by Robert J. Phillips

Directing Pastor, First United Methodist Church, Peoria, Il 61615

September, 2016

Revised and expanded from the article, “The Wicked Problem of the United Methodist Church,” originally published in Quarterly Review, Vol. 22, Number 1, Spring 2002, pp43-57

The author is an elder in the Illinois Great Rivers Conference; a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Illinois with additional degrees from Asbury Theological Seminary, Princeton Theological Seminary and the University of St. Andrews (Scotland). He retired in 2005 as the senior United Methodist chaplain in the U.S. Navy and now serves at First United Methodist Church, Peoria, Il.


“Houston, we have a problem.” (Tom Hanks in Apollo 13)

While serving as Protestant chaplain at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, I was walking down the passageway in one of the buildings when I saw an advertisement for a new course in organizational management theory. The course was entitled, “Wicked Problems.” As the professional expert on ‘wickedness’ I initially resented this intrusion into my linguistic territory. I quickly overcame that attitude and audited the course, taught by Professor Nancy Roberts. By the end of the first session I realized the substance of the course contained much unexplored wisdom to understand the turmoil and challenges faced by the United Methodist Church as it moves into the first third of the 21st century.

As the United Methodist Church in the second decade of the 21st century seeks to unpack the nature of what it means to be united or the possibilities of creative spelling and becoming ‘untied,’ the air is filled with helpful, harmful, well-intended and conflicting advice. In such settings wisdom and volume can become confused. Mission and purpose can blur as this or that grievance or disagreement muscles their way into the agendas of ministry.

Fallen humanity, i.e., our pagan observers, nod with sage understanding, for they knew it all along. Stereotype decrees that Christians are those, to borrow a zinger from the play Inherit the Wind, “never pushed a noun against a verb without trying to blow up something,” (although the stage line actually was directed against the agnostic reporter fashioned after H.L. Mencken). The world expects Christians to fight, to badger, to major on minors and to call councils to dispute profound questions such as the one cheerfully described in the book and movie, The Name of the Rose, “Did or did not Christ own property?”  To such non-issue issues the world wearily responds with, “I told you so,” mixed with “Who cares?”

The stakes are high. The future direction of the modern Wesleyan movement expressed through the global United Methodist Church is on the line for affirmation, correction or erasure. That said, it is helpful to remember that the church is God’s work, the Body of Christ and the first habitation of the Holy Spirit. The Gospel of Jesus and the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church are not going away. The United Methodist Church may go away or re-form in fresh ways, but the stakes, while of great concern, are not cosmic. “Hallelujah, for the Lord God omnipotent reigns” is still in the Book; the warrantee holds (Revelation 19:6).

What follows is a modest effort to contribute light to the heat that already fills a good many United Methodist rooms. The wicked problem approach is neither a panacea nor a tent-healer miracle cure for what ails the organization. What is can provide is a template to shift the urgent away from the truly important and to establish realistic expectations and ground rules as an alternative to a declaration of war or the massive attrition of those disaffected by bickering. Folks join churches for all kinds of reasons. Precious few, thankfully, join because they are looking to join a riot or a brawl. Precious many from a variety of spiritual perspectives, will withdraw from a church where head-knocking is perceived to be the new norm and body counts replace discipleship as the metric of faithfulness and success.

The mission of the United Methodist Church is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” The central command and the controlling verb is “to make disciples.” If that doesn’t happen there will be no church and no transformation. When disciples are formed consistent with the scriptural notion behind that term, Spirit-empowered transformation will follow in individuals, community and society at large. The challenges faced by United Methodism are real and deep, but the Lord of the church also is real, and deeper, and committed to his promise for the church that “The gates of Hell shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). The perspective of the wicked problem can enable United Methodist Christians to go on the offensive in constructive and redemptive ways against that which would shred this Wesleyan work of God in the world. Procedamus in nomine Domini, (Let us proceed in the name of the Lord).




“More cow bell!”  Christopher Walken in Saturday Night Live classic skit

            A number of years ago SNL aired a skit with Christopher Walken, Will Ferrell and assorted other cast members. Walken was the producer of a band of indifferent musical skills. None of the players had their stuff together. Walken ignored the overall screech and focused on Will Ferrell, who was banging a cow bell with a stick. “More cow bell,” he bellowed again and again, as though that one change could solve the multiple problems generated by the lack of quality and talent.

That was the SNL approach to tackling what is called a wicked problem.

In the secular world wicked problems can include issues of ecology, obesity, war, climate change and healthcare. Local, state, federal and international governments, businesses and non-profit agencies face wicked problems on a regular basis. Political campaigns focus on aspects of this or that wicked problem in society, typically with simplistic approaches that lack the realism or nuance that serious engagement with wicked problems demands. Individual churches, specialized ministries and theological seminaries also face their peculiar versions of a wicked problem with dreary consistency. Frustration can mount for all those affected, linked to a lingering drift toward institutional death by the growing stranglehold of the problem on hope or vigor for that institution.

The concept of a ‘wicked’ problem offers an emerging understanding for the types of problems that institutions face. As expressed by Professor Nancy Roberts and others, institutional problems come in three forms. A simple problem is one where there is broad agreement on the nature of the problem and on the best course of action to resolve it. In such cases the primary challenge for the institution is working through the specifics of implementing the response, with disagreement resting mostly in the particulars of executing the response rather than in the essence of the response itself.[1]

A complex problem is a second type of problem faced by an institution. All agree on the nature of the problem but serious disagreement exists as to the best response. This creates further differences of opinion as to solutions and preferred methods of implementing the fix. Unlike a simple problem, complex problems “introduce conflict to the problem solving process.”[2]

A wicked problem reflects a challenging and muddled collision of realities that combine to defy traditional solutions. Consider insights first expressed in a seminal article by Horst Rittel and Melvin Webber in 1973. Ten characteristics identify the beast, as outlined in this foundational article.[3]

  1. There is no definitive formulation of a wicked problem. No neat, crisp definition is possible, given the complexities and competing and contradictory dynamics involved in its essence. In short, there is no “the” problem, as its reality is more like an action verb than a static noun.
  2. Wicked problems have no stopping rule. A regular problem comes to an end with a solution, while a wicked problem defies closure by resistance and mutation. In other words, it is a problem that continues to drool on those affected by it.
  3. Solutions to wicked problems are not true or false, but good or bad. Often an organization must settle for ‘satisficing,’ seeking responses that are good enough for now while surrendering notions of finality in resolution. Neat or transcendent answers give way to more pressing and messy responses.[4]
  4. There is no immediate and no ultimate test of a solution to a wicked problem. A simple problem yields cause and effect results when a solution is applied. Wicked problems bristle with unintended consequences that foreclose instantaneous miracle cures. Every proposed solution comes, like that problematic real estate good deal, with a sign that warns the property is sold “as is.”
  5. Every solution to a wicked problem is a ‘one-shot’ operation; because there is no opportunity to learn by trial and error, every attempt counts significantly. A simple problem can be fed to a solution. If the solution works, fine. If it doesn’t, the process can spit out the failed approach and try another. Wicked problems respond to solutions with unintended consequences that remain even after the solution is abandoned. An ineffective solution gives birth to added mini-woes that force the stakeholders to revisit the entire issue again, and again.
  6. Wicked problems do not have an exhaustively describable set of potential solutions, nor is there a well-described set of permissible operations that may be incorporated into the plan. Wicked problem proposed solutions, by nature, are limited rather than expansive. The most obvious responses are of a ‘straight and narrow’ sort, with few natural off-ramps in the process to recalibrate a proposed solution. Open field running is not an option in massaging or teasing out possible solutions.
  7. Every wicked problem is essentially unique. While simple problems have a pedigree and history of precedent, wicked problems, like unhappy families, are each messed up in their own unique way. If you have seen one wicked problem, you have not seen them all. You haven’t even really seen the one staring you in the face.
  8. Every wicked problem can be considered to be a symptom of another problem. There is no ‘the’ problem for a wicked problem; every wicked problem enters the institution with a dozen ugly cousins ready to break the furniture in new and nasty ways. The temptation is to change the bald tires on the car that fixes the problem, forgetting the misalignment that created the warp, kindled by the collision that bent the frame and created the misalignment, started by…you get the picture.
  9. The existence of a discrepancy representing a wicked problem can be explained in numerous ways. Every stakeholder has his or her idea on the nature of the problem, and they never fully agree. Typically, the disagreement is vast and often contradictory, and offered by persons of sincerity and good will. It gets more complicated if insincerity and ill-will are motivators. It gets most complicated when some stakeholders assume that others involved in the process lack sincerity or good will.
  10. The planner (problem solver) has no right to be wrong. Those who offer solutions face extraordinary pressure as they are held accountable for fresh problems their proposed solution(s) create. One bite at the apple is all the context of a wicked problem allows. This can create hesitancy or uncertainty among those best positioned to offer a healthy response. Labels ranging from ‘incompetence’ to ‘betrayal’ await the planner whose approach proves inadequate to the challenge.




“Round up the usual suspects.” (Claude Rains in Casablanca)

The United Methodist Church is a religious poster child for a wicked problem. Consider again this snapshot summary of what is involved in a wicked problem.  It is a problem where disagreement exists among affected parties as to precisely what the problem is. Disagreement as to what constitutes the best solution inevitably follows. The solution process is complicated by changing and unpredictable political, economic and social factors. Trust deficits abound. Finally, issues are muddied by the number of interested parties, known as ‘stakeholders,’ who ebb and flow, change their minds, communicate erratically and otherwise create the proverbial hate and discontent through accident or design. Institutional responses can become spasmodic or paralyzed, while morale among stakeholders and hope for the future diminishes within the institution. “Aspects of the problem may not be clear until you begin solving.”[5]

With that background, what is “the” problem for the United Methodist Church as it lurches toward 2020?  Pick a card from a very full deck.  What follows also intentionally includes a splash of the emotional turbulence and venom that various aspects of the church’s wicked problem present from those who hold various views. The emotions themselves constitute one of the complicating factors, a facet of the problem in its own right.  No antiseptic description of the church’s challenge can capture effectively that challenge if the feeling component either is teased out or given free reign.

For some the problem is theology.  The denomination has strayed from its biblical roots, offering a blurred gospel with a bland or culture-bound Christ, raising up church members who, in the words an elderly revival preacher barked in my presence, “wouldn’t know salvation if they met it in the road with a sign on it.”

The authority of the scriptures is questioned when not altogether undermined. John Wesley’s classic sermon titles and articles on subjects such as, “The New Birth,” “Scriptural Christianity,” and “A Plain Account of Christian Perfection” speak to subjects either not mentioned or revised in such a way that the original intent is lost by multitudes who claim the name of United Methodist but lack biblical vitality.

Spiritually dead churches sit in worship around a stove where the live coals of the Spirit’s glow have been replaced by the ice water of postmodern religion. Eunuchs in a harem know how it’s done, can describe how it’s done and have seen it done but have never done it themselves. The church appears to suffer from an abundance of eunuch leadership at all levels. Clergy and their bishops who have no sustained record of personally growing churches as a pastor expect pastors to fill churches with those who are members but not disciples, a defective approach to fulfill the church’s noble mission to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” They fail because they have not been taught. They have not been taught because few (bishops included) know how it’s done.

Spiritual deadness extends to the seminaries of the church, where the bland lead the bland and political correctness is the new legalism. In such seminaries the irrelevant agendas of the safely tenured faculty prepare clueless students to bring world peace, heal the environment, denounce heterosexism, dismiss 2,000 years of Christian teaching on human sexuality, and learn the Orwellian double-speak of addressing a no-longer-personal God. The education needed to lead a congregation, preach engaging and biblically-based sermons, and make disciples seldom make the cut into required courses. Virtually no mainline seminary offers serious fare in how to lead more contemporary style worship services with theological and Wesleyan integrity, and then wonder why the stand alone, ‘self-licking lollipop’ God boxes have sucked away nearly all the 20-35-year-old worshippers. Churches named for everything from psychic spasms to seismic anomalies seem to thrive, even when led by those with no graduate degree in theology beyond what can be downloaded from Google. Why blandly worship at Epworth Church when one can buzz and squeal at Enervate, Elevate, Energize or Enjoy Church instead?

Meanwhile, pastors in many United Methodist churches who have no idea how to spiritually reproduce disciples graduate from seminary to serve churches that have not spiritually reproduced in decades. Together they whistle past the graveyard of a future that promises further decline topped off by death. The church has ‘drifted astray,’ suffering from a ‘doctrinal amnesia’ that has created a paralyzing schizoid gospel.[6]

To others the problem with the church is theology. What? Wasn’t that just the point? Welcome to a wicked problem. The denomination insists on remaining hide-bound in tradition, archaic practices and beliefs wrapped in the language of 1950 but confusing and laughable to the 20ish and 30-somethings of today. That is the age group who are the source of whatever the church may be tomorrow and they aren’t buying what the church is selling in its ancient and musty gospel wrapper.

The church refuses to re-think and refresh the great teachings of the faith into modern categories, forgetting that those revered as the orthodox of former generations often were labeled the radicals of their own time for doing precisely what today’s conservatives refuse to do. Seminary graduates are placed in an institution in continuous decline and faulted for not adopting the habits of death that has brought the church to a teetering future. What those invested in the system use as orthodoxy to limit and control is in fact a pharisaic ‘ortho-boxy,’ that places the emphasis on ‘correct package’ rather than ‘right praise.’  Fresh movements of God are ignored, rejected or feared.  Evening Bible studies might as well be conducted by candle light since any advances in understanding the context or content of scripture since the pre-light bulb days are treated with suspicion or holy contempt by Wesleyan Luddites.

The problem is the authority of scripture, with hide-bound and tradition-riddled strait-jackets cloaking God’s transformative written word with 18th century assumptions and boundaries. Compelling issues such as human sexuality, the role of women, and contemporary problems that threaten the human community and the life of the planet are left at the margins while entrenched attitudes toward scripture emphasize the jot over the tittle, or visa versa. Meanwhile, scripture’s true power is drained into the swamp of comfortable security to long unquestioned interpretations that cannot stand in the light of modern scrutiny by contemporary Christians.

Spiritual deadness is the problem, with the recitation of dead creeds pushing the vigorous and faithful recalibration of Christian truths out the door. Classic hymns and creaky certainties in the order of worship offer stale bread to the diminishing numbers who darken the door. Even the vast majority of churches that lay claim to titles of ‘evangelical’ or ‘orthodox’ are dropping in numbers, just as their leaders point the finger at spiritual innovators as the real problem. Honest efforts to help congregations ‘meet Jesus again for the first time’ are thwarted by clueless theological gatekeepers and policies who define success in terms of what they have stopped rather than what they have begun.[7]

Others say the problem is our approach to preparing church leaders in seminary education. Church leadership limps into the 21st century with outmoded requirements for ordination and service that are chasing away the next generation of spiritual leaders. Three to four years of staggering debt from seminary is followed by niggling and picky requirements that gobble another several years before one is deemed worthy of assuming the rewards of a minimum wage full time appointment to a congregation whose average age rivals that of the new pastor’s grandparents. Love for God and people is fine in this approach but clergy accountability seems focused on questions of bedroom behavior as all-important in determining suitability for leadership or official service in the church.

Seminaries complain they are left out of the loop in nurturing the creation of spiritual leaders for the 21st century. How can the seminaries of the church effectively train future clergy when 50 different Boards of Ordained Ministry impose 50 sets of requirements, none of which completely overlap? Paraphrasing Judges 21:21, in these days there is no national coherence in ordination requirements for seminary graduates, with every annual conference setting standards that are right in their own eyes. Seminaries and conferences need to be joined at the hip to provide a coherent preparation for clergy education and training. The schools and conferences appear to have been separated at birth with no subsequent conversations of note to provide guidance or affirmation on the ministry they are called to perform in educating modern clergy for service to the church.

For others the problem is organization. An outmoded ecclesiastical polity that worked wonders on the American frontier in its innovative infancy has lost touch with twenty-first century realities. The institution has become encrusted with overlays of bureaucracy and numerous requirements in the Discipline for structure that many local churches neither want nor need. The nature of denominational infrastructure is questioned as a roadblock to the adventurous spirit required for the current century.[8]

Consider a major international company that reserves serious policy decisions to a ten-day window every four years. Good luck finding such a company that is still in business, yet the United Methodist Church reserves its decisive institutional decisions for a General Conference held every four years. Consider a thriving organization that has lost 45% of its market share since its founding in 1968, yet never has removed a single major leader (bishop) on grounds of incompetence or ineffectiveness. No such ‘thriving’ secular counterpart company exists. Insofar as the church is concerned, other than the tragic intervention of bad health or sexual misconduct, life tenure really is what it says for bishops of the church, regardless of effectiveness. This organizational flaw is nurtured by the lack of clear, measurable and enforced standards of effectiveness for bishops or clergy in general, beyond obvious legal or moral misconduct. Grant clearly that no bishop ever is wholly responsible for the spiritual health or the illness of a conference. Systemic issues transcend what any individual, no matter how spiritually gifted, can achieve. The underlying issue of legitimate accountable leadership remains.

Effective secular organizations define requirements for positions and train and educate employees for those requirements, with a career progression clearly mapped and linked to pay, promotion, bonus and suitability for future positions of leadership. This clarity enables the employee to know where he or she stands with the organization and what skill sets or education or metrics of effectiveness are required for consideration for promotion to certain future assignments. Such standards help to level the playing field and provides some measure of transparency and external integrity in difficult decisions that determine the place of service.

The Discipline contains no such perspective. A part time local pastor and a full time elder have essentially the same position description. The main differences underscore the inconsistencies. Elders have job tenure, not as a personnel management tool to retain excellent workers but as a nod to 18th century frontier Methodist practices.  Others say tenure is to offer a union-card buffer against retaliation by disgruntled bishops or congregations, which itself whispers loudly of the trust deficits abounding in the organization. Elders, unlike local pastors, also have sacramental authority not tethered to a piece of property, i.e., the specific church where a local pastor is appointed. Sacramental authority limited to the parameters of a mailing address is a perspective on the nature of such authority that would have befuddled Aquinas, Calvin or Wesley.

No career ministry progression exists in the denomination in any coherent form. This absence in approach is a professional swamp-filled breeding ground for mosquitoes of mediocrity. Frustrated pastors who are motivated by excellence but see no clear connection between organizational requirements and appropriate recognition for effectiveness struggle with wounded morale. Continuing education requirements, for example, are not linked in any consistent manner with a career ministry progression and are not prerequisites for consideration for service in particular settings. No healthy secular company approaches the professional development of its employees in such a dysfunctional manner. Neither secular business nor military organizations spend money or allow time for employees or service members to receive training and education not clearly linked to defined requirements for effectiveness.

Others say the problem is the conservative wing of the church. The conservatives often drape themselves in the term, “Orthodox,” but that term is exclusionary in its use. Those who disagree with them are, by definition, not orthodox, which makes them heretics, a class of humanity that inspired the original church barbeques of the Inquisition. Conservatives confuse tradition with traditionalism. As artfully expressed by Jaroslav Pelikan, “Tradition lives in conversation with the past, while remembering where we are and when we are and that it is we who have to decide. Traditionalism supposes that nothing should ever be done for the first time.”[9]

Conservatives in the denomination have confused the two and opted for the dried paste of rigid and authoritarian religion, filled with answers to questions no one is asking and fearful of engagement with a sophisticated and complicated modern world. Unsophisticated and literalistic readings of the Bible drive the conservatives toward comfortable and tragically misplaced certainties. While many examples present themselves, the irrational opposition to the Spirit’s movement of grace toward the LGBTIQA communities offers exhibit A.

Oliver Wendell Holmes’ “one hoss shay,” was a carriage that held together perfectly for years and one day, with a slight screw loose, entirely fell apart. In a religious adaptation of that attitude, conservatives are willing to exclude an entire class of people from full welcome and acceptance into the church, lest a single same-sex marriage of two committed Christians flabbergast and collapse 20 centuries of Christianity. Disingenuous slogans such as, “Hate the sin but love the sinner” are offered with no sensitivity to the demeaning spirit such statements broadcast to those excluded. Lifelong celibacy is offered as the only option to those attracted to same-sex relationships, no matter what the level of faith or commitment to integrity in a monogamous commitment might be by those affected. The newest generation of Americans is not buying what the church is selling in this area and any church that links itself to this type of inclusion is destined to fail. Adopting a faith that treats an entire class of people with an attitude that trumpets the desire that they just go away reflects discredit on Christ and the gospel that welcomes and embraces all in his salvation.

For others the problem is the liberals. These clothe themselves in the term, ‘progressive,’ which by nature is exclusionary and judgmental. After all, those who disagree with them must be regressive, knuckle-dragging dumpy primitives unaware of their own ignorance and bigotry, notions implicit in the use of this polarizing term.

The liberals fling aside the ‘one, holy, catholic and apostolic faith.’ As liberals bow to the agenda of the ‘alphabet people’ they find the LBGTIQA issue offers exhibit A. Tradition, reason and experience align unanimously in support of the historic Christian sexual ethic related to same gender sex behaviors. Young earth creationists renounce the theory of evolution and affirm the earth as 6,000 years old, using perhaps 50 persons with an advanced degree in some aspect of science to announce that ‘science is divided’ in its thinking on the issue. Drawing their approach from the anti-evolution tactic, Liberals likewise dismiss, deny or distract with disingenuous ease biblical reasons for the traditional Christian view on marriage as only affirmed between a man and a woman, announcing that ‘opinions are divided in the church’ on affirming same gender genital behavior where 95% of the world’s practicing Christians and 100% of historic Christian practice and tradition are against them.

Those who hold principled disagreement are dismissed as bigots, ignorant, sexually repressed, on the wrong side of history, haters, moral first cousins of slave traders and segregationists…and they call names. The irony is best illustrated when this group finds the existence of African United Methodism in its thriving, dynamic, and growing presence, a problem to be handled and an embarrassment to be addressed. Questioning the bodily resurrection of Jesus will get one praised for intellectual courage but using a masculine pronoun for God will get one flunked or denied ordination for patriarchist preference.

Others see the problem as loss of mission focus. The mission of the church is ‘to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.’ Outside of selected and isolated areas in the United States and excluding vibrant Wesleyan faith in Africa, that is not happening. Churches self-labeled as liberal, centrist and conservative nearly all are in numerical decline. All are facing increased average age for the worshipper. The attitude that “We aren’t losing as many as the other guys’ is not a statement of hope but evidence of denial. What difference does it make for the church to take the correct stand on gay marriage, organization, the inspiration of scripture or global warming if, at the end of the day, there is no church left standing? The fact that all the other problems are sucking energy and attention into their particular set of grievances reinforces [10]the deepest problem of all, a church that has lost its way.

Others say the problem is human nature. The ‘good old boy’ system for appointments remains tacitly in place. A sea of gray hair greets seminary graduates in their 20’s who enter a system where an initial appointment to Siberia often remains a prerequisite to ministry among those still young enough to birth children. Women clergy face the stained glass ceiling; minority clergy remain largely shuffled into churches peopled by “their kind;” conservative pastors feel belittled and marginalized while liberal pastors feel dismissed and disdained, depending on the geography or attitude of their respective conference. As of 2016, 41% of United Methodist bishops are ethnic minorities, but that ‘visible face’ expression of diversity does not offset the fact that 94% of the membership of the US denomination is white.[11]

As a last example, which does not exhaust the list, consider the problem of denial. In his insightful book with the simple title, Denial, Harvard’s Richard Tedlow neatly defines the term by borrowing a phrase from George Orwell, “protective stupidity.” Businesses such as A&P and Sears once dominated their fields but fell from prominence, or out of existence completely, when leadership engaged in massive denial of uncomfortable realities and inconvenient truths.[12]

Organizations in denial have similar characteristics. Tedlow offers these indicators. They shoot or marginalize the messengers of unpleasant date, refuse to face painful facts and promote those who share that refusal, rationalize reasons to delay decisive action, “normalize deviance” that accepts mediocrity as the standard, verbally trash competitors who are excelling while the company is “coasting uphill.”  Organizations in denial would “rather be conventionally wrong than unconventionally right,” and forget that as “snow melts at the periphery,” so depth problems first appear at the edges of the organization.[13]

In that light consider how various annual conferences or jurisdictions have addressed declining attendance, increasing age of members, dramatically diminished professions of faith, miniscule involvement of children and youth, and the need to plant or relocate churches into modern areas where people actually live in growing numbers. Common complaints over the elderly make-up of annual conference delegates collide with standard conference meeting dates that require younger potential members to take 3 days vacation from work or school, i.e., ideal for those retired without compelling schedules. Ever try changing those dates to ones that could enable younger participants to attend? Some conferences have dropped membership-worship data from their annual reports, while most others seek hopeful spin about how decline has slowed or more persons are reportedly engaged in mission. Or consider this cheerful thought. In 25 years today’s average United Methodist, according to demographic tables, will be…dead. Denial is real.

Feel better? Christ named the demons as a first step in exorcising the evil (Mark 5:9). The problems just listed are not a complete catalogue of suspects but offer something of the factors and the feelings implicit in each factor by those affected. The overstatements, misstatements and misrepresentations mixed with the woofing and snorting in the above descriptions are crucial pieces of the problem.  The added complication is the implicit truths in most or all of the problems as just described.

The feeling element in these descriptions may strike some as distracting or unnecessary. Remember that “Nice” is a word not found in the Bible, and the essential communication required to work a wicked problem must take account of the acid emotions that slosh around every conversation. This is not endorsement of such feelings, which can poison any effort at healthy response, but recognition of tendencies every stakeholder possesses to undermine efforts at forward movement by indulging in a fresh set of angers. Paul’s guidance to “Be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another as God, for Christ’s sake, forgave you,” remains in force but can be mislaid amid the sea of emotions generated by a wicked problem (Ephesians 4:32).

If one characteristic of a wicked problem is defining its nature, the United Methodist Church fits the bill. Arising from conflicting diagnoses, proposed solutions collide. If the problem is theological, is the solution to loosen up or tighten up, affirm classic boundaries and definitions or bump the boundaries of belief in deference to fresh revelation and understanding? If the problem is outdated structures that inhibit ministry and discipleship, who is best qualified to make that call, adopt wise change and select the right paradigm for making and evaluating change? If the problem relates to finances and demographics, flowing from the historically rural nature of the church in its frontier origins, who or what authority can shift church planting from congregations located at buggy distance to modern urban realities? If the problem is a church too cozy with liberals or with conservatives, who defines the parameters of inclusion and sets the agenda for input from the various aggrieved groups? If the problem is complicated by passions, how can honest but cooler voices be heard and trusted? If the problem is denial, how can an organization firmly committing to leadership from institutionally-conditioned insiders find the  courage to break out of ruts for the sake of new life?

Finances and demographics further complicate the picture. The historically rural nature of United Methodism, the heritage of unprecedented frontier success, has left the majority of existing congregations geographically isolated, a legacy of planting new congregations within buggy distance of one another and the overstocking left from mergers such as the 1968 joining of the Evangelical United Brethren with the Methodist Church. Meanwhile, 20% of established congregations contain 80% or more of denominational worshippers, many with a serious case of attitude about church policy and showing a growing willingness to use financial and political clout as leverage to express their dissatisfaction with the system.[14]

A final characteristic of a wicked problem is the shifting identity and relationships among the stakeholders. Is the Good News movement a stakeholder or a threat? Is the Reconciling movement a stakeholder or a threat? Where do the Confessing Movement, Asbury Theological Seminary, the Board of Church and Society, the Methodist Federation for Social Action, or Claremont School of Theology fit into the picture? How does one identify a stakeholder where structural issues are concerned? Most ‘young adult’ United Methodists live outside the United States. How does that affect who speaks for the denomination’s young adults? Who is authorized to speak for the “innovation” lobby and where exactly do those people live? When does restructuring cross the line from an episcopal system to congregational-lite for a connectional church? Amid other questions looms the identity and position of the global church. How are balances and fairness maintained among the several thousand United Methodists in Europe with the several million United Methodists in Africa and parts of Asia and South/Central American?




“You despise me, don’t you?”  “If I gave you any thought I probably would.”  (Humphrey Bogart to Peter Lorre, Casablanca)

Wicked problem theory offers three primary strategies to address the issue. These are authoritative, competitive and collaborative in nature. They do not exhaust possibilities for response but provide a starting point for discussion and action.

Authoritative strategy involves a person or group who has sufficient legal, moral, financial or institutional clout to define the problem and implement change. This strategy is useful if power is confined to a relatively small number of stakeholders, with stakeholder defined as anyone who is affected by the issue or the organization.

Authoritative strategies turn the issue over to a small circle of those with expertise and power. It seeks to eliminate the paralyzing welter of competing voices in which screech and volume trump knowledge and coherence. Obvious conflict is minimized, as is the risk of paying unhealthy heed to those whose main credential is the ability to yell louder than others. Stability returns to the system sooner rather than later, thanks to the firm hand of an informed authority empowered to define terms and enact change.

There are downsides to authority.  Experts can be wrong. Institutions are tempted to label as ‘expert’ those best able to color inside institutional lines in preference to those who may show fresh vision or unwelcome alternative perspectives. Organizations of a voluntary nature maintain health by sharing the sense of ownership for decisions and directions affecting the whole. Top-down authoritative approaches risk alienating vast segments of the organization who feel no ownership in the process. When stakeholders start walking away from the institution in any number, this strategy has run aground.


“When you’re slapped, you’ll take it and like it.” (Humphrey Bogart to Peter Lorre, The Maltese Falcon)

Authoritative strategies, in theory, are the way to go for the United Methodist Church. The church is episcopal in nature, with clearly defined lines of authority reaching from General Conference and bishops through annual conferences to local congregations. The denomination owns local church property, thanks to the disputed but typically upheld Trust Clause. Bishops assign clergy to places of service and have the authority to order them to move. Theoretically the response to the wicked problem of the church is for the firm hand of designated authority to announce what the problem is and what the solution will be.

In practice, this strategy quickly hits the wall of reality. Church membership is voluntary. Laity may give the benefit of the doubt to church authorities but not uncritically nor forever. Official authority embodied in the offices of such as bishop has been diminished dramatically. Laity are well aware of the numerous ecclesiastical alternatives in other churches if the status quo no longer satisfies. Laity can view appeals to organizational loyalty as a cop-out approach by those incapable of effective leadership.[15]

The absolute autocrats symbolized in John Wesley and Bishop Francis Asbury, hero of frontier Methodism, have no modern counterpart, for which virtually all stakeholders are grateful. The denomination has no pope, no “Big Bish,” and no Primus inter Pares (first among equals). The Chair of the Council of Bishops functions in many ways akin to a congressional press secretary who communicates but does not direct the will of the body. Bishops have no say beyond their own geographical boundaries. Even the power to appoint clergy rests in a consensual basis of trust among the local congregations, the clergy pool and the bishop.[16]

The General Conference has become the predictable flashpoint for airing doctrinal and institutional disagreements. In theory, the General Conference remains the best official source of authoritative response to denominational problems. It is sufficiently representative and organizationally empowered to declare what the problems are and to announce the solutions.[17]

In practice, the General Conference suffers numerous limitations that undercut its usefulness in resolving the church’s wicked problem through unilateral or decisive action. The 2012 General Conference in Tampa was beset by paralysis and concluded with virtually all parties dissatisfied at a perceived (and real) lack of measurable progress relative to reenergizing the mission or resolving conflicts on organizational structure, personnel issues or human sexuality. The 2016 General Conference in Portland made progress on some matters but found the truce it decreed to allow the Council of Bishops the space to work the issue of human sexuality immediately violated by individuals, some conferences, some Boards of Ordained Ministry and at least one Jurisdiction.[18]

In practice, General Conference suffers numerous inevitable limitations that undercut its usefulness in resolving the wicked problem of the church. Nearly all voting members have long track records of investment within traditional paradigms. Expectations that 850 insiders will produce profound innovations are unrealistic. Veterans of previous General Conference caucuses and special interest groups are adept at procedural wars and foot-dragging that leave the uninitiated befuddled and make stalemate on contested issues more likely.[19]

The Judicial Council, the Supreme Court of the church, has authority to resolve specific legal and procedural issues. It can and has told the General Conference that certain decisions are invalid regarding matters of church polity and belief, evidenced in the show-stopping ruling during the 2012 Tampa event that upended a good deal of the perceived accomplishment of that effort. The Judicial Council relies on its moral authority as much as on its legal placement within the church structure to enforce its decisions.

If a bishop, with the support of his or her annual conference or jurisdiction, decides not to obey a controversial Judicial Council ruling, little can be done to compel compliance short of declaring legal civil war in secular courts, an invitation to an ecclesiastical meltdown. As Jeffrey Rosen has written regarding President Andrew Jackson’s battle with Chief Justice John Marshall over the treatment of the Cherokee nation:

In the Cherokee Indians case, Worcester v. Georgia (1832), Marshall infuriated Jackson by insisting that Georgia laws that purported to seize Cherokee lands on which gold had been found violated federal treaties. Jackson is famous for having responded: “John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it.” Although the comment is probably apocryphal, both Georgia and Jackson simply ignored the decision.[20]

The authority of the Judicial Council, should it collide with an intransigent or feisty conference or jurisdiction, almost certainly would lose to some version of the legendary Jackson snort, “The Council has made its decision. Now let it enforce it.”


“It is not enough that I succeed. Others must fail.” (anonymous)

A second strategy for dealing with a wicked problem is competition. This is employed when a tug-of-war develops over power within the system, especially when that power is spread fairly evenly among numerous stakeholders. The essence of competition is win-lose, arising from the effort to acquire the power needed to define the dilemma and resolve the problem to the satisfaction of the winner. Whoever achieves that level of power triumphs. The winner calls the shots and the losers are simply shot, neutralized, marginalized or driven from the field. Once power is consolidated, the competitive winner can shift to a less turbulent version of an authoritative approach to address future issues and renegades.

Competition has positive elements. It pushes the contestants toward creativity and innovation while inhibiting dictators. When no one group rules, the temptations of concentrating power within a church bureaucracy diminish. Competition helps prevent unhealthy dependency on the system by challenging traditional United Methodist wisdom. For example, a common assumption is that one becomes pastor of a larger congregation by being appointed to a larger congregation. Competitive strategies offer practical vision for assuming that one pastors a larger church by growing the church one currently serves, a novel notion in some circles but red meat to those committed to healthy competition. Healthy competition redirects the clergy resume from listing the various jobs at conference or general church level that he or she occupied to specifics on how they filled the positions they occupied in measurably effective ways.

Competition is an attitude that flows through various levels of the United Methodist wicked problem. Speaking in stereotype, some view publishing venues like Seedbed as a threat to the established Cokesbury universe; Asbury Theological Seminary as a threat to the established seminaries of the church; the Mission Society as a threat to the General Board of Global Ministries, and organizations such as the Confessing Movement – Good News – Wesley Covenant Association as a threat to the established structural life of the church. These are all competitors deserving suspicion at best and repudiation or marginalization at least for their disruptive presence. A warped and unfounded sense of superiority arises from conservative United Methodist churches and leaders in geographic regions where conservative attitudes rule but the really large churches in those regions are not evangelical Wesleyan but independent or Pentecostal. The theology and approach of Wesleyan evangelical large church pastors would be eaten alive by the culture in New England or the Pacific Northwest, undercutting any pride about superiority in competition for numbers.

Others frame the competitive attitude differently. Speaking in stereotype, spiritually vigorous churches tend to be more traditional or evangelical in beliefs, while shrinking and spiritually withered churches and conferences and jurisdictions seem to be more liberal in beliefs. The vital African United Methodist churches are surging and growing while firmly embracing the historic Christian sexual ethic on homosexual behaviors. The numerical death rattle coming from most United Methodist churches in the shrink-wrapped Western Jurisdiction is Exhibit A.  Other areas such as the New England Conference, with a membership that equals a rounding error in the Southeast Jurisdiction, reject both the Wesleyan gospel preached in Africa and the sexual ethics that accompany it. The great sucking sound is floundering liberal churches swirling down the drain of oblivion, tragically thinking of their sophisticated approach to sexuality and scripture as a life jacket in their capsized churches when, in fact, they are clinging to an anvil of misplaced and flawed theology.

A strategy that offloads the dead weight of a passé progressivism or the embarrassing albatross of traditionalism holds a great appeal for those weary of continued head-knocking in seats of ecclesial power. There is a bracing feel to seeking leverage over the proverbial ‘others,’ which becomes intoxicating when one feels advantage has been gained and the ‘others’ now are losers in the field. Successful competition can clear the road of the impediments to a bright future, however envisioned by the particular aggrieved group. Naysayers and opponents no longer trip progress on the journey to the progressive or orthodox heaven, here using two words rich in implicitly divisive meaning.

Competitive strategies have a downside. Hostility can develop among the competitors, warfare that ill becomes followers of the “Prince of Peace.” Competition demands enormous amounts of energy, talent and time that are drained from focus on fulfilling the mission of the church in disciple-making. Every General Conference since 1976, for example, has lost such energy amid legal and polity battles over homosexuality. When competitors are relatively equal in power, the most effective use of that power can be the creation of logjams, with progress redefined into the negative definition of ‘succeeding in stopping this or that.’

Those outside the faith are impressed, and surprised, when Christians dwell together in unity. News articles that describe the travails of the church by using verbiage typically reserved from the reports of the World Federation of Wrestling reinforce all the negative stereotypes. Outsiders can tell who are Christians not by their love but by the cross-stitch on their wall that reads:  Happiness is a known enemy. Denominations nationally known more for their fight card than their feeding programs flounder in witness to the world.


“You always have a very smooth explanation.”  “What do you want me to do, learn to stutter?”  (Humphrey Bogart to Peter Lorre, The Maltese Falcon)

Collaborative strategies comprise a third way of coping with wicked problems.  “Collaboration is premised on the principle that by joining forces parties can accomplish more as a collective than they can achieve by acting as independent agents.”[21] The underlying assumption is that a win-win approach offers the best chance to deal with pressing, ambiguous problems. More key players leave the field with a sense of accomplishment. Wasteful battles are avoided. Healthy loyalty to the system is nurtured by stakeholders who feel they are vital to the process of change and believe they can become full players with real ownership in the outcome.

In her classic work on collaboration, Barbara Gray outlined characteristics for problems where collaborative responses can make a constructive difference. They include, but are not limited to the following:

  1. The problems are ill-defined, or there is disagreement about how they should be defined.
  2. Several stakeholders have a vested interest in the problems and are interdependent.
  3. Differing perspectives on the problems often lead to adversarial relationships among the stakeholders.
  4. Incremental or unilateral efforts to deal with the problems typically produce less than satisfying results.
  5. Existing processes for dealing with the problems have proved insufficient and may even exacerbate them.[22]

             The healthy collaborative process is framed by clear and constructive rules of engagement that consciously seek to identify every aspect of the various issues.  All is rooted in the core conviction that the best interests of the individual stakeholder or the individual group involved in the issue potentially is best served by such a process. A collaborative approach enters the picture when every other option realistically is viewed as a “lose-lose” path for the organization.

Collaboration has downsides. It can fall flat. To borrow language from the era of the Viet Nam war, some stakeholders may be content to destroy the village in order to save it, with passionate embrace or rejection of a specific issue so overwhelming that all other considerations are ignored or flattened, together with those who value those considerations. Those who are better at networking or schmoozing may develop unfair leverage in collaborative processes. Stakeholders may come to see collaboration itself as a lose-lose proposition and shift to battle stations, confident that they are strong enough to go alone if required. The outcome of a healthy collaborative process may be a consensus that competition is better!

A modest example of constructive collaboration on a specific area of conflict was the creation of A Foundation for Theological Education (AFTE), the product of the efforts of the late Albert Outler of Perkins School of Theology and the late conservative United Methodist pastor-evangelist, Ed Robb. Outler had protested Robb’s statements about blanket prejudice against conservative students in denominational seminaries. Outler also recalled the refusal of the Perkins faculty to hire Harvard-trained and award-winning historian Timothy Smith due to their discomfort with his active membership in the Church of the Nazarene. Smith found consolation when hired promptly by the University of Minnesota and later would complete a distinguished career as Chair of the History Department at the Johns Hopkins University, where such religious litmus tests were not applied.

Robb, when challenged by Outler, likewise rethought and recast his stereotyped criticism of United Methodist seminaries and distanced himself from his absolutist language. Robb came to concede that United Methodist seminary faculties indeed contained scholars who either embraced, appreciated or fairly described the evangelical wing and beliefs of the Wesleyan theological tradition.

Arising from dialogue the AFTE was established in 1977. The organization has provided scholarships for United Methodist doctoral candidates with an evangelical outlook who are studying in ranked universities, in hopes that official church seminaries eventually would be willing to hire some of them. As of 2016 a total of 141 John Wesley fellows have participated in the program, with three million dollars raised to assist in their graduate education. They teach at a number of seminaries, including Duke, Wesley, Asbury, Princeton, Garrett, and Perkins. Consensus is firm on the benefits coming from this collaborative effort.[23]

Dialogues involving national church leaders and movements have gained wide publicity. Good News, the Methodist Federation for Social Action, the Reconciling Movement and the Confessing Movement have been at the table together at various occasions for dialogue and mutual efforts at understanding. Issues ranging from the nature of the authority of scripture to the affirmation of same gender marriage to the nature of Jesus as Savior and Lord have brought to the table those representing groups normally known more for talking about one another than talking to one another. Similar dialogues have occurred in various annual conferences.

The dark cloud looming over traditional definitions of collaboration is the recognition in wicked-problem theory that stakeholders “fail into collaboration.” That is, collaboration enters the picture when all the key players recognize that no other approach can succeed and that failure to deal with the problem will leave everyone in a worse situation. The curve ball in this equation is that a number of stakeholders do not necessarily believe they will be worse off if competition is formalized through division.

For example, consider the hypothetical scenario of two well-known large United Methodist churches.  First is Glide Memorial United Methodist Church in San Francisco, which as of 2014 has a membership of approximately 12,900 and a worship attendance of 2100.  This amounts to 17% of the entire California-Nevada conference membership and 6.7% of the entire conference average worship attendance. In 2011, with a reported attendance of 3100, Glide boasted 10% of the entire conference worship attendance.[24]

To such a church attention must be paid. Strongly liberal-progressive in its social witness, the church has attracted celebrities and the destitute and, under the leadership of Rev. Cecil Williams, became arguably the best-known church in the Bay area. Although Jesus is not mentioned anywhere on the church website, the overflow Sunday worship services reflect a powerful gospel-tradition celebration. The ministry to the poor, medical and shelter care, feeding roughly one million meals each year to those on the margins (in a surprisingly small space and kitchen), and its efforts to combat racism and drug abuse combine to give Glide a place of adulation in the larger and emphatically secular community of San Francisco and Marin county. The avowedly unchurched majority may know or care little of organized religion but they have heard of Glide and like what they hear.

Glide likewise has led the way for the liberal-progressive movement within the denomination regarding matters of human sexuality. Same sex unions have been blessed at Glide for years. The current Pastor (and recently elected bishop in the Western Jurisdiction) made no secret of her lesbian partner-wife in her time at Glide.  Glide, under Cecil Williams’ leadership, took a stand early and consistently in the fight for gay civil rights and in combatting AIDS and HIV when the disease first began to appear in the gay community and to the larger community as well.[25]

Consider a second church, The Woodlands United Methodist Church in The Woodlands, Texas was founded and is pastored by Ed Robb, Jr., son of the co-founder of AFTE. This strongly conservative-evangelical United Methodist church, as of 2004, has 11,000 members, up from 6466 in 2004, and a worship attendance of 4423, up from 3100 over the decade. The church website identifies it in winsome terms as a theological friend to the Confessing Movement. Robb is a trustee at Asbury Theological Seminary, although his own theological education was at the Perkins School of Theology.

In the sizable Texas conference of 286,000 members, this congregation’s membership is roughly 4% of the total, while the attendance is slightly over 4% of conference worship attendance. By any metric, it is a significant United Methodist megachurch in a denomination with relatively few such entities nationwide. A variety of worship service styles and locations contribute to its numbers. While offering numerous venues to serve the community and the overseas mission field, it is not primarily identified by its social action. As Glide fits with some comfort into its urban/inner city culture and context, so The Woodlands has found a place for its witness in the suburban Houston area.

Collaboration within the denomination that would require the more liberal Glide church to embrace or affirm more conservative/traditional theological constructs and practices, such as renouncing same-gender marriage or returning the cross to the sanctuary, would meet with a dubious welcome. Proposals that would require the theologically conservative-traditional Woodlands church to affirm (even if they did not practice) same gender weddings or the equal validity of the truth claims of other world religions would not play well in Texas. Collaboration that whispers such approaches, apart from heavily mulched statements of context, would be collaboration on the way to collapse.

It must be emphasized that using these two congregations as an example of the challenge of collaboration does not suggest uncovering a conspiracy by either church or pastoral leadership to undermine the denomination or sabotage constructive engagement. It is a reminder that when large congregations and their pastors enter the process, attention must be paid. A single congregation with a larger worship attendance than whole districts within the denomination will not surrender autonomy or initiative easily, especially to those whose intentions appear unclear or whose own track record of effectiveness in ministry is mixed.

When huge congregations are involved, opposites can snap or explode any denominational structure that theoretically exists to hold them in balance. Bipolar personalities, whether in pastoral leaders, denominational theology or organizational practice, do not bode well for the future. If one prefers, consider this another aspect of the wicked problem facing the United Methodist Church, the inescapable and active presence of larger congregations that hold (in theory) the plurality of conference and denominational membership.



“You’ve got to hold them by the nose and kick them in the *&^%$.” (General George Patton)

            In wicked problem theory, collaborating stakeholders agree to seek meaningful common ground for a larger good that exceeds any perceived benefits arising from competition. The paradox for the United Methodist Church is that historical precedent is on the side of competition as the default solution for the wicked problem. Nazarenes, Wesleyans, the Free Methodists and the Salvation Army, as well as numerous other theological cousins, began within the fold but split when issues of theology, practice or structure proved resistant to collaborative reform.

The Methodist Protestant Church split over questions of authority. The Wesleyan Methodist Connection/church split over slavery, as did the African Methodist Episcopal and the African Methodist Episcopal Zion church.  The Colored Methodist Episcopal formed after the Civil War as a parallel track for black Methodists located primarily in the South.  The Free Methodists formed in response to dissatisfaction over slavery and issues of holiness and Christian Perfection, and the Church of the Nazarene was birthed over concern that existing Methodism had lost the Wesleyan passion for sanctification and holy living. In England, the Salvation Army came from the vision and leadership of Methodists William and Catherine Booth, and their impatience with the reluctance of the organization to address the needs of the marginalized.  The 1844 split over slavery is the most significant historical example but by no means the only one.[26]

Against this background, the stage is set for an eventual split should collaboration fail.

Several factors point toward this conclusion.  The first is math. A number of years ago Tom Oden of Drew University suggested that approximately 25% of United Methodist members and congregations could be classified as “evangelical.”  Granted the conceptual sogginess of that term thanks to habitual political and cultural misuse, the estimate remains reasonable. Notice the number and percentage do no reflect the majority of existing United Methodist congregations…in the United States. If African and significant portions of Latin American, Asian and some European parts of the existing global church are included, a clear majority likely does emerge. The product would be larger than the existing United Church of Christ, Disciples of Christ, Episcopal and the Presbyterian Church in the USA combined.[27]

A second factor is finance. Studies indicate that of Americans who tithe their income to charity, 80% are evangelical Protestants. There is little likelihood that the centrist-liberal wings of the church would insist on retaining all the property in the event of a break-up. Such action or court combat, as the Episcopalian experience painfully demonstrated, would bring the tab for hundreds of millions of dollars in property mortgages and upkeep for which the resistant part of the church would become responsible. Empty buildings, many impossible to sell, would be the winner’s ‘spoil,’ an apt title for the outcome.[28]

A third factor influencing the potential future division of the church is the concept that “geography is destiny.” As discussed by Barry Kosmin and Seymour Lachman, various regions of the country tend to be defined in more political, ethical and social frames of reference.  While every area of the country contains virtually every type of belief, the preponderance of certain viewpoints can be tracked in broad geographical terms. For example, the Western Jurisdiction and several conferences in the Northeastern Jurisdiction have produced statements that would empty out entire districts and upend scores of churches in Georgia, Texas or Southern Illinois. Thus, the breakup of the denomination into two geographical denominations with satellite congregations diffusing each region becomes a real possibility.[29]

The downsides of a competitive split are daunting. Who precisely would leave? The 2016 General Conference clearly indicated that the traditional elements within the global church hold the cards and have the votes insofar as numerous contested issues are concerned. This stands recent history on its head. The Episcopal and Presbyterian mainline denominations, national and not global in membership, gently drifted to the left-progressive side of contentious issues, with such as same gender marriage being the watershed but not the entire explanation for rift.

Conservative-traditional churches and clergy began to trickle out of those denominations until a tipping point was reached in each case culminating in affirming same gender marriages, the boycott of Israel for its treatment of Palestinians, and a variety of other stands distressful to the conservatives. In departing for new theological connections, conservative/traditional congregations typically expressed the reason as more than any one issue. Deeper issues such as the understanding of the nature of the gospel, the person and work of Christ and the authority of the scriptures provided justification. Conservatives departed, and continue to drift away from the parent denominations, leaving the centrist-liberal wing in control of seminaries, property and other assets. In this paradigm, if someone leaves it will be the conservatives, of course!

The United Methodist example has upended that equation and set of assumptions. Centrists do not wish to leave or to be left. Liberals, including those embracing what is termed ‘biblical disobedience’ on certain issues, indicate neither plan nor desire to depart the denomination, nor to obey what that denomination officially may say or teach on certain issues. Conservative churches and leaders need to ask themselves why they would leave the denomination when, by 2016 General Conference vote, it is clear they own the store insofar as many contested issues are concerned. If that indeed is the case, to what degree are conservatives willing to punish or boot out those who refuse either to leave or to obey? This, incidentally, is yet another variation of a wicked problem dynamic.

Caught in the muddled mess are the thousands of smaller congregations who might leave or realign with larger congregations of a similar point of view but who would proceed without the resources to stand alone. Not all conservative churches are healthy; most self-defined conservative churches are in plateau or decline. Not all conservative pastors are effective. Orthodoxy in theology and sincere faith in personal conviction do not always translate into fruitful pastoral ministry.  One can remove the word “conservative” from every statement in this paragraph, insert the word “liberal-progressive” and have the same truths apply.

Mark Tooley of the conservative Institute for Religion and Democracy has offered notes of caution to exultant or determined evangelicals leaning toward denominational division. In the best of circumstances, it would not be easy and it would be ugly. He writes:

That a formal United Methodist schism, forcing thousands of local congregations effectively to choose sides, would be chaotic and destructive does not of course mean it won’t happen.  And maybe, from the perspective of purity, such division must happen, before there can be renewal and new life, some firmly believe.

But whatever happens, United Methodist schism should not be romanticized as the gracious alternative to further church debate.  There would be very little gracious about it, especially for local churches.[30]

A second impact of a division would be over definitions. Who or what precisely is an evangelical within the United Methodist tradition? No clear definition emerges that all embrace. Some United Methodist evangelicals downplay or are confused by Wesley’s emphasis on Christian Perfection. Others are reluctant to baptize infants or add belief in the inerrancy of scripture to membership vows. A subscription to Christianity Today may be circumstantial evidence of one’s evangelical credentials but suggests nothing about an embrace of a Wesleyan theological distinctive.[31]

Liberals fare no better. Liberal United Methodist clergy are, well, liberal, which means one can advocate for left-of-center political causes while affirming the bodily resurrection of Jesus. Another liberal may dismiss the historicity of the resurrection as an actual event and affirm the Bible more as inspiring than inspired yet officiate weekly at highly liturgical worship that leaves the Holy Spirit desperately flipping pages to find the right place in the text. In short, there are clergy who fit a theological label of liberal but have not had an original idea since Clarence Darrow and H.L. Mencken put the skids to William Jennings Bryan in the Scopes monkey trial in the 1920’s. Go figure. A pastor or congregation may affirm ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’ as a self-definition but insists on defining the term, which can include some very traditional-moderate-conservative dimensions.

Who or what is a moderate or centrist in the event of a split? Like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates, in any United Methodist church one never knows what they are going to get. Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter are numbered among those of the middle-way or centrist insofar as human sexuality issues are concerned. Products of Oral Roberts University and Asbury Theological Seminary respectively, they stand condemned under the old denominational appointment paradigm as “losers,” never able to get beyond their first appointments, another merry irony in the system. As pastors of bona fide megachurches, they and a handful of other clergy of megachurch status who are not aligned with Glide and resist a neat ‘evangelical’ label fit precisely where in the event of division?

This leads to the most difficult implication of a competitive split. What would this do to the vast majority of churches, laity and clergy that are caught in the middle?  Virtually no conservative-evangelical United Methodist church is exclusively composed of members who neatly fit the label. The same is true for liberal-progressive congregations, where more moderate and even an occasional conservative can be seen on surveillance video in worship or church community service. One may sniff that the middle of the road is where one finds the yellow stripe and dead skunks, but it also is where one arguably finds the numerical majority of United Methodist laity. Perhaps they are slightly left or slightly right but indisputably middle.

This is part of the rich heritage of Wesleyan ecclesiology and practice, embodied in Wesley’s comment that “At all opinions that do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think…if we may not all think alike, can we not all love alike…is your heart as is my heart; then give me your hand.”

A split that divides the American United Methodist church into self-identified liberal and conservative factions both will attract and disaffect a substantial portion of laity. “Middle of the road” is not a pejorative term for most United Methodist laity; rather, it reflects the overall make-up of American society in general.[32]

A division might offer occasion to revise denominational structures and to incorporate some contemporary insights on systemic renewal, but nothing is certain. In times of upheaval, individuals and systems tend to cling to the familiar, even if the old ways have proved dysfunctional. To date, no group, whether liberal or conservative, has engaged in coherent and sustained reflection on restructuring a new denomination in ways that would be consistent with Wesleyan ecclesiology. Without doubt, concerns over creating an impression of favoring schism or disloyalty are factors in the hands-off attitude toward such discussions. The challenge is that the practical needs of congregations widely divergent in membership, location and financial resources call for a pattern of restructuring that cannot just ‘happen’ unless the denomination effectively renounces an episcopal and connection-based ecclesiology for an entrepreneur-based church.


“Loyalty is agreeing with me.”  (sign on desk of former Secretary of the Navy)

Collaboration holds the best initial hope for responding to the wicked problem of the church. Notice the wording. It point is not to solve the problem. Collaboration in this context is not singing “Kumbaya” around an inclusive campfire. It requires constructive engagement at all levels of the life and soul of the church.

Giving everyone a seat at the table is risky, especially when kinfolk are angry and are carrying some very long knives. Collaboration theory assumes that linear thinking, traditionally rooted in a neat problem-solving paradigm, is unable to make sense of the chaos one finds in a wicked problem world. The class notion is that a problem is anything that upsets stability, regularity, predictability and efficiency in the institution. Top-down leaders respond with actions designed to restore these qualities to the system. Structure exists to implement the decisions of authority, normally by growing the bureaucracy necessary to do the job.[33]

In a diverse society, institutions that hold to static definitions are destined to be blindsided by events and marginalized in impact. The default setting of these institutions is to ‘fix’ the problem by taking steps to banish disruption or disorder, either by appointing “Reverend Problem” else where or by referring the problem to a conference committee where the issue is quietly strangled or starved with neglect. A nonlinear, dynamic approach that takes seriously the constantly changing dimensions of the problem and the erratic nature and demands of stakeholders is best addressed by collaborative means. “Solving a wicked problem is fundamentally a social process that authority or the walls built by competitive strategies cannot resolve.”[34]

A second assumption in collaborative response is that some chaos is inevitable and can be beneficial. Chaos is defined as “a period of inherent unpredictability in a system.” That chaos is inevitable is obvious to any veteran of church meetings. Institutionally, chaos arises in the same manner as it does in any living organism, in which some chaos is vital to the continued health of the organism. As Phyllis Kirk has pointed out, “In nature, a system that thrives on chaos is dynamic and vital. On the other hand, a stable system is closest to entropy, which is closest to death.”[35]

In religious institutions the same concept can apply. Meaningful boundaries, such as those provided by crisp theological tradition and beliefs, offer definition and focus to the church.  Apart from such boundaries, a chaotic gush of conflicting opinions and practices can literally swamp the institution. A healthy response need not imply an embrace of rigidity or static beliefs poured and set with walls of traditionalism.

For example, a printed denominational hymnal is dated from the day of publication, outdated in five years and a certifiable antique in a decade. Cloud technology, such as was affirmed by the 2016 General Conference as a tactic for hymnal revision, helps but the neat role and need traditionally filled by the 1964 hymnal is gone for good. Arguments by Marva Dawn and others that warn against exchanging the faith once delivered for a spiritual ‘high’ instantly delivered have merit but also risk assuming that a dramatic shift in the style of worship must imply a surrender of the substance of the gospel. One can agree that Christian ‘contemporary’ music drivel is still drivel, even as substantive music in content and presentation also come in contemporary venues. That does not exempt the church from facing the healthy chaos of innovative styles, lest the institution change its worship expressions just slow enough to guarantee certain death at the hands of impatient younger adults.[36]

Aspects of the collaborative process relevant to the church include identifying, evaluating and affirming the stakeholders; establishing consensus on ground rules for dialogue; building a strong social network for various players to speak and listen; avoiding a start to the process with any specific goal in mind. Some of these guidelines may sound reasonable, while others (such as initiating the process without a specific outcome in mind) may sound silly or counterproductive. For linear problem solving, begin and end points matter. For a wicked problem, with numerous places to begin and a deck filled with cards labeled as potential outcomes, linear rules do not apply.

Ground rules for dialogue are vital. These could include identifying who is authorized to speak for a particular stakeholder; agreeing to avoid speaking about other stakeholders until one had spoken to that stakeholder; renouncing practices such as concealment of information or delay or impugning the motives of others. Inviting a trained and impartial facilitation team from outside the organization to coordinate key dialogues would be wise. The Council of Bishops, already tasked by the General Conference to develop a plan, could propose a consistent framework for the ground rules and measurable milestones toward the creation of proposals.

Starting the process without a specific goal in mind sounds crazy, akin to booking an airline flight to “wherever.” This aspect of the collaborative process is vital to enable the process itself to get off the ground. Where stakeholders with wide disagreement on issues sit at the same table, an announced specific goal inherently creates insiders and outsiders, undercuts constructive conversation, and nurtures a win-lose framework to further conversation. Announced goals often are incognito solutions which may address the concerns of some stakeholders but not others. No one’s theology or convictions need be laid aside. Entering the process with clear agendas of what one would like to see happen can be helpful in bringing long-range coherence to that process. Goals will emerge but with a greater sense of shared ownership than those predetermined before the process has begun.



“You have chosen…wisely.”  Ancient Crusader in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade

“Yes sir. This is the best bad plan we have.”  Brian Cranston in Argo

 The role of prophet in the Bible is problematic. Some prophets were true; other prophets were false; other prophets were simply on the take and willing to go with the flow. An awkward part of the job description for a true prophet was the notion, “Must be willing to relocate to prison or cemetery; must expect rejection and scorn; must settle for no profit in being a prophet.”

This final chapter is therefore not prophecy. Call it speculative musing. Call it informed guessing. Call it uninformed guessing. The unfolding of the wicked problem of the United Methodist church has accelerated in 2016. The center is unlikely to hold because, consistent with the symptoms of a wicked problem, no consensus exists as to what the center is. All parties equally claim Christ as the one served, the Bible and the Spirit as the sources of guidance, and the church as the bride, even as mutually exclusive claims are made in the name of each for the larger church to heed. And to repeat, this is a quandary that far transcends head-knocking over same gender sexual issues.

Two roads thus diverge in this yellow wood. Two approaches present themselves for the denomination to sift and sort. Time is no longer an extravagant commodity. The proverbial can has been kicked down the road until it now it wiggles tenuously at the edge of the cliff where the road ends. There is no more road with the comforting sign labeled, status quo.

One path leads to an all-in and all-out effort of collaboration toward a revised identity for future United Methodism in which all continue to live under the same large tent, albeit in different parts of the tent. The 2016 direction to the Council of Bishops, which passed by a whisper of 20+ votes out of over 800 present, calls for that effort to be made, to be given priority, and to be returned to the same delegates of that General Conference for assessment, approval or rejection prior to 2020. Marriage counselors often encourage troubled couples to commit to give the process of reconciliation 100% focus. If it succeeds, the couple will emerge with a new marriage intact and ready for a renewed constructive future. If the effort fails, both will know they gave it everything, lending a measure of dignity and peace to a separation both would come to see as the better way amid bad options.

The process of collaboration absolutely is possible. The outcome absolutely is in doubt. The refusal of the General Conference to overturn or modify existing church teaching on human sexuality alienated and angered many of those who see such change as simple justice. The perception of a preemptive strike that violated the understood truce on sexuality issues expressed in actions taken by various annual conferences, Boards of Ministry and clearly in the actions of the Western Jurisdiction alienated and angered many others who feel those actions were a disrespectful sucker punch, a moral Pearl Harbor attack on the integrity of the mandate given to the bishops. The understandable failure of the General Conference to address decisively the wealth of other issues that fold within the definition of a wicked problem add fuel and challenge to the process. Wicked problem theory insists the players not be lured into a single-issue understanding of problem and solution. Recall that the overwhelming number of American churches that favor and that oppose same gender marriages or self-avowed, practicing homosexual clergy hold this reality in common: they are in numerical plateau or decline.

Collaboration is on the agenda for the denomination, rightly so. Utilizing the best practices and wisdom of dialogue, collaborative theory and large group interventions, it is crucial that clergy and lay leaders at all levels of the church focus with prayer and honorable action in support of the collaborative process. The Council of Bishops finds itself in a position similar to national attitudes toward Congress. Nearly every member of congress gets reelected on a regular basis, which is in theory is a show of affirmation and support. Congress as a whole is viewed with contempt for its dysfunction and incompetence and its singular inability to lead or follow effectively. Individual bishops are nice enough but collectively are perceived to struggle with organizing a three car caravan, impotent and indecisive. Fair or not, such attitudes skew attitudes that can make cooperation problematic.

The Council of Bishops has taken some constructive initial steps and, given preemptive actions by some entities in the American church, has accelerated the process of creating a team and engaging seasoned outside facilitation with the process. Actions by any group of stakeholders that undercut or disrupt this process, dramatically enhance the odds that collaboration will fail and that competition (division) will be the outcome.

“A house divided against itself…is called a condo.”  (anon)

There is a difference between a traumatic amputation and mitosis. Both lead to a separation of the initial organism. One comes as the result of a car crash, a terrorist bomb, an industrial accident at a chain saw factory. The entire body is traumatized. Disfigurement is certain and death is possible. Blood, pain, fear and anger blend together. The results linger in ugly ways. The overall health of the organism takes a permanent turn for the worse.

Individual churches and entire denominations can divide in that way. One need not dive into the longer range of church history to see it happen. The Episcopal church in the United States has suffered dramatic losses in membership and attendance. Millions of dollars have been expended in legal fights over property. Congregations and friends have become alienated. Counting those who have migrated to related Anglican groups, the overall number of Americans affiliated with the Episcopal tradition has declined. Mission suffered, finances for ministry were diminished, seminaries closed or were cut back. Traumatic division is like that.

This description offers no value judgment on who the right and wrong ones were in the process. Many of good will and deep faith also have responded to the division with positive and hopeful steps to reclaim, renew and grow the church again in rich spiritual ways. Nothing alters the fact that trauma remains a legitimate term to describe the slow train-wreck that overtook Episcopal brothers and sisters at the start of the 21st century in the United States.

Presbyterian colleagues learned from the Episcopal travail in some ways. As more conservative-traditional churches migrated out of the mainline denomination, the stage was set for the General Assembly to affirm the validity of active homosexual-lesbian clergy for the denomination in 2010 and affirmation of same-gender marriages in 2014. Freedom of conscience to permit churches or individual clergy to opt out of participation was included but the denomination has found substantial numbers of churches and members simply refused to be identified with a denomination that blessed such practices.

In 2000 the PCUSA denomination numbered 2.5 million members. In 2015 the membership stands at 1.5 million, with projected decline through 2020 estimated at another 400,000. It appears most of this loss was not to the church universal but reflected a migration toward other existing or newly-formed bodies with a more classical-traditional Reformed theology and practice regarding contested issues. Division brings diminishment. Whether it also brings a longer term renewal and vitality remains to be seen.

The Council of Bishops thus would be wise to explore two fundamental options. First, and clearly mandated by General Conference, is a collaborative plan that balances the integrity of Christians with differences under the unity of the global church. That is, and must be, the first priority.

Recall that numerous issues that have created division or suspicion among other faith churches are not issues of the same nature within the Wesleyan tradition.  The affirmation of women in ministry is not an issue. While differing perspectives on the inspiration and authority of scripture are real within the total Wesleyan body, the doctrine of inerrancy has never been a point of division, unlike its impact on Calvinist colleagues. No major stream of Wesleyan tradition, liberal or conservative, has rejected dinosaurs or modern counseling and clinical psychology and psychotherapy as ploys of Satan.

Most of all, recall Wesley’s insistence that the character of a Methodist was reflected in love for God and neighbor. This combined with the social compassion and vision of living out love for God and neighbor through active witness amid the injustices of the world and remain constants in the conversation. The Methodist movement opposed slavery from the day of its creation, and throughout its history has taken a lead in calls for the end to child labor, the care for injured workers, the right to organize on the job and numerous other expressions of God’s will for just treatment of all people. Whatever the differences of various modern segments of United Methodism, unity remains on certain crucial aspects of faith and practice common to all the spiritual children of Wesley.

“The only grounds for divorce in California is marriage.”  (Cher)

The second option is for a gracious and affirming mitosis of the church for the sake of mission. Mitosis is the healthy and natural division of cells that sustains life, enables growth and offers strength and future to the organism. The chromosomes remain the same. The DNA is shared. Each new cell has its own nucleus through which the growing life of the organism is expressed.

Should efforts at constructive collaboration fail, the Council can provide an alternative approach that affirms the shared Wesleyan DNA of the various stakeholders while acknowledging the wiser course (if necessitated by events) of a United Methodist future renewed and renamed around differing nuclei by which the gospel, the scriptures and Jesus are understood in the 21st century.

Template and vision are more important than the myriad details in any initial offering. A “Progressive Methodist Church” could affirm the freedom of congregations and clergy to practice and preach what they felt right regarding currently contested issues, combined with a willingness to remain formally aligned with other clergy and churches who hold differing views and practices, such as performing same-gender marriages or receiving a partnered lesbian pastor. Logistical matters ranging from bishops to budgets, missions to seminaries, pensions to disaster relief, would be second level details identified and sifted through structured ongoing decisions. The called General Conference of 2018 could offer conceptual affirmation and the 2020 General Conference could confirm the implementation of the approach.

Meanwhile the existing United Methodist Church could keep or change its name, depending on its understanding of “united” in the light of events. Partnerships with other existing Wesleyan bodies could be explored. Fresh and constructive definitions reflecting the realities of the global United Methodist connection could fill the theological nucleus of a church living out the semper reformanda quality of the Protestant Wesleyan tradition.

Such a process can be honestly framed by a vision as the best approach to empower the vitality and outreach of the Wesleyan movement for the 21st century in a global witness. Such a vision could mitigate aspects of rancor and recrimination that easily ooze into such events. All existing United Methodist churches would stay Wesleyan and would remain Methodist, albeit with differing approaches designed to enable more effective and faithful ministry in their individual settings. Entities ranging from Cokesbury to the United Methodist Committee on Relief to the General Board of Pensions could remain unified with whatever future church bodies that emerge. Issues such as the possible insistence of a Progressive Methodism that church pension funds divest from corporations doing business with Israel as part of the Boycott-Divestment-Sanctions movement could be worked in advance, with the new church creating its own pension fund with its share of existing assets if it feels morally compelled to do so.

Challenges in this approach are real and deep. How would theologically conservative ethnic churches and pastors located in predominantly liberal-progressive conferences fare, and vice versa? How would liberal clergy or congregations located in a predominantly conservative-traditional conference fare? What would happen to the existing official seminaries of the church, with the disparity of students, location and financial health? What happens if a church, a conference or a jurisdiction simply says they neither will leave nor comply with general church teaching on contested issues? If courts and attorneys become a requirement in adversarial terms, can any good possibly outweigh the pain of public legal wrangling?

Recall that a wicked problem defies a definitive solution. Recall also that the church of Jesus, with its earthly structure and organizational issues, also is of God, a divine creation of grace through which the gospel is shared with the world and the redemption of all who believe is proclaimed in Jesus’ name. Recall that the United Methodist church as a global body of Christ is growing, not declining. More people are joining it than leaving it; new births outnumber elderly deaths. In the big picture, the bride of Christ is alive and well despite the serious challenges of the moment.

In one sense, the outcome is in doubt, in that what specific direction the denomination takes over the next four years is unknown. In another and deeper sense, the outcome is not in doubt. The people called Methodist and the spiritual vision of Christianity that is the Wesleyan way will continue, will thrive and will fulfill the purpose for which God raised up the church. As persons of good will and deep principled differences enter the next phase of the journey, may it be as those who have skipped to the final chapter and know ultimately how it all turns out. And may that hope infuse the efforts, the plans, the dialogue and prayer of the church as it tackles and responds to the very real wicked problem it faces.



[1] Nancy Roberts, “Coping with Wicked Problems,” paper presented to the Third Bi-Annual Research Conference of the International Public Management Network, Sydney, Australia, 2000, 1-4. See also E. Jeffrey Conklin and William Weil, “Wicked Problems: Naming the Pain in Organizations, in Group Decision Support Systems, working paper (n.d.), 1-14.

[2] Nancy Roberts, 1-14.

[3] H.W.J. Rittel and M.M. Webber, “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning,” in Policy Sciences 4 (1973): 155-169. This is the watershed article that introduced the ‘wicked problem’ concept to the wider world.

[4] Jeff Conklin, 7. The citation on satisficing comes from Nobel laureate Herb Simon, ‘stopping when you have a solution that is ‘good enough.’

[5] Paul Reali, H2 Solve Wicked Problems: Getting Started with Creative Problem Solving (Charlotte: OmniSkills Press, 2010), 1.

[6] Two books in separate decades that reflected this concern are Ira Gallaway, Drifted Astray: Returning the Church to Witness and Ministry (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1983), and William Abraham, Waking from Doctrinal Amnesia (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995).

[7] Marcus Borg, Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time: The Historical Jesus and the Heart of Contemporary Faith (San Francisco: Harper, 1995).

[8] The late Lyle Schaller and the still active William Easum have been two advocates for the serious re-thinking and restructuring of the denomination to give it viability in the twenty-first century. See, for example, William Easum Sacred Cows Make Gourmet Burgers (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995) and Lyle Schaller, 21 Bridges to the 21st Century (Nashville: Abingdon, 1994). These books are over 20 years old and are insight to read to assess how much or how little actually has occurred in the denomination in the intervening years by way of healthy retooling of the institution.

[9] Interview with Jaroslav Pelikan, US News and World Report, June 26, 1989.

[11] “How Racially Diverse are U.S. Religious Groups?”, Pew Research Center study of July 27, 2015,

[12] Richard Tedlow, Denial: Why Business Leaders Fail to Look Facts in the Face – and What to do About It (New York: Portfolio, 2010), 2.

[13] Tedlow,  summary of Chapter 12, “A New Point of View,” 204-2146.

[14] The impact of demographics and the cultural shift from sect to church have been discussed by a variety of authors. An example is Roger Finke and Rodney Stark, The Churching of American: 1776-1990 (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1992), in which the Methodist movement is eventually classified as a loser in the race with the more institutionally responsive and theologically conservative Southern Baptists. Nathan Hatch documents the stellar early successes of Methodism in The Democratization of American Christianity (New York: Yale University Press, 1989), 67-112.

[15] Numerous authors have commented on the cultural shift of laity regarding the approach to ecclesiastical authority. An excellent and balanced discussion is found in Robert Wuthrow, The Restructuring of American Religion (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1988), 86-99.

[16] An outstanding overview of various authoritative structures within Methodism is found in Thomas Frank, Polity, Practice and the Mission of the United Methodist Church (Nashville: Abingdon, 1997), especially 203-218.

[17] Frank, 225-235.

[18]For example, see Heather Hahn, “Bishops Respond to Gay Colleague,” article in United Methodist News Service, (August 23, 2016).

[19] Lest any consider the 2016 General Conference unique, consider the concern expressed by Ezra Earl Jones in the aftermath of the 2000 General Conference, which he declared as “incapable of substantive change” and suffering from “a highly politicized tug-of-war that belies our character as a church.” He proposed this solution at that time: “Maybe we will just have to wait together for the Light, turn it over, and prayerfully listen for God’s guidance.” See Jones, “Waiting on the Lord at General Conference,” in United Methodist News Service (July 31, 2000).

[20] Jeffrey Rosen, “The Supreme Court: The First Hundred Years,”, December, 2006.

[21] Roberts, 13.

[22] Barbara Gray, Collaboration: Finding Common Ground for Multiparty Problems (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass, 1991), 10.

[23] For a background article on the development of ATFE, see Steven Harper, “The Did Something About It,” in Good News Magazine (March/April, 1983).

[24] All church and conference data is drawn from UMDATA.ORG.

[25] Cecil Williams and Janice Mirikitani, Beyond the Possible:  Fifty Years of Creating Radical Change in a Community Called Glide  (San Francisco: HarperCollins, 2013).  This work recounts Williams’ ministry history at and through Glide.

[26]An excellent historical summary of 19th century splits and fissures is offered by Douglas Strong in “American Methodism in the Nineteenth Century: Expansion and Fragmentation,” in The Cambridge Companion to American Methodism, Edited by Jason Vickers (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), 63-96.

[27] Thomas Oden, “Mainstreaming the Mainline,” in Christianity Today 44/9 (August, 2000): 59. Oden did not call for a denominational split but pointed out the growing strength of evangelical persuasion within the denomination, a growth validated by subsequent General Conference votes on contested issues through 2016.

[28] An illuminating discussion of current trends in stewardship and giving by evangelicals was produced by Wesleyan historian Michael Hamilton, “We’re in the Money,” Christianity Today 44/7 (June 12, 2000): 36-43. For an extended analysis of the role of faith and culture in response to charity and volunteerism, see Robert Wuthnow, God and Mammon in America (New York: Free Press, 1994), especially pages 223-254.

[29] Barry Kosmin and Seymour Lachman, One Nation Under God (New York: Random House, 1993), 49-114. The authors do not argue that church splits must happen on the basis of geography but make a strong case for the descriptive reality of geographical influences on the nature and expression of religious and political belief.

[30] Mark Tooley, “United Methodist Schism and Local Churches,“ n, July 26, 2016.

[31] For an older but still relevant overview, see James Davidson Hunter, Amerrican Evangelicalism: Conservative Religion and the Quandry of Modernity (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1983)), 27-39.  An outstanding description of the nuances of American Protestant religious belief and practice, including the distinctive Wesleyan approach to the issue of the inspiration of Scripture, is found in Donald Dayton and Robert Johnson, eds., The Variety of American Evangelicalism (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1991), especially Paul Bassett’s article, “The Theological Identity of the North American Holiness Movement: It’s Understanding of the Nature and Role of the Bible,” 74-108.

[32] Numerous studies underscore both the existence and vitality of specifically conservative and liberal religious movements in U.S. society and the large pool of citizens who clearly avoid such labels in their own beliefs and religious affiliation. See Finke and Stark, 271-75; Kosmin and Lachman, 249-50; and Robert Wuthrow, Christianity in the 21st Century (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 42-54.

[33] Toby Tetenbaum, “Shifting Paradigms: From Newton to Chaos,” Organizational Dynamics (Spring, 1998): 21-23.

[34] Conklin and Weil, 3-10.

[35] Phyllis Kirk, “Corporate Evolution and the Chaos Advantage,” in Systems Thinker 10/10 (December/January 2000): 1.

[36] Marva Dawn, Reaching Out without Dumbing Down (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1995), 165-204.  Those some specific examples cited in the book are dated, her fundamental insights and cautions remain fresh.