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The Un-Tying of The United Methodist Church, Part 2

Photo by Tim Boote on Unsplash

This is Part 2 of a three-part series by the Rev. Dr. Ted A. Campbell on the events that have led to the pending division of The United Methodist Church. You can access part 1 here. Part 3 will appear on July 13.

Connectionalism and Beyond

If United Methodist consensus in ethics, doctrine, and worship has waned, the denomination’s distinctive organizational structures also seem to have lost their appeal. The earliest Disciplines of the Methodist Episcopal Church described a collaborative or connectional church. Led by bishops who appointed groups of clergy to wide-scale circuits as platforms for evangelistic expansion, clergy met with bishops annually in small conferences with their peers, and they elected fellow clergy as delegates to a general conference every four years. In this early system there were no “congregations” or “local churches,” only groups of Methodist classes organized into a local society that functioned as a franchise of the annual conference. Clergy were assigned to circuits, not to particular societies, and annual conferences, consisting only of clergy members, were understood to be the basic unit of the church. Clergy traveled about (“itinerated”) organizing new classes and societies and were paid a standardized salary by the denomination. A central feature from the earliest days of the Methodist movement was a trust clause specifying that church properties would revert to the denomination if they ever ceased to be used for the denomination’s purposes. What that meant in practice was that Methodist congregations could separate from the denomination, but they could not take their property with them in doing so. That functioned as a deterrent to congregations leaving the denomination.

Over the century and a half from its founding in 1784, the denomination’s connectional structures grew increasingly complex. A publishing house and a mission-sending agency were the first in a series of denomination-wide agencies dedicated to collaboration in home and foreign missions, social outreach, and social reforms, including advocacy for the abolition of enslavement, temperance in the use of beverage alcohol, and eventually total abstention and Prohibition. The denomination developed systems of apportioning offerings from churches to provide support for denomination-wide ministries. A series of denominational divisions led to replicated structures in each of the American Methodist denominations.

From about the 1880s in these Methodist denominations, local societies began to understand themselves as congregations or local churches like those of other denominations (Farrish, The Circuit Rider Dismounts). Larger congregations could supplement clergy salaries, and in return, expected clergy to be assigned to their congregation alone. Evangelization began to lag as clergy were seen as the employees of a single congregation and were no longer expected to be seeking new constituencies.

And while evangelization lagged, the denominations grew even more complex. Annual conferences were subdivided into districts and the denomination began to conform more and more to US cultural expectations. In 1939 the newly united Methodist Church in the USA was divided into five regional “jurisdictions” for white churches and clergy and a segregated, overlapping jurisdiction for Black churches and clergy. Morris Davis has shown that this officially sanctioned racial segregation was supported not only by white Southern Methodists but by Northern Methodist Episcopal Church leaders as well (Davis, The Methodist Unification). Annual conferences outside the USA were grouped into central conferences parallel to jurisdictions in the US. Moreover, movements for popular democracy from the 1820s had brought laity into the complex levels of conferences as delegates, and by 1939 all Methodist Church structures were mandated to have equal numbers of lay and clergy delegates. The size and complexity of Methodist conferences and other groups increased proportionately as the union with the Evangelical United Brethren Church approached.

Which brings us back to 1968. The very building in which the United Methodist Church was formed was the very Modernist Dallas Memorial Auditorium designed by architect George Dahl and built in 1956. The organizational structures favored by the new denomination were those typical of the Modernist period, roughly the 1880s through the 1960s, illustrated not only by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics but also by major western corporations of that era: a super-standardized top-down structure, with each lower level of organization replicating the organization of the top layer. A key element in attaining this organizational scheme was amalgamation: business mergers in the US, at least in the areas of manufacturing and mining, happen to have peaked precisely in 1968 (USA FTC, 110). After its union in that year, The United Methodist Church moved rapidly to amalgamate every remaining organizational vestige of the Evangelical United Brethren Church into the patterns inherited from the Methodist Church. EUB and Methodist theological schools near each other were ordered to amalgamate.

In 1972 the denomination rolled out a new scheme for local-church organization, an arcanely complex structure that required flow charts to distinguish the work of an administrative board, a council on ministries, a board of trustees, and a raft of mandated committees (UMC Book of Discipline 1972, 113-137). Most United Methodist congregations had less than 200 members, but every congregation, even if it had only 27 members, was required to name at least 36 different church officers every year to these myriad committees. One size fits all. I know. I was the twenty-year-old pastor of that little congregation with 27 members where twelve elderly women attended most weeks. I dutifully listed Mrs. Josephine Culpepper as the chair of the administrative board, the chair of the trustees, the head of the council on ministries that never met, and the nominal leader of most of the other mandated groups that never met. European church leaders tell me that the new congregational structure effectively did away with remaining small-group structures they had inherited from United Brethren as well as Methodist churches. Progressive leaders in the early United Methodist Church saw the Modernist organizational model as a natural extension of their historic and growingly complex connectional structures. But that was about to run into serious problems.

The UMC’s leaders in 1968 had been shaped by the global economic depression of the 1930s and the Second World War. They had learned from hard experience to collaborate for common good in the face of huge challenges. Their embrace of unified organizational structures reflected their generation’s vision of large-scale collaboration. Whatever you call the subsequent generations of leaders and the church culture they nurtured — post-liberal, post-Modernist, post-critical, Post Toasties — the vision of large-scale collaboration faded very rapidly after 1968.

We could call it a post-connectional church culture. And that is a nasty problem for The United Methodist Church and its highly evolved connectional structures. It reflected a powerful cultural trend in the US from the 1970s, documented in Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone (2000), that involved increasing suspicion of top-down unified structures and increasing insistence on local autonomy. Parent-teacher organizations in schools, Rotary Clubs, Lions Cubs, scouting organizations for children and youth, Masonic groups, and all manner of regional and national and international collaborative organizations declined consistently from the 1970s. That outlook ran squarely in the face of the UMC’s connectional commitments. Over the following decades, United Methodists would fiercely maintain the outward and visible shell of connectional structures, while caucus groups in the denomination pressed for their own agenda and church leaders consistently — if quietly — shifted funding away from denominational structures, as we shall see.

The move away from connectional to local authority has deeply altered the system by which Methodists make clergy appointments. Up until the 1960s Methodist clergy showed up at the annual conference and on the last day, the bishop and superintendents marched in and read the appointments for the next year, and only then did ordained ministers know where they’d be moving in two weeks or less. The 1960s began a tentative process of consultation between bishops, superintendents, clergy, and congregations. That process expanded in succeeding decades, and as Lonnie Brooks has pointed out recently, the advent of double-professional clergy families from the 1970s has made the dance of appointment-making ever more complex. The trend towards local autonomy seen in other areas of United Methodist church life leads many congregations to wonder why they shouldn’t simply interview and hire clergy as they see fit, as congregations in other denominations do, and in fact as larger UMC congregations do, though still subject to the bishop’s approval. Once again, the uniquely connectional nature of American Methodist Methodism ran against the prevailing cultural trend away from high-level collaboration.

The widespread cultural trend towards local autonomy calls into question the very idea of a denomination, and that can be seen in the conspicuous disappearance of denominational labels from church media since the 1990s, if not before. This involves a bit of stealth if not deception, however, since denominational cultures persist fiercely. The Antioch Baptist Church might remake its website and its church signage to say Antioch Church, but they’re still not likely to baptize babies. Denominational cultures persist. It’s just that folks are not particularly proud of them these days.

The most dramatic challenge to the connectional nature of The United Methodist Church came at a special called general conference in 2019 when the historic trust clause deterring congregations from leaving the denomination was relaxed, allowing congregations to leave with their property on the condition that they would make payments ensuring the funds anticipated by retired clergy for their sustenance. During the COVID-19 pandemic that followed in 2020, many congregations, some of them very large congregations, some liberal and some conservative, have elected to leave the denomination and function as independent congregations or to ally with other denominations.

As The United Methodist Church dealt with issues about homosexual practices, the powerful trend towards local autonomy eroded the motives Methodists had once held for holding the denomination together. Leaders on the right and the left had come to believe that issues about homosexual practice were simply more important than holding a denomination together.

Follow the Money

Nothing reveals the priorities of groups more clearly than their budgets, and United Methodist budgets between 1977 and 2019 substantiate much of what is said above. United Methodist budget figures seriously challenge the narrative about decline in vitality, at least, of congregational vitality. This is important, because there has been a sense — sometimes an explicit claim — that United Methodist budgets have been declining commensurate with the denomination’s loss of membership. But that is not the case.

Figures supplied by the denomination’s General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA) show that total expenditures for local United Methodist congregations in the United States expanded remarkably in this period, from $1.3 billion in 1977 to $6.4 billion in 2019. (These and following figures on UMC budgets in the United States were supplied to me in response to a request in April 2021). That’s more than a five-fold increase over 42 years, well above the rate of inflation in that period. Nothing could signal more clearly that declining membership numbers — including of course a lot of dying-off of inactive folks — have not had the devastating effects on congregations that some imagine.

However, funds sent from local congregations to general (national and global) United Methodist agencies tell a different story. In the same 42-year period, amounts paid by United Methodists in the US to general-church agencies increased from $49 million in 1977 to $123 million in 2019. Although they were increasing, they weren’t keeping up with inflation. In fact, the total amounts actually given to general-church agencies and causes as a percentage of local-church budgets decreased from 3.88% in 1977 to 1.93% in 2019.

This is apparently not because local congregations failed to raise the apportionments assigned to them. The collection rate for general-church apportionments in the US varied between 84% and 92% in the period between 1977 and 2019, but with no clear trend. As recently as 2017, the collection rate hit its high mark of 92%. Congregations generally kept up with their requested apportionments, but the apportionments asked by the general church and approved by annual conferences declined from 4.44% in 1977 to 2.27% in 2019. General-church leaders must have sensed pressure from local churches and annual conferences to reduce the percentages sent to the denomination.

Another trend that illustrates the growing budgetary independence of local congregations in recent decades is their development of multiple 501(c)(3) corporations beyond the United Methodist congregation itself. A larger congregation might incorporate a school, a charitable foundation, and other ministries in separate legal corporations. This raises the specter of evading apportionments by shifting funds to these other corporations, though the General Council on Finance and Administration and annual conferences have called for honesty in reporting congregational activities even with these separate related corporations.

What the budget figures and the trend toward independent 501(c)(3) corporations demonstrate is that despite our culture of being a connectional church, the denomination in the last forty years has in practice starved the connectional (general) structures of the church while continuing to raise local-church budgets, illustrating the trend away from large-scale collaboration described by Putnam in Bowling Alone. Once again, with budgets as well as collaborative structures, that trend towards local funding offered little encouragement to hold a denomination together as issues about homosexual practice emerged as the presenting, focal issues for the church. Not much was left to win at the general-church level.

Ted A. Campbell is the Albert C. Outler Professor of Wesley Studies at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.

Works cited:

Davis, Morris L. The Methodist Unification: Christianity and the Politics of Race in the Jim Crow Era. New York and London: NYU Press, 2008.

Farrish, Hunter Dickinson The Circuit Rider Dismounts: A Social History of Southern Methodism, 1865-1900. Richmond, VA: The Dietz Press, 1938.

Putnam, Ronald D. Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2000.

United Methodist Church (UMC) Book of Discipline of The United Methodist Church 1972. Nashville: United Methodist Publishing House, 1972.

USA Federal Trade Commission (USA FTC) “Statistical Report on Mergers and Acquisitions, 1978”. Bureau of Economics, August 1980.


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