by Bob Phillips

It is the proverbial bad news and good news. The bad news: the 2019 special General Conference will fail.  The good news: that conference can succeed. Before accusations of verbal schizophrenia or cries of “Holy Oxymoron!” fill the air, permit me to explain.

GC2019 will fail. It is the wrong method focused on the wrong problem with expectations placed upon it impossible to meet. No one is the enemy. No vast conspiracy of left or right is the reason for inevitable failure. The reason lies in the nature of the beast confronting the United Methodist Church. The UMC is a poster child for a ‘wicked problem.’

Consider the insights of a wicked problem approach to the challenges bedeviling the church. A wicked problem differs from a simple problem, where all agree on the nature of the problem and the solution but may disagree on the best implementation. It differs from a complex problem, where all agree on the problem but disagree on the best solution.[1]

Alan Watkins and Ken Wilbur identify six qualities of a wicked problem:

  1. It is multi-dimensional
  2. It has multiple stakeholders
  3. It has multiple causes
  4. It has multiple symptoms
  5. It has multiple solutions
  6. It is constantly evolving[2]

In the secular world global warming, Middle East peace, poverty and hunger are examples of a wicked problem. This is the challenge for the church. There is no ‘the’ problem. Theology, demographics, organization, mission identity, trust deficits, skewed communication, geographic disparity, cultural clashes and finances are only some of the issues combining toward an accelerating decline and projected extinction in the American United Methodist expression by 2050. Low morale, numerical decline, property and presence where most Americans no longer live are sample fruit of wickedness. A special conference, though it costs millions in dollars and human hours given sincerely to preparation, cannot address the essential reality.

Wicked problem theory suggests three ways organizations seek to deal with problems: authority, competition and collaboration. GC2019 is framed by an authoritative process (Council of Bishops and official conference delegates) calling for a collaborative resolution. Systemically the two do not mix. Authority is a queasy tool at best in an all-volunteer institution. Authority can be wrong. Trust deficits can undermine authority in an instant. For example, when individual bishops explained the COB decision and recommendation on the Way Forward in contradictory and competing ways, spin clearly was at work. Spin exists, by definition, when one describes events and statements in a way where other stakeholders present at the same event are certain to disagree with the description. Where spin enters, trust recedes.

Collaboration is the essence of the appeal of the COB, rooted in the “One Church” label. Wicked problem theory is clear that stakeholders (clergy and members) typically fail into collaboration when approaches of authority or competition are less appealing. That “fail” has not happened. Ironically, most collaborations fail as stake-holders default back toward competition. Numerous conservative-traditional churches and regions appear perfectly willing to compete, confident they are ‘better apart’ rather than dragging the anchor of contrary theology and practice into their future.  Numerous liberal-progressive clergy and members are loath to accept any plan that tolerates attitudes and teaching akin to former church endorsement of slavery and the oppression of women (their illustrations). In the nature of the unfolding dynamics of the church’s wicked problem, collaboration of a One Church sort as a solution is not a viable option.

A 2019GC designed to provide a decisive way forward for the denomination is unrealistic and prepped for failure. Any vote less than 2/3 in favor of a given plan will have defiance or separation written over the dissenting ballots. The denomination can find itself backing into the worst kind of schism, either with traditionists marching away or with liberals continuing the ‘biblical obedience’ of active disobedience to what they are convinced are unjust teachings. The Call to Worship for the initial 2019GC service might be a screen video of a silent movie collision of two locomotives to set the stage for the train wreck that will follow. This is underscored by the growing awareness that no matter what the GC does or does not decide, nothing in the current template for action can halt or even slow the attrition in worship attendance, membership and stewardship swirling down an ever-larger drain. In so many public ways, 2019GC will fail.

2019GC can succeed.  Indeed, it can mark an unprecedented positive watershed moment and constructive witness to fractured American Protestantism.  Refocusing the expectations and targeted outcomes of the GC can create a genuinely successful event that advances the Wesleyan vision of the Kingdom.  Success begins by shooting the swordsman.

In the movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, one finds the classic scene of Indiana Jones immersed in his own wicked problems and fleeing the bad guys when suddenly he is confronted by a huge villain in black wielding a scimitar the size of Nebraska. Indy shrugs, pulls his pistol and caps the devil dude who falls with a thud, sharpened steel and all.

The path to a successful GC2019 is to shoot the swordsman. In the movie the swordsman wasn’t Indy’s only problem or even his main problem but had the potential to bring quick closure to Indy and the movie with one deft swing of the sword. Human sexuality, the single focus of the special conference, is the swordsman. It is not the main issue facing the denomination, since regions openly defying existing church teaching are not thriving as a result and regions obeying church teaching (at least in the US) also are facing decline.

Herb Simon, Nobel laureate in economics, coined the term ‘satisficing,’ which often emerges as part of a strategy to address a wicked problem.  Seeking a response that is “good enough” for the intermediate future is a key to leverage over a wicked problem. By nature, a wicked problem defies neat closure. For the 2019GC, satisficing a response that shoots the immediate threat without pretending to bring closure on the menu of woes facing the church is crucial to forward movement. In that spirit, consider the following recommendations:

  1. Be clear and repetitive on the limitations of 2019GC. Tamp down the unrealistic expectations many are placing on what it can achieve. Remember, ‘hope is not a plan,’ even for Christians and wishful thinking lends itself to no metrics to measure progress.
  2. Confront denial, what Harvard Business School professor Richard Tedlow refers to as “protective stupidity.” Here is where things get dicey. The Council of Bishops has recommended the One Church plan, a.k.a. the Local Option. No prior General Conference has come close to affirming same gender marriage or open-practicing homosexual and lesbian or bisexual clergy. Whatever spiritual cost-benefit analysis the COB undertook essentially concluded that the minor disruption the Local Option plan would bring to the Western Jurisdiction and elsewhere was worth the major disruption in other large slabs of the Midwest, South and in the global church. As a woman is never ‘slightly’ pregnant nor a husband ‘frequently’ faithful, so in the seamless garment of ecclesial identity, adoption of the One Church Option answers the question, “Does the United Methodist denomination do same gender weddings and ordain active LGBTQIAA clergy” with a “Yes.” Contextual disclaimers will not off-set the ‘Yes.’ Along with factors such as justice, inclusion, and human rights used to affirm the One Church Option, add the dynamic of denial.  The COB believes United Methodist Church can do what mainline Presbyterians, Episcopalians, Lutherans and the UCC have done but without the massive hemorrhage of churches, money and members those churches are facing.  This approach reflects the power of denial.[3]
  3. Transform competition into collaboration. A center-left and a center-right expression of United Methodism bodes well for a satisficing future. If the 2019GC sustains previous convictions and reaffirms and strengthens existing teaching on sexuality, let it be with a clear and constructive parallel track for those whose conscience and faith do not permit willing obedience. If the GC alters church teaching on sexuality, let it be with a similar track for those whose conscience and faith do not permit willing obedience to the change in teaching. Whichever group prevails in votes retains the denominational name if desired. The alternative expression adopts a new name reflective of the theological and social identity of this new Wesleyan movement.

The concept surrounding this approach is not schism, a destructive split gushing with venom and revenge, as in the Episcopal hierarchy that decreed that churches departing for other Anglican expressions could neither take their property (trust clause) nor purchase it at any price (vindictiveness to some and justice to others).  Ongoing litigation reaching 45M dollars continues.  That is schism.

The concept at work is mitosis, the creative and necessary cell division that is vital to sustaining life in any body, including the Body of Christ. Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox faith have nurtured religious orders to affirm mitosis while maintaining outer unity. The Protestant Reformation brought mitosis to the larger body insofar as the Catholic Church was concerned. Who would argue that the Salvation Army or the Free Methodist-Wesleyan-Church of the Nazarene expressions of Wesleyanism were destructive schisms, though each did include heat with light in their formation?  While the racism implicit in the need to found the AME, AMEZ and CME churches deserves no praise, the Holy Spirit has worked in power in that mitosis to reach for Christ many the old Methodist Episcopal Church could not, or refused, to reach.

A center-left and center-right birth of ecclesial twins, formed with grace rather than vindictiveness, would be a profound witness to a secular world that expects a theological slugfest to decide the future. Financial resources would flow to ministry rather than to legal fees. The core self-identity of American Methodism for structure and core doctrine would remain the shared DNA of the two expressions. Terms such as, “The wrong side of history” or “deniers of scriptural authority” would be parked in a back alley. The legitimacy of General Conference as a reflection of the global church and the Holy Spirit would be affirmed in its decision, as would the vision that establishes and blesses a parallel track for those whose conscience does not permit obedience to church teaching. Recall the mitosis would be not for those who disagree with whatever the 2019GC decides, but for those who know their faith requires them to disobey that decision.

In this scenario, the 2020 regular General Conference could be given to clarifying a true way forward in the systematic re-formation of the existing UM church and in the creation of a vibrant progressive (or traditional) Wesleyan expression. If the One Church option prevails, traditional-evangelical members would have the choice of identifying with a wide variety of existing Wesleyan cousins, all of whom share evangelical baseline convictions. If the Traditional option prevails, center-left members who feel they cannot be complicit in membership in an exclusionary church would have no existing Wesleyan denomination for affiliation but would bring major resources to the table in the creation of a renewed alternative to the war-weary status quo.

Framing the outcome as win-lose would miss the point of the potential for revitalized life for the Wesleyan movement in the US. Nasty verbal shots, dismissive or obstructionist policies designed to humiliate or aggravate the “others” likewise would honor neither Christ nor a Kingdom future for American Methodism. Deciding for mitosis would task and challenge the 2020 GC to act decisively in deciding what matters most to mobilize structures, resources and people toward the disciple-making heart of the church mission.

The 2019GC will fail. It cannot make the church whole, nor resolve the conflict by authority or by contrived collaboration. The 2019GC can succeed. The commitment to renew one expression of the denomination while midwifing the birth of a parallel expression of Methodism consistent with the conscience and vision of alternative perspectives can happen. Only then can the larger challenges and opportunities of the heirs of Wesley be engaged without distraction. That is a true ‘way forward.’

[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] Alan Watkins and Ken Wilbur, Wise and Wicked: How to Solve the World’s Toughest Problems, Chatham, Urbane Publications, 2015, pp 15-16.

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

Rev. Dr. Bob Phillips is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Illinois, with advanced degrees from Asbury, Princeton and St. Andrews (Scotland). He retired with the rank of Captain as the senior United Methodist Chaplain in the US Navy in 2005.  An elder in the Illinois Great Rivers Conference, Bob most recently served as Directing Pastor of Peoria First United Methodist Church prior to his retirement.  He will be a clergy delegate to the 2019 General Conference.

Image Credit: