by Bob Phillips

Recently wise heads of left, center and right within the American United Methodist Church have been engaged in serious reflection on a possible new expression of the denomination. They are not discussing schism, although some defenders of the status quo will label any outside-the-box approach that redefines institutional boundaries and births new movements as ‘schism.’  The squabble over homosexuality, a constant for the US church since 1972, has provided the match and fuse, but the challenge is much, much greater than resolving that one issue.

What follows are seven insights to move the church toward a healthy response to its “wicked problem.” Secular wicked problems include global warming, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, dealing with Social Security, environmental pollution and the like. It exists at many levels, affects numerous stakeholders, defies neat solution, often mutates into a fresh set of issues when some solution is applied, and even defies a simple definition of what “it” is.

This is the deeper challenge facing the UMC. Issues of trust, (mis)communication, demographics, organizational misalignment, struggles with personnel issues of education and training, finances, geography and theology are some of the expressions. Like the Hydra of Greek myth, cut off one of its heads (homosexuality conflicts) and two heads will grow to replace it.

With that in mind, and drawing from knowledge gleaned from various sources, I offer the following insights to all who ponder what a true and constructive “way forward” must entail.

#1: It is not about one issue.

Sexuality debates offer a presenting complaint but the challenges, and thus the responses, but be keenly aware of the multiple dynamics at play. The Southern Baptist Church operates under a strong traditional approach to sexuality and struggles with declining attendance. The Presbyterian Church USA adopted a mirror image of the “One Church Plan” in 2012 and saw worship attendance double in decline, now projecting a 60% loss between 2000 (before the church shifted its understanding of marriage) to 2020. It is crucial to address the sexuality issue as part of a response but not as the main thing. It is vital to “name the demon,” as the first step in gaining control over the demon, and to realize that for us, as for Jesus in his confrontation in the region of the Gerasenes, “they are many” (Mark 5:9).

#2: All stakeholders must be represented at the table.

A stakeholder is anyone affected by or connected to the institution. Any approach that sidelines or diminishes progressives, or evangelicals, or Africans, or any particular region or group will step on land mines of their own creation. This is true in unpacking issues within individual annual conferences as well as large scale interventions for denominational change. Groups that feel shut out or ignored with renounce trust in the process and have no inclination to buy into any plan proposed.

#3: The church must “fail into collaboration.

Wicked problem theory offers that institutions facing a wicked problem try authority, conflict or collaboration to respond. The UMC tried authority through the Council of Bishops, the General Conference and the Judicial Council, and found a variety of other aspects of our wicked problem derailed that approach. Conflict creates win-lose scenarios and is tempting for those convinced not only that they are right (as I believe I am on certain contested issues) but that it is equally important for others to be punished or humiliated for being wrong. Collaboration has a chance when stakeholder leadership of the various factions realize that win-win is possible and that win-lose will bring body counts, sustained acrimony and a world-class lousy witness to the secular world. “You will know they are Christians by their bite marks” is not how the song goes.

#4: “It’s not personal, it’s business.”

For those who prefer the language of Heaven’s street signs, “Non e’ personale, sono affari.” Edward Deming of Total Quality Management (TQM), pointed out that 85% to 95% of an organization’s travails are courtesy of a flawed process, not a flawed person. “Fix the problem, not the blame,” was a resulting saying that has much merit. Rob Renfroe, Tom Lambrecht and Keith Boyette are not the triplet spawn of Satan. Karen Oliveto, Ken Carter and Adam Hamilton are not henchmen of the Antichrist. UM/Next, the WCA, the Reconciling Movement and Good News are not the villains. One can agree or disagree with the positions of any of the above but the real struggle, and culprit, is in profoundly flawed processes, theology and outdated systems.

#5: Identify, affirm and claim the good.

Under an “Appreciative Inquiry” (AI) approach, it is crucial to identify the sources of life in an institution with problems, especially wicked problems. “What do we have on the spacecraft that’s good,” was the question that enabled the Apollo 13 mission to transcend disaster. There is much that is good in the UMC, in the various conferences, boards/agencies and local churches. Asking where the Holy Spirit clearly is active in the existing system is not a vote to stay with the status quo but to ensure that what is good is carried over into any new expression of the church. The applies to denominational ministries, boards, agencies and conference initiatives as well. Remember, as AI cautions, the questions you ask frame the answers you get. If all our questions reflect problem, all the conversations will flow toward problem and the ‘deficit thinking” that derails hope. “Whatever is true…helpful…good, think about these things” (Phil. 4:8).

#6: Envision the ideal while embracing the real.

Human nature tends to describe one’s own faith in ideal terms and the faith of ‘others’ in less flattering ways. Beware the temptation to denial implicit in such an approach. A center-left “Progressive Methodist Church” will not be bothered by a WCA or Good News people or Asbury Seminary or…Africa? Many and perhaps most of the fastest growing UM churches are not compatible with a progressive theology. Does that matter? A center-right ‘Global Methodist Church” will not be bothered by a Reconciling movement or a drag queen celebration in at Iliff seminary chapel or…many African American churches concerned with a cultural conservative indifference to social justice or inner city ministries or theologically conservatives who are horrified with the moral crudeness of a Donald Trump. These placeholder examples presage the need to anticipate and engage the unintended consequences of any proposal, lest denial triumph. A healthy sign? Immediate and focused engagement with the larger aspects of the wicked problem facing the church.

# 7: “We are not enemies but friends. We must not become enemies.”

These words from Lincoln’s first inaugural regrettably did not convince the South but the attitude is crucial to a Christian future that honors the Wesleyan way for the current UMC. The Episcopal Church decision to refuse to release or to sell at any price property belonging to departing congregations spawned roughly 50M in litigation and sustained ill will. The Presbyterians  learned something from that example but no one denies that church split in some unpleasant ways. A true re-formation and spiritual mitosis into two (or more) new expressions can be a gracious and mutually productive future only if conscious enmity is banished. Learning to express and understand the point of view of those with whom deep disagreement exists does not compromise one’s own convictions but can sow seeds of grace as new expressions of the Wesleyan way emerge.


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