Pluralism and Consensus: Why Mainline Church Mission Budgets Are in Trouble

by Richard G. Hutcheson, Jr.

Richard Hutcheson is senior fellow at the Center on Religion and Society in New York, New York.

This article appeared in the Christian Century July 6-13, 1977, p. 618. Copyright by the Christian Century Foundation and used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted & Winnie Brock.


The ‘unified’ approach to missions promoted by national church bureaucracies is collapsing because of the failure to take full account of the fact that churches are voluntary organizations. A genuine pluralism, with a variety of activities freely supported by a variety of constituencies, held together not by political victories but by mutual acceptance, must be the direction of the future.

The good news was headlined in an October 1976 news release: “Increased Church Giving Reported by National Council of Churches.” The average member in 42 denominations gave a record $137.09 to the church in 1975. The bad news was tucked away three paragraphs down: when adjusted to 1976 dollars (to compensate for inflation) the average 1975 contribution was worth only $85.04 -- down almost 1 per cent from the 1974 similarly adjusted average contribution of $86.09.

It was not a one-shot decline. A 1975 study of philanthropic giving in the U.S. found that giving to churches has been declining steadily for years. An overall drop in philanthropic giving -- both in proportion to the gross national product and absolutely in constant, uninflated dollars -- is accounted for almost entirely by decreased giving to religious organizations. Between the years 1964 and 1974, religious contributions dropped from 49.4 per cent to 43.1 per cent of the total (Giving in America: Toward a Stronger Voluntary Sector [Commission on Private Philanthropy and Public Needs, 1975], pp. 70-71).

This trend, distressing enough in itself, is further complicated by a shift in the way churches have been allocating their declining revenues. More and more money is kept and spent by local congregations. More and more of what is left after the congregation meets its own needs is kept reasonably close to home, in the diocese, presbytery, state convention or conference. The once-powerful central denominational headquarters have fallen on hard times.

A 1975 study conducted by the Office of Review and Evaluation of the Presbyterian Church, U.S., showed that within that denomination, when three factors are combined -- the effect of inflation, the larger share kept by the local church, and the larger share sent to regional units (presbyteries) -- the real income of national church agencies is less than half of what it was ten years ago (Minutes of the 116th General Assembly [Presbyterian Church, U.S., 1976], p. 117).

Organizational restructurings have been endemic within the major denominations. The urge to restructure grows out of a number of factors -- not least the churches’ infatuation with “organizational development” and an optimistic hope that structural change can solve deep-rooted problems. But far more than the reorganizers have realized, they may have been responding to increasing financial pressures, which in turn are symptomatic of some deeper changes. There is increasing evidence that these changes may signal a major shift in the pattern of American church life.

The Corporatizing of America

American society is characterized by what sociologist Ted Mills has called “creeping corporatism” (“ ‘Creeping Corporatism’ vs. Rising Entitlements,” Harvard Business Review, November-December 1976). The individual American has less and less opportunity for personal initiative and for impact on his or her environment. Nearly all major social structures have in this century become huge, technologically sophisticated, bureaucratic entities. They appear to have taken on a life of their own, independent of the collective will of those who organized them, support them, or make up the membership.

The self-evident model is government. Whether anyone or anything -- a president, an administration. a political movement -- can assume real control of the federal government and significantly change its inexorable course became a hotly debated issue during the 1976 presidential campaign. Many citizens have given up; they are resigned to a government so massive, so powerful, so self-perpetuating, that it is impervious to the will of voters, or even presidents.

But government is not the only social structure that has become corporatized. Businesses, labor unions, military services, educational institutions, professional societies, charitable organizations -- even farms -- have followed the same course. And churches are no exception. In part, the process has been a function of sheer size. American social structures are characteristically big. They are made up of -- or deal with -- huge numbers of people, sums of money, quantities of goods.

Bureaucratic organization is not inherently evil. As Max Weber, the pioneer sociologist who first described the characteristics of bureaucracies, pointed out, they are designed to make organizations rational and just through written rules fairly applied to all and through standardized procedures. They are organized to achieve goals, to operate efficiently, and to base internal policies on merit and competence rather than capricious favoritism (The Theory of Social and Economic Organization [Oxford University Press, 1947], pp. 324-340). But perhaps for these very reasons, bureaucratic organizations are less responsive to individuals than to internal rules and “standard operating procedures.”

Advanced technology is another characteristic of corporatized social structures. Ever larger numbers of people are bureaucratically managed, controlled or serviced ever more efficiently by sophisticated electronic data processing. More important, the corporatized structures appear to be relatively impervious to attempts to influence or change them.

The Search for Self-Fulfillment

But as Mills points out, alongside the creeping corporatism -- and at least partially in response to it -- a countervailing trend has developed. Americans are looking ever more insistently for personal satisfaction. Sociologist Daniel Bell has referred to a “revolution of rising entitlements,” characterized by a search for personal control, a loss of respect for authority, and an insistent egalitarianism. The capturing of this mood may have been the most important clue to the winning of the U.S. presidency in 1976 by a relatively unknown governor of a southern state.

The focal point of the revolution of rising entitlements is the self. The movement has been called the ‘new narcissism.” Cults and therapies for the self-centered, devoted to self-development, self-fulfillment and self-actualization, have popped up like mushrooms, finding fertile ground even in churches. Varieties of formalized ‘‘assertiveness training’’ have surfaced. Numbers of community political groups have recaptured local schools from educational bureaucracies. Priests’ organizations have issued challenges to Roman Catholic bishops. “Rightsmanship” is practiced by minorities and other groups who have felt themselves to be oppressed: women, blacks, Chicanos, Indians, homosexuals, ethnics. Separatist movements grab headlines, win elections or launch revolutions. The traditional American order is reversed as “smallness” becomes more treasured than ‘bigness.” A century-old population trend is reversed, as people leave the cities and rural areas become the growth centers. Urbanologists call for planned shrinkage. A Ralph Nader becomes a folk hero, and E. F. Schumacher’s book Small Is Beautiful becomes a cult bible.

It is in the context of a society dominated by these two movements -- huge bureaucratic organizations in collision with a mood of personal assertiveness -- that what is happening to the churches must be seen. Mainline Protestant churches have become as corporatized as any other major social structure. National-level bureaucracies have suffered forced attrition in the past few years, but regional structures have been growing, and the bureaucratic spirit extends even to the staffs and the newly elaborate organizational set-ups of local congregations.

Classic Patterns of Mission and Giving

It is helpful to remember that the corporatization of denominations has not significantly affected what was historically the basis of their existence as churches. Forms of church government have remained relatively unchanged. Bishops, presbyteries and associations have carried on their traditional roles as guardians of faith and order. Conflicts have been adjudicated. The clergy have been called, ordained and disciplined. Theological standards have been debated.

Corporatized structures have been developed to produce and market the “product” of church life: “Christian mission.” Christian faith has always led to some kind of action: nourishing the Christian community, spreading the faith, teaching the young, feeding the hungry, healing the sick, challenging evil, changing society.

For most of Christian history, this kind of missional activity has been voluntary and has taken place outside the formal church governmental structures. Voluntary missional activity has always depended on activists who do the work, and money-givers who support it. The historic pattern has been one in which the activists, with the approval of church authorities, have gone directly to the members to arouse enthusiasm, enlist support and collect funds.

The Roman Catholic Church developed admirable structures for carrying out these missional activities in the various lay and priestly religious orders. These have been permitted to be self-governing internally. Teaching orders, missionary orders, charitable and serving orders could focus on their own particular missional interests, and they have had free access to church members to develop support and collect funds.

The Protestant equivalent of the Roman Catholic order, as a structure for voluntary mission activity, has been the voluntary association. Most early mission associations were not formally related to churches, and their support was interdenominational. William G. McLoughlin, in tracing the history of Protestant philanthropy, notes that in the early years the American population was so overwhelmingly Protestant and the climate of social thought so pervaded by a religious tone that it is impossible to separate public from Protestant philanthropic efforts. In the 18th century, the multitude of charitable societies had no nationwide pattern. “Virtually all were local in origin and function, and a large percentage of them were denominational in origin and backing,” says McLoughlin. In the 19th century the most significant change was the gradual development of statewide and national societies. They were interdenominational, and they came to be dominated by laity, rather than by the clergy who often founded them (“Changing Patterns of Protestant Philanthropy, 1607-1969,” in The Religious Situation 1969, edited by Donald R. Cutler [Beacon, 1969], pp. 538-614).

Even the most “churchly” forms of mission -- religious education and the spreading of the gospel at home and abroad -- developed under nonchurch auspices. The history of the nondenominational Sunday school societies and foreign mission societies is well known. As denominationally related committees and boards began to replace the independent societies in the latter half of the 19th century, to provide programs of publication and education, foreign and domestic mission, they remained separate from church governmental structures. They were largely autonomous groups within the denominations, cultivating their own constituencies, raising their own funds with denominational cooperation, and carrying out their various kinds of mission.

The Flaw in the Unified Budget

Over a period of years, denominational governing structures have gradually assumed more and more control over the formerly autonomous mission agencies. Various activities have been drawn together into “one mission.” Unified budgets have been stressed. Agencies have been discouraged from going directly to the people to raise money for particular causes. Denominational bureaucrats have been given control of the allocation and spending of funds.

The development of corporatized denominational structures is a 20th century phenomenon. It did not reach full flower until after World War II. It has promoted a generalized “mission of the church” and has brought holistic planning, trained specialists, and overall coordination by skilled managers. At its best, this approach to mission has been impressive indeed. It has achieved a breadth of planning, a level of efficiency, a utilization of specialized expertise, and a concentration of efforts unequaled in previous church history.

Corporatization of mission has paralleled the flowering of the ecumenical movement. Unified budgets have included substantial support for “ecumenical agencies.” These agencies in turn have developed their own bureaucracies. Corporatized mission of mainline Protestant churches is probably best symbolized by its skyscraper monument in New York city, the Interchurch Center at 475 Riverside Drive. But corporatized mission began to collapse even before it was fully developed. Funds began to dry up before corporate headquarters buildings were paid for, and bureaucracies began to shrink even as “priority strategies” proliferated. The collapse was probably due chiefly to one basic flaw: the failure to take full account of the fact that churches are voluntary organizations.

The Power of the Purse String

To say that churches are voluntary organizations is not to deny their special character as the Body of Christ, established by God through the work of the Holy Spirit. It is not to claim that they are only voluntary organizations. Theologically and transcendently, they are far more. But humanly speaking (which is another way of saying “sociologically”), they are clearly voluntary organizations. Membership is entirely optional. Financial support comes from voluntary contributions. The level of participation is up to the individual member. Churches are groups of like-minded persons, banded together by common consent to achieve common goals.

Corporatized organizations are by nature unresponsive to the individual’s search for control over his or her environment. They often devote a great deal of bureaucratic attention to responsiveness, but their programmed attempts to be personal -- computer-printed solicitations addressed to Mr. Board O. Education and mechanically typed form letters automatically signed with “Warm personal regards” -- come across as phony, and are as likely to enrage as to placate the frustrated recipients. And voluntary organizations are highly vulnerable targets for rage and frustration.

Most corporate structures are implacable. Taxes are as inevitable as death. One can only sigh and submit when the last appeal procedure confirms the original ruling by an officious GS-6 that one is ineligible for a benefit, or when the insurance company insists that the fine print excludes one’s own kind of accident. It is easier to pay the bill, even if it is incorrect, after the 12th computer-printed threatening note. But there is one exception to the helplessness of persons facing corporate giants. In voluntary organizations individuals can make their impact felt, through the power of the purse string.

All major voluntary organizations have to some extent been corporatized, and some have done so without suffering loss of income or incurring constituency distrust. In general, those that have not suffered fall into one of two categories: (1) organizations that limit their efforts to one narrowly defined field, with a specialized appeal and a special interest constituency (for example, the American Cancer Society or the Boy Scouts), or (2) organizations that depend on small contributions from large numbers of people who contribute out of generalized goodwill or employer pressure, and who are not deeply concerned about what happens in the organizations. United Fund or Community Chest drives capitalize on this dynamic, and some of the agencies so supported go their own way, relatively independent of the desires of the “volunteers” who support them but know little about them. The fund-raising effort itself reaps the benefits of highly corporatized efficiency, and most of the gifts are given without much sense of personal involvement.

Pluralism and Consensus

The mainline churches, in contrast, are inclusive and pluralistic. They cannot focus their endeavors narrowly, since the missional interests of the members cover a wide range of activities, some of them mutually contradictory. Furthermore, their members care deeply. In this respect, they cannot be regarded only as human voluntary organizations, since the motivation behind their missional activities -- and the deep caring -- has transcendent sources.

The “mainline” denominations are sometimes described as liberal, but they are not so much liberal as pluralistic, since all of them include within their membership a wide range of social, ethical and theological perspectives. (The acceptance of pluralism may in itself, of course, be a “liberal” attitude.) More conservative denominations, in contrast, operate with a high level of internal consensus. Dean M. Kelley, in his perceptive analysis Why Conservative Churches Are Growing (Harper & Row, 1972), ascribes the relatively prosperous state of these denominations to their focus on a historically indispensable function of religion, that of giving meaning to life. He also credits the strength of their commitment and discipline, and their strictness.

Dean R. Hoge, in an extremely helpful book on the present status of mainline Protestantism, Division in the Protestant House (Westminster, 1976), does much to illuminate the absence of consensus and its effect on mission in these denominations. He points to the presence of two basic theological parties. Building on the work of Martin E. Marty (Righteous Empire: The Protestant Experience in America) and David O. Moberg (The Great Reversal: Evangelism vs. Social Concern), he calls these “Public Protestants” and “Private Protestants,” and then adds an additional insight: that the striking characteristic of the contemporary situation is the “collapse of the middle” -- the absence of a large group of moderates to bridge the two extremes.

Supporting theory with empirical analysis, Hoge shows that the two parties differ strikingly in their mission priorities. The Public Protestants -- theologically liberal, socially optimistic, and reflecting the scientific humanist world view of the contemporary university -- place the highest priority on issues of national social reform, injustice, and local social problems. They are least interested in personal evangelism -- locally, in the United States and overseas. The priorities of Private Protestants -- theologically conservative, pessimistic about the possibilities for social change, and reflecting the classic evangelical Christian world view -- are exactly opposite. They are most concerned about personal evangelism and least concerned for social action (Hoge, pp. 74-91). When consensus exists that a particular task should be undertaken, any religious group, large or small, will have little difficulty doing it, and that it is done through a corporatized structure will arouse little or no resentment.

The Southern Baptists, a large denomination, can for two reasons maintain massive denominational missional activities without the level of financial backlash experienced by mainline churches. First, a remarkably high level of consensus exists, for a denomination with few controls or sanctions. There is generally a high level of strictness and internal discipline in the local congregation, but very little at other church levels. Nevertheless, the rapid growth of the denomination in a period when mainline churches are declining has added members who share a similar theological and social perspective, and the system is held together by this consensus. Second, the missional activities are supported directly by congregations which back particular enterprises, with no attempt by a denominational structure to exercise central control over the congregation’s allocation of funds. The Foreign Mission Board is supported directly by those who believe in and contribute to foreign missions. It is the classic Protestant pattern of a voluntary association within the denomination to carry out a particular kind of mission activity.

Internal Groupings and Shared Commitments

Lon L. Fuller, in an insightful analysis of voluntary organizations, has shown that two basic principles hold such organizations together: shared commitment and a legal principle -- a constitution, bylaws, established existence. (Acknowledgment of the lordship of Christ and experience of the transcendent dimension of church life would be the basis of the shared commitment, but also one of the most important elements of the “legal principle” in church organizations.) Both principles, says Fuller, are present in almost all voluntary organizations. Such organizations tend to move from the first principle to the second (the “routinization of charisma,” in Weber’s analysis). Organizations dominated by the first principle -- shared commitment -- cannot tolerate internal groupings. But when dominated by the legal principle, voluntary organizations not only can tolerate but in fact need internal groupings based on deeply shared commitment (“Two Principles of Human Association,” in Voluntary Associations, edited by J. Roland Pennock and John W. Chapman [Atherton, 1969], pp. 3-23).

Internal groupings are often provided within pluralistic denominations by local congregations, which tend to be relatively homogeneous. The voluntary-association principle is strongly at work as persons choose a congregation with which to affiliate; they usually select a like-minded group. While some diversity is present in every congregation, knowledgeable church people in any city can identify particular local churches as “liberal” or “conservative,” “missionary-minded” or “social activist.” Individuals with strong convictions can make their presence felt in the congregation; as a last resort they can (and often do) move their membership to a more congenial congregation.

The difference between consensus denominations and pluralistic denominations is illustrated by the two most recent schisms in American Protestantism. In 1973 a group of congregations left the Presbyterian Church, U.S., to form the Presbyterian Church in America. The schism had been resisted for years by the pluralistic Southern Presbyterians, with a series of compromises, study groups and movements aimed at reconciliation. The 1976 schism in the Lutheran Church -- Missouri Synod grew out of the opposite dynamic. It was in effect initiated by the denomination’s hierarchy through disciplinary steps and the application of sanctions, in an effort to resist pluralism and to maintain the Missouri Synod’s historic high level of consensus.

In voluntary organizations, a highly corporatized central structure is not likely to work unless a clear consensus exists. Reasonably unanimous commitment to a single set of goals, clearly understood and generally supported, is the sine qua non. It is a curious anomaly in American church life that it is precisely those inclusive, pluralistic denominations without a clear consensus which have gone furthest in corporatizing their denominational structures!

Coming to Terms with Voluntarism

Churches enjoy an enormous advantage over other voluntary organizations in that they are not just voluntary organizations. They are the beneficiaries of a huge reservoir of commitment to the church -- not because of its agreed-upon goals, not because it is a well-run organization, not because it meets all its members’ needs, but because it is the church, divinely established, the Body of Christ on earth. Predictions in the volatile ‘60s that the institutional church would wither away proved to be extraordinarily wrong-headed. The churches are here to stay.

But that does not necessarily mean that corporatized denominational mission structures are here to stay. If the foregoing analysis is correct, they are in serious trouble. Many Christians will continue to give simply to “the church” -- whether or not they agree with denominational priorities -- out of a generalized sense of loyalty and commitment to the transcendent Lord of the church. The now well-established trend in funding, however, is sure to continue. Three things seem clear:

1. In the society at large, the collision between the corporatization of social structures and the revolution of rising entitlements will not soon be resolved. Voluntary organizations are caught in the middle. Frustrated people cannot affect significantly what is done with their taxes, but they can and will affect what is done with their gifts.

2. The classic Christian pattern of voluntary missional activity, through relatively independent agencies, is a long-standing one, and one that has never been repudiated by much of Christendom. It has remained the basic pattern in the Roman Catholic Church, and in much of Protestantism, to the present. Only the “mainline” Protestant denominations have fully corporatized their mission activities.

3. Corporatized missional structures present special problems for inclusive pluralistic churches. Such denominations tend to be held together by the legal principle rather than by shared commitment to particular activities. They may be forced toward a more thoroughgoing missional pluralism.

In light of these factors, it is probably not possible for church bureaucracies to continue to view their deteriorating financial situation as a temporary one, sure to be reversed as soon as the recession is over, when “trust is restored,” when the efficiency of their frequently restructured organizations has time to take effect, or when they can “get their message to the people.” Nor, in pluralistic denominations, are consultations on the mission of the church, study groups, or more effective goal-setting processes likely to bring about the kind of shared commitment on which a single approach can be based.

What, then, is the answer? The radical solution would be to dismantle the superstructures and return to a simpler pattern, in which like-minded persons group themselves together outside church structures to do whatever they feel called to do in response to the demands of the gospel. Denominational structures would be devoted to issues of faith and order alone. Missionally, to choose this solution would be to opt for pure voluntarism.

This may be the direction in which the forces of history move us, if present trends continue. There is a good bit of evidence that it is happening in the area of overseas missions. Nearly every mainline denomination has significantly reduced its number of overseas missionaries. The total in six major denominations dropped from 4,548 to 3,160 between 1958 and 1971 (Kelley, p. 10). In that same period, however, the number of missionaries sent out by independent, generally evangelical groups has increased substantially. In a number of instances, missionaries dropped from the rolls of mainline denominations have simply shifted to independent sponsorship and continued to work in the same country. While hard figures are lacking, it is quite probable that the overall number of American missionaries in overseas areas has not dropped at all. But the pattern has been shifting to one of nondenominational voluntarism.

Toward a Genuine Pluralism

For today’s corporatized denominations, a return to pure voluntarism in missional activity is not likely. Less radical solutions are probably desirable. They are dependent on a recognition that in voluntary organizations, missional activity must reflect the missional will of the members. In the absence of the shared commitment which might result from denomination-wide consensus, a voluntary organization needs smaller consensus groups -- internal groupings of people with shared commitment. In church organizations, such groupings must form the base for voluntary mission activity.

One possibility is a return to the earlier pattern of a variety of mission agencies within the denomination, each cultivating and appealing to its own constituency with denominational approval and cooperation, and carrying out its own mission. This pattern, which as we have noted is still normative for some religious bodies, would be decentralized and highly voluntaristic, although denominational identification and relationship would be retained.

However, such a full surrender of the advantages of a unified approach to mission is probably not necessary. A coordinated denominational mission, carried out by integrated mission agencies, may still be possible in a pluralistic denomination, if its basis is affirmation of rather than resistance to the pluralism of the constituency.

A centrally planned and administered missional structure often turns into a denial of pluralism. It assumes that “everyone will agree with me if I can just get the message across to them.” It tends to seek its solutions in the direction of better goal-setting and prioritizing processes. It tends to assume that the “priorities of the church” can be set by mustering a 51 per cent majority in the governing body or, even worse, by manipulating the formal passage of a missional objective that has the real support of a minority of the constituency.

A genuine pluralism, with a variety of activities freely supported by a variety of constituencies, held together not by political victories but by mutual acceptance, must be the direction of the future. There are plenty of data to demonstrate that voluntary funding is effective (1) where there is a freely gathered consensus on doing a particular task, and (2) where what is done reflects the intentions of the donors. A denominational program which sets out to affirm rather than resist the pluralism of the constituents would probably include most of the following elements:

1. Acceptance of the existence, within the denomination, of a variety of consensus groups, each with its own missional priorities and goals.

2. Integrated planning of a full range of mission activities, substantively as well as nominally responsive to the intentions of various groups of donors.

3. Integrated promotion by the denomination of a full range of mission activities, together with acceptance of promotion by consensus groups of their own mission goals.

4. Full utilization of the widespread Christian commitment to the church itself, which leads to generalized giving to the whole mission of the church by many, but with full acceptance also of designated giving to particular causes.

5. A guarantee that all designated contributions go to the cause designated.

6. A willingness for the constituency to affect the missional priorities through its designated giving, without the kind of ecclesiastical shell game which compensates for increased giving in one area by shifting an equivalent amount of nondesignated money away from that area.

7. An intention to serve the needs and reflect the concerns of all groups within the constituency.

Such an approach involves some loss in the area of a unified approach to mission, and some surrender to the constituency-at-large of decision-making functions now exercised, perhaps with greater efficiency and better planning, by church bureaucrats. It does however, take seriously the nature of the church as a voluntary organization, and it offers some hope of defining a useful missional role for central denominational headquarters.

The imperative to respond to the Word of grace with concrete actions is perceived by different Christians in different ways. The guidance of the Holy Spirit is never easy for the church to discern, and it may be that the voice of the Spirit speaks in a variety of ways in these times.