To Our Survival as a Denomination

Can The UMC Break Out of It's Institutional Mold?

By Dr. Riley Case


The question, "Can UMC break out of its institutional mold?" is the headline affixed to Donald Haynes' current article in the United Methodist Reporter. Haynes, who was quoted extensively in the last Happenings article, continues his discussion of renewal in The United Methodist Church in the March 5 issue of the Reporter. As the headline suggests, Haynes believes a serious barrier on the road to renewal is "institutionalism."


Haynes is just one of a number of concerned persons who is contributing to the discussion about change and new life in The United Methodist Church. His article is worth reading.


Persons in the evangelical renewal groups also share the concern about the future of The United Methodist Church. The next few Happenings articles will be dealing with this.


The subject of redesigning and restructuring The United Methodist Church has relevance at the present time for two reasons:


1) Latest statistics from the General Council on Finance and Administration (GCFA) indicate that in 2008 The United Methodist Church lost 1.1% of its members, the largest percentage decline since 1974. Worship attendance was down 1.83%. Only 84% of apportionment funds were received. And, even more discouraging, the Western Jurisdiction reached only 74.8% of its apportionment askings in 2009. We are not slowing the decline.


2) A planning, study, and recommending group-The Call to Action Steering Committee-appointed by the Connectional Table upon the recommendation of the Council of Bishops, is meeting during the next few months with the promise that some major changes will be made in the denomination. The group is welcoming input and has even developed a survey for this purpose. The survey can be found at


While Donald Haynes uses the term "institutionalism" to describe a problem that needs to be addressed in The United Methodist Church, others of us would prefer the term "corporate culture." Institutionalism itself is not so much the problem as the corporate culture behind the institutionalism. "Corporate culture" is a term used to describe the way church leaders think and act. It involves the language that is used, values and beliefs that drive decisions, and the mind-set behind those values and beliefs. Many evangelicals would argue that the present corporate culture has a life of its own and does not adequately reflect the history and doctrine of the church, nor even the Discipline of The United Methodist Church.


"Corporate culture" is a phrase that can also be used of local churches. The corporate culture of some congregations is like that of a religious Rotary Club. The corporate culture of other congregations, especially small rural churches, might reflect that of a family (both good and bad). In other instances the corporate culture is that of a social agency. There is nothing wrong about any of these images unless the corporate culture hinders rather than helps us fulfill our mission.


With this as background it should be possible to talk about "branding," which might be defined as the marks that distinguish us first of all as Christians living in a secular world, but also the marks that distinguish us as United Methodist from other churches.


Our present advertising slogan, "Open hearts, Open minds, Open doors," is our official attempt to brand United Methodism. The slogan suggests that United Methodists are accepting, welcoming, and open to new ideas. The problem is that this is sending a wrong message, at least to many people. In a world hungry for certainty and needing very much to come into a relationship with God through Jesus Christ, the "Open doors" message sounds like it could be a slogan for a restaurant wanting customers, or for schools recruiting students.


Behind the "brand" is, of course, the "progressive" emphasis on "inclusiveness." The idea that our church is open to all people is commendable, but the message relayed is that our United Methodist Church has no standards--that is to say--any life style, any belief, any value, whether it is consistent with the gospel or not, is to be accepted and affirmed. Many of us see this when our United Methodist children, or persons from our congregations, move to a different community, and end up in an independent church, or a church of another denomination, because The United Methodist Church they visited has no substance. One man who joined The United Methodist Church explained, "I was going to this other church and they didn't like the way I was living, so I joined the United Methodists, who don't care."


The problem is that this "inclusiveness" image of the church is not consistent with our church's official doctrine, nor its mission statement ("to make disciples"). Unfortunately, the image is projected not only by some local churches, but by church leaders. When one bishop made a statement that "inclusiveness" is the foundation of United Methodism, she was supported by the Council of Bishops. And so we have a problem, not just with our "institutionalism" as Donald Haynes suggests, but with our corporate culture.


Will the Call to Action Steering Committee address the problem of United Methodist "branding"? The concern is that the kind of people on the committee (bishops and board executives) are the very kind of people who have guided us thus far into the problems we face.


And so the church has lost another 1.1% of its members. We can do better.

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