by Bob Phillips

In the 1970’s one of the most popular daytime television shows was “Let’s Make a Deal.” Raucous host Monty Hall led players through a series of choices to select what was behind curtain number one or two or three. The curtain could produce a new car or an old pair of used boots. It was fun and harmless, except to those beguiled to settle for the boots rather than the car.

As the UMC slouches toward its February rendezvous with destiny, Wicked Problem theory emerges as a consistent source of insight as to what has happened, what is happening and what will happen in St. Louis and beyond.  One can google the highlights of this approach, but the focus for this blurb is its wisdom in describing how organizations seek to solve their wicked problem by choosing one of three approaches to resolution: authority, conflict or collaboration. Consider what lies behind each curtain.

Authority is curtain 1. A person, group or General Conference (with support from a Judicial Council) decides what to do. The Council of Bishops uses its authority to push and pull conference delegates toward the One Church Plan preferred by a majority of the bishops. Authority makes the call through conference and general church structures. Authority ideally leans toward crisp decision, focused and informed. Once the GC2019 decides, more work will be needed but the big call will have been made.

There are problems with curtain 1 that Wicked Problem theory identifies. Authority can be wrong. Authority, especially in volunteer organizations, rests most of all on shared and corporate trust. If the stakeholders (delegates-members-clergy in the trenches) include too many baby boomers raised to ‘Question authority,” the approach devolves into a slow train wreck. With the trust deficits deep and abiding within the denomination, authority cannot succeed. Liberals mistrust a conservative traditional plan, and advocates, whom they see as trying to chase them away from the church. “Round up the usual suspects” is not a strategy to liberal-progressives distrustful of conservative-traditional types. Traditionalists see the ongoing presence of Karen Oliveto in the office of bishop as a daily slap to the trust offered in good faith at the GC2016 in creating the Way Forward process. They see a system gamed to keep her and others in appointments no matter what the Discipline says, and having established the precedent of selective obedience, there is little faith that those who have constantly disobeyed will change their attitude or actions. Authority is out of play.

Conflict is curtain 2. Various stakeholders engage in a power struggle, with winners and losers. Winners call the shots; losers are shot. This approach does tend to cull out the weak and those unable to stand on their own, in a perverse form of spiritual Darwinism, survival of the ‘faithfulist.’ Resolution results when the field is emptied and opponents are vanquished. A number of conservatives, confident in their stand-alone strength with like-minded colleagues, are perfectly fine with this option. Liberals are more uncomfortable with such thoughts, though the marginalization to near extinction of evangelical leadership in areas such as the Western Jurisdiction suggest no total aversion to the approach provided the numbers are favorable.

There are problems with curtain 2. Satan and his minions giggle whenever the saints go hammer and tongs against each other in public view. Unintended consequences and wounds always result. The first casualty in any battle is the plan carefully devised for the battle, and both progressives and traditionalists will find unpleasant surprises if warfare erupts. Conservatives will find churches they though would leave an apostate denomination…don’t. They will learn that no amount of intensive pre-planning can create a new denomination whole-cloth without lots of loose threads. Liberals, while protesting they want one church while creating an atmosphere impossible for many conservatives to remain in good conscience, will find churches they thought would remain in an open-minded denomination…don’t. The loss of funding will smack official seminaries, and knock some out of existence, while numerous US annual conferences will find the chaos of remaining in a One Church denomination an ugly slog. Conflict is out of play.

Collaboration is curtain 3. The good news is good feeling, a shared willingness to give and take for a larger collective good. No one wins or loses in a stark manner. Collaboration is the choice when all the stakeholders clearly realize the price of any other option is worse, i.e., they ‘fail into collaboration.’ Given the potential consequences of curtain 1 or curtain 2, curtain 3 seems the best approach. This is the thinking behind the One Church Plan, advocated with some authority by many, but not all, of the US bishops.

Here Wicked Problem theory offers particular insight. Collaboration fails whenever a stakeholder believes core values or beliefs are compromised. Most collaborations fail as one or more stakeholder simply doesn’t believe things will be worse than a continued or modified status quo.  Many (not all) progressives, in the decision to disobey and not simply disagree, foreclosed collaboration, which requires trust to succeed. Many (not all) traditionalists are convinced that the definition of human personhood, family, the authority of scripture and the nature of ordained ministry are too close to the core of faith to adopt a “frequently faithful” compromise. 

The basic insight is this. The One Church plan may pass but will fail as many conservatives depart, whether through a WCA new creation or other existing Wesleyan bodies. The Traditional plan may pass but will fail as progressives would double down on disobedience to what they believe to be a terribly unjust policy, and dare the system to try hundreds if not thousands of clergy. The Connectional plan may pass but constitutional requirements make successful implementation highly unlikely. A GC2019 that decides to move the ball to GC2020 will fail, as morale will take a major hit in all circles and a large slab of the evangelical presence will walk away. That may up the chances for liberals to run the table in 2020 but only in the sense of the critique of the Romans in their forced Pax Romana, “They made a desert and called it ‘peace.’

So is there any good news amid the woe? Yes, and amen. A hybrid approach of conflict and collaboration holds the best hope for the best future for the church. A denomination where agreement is lacking on core values, or conflicting values are held as crucial or secondary, cannot last. A grace-filled birthing of two expressions of the Wesleyan movement can be initiated in 2019 and brought to serious initial closure in 2020, with nearly everyone but the most disaffected remaining and eager to be part of such a process. Numerous collaborative ministries such as UMCOR or clergy support via Wespath could remain common ground. Progressives could align with centrists who may or may not do same sex weddings but are willing to be part of a church that blesses such actions. Traditionalists could align with centrists whose theology affirm existing church teaching while forming fresh contours and structure to recover and revitalize evangelistic and discipling ministries into the future. This is a future that can work, honor God, halt the bickering, and call the church to face forward. Let God rend the curtain, again.

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 is a delegate to the 2019 General Conference of the United Methodist Church.