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A major United Methodist institution suddenly bites the dust.  (Photo credit: "My Life, Such As It is" http://mairedubhtx.wordpress.com/)

A major United Methodist institution suddenly bites the dust. (Photo credit: “My Life, Such As It is” http://mairedubhtx.wordpress.com/)

By John Lomperis (@JohnLomperis)

I was as taken aback as everyone else by the rather sudden announcement that UMR Communications, along with its signature publication, the United Methodist Reporter, is permanently shutting down – almost immediately. And thus a beloved, 166-year-old denominational institution comes to an end.

Official explanations have pointed to the legacy of the 2008 financial crisis and growing challenges print media outlets are facing in all segments of American society.

But this is also a key part of the larger narrative of decline in which the U.S. portion of the global United Methodist Church is living.

Ever since our present denomination was formed in a 1968 merger, we have lost tens of thousands of U.S. members every single year. When a denomination loses nearly one-third of its membership and about one-fifth of its congregations (in the USA), that is going to eventually trickle up. U.S. United Methodist seminaries, for the most part, are facing the prospect of ever-declining enrollments. The last of our denomination’s Cokesbury bookstores shuttered their doors last month. Local congregations, districts, and annual conferences have been slashing budgets. United Methodists are increasingly waking up to the fact that we can simply no longer afford our bloated denominational hierarchy, and that recent modest cuts will not be enough.

The U.S.-based United Methodist Reporter simply could not escape the fact that it catered to a shrinking constituency with less and less money to offer.

It is too soon to say that United Methodist media endeavors are now becoming extinct. Remember, Cokesbury is still an active online book retailer – which is more than can be said for Borders. United Methodist Communications (UMCom), a completely separate entity from UMR Communications, endures on, directly funded as an official part of our denominational structure.

But UMCom’s non-independent nature necessarily makes its work amount to PR for the official channels of our denomination. It is not entirely fair to list this among UMCom’s faults, since this is simply how that entity is organized.

In any case, it was very healthy for our denomination to have a relatively “non-partisan,” respected, widely read, and at least partially independent media outlet devoted to United Methodist affairs. The Reporter’s more independent nature gave it a degree of freedom that we will never see in UMCom (as presently constituted) for offering a forum for a truly broad range of diverse views and for practicing that very important communal spiritual discipline of constructive denominational self-criticism. For example, a series of Reporter exposés by Associate Editor Roy Beck in the 1980s were particularly helpful for shining some desperately needed light on corruption and abuses by United-Methodist-apportionment-funded church agencies.

In recent years, there have been instances of staffers demonstrating clear biases against evangelicals. For example, in 2007, the Reporter ran what was basically a puff piece by Managing Editor Robin Russell promoting the “Renewal or Ruin? The Institute on Religion and Democracy’s Attack on the United Methodist Church” without bothering to get the facts straight or attempt to hear the other side. The Reporter even uncritically passed on a laughably false rumor about the IRD having “attempted to intimidate” the filmmaker. (Read all about that here). Russell professionally moved on from the Reporter a couple of years ago. Before Russell, the Reporter was edited by Cynthia Astle, who is hardly shy about her disdain for many evangelical United Methodists. Astle moved on to coordinate an online news project which promotes her liberal biases while including some token moderate and conservative guest contributors in an apparent attempt to attract a wider audience.

But even in this latter period of the Reporter’s life, it has run some very helpful regular columns helping our denomination rediscover our Wesleyan roots, along with continuing to run contrasting guest editorials representing countless grassroots United Methodists whose values often find no expression in the pronouncements of our official denominational agencies. While not perfect, the Reporter invaluably provided a unique forum in which large numbers of the general United Methodist public, of all theological persuasions, read thoughtful arguments from opposing sides of key issues facing our denomination.

It is a sad day for our denomination.

I invite readers to join me in praying for the 39 employees who recently have lost or soon will lose their jobs, and who may not be able to even receive severance and vacation pay (due to lack of funds).  And for their families.