

Had I asked you all for exact numbers I think that the result would have been different. Had you all shared that information I think the result would have been different b/c many clergy voted in support of your recommendations. Many laity who may have less knowledge about the need for change voted against your recommendations.

Teddy Ray says:

Thanks for the comments, Derek. I wish we had gone ahead shared some more of the details. It would be interesting to see how things would have changed. I’ve talked to many who think it would would have changed minds. And then I’ve also seen those who present the real picture criticized for trying to motivate with fear and negativity (see Adam Hamilton at General Conference this year).

In all of these, I think we face a lot of very complex, nuanced issues, and yet we expect to resolve them with big, democratic votes. Part of this blog’s goal is to ask: How many of the complex, nuanced issues would change, go away, or be handled more wisely if we weren’t trying to operate as a big, political enterprise?

Shannon says:

I remember those discussions from last year. Even as a visitor to Annual Conference just trying to learn what was going on, I knew that it was going to be on the biggest talking points of the entire conference. There was certainly a well-organized effort to bring it down. I’m sorry you had to experience it, but, as you said, it had a strong point of an awakening to understanding the structural issues we face as a denomination.