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Levels of Concern: Problems Facing Denominations

An eternal problem with denominations is that the broader denomination must be funded somehow, generally through payment from local congregations. And depending on the size of the denominational organization, those costs can be high.

A recent Letter to the Editor in the Des Moines Register by Dr. Warren S. Thompson outlines one side of these complaints — the congregation (United Methodist, in this case) sends money to the denominational body to unelected leaders who local churches rarely see. Why, Dr. Thompson asks, should local congregations pay to support thesedenominational leaders while “short-changing their minister’s support, neglecting repairs to their church and ignoring local mission opportunities?”

But the story is more complicated than that. In hierarchical denominations like the United Methodists, the central organizing body — the Annual Conference — has a great amount of control on the local church. And to examine it fully, one needs to look at the issues of processes and resources.

First, processes. Again, within the process frame, we’re interested in looking at How Things are Done Here. The United Methodist system is one that is connectional, which focuses on the connection between the local congregations, the pastors, and the broader denominational body (the Annual Conference — or regional body — in particular). This system worked more or less well in the beginning, but because of an increasing sense of de facto congregationalism, this sense of being a united member of the United Methodist church has declined. People have allegiance to a local congregation, not to the denomination at large. The denomination, seemingly, hasn’t quite been able to understand how to bridge the divide between a connectional system with a congregational-thinking populace. While some Annual Conferences have been better than others at attempting to give appropriate face-time to local churches and talk about the importance of the broader denominational connection, the congregation’s response seems to be more correlated with the views of the pastor. If the pastor is openly supportive of the Annual Conference and its goals, the congregation is more likely to be too.

At some levels, the processes between the local congregation and the denominational level support each other, but at other times they can conflict. Both want local congregations to be healthy churches, but the denomination may be less likely to support declining congregations (either financially or through pastoral placement), where congregations that are declining may prefer to hold tight to their traditions and stay open. A congregation may prefer to keep a long-standing pastor, whereas the denomination may want to move that pastor to spread his or her gifts to other congregations. There are inherent places for conflict based on the desired goals of each group.

In terms of resources, the hierarchical denominational body needs money to do its work. They expect congregations to pay money to the larger organization for general congregational support and resources. The denomination does provide support that an individual congregation would struggle to give, such as pensions and health care for pastors and other varied resources like Bible studies or statistical information on the local community. And while Dr. Thompson’s piece focuses on money sent out to local communities, the United Methodist Committee on Relief (UMCOR) has an expansive and important outreach, volunteer, and support network across the world.

But there are other resources that need to be made clear: the Annual Conference places pastors into appointments. If a congregation doesn’t pay its apportionments (or “taxes” as Thompson says), the pastor can be seen as the one to blame, which could affect future placements. The Annual Conference also owns all the property that local congregations own. If the congregation decides to disband, the property reverts back to the denomination.

In recent years, there has been a general push to decrease the number of denominational staff, and so each “District Superintendent,” or sub-regional leader, oversees more and more congregations. While on one hand this does decrease overall costs, it also reduces the amount of interaction that denominational figure has with the local congregations, further distancing the local church to the denomination.

So what’s the best outcome? It’s a complicated question, but I think there are more considerations than Dr. Thompson outlines. Examining the problem through the frames of processes and resources provides more insights into the issue, and will perhaps allow for a deeper discussion.

Ellen Childs
About the Author
Dr. Ellen Childs holds a Ph.D. in sociology from University of Notre Dame. She is Website Director at StudyingCongregations.org