A Game Plan for Renewal: The Demise of National Movements and their Rebirth

by Steven Windmueller, Ph.D.

Why are so many religious, political, fraternal and social movements in decline or facing major economic and political challenges? The declining numbers associated with these institutions and movements are indeed striking(1):

  • Unions lost 612,000 members in 2010, dropping the unionized share of the work force to 11.9 percent from 12.3 percent in 2009. That follows a loss of 771,000 workers in 2008, continuing a steady decline from the 1950s when more than a third of American workers belonged to unions.
  • Lions International membership dropped from 1.45 million in 1995 to 1.3 million within ten years.
  • Kiwanis membership has dropped by 20,000 since the early 1990s.
  • Rotary membership in the United States dropped from its peak of 445,434 in 1996 to 375,914 in 2007.

When studying the religious sector, the numbers reflect a similar pattern. The percentage of people who call themselves “Christian” has dropped more than 11% in a generation.”(2) The numbers are significant and are represented across the board as evidenced by these figures: the National Council of Churches (NCC) where in the 1960’s there were more than 400 staff persons engaged by this agency, today fewer than 20 are employed. Churches Uniting in Christ, a network of primarily African American churches that was initially formed in the 1960s, was forced to close its doors in 2010. Among the church bodies reporting membership losses in 2010 were the Presbyterian Church (USA), down 3.28 percent to 2,941,412; American Baptist Churches in the USA, down 2 percent to 1,358,351; and the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, down 1.92 percent to 4,709,956 members. Membership in the Southern Baptist Convention declined for the fifth straight year in 2011, falling under 16 million for the first time since 2000.(3)

So, why is this happening? Among membership groups, a number of issues seem to be in play:

  • Individuals and families have fewer discretionary dollars or flexible hours.
  • There is a marked decline in ideologically-based social movements.
  • Life-long loyalty to traditional institutional relationships has given way to a growing investment in single-issue causes and more short-term commitments to specific social causes.
  • In today’s marketplace there are multiple options with regard to affiliation and participation.
  • The general loss of trust and confidence in national institutions and movements.
  • Social networks have replaced traditional membership and affiliation patterns.
  • Younger folks have far less interest in and loyalty to the institutions of their parents’ generation.
  • Consumerism (namely: “how can I benefit?”) is driving institutional affiliation patterns and the corresponding notion of “membership” is seen as an anathema.

There are significant consequences for this society as a result of these social changes. In his book, Bowling Alone, Robert Putnam reports on this phenomenon, identifying a fundamental decline in civic engagement that began over forty years ago. Pamela Paxton of the University of Texas has suggested that “There is a lot of evidence that democracy is based on having citizens connected with one another. That gives us a conception of the public good, common identity and a sense of responsibility as a nation and as citizens.” Any decline is seen as “potentially detrimental to democracy”.(4)

What Internal Factors Contribute to Movement Failure?

A number of factors can be attributed to the “failure” or demise of our national religious and social movements. Several of the core elements associated with this transformation have been identified in the literature:(5)

  • The passion of the movement’s founders gives way to a leadership style marked by conservative action and the absence of innovation.
  • Followers no longer want to change society as much as they desire a “better deal”.
  • Bureaucracy and administrative practice trump vision and ideology.
  • Changing “environmental” features (demography and social practices) alter the impact and vitality of a movement.

What are some of the specific factors today that impact social and religious movements and umbrella organizational systems? The research in this area offers some seven elements:

Decline of Ideology: There has been a significant unraveling of support for and interest in movement-based organizations. In an age of heightened partisan behavior, ideological-driven institutions are increasingly facing new challenges. As referenced earlier, religious organizations in particular are confronting an array of institutional pressures including the loss of members, policy conflicts over doctrine and practice, and leadership tensions.

Return to Localism: There is a growing evidence of a renewed interest in support for local services in lieu of sending core membership dues and affiliation funds to operate national systems.

Impact of the Economic Crisis: During periods of economic stress, local affiliates were unable or unwilling to sustain their levels of commitment to their parent or national governing units. Correspondingly, national systems faced with declining resources were forced to downsize their service delivery options and curtail national programs.

Distrust of Governance Systems: As noted above, the growing distrust of bureaucracies parallels the loss of confidence in the federal government and other national systems. This distrust has further undermined the ability of umbrella institutions to justify their expenses and to garner broad-based support.

Changing Needs of Constituencies: As local institutions and their membership base are experiencing a rapid change in the types of services and resources required to manage their operations, community-based groups have reduced their support to their national organizations in favor of securing assistance from other types of management and organizational service centers. In this economy, churches, synagogues, unions, schools and other local institutions can readily gain access to consultants, resource materials, and governance information from an array of nonprofit specialty centers who can package their services to meet the particular needs of clients.

Direct Access: Traditionally, national umbrella systems represented collectively the interests of their local constituencies. In a boutique market setting, local communities wish to package and deliver their information and services directly to national or international recipients by-passing their parent organizations.

New Competitive Environment: The 2012 Jewish Futures Conference publicity may best summarize the challenge today that is coming from the outside:

“In the 21st century, the landscape of Jewish life is shifting. Loyalty to institutions in the form of membership, affiliation, and financial support appears to be declining. At the same time, new forms of connecting and new modalities of social action are proliferating thanks to technology-driven platforms like Facebook, Twitter, and a host of others. We live much of our lives now “in the cloud,” a fluid space where we have access to people and ideas that transcends geographical and other boundaries. For a growing number of people, especially younger people, purposeful collaboration and forging intimate relationships no longer depend on joining or supporting institutions.”(6)

Religious Movements: Analyzing Specific Factors

Within the religious sector there appear to be other specific factors in play. Observers have attributed the accelerated membership decline of some religious movements to “an increasing secularization of American postmodern society, and its disproportionate impact on liberal religious groups.”(7) Another core factor in understanding the weakening of support for Baylor University Professor Thomas S. Kidd suggests that “politicized faith is a key historic ingredient in denominational decline.”(8)

Indiana University Center on Philanthropy last month reported that individual Americans gave nearly $218 billion last year, $96 billion of which went to religious organizations. Yet, this study noted that the proportion of charitable donations going to religious groups has been falling steadily for decades. “While charitable donations from individuals rose nearly 4 percent overall in 2011, according to the annual “Giving USA” report, donations to houses of worship and other religious bodies dropped by 1.7 percent – a decrease for the second year in a row.”(9)

In analyzing this data, officials at the Center reported that “increased competition from a proliferating number of non-religious organizations, a decrease in church attendance, and a general lack of sophistication within religious institutions regarding fundraising” represented specific factors that might be contributing to this decline.(10) Mainline Protestant movements have for years been grappled with theological differences, leadership struggles, and financial challenges. Experts on religious movements have suggested that a number of these bodies were constructed around “slow-moving bureaucracies that need to find a way to stay nimble in the 21st century”.(11)

This declining confidence is not unique to religion. Americans are less confident in the leaders of many kinds of institutions than they were in the 1970s. Still, confidence in religious leaders has declined faster than confidence in the leaders of other institutions. Between 1973 and 1983, 35 percent of people, on average, expressed a great deal of confidence in the leaders of religious organizations, compared with only 29 percent, on average, expressing a great deal of confidence across all of the other institutions about which they were asked12. Between 1998 and 2008, only 25 percent expressed a great deal of confidence in religious organizations – the same percentage expressing a great deal of confidence, on average, in other kinds of institutions. In the 1970s, religious leaders inspired somewhat greater public confidence than did leaders of other institutions, but their relative position has since declined. People now express as low a degree of confidence in religious leaders as they do, on average, in leaders of other major institutions.(13)

According to this same study, careers in religious leadership are seen as less attractive than in the past, especially among young people. About 1 percent (10 in 1,000) of college freshmen expected to become clergy in the 1960s, declining to 0.3 percent (3 in 1,000) in the late 1980s, and remaining at about that level since then. The level of interest in a religious career among today’s college freshmen is less than half what it was in 1970.(14)

Implications for American Judaism:

Jack Wertheimer’s Commentary article, “Whatever Happened to the Jewish People” suggests the following:(15)

“It is not just that, at the moment, no large-scale crisis seems to engage the American Jewish psyche. Rather, something vital in that psyche has changed. Mounting evidence now attests to a weakened identification among American Jews with their fellow Jews abroad, as well as a waning sense of communal responsibility at home. The once-forceful claims of Jewish “peoplehood” have lost their power to compel.”

Sociologist Herbert Gans asserted that ethnic identity was understood to be “symbolic.” In his work Gans suggested that over time ethnic engagement has been trumped by competing values and alternative options:

“…they refrain from ethnic behavior that requires an arduous or time-consuming commitment either to a culture that must be practiced constantly, or to organizations that demand active membership. Second, because people’s concern is with [personal] identity rather than with cultural practices or group relationships, they are free to look for ways of expressing that identity which suits them best, thus opening up the possibility of voluntary, diverse, or individualistic ethnicity.”(16)

A possible contemporary case example might be Conservative Judaism. While not the only movement experiencing serious institutional and structural challenges, United Synagogue for Conservative Judaism has begun to revisit ideological and programmatic implications associated with its current demographic realities through the implementation of a new strategy plan.(17)

The actions undertaken by this movement were prompted by these stark demographic realities:

“Conservative Judaism’s membership rolls are in free fall. According to a strategic plan for renewal … by the denomination’s congregational arm, the number of families served by synagogues belonging to what was once American Judaism’s leading stream has shrunk 14% since 2001. In the denomination’s Northeast region, the number of families has dropped by 30%.”(18)

Building a Movement Game Plan:

Movements operate four stages: emergence, coalescence, bureaucratization, and decline.(19) Today, most movements, whether religious, political or social, can be classified in the third phase or bureaucratic element, to some degree mobilizing, celebrating, and administering the core elements of their founders. As movements are dynamic they either need to reassert their core mandate or to reinvent their purpose in order to flourish and grow. No movement can position itself for very long period within the bureaucratic arena, as it is subject to institutional malaise.

There are today significant opportunities for social and religious systems to regain their status and impact. Below is a ten point plan of action:

  1. Focus on Leadership: Great movements are marked by the production of a new generation of leaders, who can not only fulfill the vision of their founders but build upon these initial dreams. To be successful movements require the continuous introduction of leaders who can bring inspiration and direction to the organizing process.
  2. Strengthen the Core: Movement leaders must create the infrastructural elements necessary to support the social enterprise: human and financial resources are essential for sustainability.
  3. Remember all Politics is Local: Movements are only as strong as their community-base, so concentrate resources and energy in strengthening the core.
  4. Create Centers of Learning and Action: The transfer of ideas must be sustained and there needs to be “sacred” sites dedicated to the tasks of training and learning about the mission and vision of the movement.
  5. Build a Virtual Presence: There needs to be a conscious decision to promote the movement and its message in order to brand its identity and preserve and ultimately expand its market share.
  6. Honor the Movement’s History: Movements need to constantly invoke their core messages and historical achievements as a way to affirm their legitimacy and to demonstrate continuity.
  7. Reclaim the Street: Even during a “maintenance” phase of its existence, a movement needs to demonstrate that it can act. The primary injunction is the capacity and willingness to take action when the movement’s interests are seen to be in-play.
  8. Celebrate Victories: The failure to acknowledge key successes denies the movement its credibility and weakens its claim to legitimacy.
  9. Learn to Partner and to Master Institutional Take-Over’s: In the past highly successful movements had the luxury of ignoring their competitors or those who might threatened their position, yet most great movements have learned to build alliances, create partnerships and systematically enter into arrangements where allied or competitive groups were integrated or merged into their system.
  10. Allow for Innovation: Movements that demonstrate risk, even in times of crisis and uncertainty, gain credibility with their constituencies and the general public.

If movements and national institutions are to regain their legitimacy and place within American social discourse, they will need to assert a more transparent policy process, frame messages that respond to the values and behaviors of the millennial generation, and reflect the structural nimbleness necessary to complete in the 21st marketplace.

Dr. Steven Windmueller is the Rabbi Alfred Gottschalk Emeritus Professor of Jewish Communal Service at the Los Angeles campus of Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion. His website, thewindreport provides an overview of his research and writings.

1 http://xroads.virginia.edu/~HYPER/DETOC/putnam1/putnam.htm
2 http://www.usatoday.com/news/religion/2009-03-09-american-religion-ARIS_N.htm
3 http://abpnews.com/ministry/organizations/item/7520-sbc-membership-drops-below-16-million
4 http://www.asanet.org/press/participation_in_voluntary_organizations_declining.cfm
5 http://www.politicalscience.uncc.edu/
6 http://www.jesna.org/jewishfutures/2012-conference
7 http://www.christiantoday.com/article/decline.in.us.mainline.denominations.continues/25305.htm
8 http://touchstonemag.com/merecomments/2012/03/charting-the-mainline-ecumenical-decline/
9 http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/on-faith/donations-to-religious-institutions-decline-for-second-straight- year/2012/06/20/gJQA9sK7qV_story.html
10 Ibid.
11 Ibid.
12 http://www.thearda.com/rrh/papers/guidingpapers/Chaves.pdf
13 Ibid.
14 Ibid.
15 http://www.commentarymagazine.com/article/whatever-happened-to-the-jewish-people/
16 Ibid.
17 http://ejpprod.wpengine.com/united-synagogue-for-conservative-judaism-begins-strategic-plan-
18 http://religionnewsblog.blogspot.com/2011/02/conservative-judaism-in-sharp-decline.html
19 http://www.ebscohost.com/uploads/imported/thisTopic-dbTopic-1248.pdf