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Connectionalism and Dysfunctional Churches

I have made a few negative comments about conference dashboards keeping statistics on membership, apportionments, and other activities available to anyone who wants to read. I continue to question whether these numbers really tell the story of the health of the churches. There are, I believe, some very large and growing churches that have little or nothing to do with the kingdom of God.

Nonetheless, I think we have a problem with accountability in the United Methodist Church. When I took my new member class in my first United Methodist congregation, I recall the teacher, who made a number of historical errors, emphasized connectionalism. But if I were to go by his discussion of it, connectionalism means simply that we all go help one another as needed; nothing was said about accountability.

Those who are pushing the statistical approach are, I believe, responding to a very real problem. Pastors and church congregations in the United Methodist Church can go on indefinitely violating the discipline of the church or refusing to take necessary actions to make their church successful, while expecting that others will take up the slack.

That is what happens when a church continually fails to pay its apportionments. Now I’m not 100% a fan of apportionments as they are currently implemented, but they do represent a critical element of connectionalism. We put our money together to accomplish things we can’t do separately. Whatever reforms the system might need, the basic concept is sound, and more importantly if you have such a system, and some churches don’t do their share, all suffer.

This means that we need accountability as part of our connectional system. Churches need to be accountable to those who support them. In a more congregational system, an older church barely hanging on while slowly dying would have a hard time getting people to send money to help. A United Methodist congregation that refuses to take necessary actions, and continues to fail to support the team will nonetheless benefit from the resources of the denomination.

We should be willing to give money to support the mission of the church. But supporting a church that is willfully imitating a sinking ship sliding under the waves is not mission—it’s bad stewardship.

In addition, dysfunctional congregations continue to be part of the witness our denomination gives regarding Christ. Our “brand” can be tarnished by the actions of any of our churches. In the case of a denomination, tarnishing the brand also provides a negative witness—tarnishes the brand, so to speak—of the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

My problem is that statistics can and generally do fail to get the entire picture. You can have good statistics and still not be building the kingdom of God. I welcome moves to make pastors more accountable. I think more could be done to make churches accountable as well.

But accountability is going to take more than reading the numbers. It will require people with good discernment who can see the context, make the necessary decisions, and take responsibility for those decisions. It may be difficult. We may prefer to find some objective measure, but it is still necessary. An objective measure of a subjective set of values will, by nature, be deceptive.

In critical ways, the church is not a business. Thus my call is for accountability carried out by human beings who exercise all their discernment and wisdom and seek to follow the leading of the Holy Spirit.


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