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Whether the merger of Methodist & EUB worked

RESTRUCTURING AND UNITED METHODIST DECLINE - LEARNING FROM THE PAST - THE METHODIST-EUB MERGER

By Dr. Riley B. Case

Through the Call to Action Steering Committee, a special task force put in place by the Connectional Table upon recommendation of the Council of Bishops, the United Methodist Church has a wonderful opportunity to re-align, restructure, and refocus itself for the coming years. The Steering Committee is working toward a new way of doing church, and will propose sweeping changes to the 2012 General Conference.

It is about time. The United Methodist Church is in trouble. In 1967, just before the Methodist-Evangelical United Brethren (EUB) merger, the two denominations combined reported 11,026,976 members. At the end of 2009 the merged church reported 7,774,420 members. That is a loss of over 3.25 million members in 42 years. The number of members the UM Church has lost in 42 years represents a number that would be larger than the total membership of any one denomination in the United States-except for the seven largest groups-reported in 2007. Had anyone told us in 1967 that the United Methodist church would lose an average of over 77,000 members per year every year for the next 42 years it would have thrown us into depression.

The depression is catching up. While many good things are happening in the church, at times the bad news overwhelms the good (especially in the United States). While reasons for United Methodist decline are complex, and while the malaise has affected in some instances evangelicals as well as liberals (or progressives), and while local churches have also been part of the problem, in the end responsibility for the vitality of any institution rests with the leadership. That is to say, it would appear the church has experienced 42 years of decline with the same kind of leadership operating from the same kind of theology with the same kind of institutional way of doing things. In the business world the stockholders would demand new leadership. This will not happen in the church, but the church can ask that the people who guide the denomination take the call for radical change with seriousness.

The starting point would be in the recognition of some of the more serious mistakes of the past. In the next few Happenings articles we will discuss some of these decisions, events, or actions. The purpose is not to be negative for the sake of being negative, but to point out misguided efforts in order that we might learn from them.

1) The Methodist-EUB merger.

There were many good reasons for supporting the Methodist-EUB merger of 1968-70-72. It was not the merger itself that was the problem. In some ways the church was victim of unintended consequences. But it is difficult to argue that against the proposition that the merger turned out badly.

Most of us supported the merger. For Methodist evangelicals the hope was that the more conservative and evangelical EUBs would bring a healthy influence and balance to the Methodists. That there was a difference between the churches is illustrated by a phrase from the preface of the Otterbein hymnal of 1890:

To be useful, a hymnal must express the peculiar type of Christian life characterizing the denomination it is to serve. The Church of the United Brethren in Christ emphasizes the necessity of Christian experience-experimental religion, the fathers would have phrased it-and recognizes revival effort as the characteristic phase of its church activity; hence, its hymnal must furnish ample expression for its full and varied Christian experience and large facilities for revival work.....

This comment would not have been made by any of the Methodist bodies of that time, despite the fact that many Methodist churches were no less revivalistic than the United Brethren. The difference was not in the way local churches functioned but in the leadership and the corporate culture of the two churches.

At the time of merger the more open, more relational, and less imposing institutional culture of the EUBs was simply eclipsed and discarded by the more liberal, more social-class conscious, and more dominating Methodist corporate culture. There never really was a merger. It was a take-over.

The EUBs had a strong Sunday school program. The S.S. enrollment of the EUB Church at merger was 94% of its membership. The Methodist S.S. enrollment was 68% of its membership. EUB S.S. literature was open to evangelical themes. The Methodist S.S. material was not. But in the merger the whole EUB educational enterprise and its way of doing education was shut down and incorporated into the Nashville way of thinking and doing. The whole EUB missions enterprise was shut down and moved to New York and incorporated into Methodist mission philosophy. The social action arm of the EUB Church was shut down and moved to Washington D.C. where it was dominated by the Methodist way of social action. The EUB youth program was shut down and moved to Nashville. The EUB women's work was closed down and moved to New York.

The EUBs gave up, in many instances, their camp grounds, their conference sites, and their conference offices. In local communities with both EUB and Methodist churches, there were a number of forced mergers, few of which really worked. The one contribution of the EUB Church in merger was the EUB Program Council which was incorporated into the merged church structure as the Council on Ministries. But it often did not work in the merged church--not on the local level, nor district level, nor conference level. It for sure did not work on the general church level. The Program Council in the EUB Church worked because agencies were willing to be coordinated and held accountable by an agency which held some authority. The general agencies in the new UM structure saw themselves as bigger and more important than the coordinating agency and refused to be accountable to that agency, or, for that matter, to anyone. In 2008 the Council on Ministries was voted into non-existence.

The EUBs gave up one of their two seminaries (Evangelical Seminary in Naperville) through merger. Their last seminary, United Seminary in Dayton, has been under pressure to merge or close. Former EUB local churches found themselves in a denominational culture where they no longer had freedom to use the best resources available to them. Women's groups were told they could not exist if they were not structurally linked with the Women's Division. Sunday schools were told they had to use the official denominational literature. Confirmation classes were told they could use only material that came from Nashville. Mission committees were told they could support only official denominational missionaries. No wonder former EUB churches experienced morale problems in the new church.

The EUBs for years had been given freedom of conscience in regard to matters like baptism. The EUB ritual contained a service of infant dedication and EUB churches were given assurances that EUB traditions would be respected and that their freedom to dedicate infants would carry-over to the merged denomination. This never happened. When inquiries were made as to what happened to these "promises," the answer was given that the people who made the assurances were not authorized to do so. In a few years the understanding of infant dedication as the EUBs had understood and practiced it was declared un-United Methodist. And within a short time to re-baptize, as many EUBs had, became a violation of the Discipline and a chargeable offence.

One small group of EUBs refused to enter the merger. 62 (mostly small) EUB churches in the Pacific Northwest knew that, given the extreme liberalism of the Methodists in their area, they would simply be crushed in a merger. They were given permission to separate. They formed a denomination, the Evangelical Church of North America. The EUB churches that entered the merger were swallowed up. The Evangelical Church of America (later joined to another small denomination) now has about 12,500 members.

One study of former county-seat (the more prestigious) EUB "first" churches in North Indiana revealed that of 27 churches studied 30 years after the merger, 25 had closed, merged, or were greatly declined. Less than 10 years after the merger the United Methodist had lost more members than the nearly 750,000 the EUBs brought into the merger. Many of those were former EUBs.

Are there lessons to be learned from the Methodist-EUB merger? There are: bigger is not necessarily better. When two churches merge, the practices, theologies, and traditions of both churches need to be taken into consideration. Promises made should be kept. The suppression of evangelical voices does not strengthen the church. Competition can sometimes strengthen a church's witness rather than hurt it.

Can these lessons be applied to the re-structuring now taking place?



Comments

08-15-2012
Angeline
Pastor Danny,Thank you for your gracious hpltioasity on my visit for the Patrick and Leslie's wedding. It was a pleasure doing the service with you and I enjoyed seeing the great ministry you have going there. Many Blessings Tim Carson
09-05-2011
Reignbeau
God, I feel like I souhld be takin notes! Great work
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