The UMC, US Church Markets and the Rule of Three (Part 2): Two Possible Hopeful Futures

By Taylor Burton-Edwards

(Part 2 of 2. Part 1 is here)

There are (at least) two possible hopeful futures for The UMC in the US. One is to return to generalist status. Another is to capitalize on our specialist status.

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(Part 2 of 2. Part 1 is here)

There are (at least) two possible hopeful futures for The UMC in the US. One is to return to generalist status. Another is to capitalize on our specialist status.

Return to Generalist Status through Massive Mergers

First things first, though. A key question:
Is there real missional value in being a generalist church in the US? I would argue there is. If you are a generalist in any enterprise, you have the capacity to set the conversation both in your industry and in the wider culture that most specialist and "ditch" organizations do not. Right now, it's Roman Catholics and (Reformed) evangelical megachurch leaders (most of them non-denominational) who are setting the conversation on many issues related to Christianity in this country, and relatively unopposed, because there is no third generalist body in play to help set that conversation effectively on an ongoing basis. People wonder why there is so little Wesleyan theology getting any press in the wider culture, or why there is so little Wesleyan theology represented in the CCLI Top 100-- this is a big part of why.

Further, while specialists may do particular good in their own specialties, generalists can be part of creating a platform where many more good things can happen, including the good things specialists want to accomplish.

I think we can all agree there is great potential for missional good that can come out of the return of a third player to what, for the past three or four decades at least, has become, too often, an "echo chamber" dyad on the religious and political "right."

Realistically, the only way The UMC is likely to regain generalist status in the US at this time would be to help broker massive mergers with other denominations with whom we may already share many things in common. Such a merger would have to be a true merger, meaning many specialties of the various denominations in it , including our own, may need to be de-emphasized as essentials for the sake of the whole functioning as a coherent and effective generalist church. What won't work for the long haul (as the evangelical/megachurch coalition has discovered in its increasing divisions and schisms in the past decade) would be a "coalition" or "federation" model of governance or identity. As Sheth and Sisodia's work indicates, generalists who try to grow by managing multiple specialists, or function primarily as a "collective of specialists subsidiaries," tend to fail (See their paper (pdf), p. 13, #11).

Candidates for such a massive merger with The UMC might include AME, AME Zion, CME, ELCA (we are already in full communion with all of these), The Episcopal Church, PCUSA, Disciples of Christ, UCC and possibly American Baptists USA to put the "Uniting America Church" (or whatever this merged entity might be called) just over the top (numerically) into generalist territory. Already, The United Methodist Publishing House serves as the primary or significant distributor for all of the non-Methodist denominations listed above, so we do have within the UMC family an example of one such "conglomerate."

We'll talk about challenges inherent in this approach a bit later. But for now, it's enough to say this could be desirable, doable, and maybe even doable fairly quickly, if we all put our minds to it because we were committed, all of us, to being part of a single generalist rather than multiple specialist denominations in the US.

Embrace and Fully Play to the Strengths of Our Specialist Status
If a key missional advantage of a generalist church is setting the conversation or platforms for action across the US, the key missional advantage of the effective specialist church or denomination is its ability to deliver on its specialty like no other specialist or generalist can begin to do.

Ecumenists over the past 20-30 years have been bemoaning what appears to be a reduction in ecumenism and ecumenical interest in favor of greater emphasis on denominational, local or congregational distinctives and work.

This has in fact been happening. It's why the National Council of Churches has teetered on the edge (or over the edge) of bankruptcy for some time. It's why in many states and larger cities, regional "church councils" have pretty well vanished or been repurposed into non-profits focusing on justice issues rather than embodying church unity. It's part of why attempts at "church union" among Protestants in the US have been replaced by the more modest goal of mutual recognition or full communion, and even these have little real effect. It's also why ministerial associations, as meetings of clergy across denominations, seem to retain some interest in some places, but no longer have the organizational or public institutional capacity they once did. They're often more about peer support than missional strategy or shared public witness across institutions.

Sheth and Sisodia might call this decline of ecumenism the predictable result of specialists acting like the specialists they actually are. Indeed, it may be a sign of health and strength in specialists. As they point out, specialists tend to improve their market share the most within their specialty when they focus on delivering that specialty with excellence, even if it does not generate an overall increase in market share for their sector as a whole. (See their paper (pdf), p. 12, #6). In other words, denominations or congregations that "go deep" on the things they do best rather than focus on "commonalities" with others may grow themselves, even if the overall market for Protestant denominations (or religion in general!) is declining. Is this not what we see in the actual stability or growth in groups like Seventh Day Adventists in the US on the one hand, and the relative growth (or at least less rapid decline) of well-led megachurches on the other?

As we've seen, though, United Methodists in both our structures and our leadership culture still often (not always!) tend to reflect the generalist status we could no longer claim after the 1970s rather than specialist status in which we find ourselves here and now.

So for a specialist future to be a hopeful one for us, we need both to reorganize our structures and re-align our thinking, talking and acting so we respond, plan, sound, look and feel like the specialists we actually are in the US market.

Re: Structures
Specialists who try to use generalist organizational structures are kind of like David trying to wear Saul's armor.

Generalist structures actually impede what specialists can do.

Specialists who thrive are structured to deliver their specialty better than anyone else, and nothing else.

This is not about "streamlining" per se. Streamlining as it typically proceeds is a technical solution to what is at its core an adaptive challenge. It assumes our core problem is bloat and duplication, and that if we could reduce those, everything would get better. Streamlining is primarily an exercise in optimization. But optimization assumes the system itself is basically aligned with both the mission and the capacity of the organization. Both matter. We may be doing a better job of calling our existing (generalist) structures into alignment with our mission. But since we no longer have the capacity to function as a generalist church, there's still a significant mismatch relative to capacity. Specialist structures do not attempt do all things for all people. They do a limited number of things, completely and solely driven by their mission and their capacity, and with unmatched excellence.

Streamlining as a technical solution cannot help us. In fact, it could hurt us mightily. That's because we'd still be operating on the wrong generalist assumptions about the kind of structure we need, but now expecting even fewer people to help us deliver on our specialty.

So forget streamlining as any sort of helpful way forward. It's a holding pattern at best.

What we need to become an effective specialist organization is a bottom to top reorganization that would give us the capacity to live out what we say we're up to-- making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world in each market region where we find ourselves or choose to start new work.

It's mission first. Organization and structure are there to serve mission. Our current, or even our past organization models from "golden days" of growth can likely give us almost no helpful guidance for what must be done now and next.

And that's why we must address how we think, talk and act as a denomination.

Re: Thinking, Talking and Acting
Remember, we're not just dealing with organizations that make generalist assumptions and require generalist status to be sustainable. More importantly, our whole culture, including our leadership culture in most of our local congregations up through the annual conferences, agencies and council of bishops, is still thoroughly steeped in generalist assumptions.

We could change the structures relatively rapidly. But without also reorienting our leadership cultures toward our specialist status, we will have only set ourselves up for long-term conflict and further decline.

That's why our first adaptive challenge is not to change structures. It is to imagine, learn how to speak about and embody what a United Methodist specialist culture would sound, feel and look like, bottom to top.

Of course, I would advocate that such a distinctly United Methodist specialist culture would embrace, bottom to top, something along the lines of the "networked" ecclesiology with which the Wesleys started out-- with congregations doing what congregations as a public format of Christian community can do, in network with discipling groups that are as accountably focused on entire sanctification as were the early Methodist class meetings and bands.

To be sure, we're going to have to find, modify or create the discipling groups, as they're generally not part of our congregational organization and culture. As I've noted many times on this blog, discipling groups were also not a significant part of 18th century congregations in England or America, nor are they likely to be found with much frequency or effectiveness in most US congregations today.

Such a vibrant, robust set of vital congregations networked with loving and demanding discipling groups would be a uniquely Wesleyan charism United Methodists could connect with, develop and deploy in ways no one else could at this point. Pursuing this networked ecclesiology, as early Methodism had done, would truly mark us as a specialist denomination fixed on gathering people for public worship and other corporate activities AND discipling people in small groups toward entire holiness.

And such a vibrant, robust set of vital congregations networked with discipling groups could give fullest expression of the General Rules: abstaining from sinful and harmful activities (Rule 1), fully engaging in holy, good and life-giving actions (Rule 2) and doing so with accountable small groups and the whole congregation (Rule 3).

At least I would strongly suggest this "networked ecclesiology" approach as starting place-- since this kind of approach fits well with the parts and pieces we have, or might assemble, already at hand.

The Costs of the Possible Hopeful Futures

As for those organizations Sheth and Sisodia classify as "in the ditch," there are still no easy ways forward for United Methodists. Not choosing ensures continuing and likely irreversible organizational decline. We can still choose a new way to embody our lives together, either as generalists or as specialists, but not one trying to run on the structure, self-understanding, or capacity of the other. All real choices for a viable future with hope are dramatically different than our current realities, not "derivatives with a twist."

Some Costs of Massive Mergers

If we were to head down the Massive Mergers route toward renewed generalist status, we would in effect have to submerge much of our Methodist/EUB identities into some larger mainline Protestant pool. All other partners would need to do this with theirs, as well. It's time for conversation with the United Church of Canada, the Uniting Church in Australia, and the Church of South India how these kinds of challenges of identity have worked, and not worked, for each of them, and learning from their experiences, positive and negative, what we might do to generate more effective outcomes in any such merger we might undertake in the US.

We would also likely have to massively reduce the number of congregations in all denominations involved to create combined congregations of sufficient size and capacity to be viable generalist contenders with our Roman Catholic and mega-church competition currently in the 1 and 2 positions.

So the costs of becoming viable generalists may be very steep, including significant losses both of distinctive denominational identities and of many congregations as separate entities.

We will need to discern whether such costs, even if they do return a lasting and sustainable generalist status, are worth the investment.

Some Costs of Intensive Specialization

A process now of intensively focusing The United Methodist Church on its mission, especially in a more specifically Wesleyan way and with a more networked ecclesiology, will come with significant immediate losses in terms of identity and congregations as well. Many United Methodists may prefer at least the illusion of "mainline" or "mainstream" cultural Christianity that The UMC and its predecessors have fostered for at least a century or more (I might argue, since as early as the North/South splits in the 1840s) to the much more openly evangelistic, holiness-oriented emphases that characterized the Methodism of the Wesleys and earlier American Methodist-related churches (both the United Brethren and Evangelical Association). While our congregations in such a realignment may remain truly open and welcoming of all, there may also be such a strong expectation of participation in accountable discipling groups in order to become "professing members" that our zeal for holiness may be offputting to some, if not many. For those who seek it, of course, it would be as for our ancestors, truly a Godsend.

We would also still have to face facts about whether the congregations we have in place actually have the capacity to function as congregations, much less as those who can deliver the "brand promise" of both rich and inclusive congregational life and reliable and accountable connections to intense formation in holy living. Ineffective "branch offices" are even more damaging to specialist organizations than to generalist ones. We may need to close or dramatically reorganize perhaps 1/3 or more of our existing congregations (Bishop Willimon is right about this!), plus effectively start many more, all tightly connected to our brand identity and promise of discipling people in the way of Jesus toward such holiness of heart and life that they are living witnesses and participants in God's transformation of the world.

The same questions about "return on investment" apply. There are significant up front costs in both identity and the number of our congregations either way.

The question before us is which identity we wish to pursue going forward. Shall it be a generalist Protestant identity that helps set the national conversation and platform for ministry by ourselves and specialist denominations in the US, or shall it be a thorough embrace of the heritage of Wesley, Otterbein, Albrecht and Boehm? To choose neither, or attempt to hybridize them, is only to ensure our continuing denial of our status and betrayal of the opportunity to embrace some viable way forward.

Continuing the Conversation

So, what do you think of all of this?


1) To what degree do you believe the Rule of Three may apply to denominations and congregations in the US or on a global scale?

2) How can denominations and their congregations be faithful as generalists? How can they be faithful as specialists? What does faithfulness look like for them when they're "in the ditch?"

3) How heavily should United Methodists invest in either

a) perpetuating more or less their current "generalist" structures and leadership culture and using them to help leverage a massive merger that could lead to a truly generalist Protestant church in the US?


b) clarifying our specialist role, and creating a new set of structures and new ways to talk and behave so we embody and deliver our "specialist brand promise" as effectively and reliably as possible?

4) What other questions or issues do you want to raise?