The United Methodist Church is in a season of asking hard questions.
It is wrestling with a perfect storm of crises: 1) membership loss in the U.S. from 11 million in 1968 to approximately eight million today; 2) dwindling financial resources at the denominational level as a result of the recession; and 3) theological division over issues such as biblical authority and homosexuality.
One example of our denomination’s attempt to name and deal with the new normal is the Call To Action report, which you can read here.
I have an up close perspective on some of the issues and more of a sidelines view of others. Yet I’ve invested most of my adult life in the denomination and I have abiding love for its history and theology.
So what are some current trends emerging out of these hard questions and this crisis?
1. Creeping Congregationalism. For years, the Annual Conference was thought to be the center of ministry in the Methodist church. Bishops, executives, and even pastors would speak glowingly of the “ministry of the Conference” or even on a small scale, the “ministry of the District.” (Good Shepherd, for example, is a member of the Western North Carolina Annual Conference and the Charlotte District.) Yet these days, the focus is — deservedly so — on the ministry of the local congregation. The majority of people in the pews — or in the cushioned blue seats — have little knowledge of or investment in denominational structures; they care about what happens in their local church. The hierarchy is at long last taking note.
2. Tenuous Itineracy. For years, Methodists have been the church that “moves its pastors” with great frequency — every four years or so. In previous generations, local churches had little say in who they received. It was a fine system — for horse and buggy days. These days, we realize that moving pastors so often leads to unstable churches and dysfunctional pastoral families. In addition, 21st Century people are not as trusting of institutions as people of earlier eras; they want more say in determining who the pastor is who serves them.
3. End To Guaranteed Appointments . When I entered ordained ministry, one mentor promised me that there would always be “a church for every pastor and a pastor for every church.” Meaning: once you are ordained and have “tenure,” you are guaranteed a job somewhere. Somehow, the powers that be make this part of the system work every year. Yet any kind of tenured system protects mediocrity, and the sense is that many Methodist preachers have settled for exactly that. So there exists a strong push to end the guaranteed appointment. Of course, those pushing for ending guaranteed appointments assume that their performance is well above mediocrity and their appointment will never be in jeopardy!
4. Seminary Accountability. Since the denomimation suffers from low performing clergy (see point #3), it must be the training! Or so goes the thinking. Some of our seminaries have encouraged doctrinal thinking well beyond the boundaries of orthodoxy while others have devoted more time to preparing men and women for academic careers than parish ministry. So there is a move afoot to reduce dramatically the amount of denominational funds that go to our thirteen official schools.
5. Follow The Money. It’s where most crises take us. As individual congregations struggle to fund their own local ministries, that means less money is available for institutional projects. I know our own Western North Carolina Conference, for example, has seen major reductions to its staff. If current giving patterns continue, many see a future in which the primary role of the denomination is to collect and disburse clergy benefits as opposed to authoring ministry initiatives.