by Bob Phillips

Ramping Up to AC21 and GC21

The Illinois Great Rivers Annual Conference was completed on Saturday, August 15. A four-day event was compressed to roughly 5 hours of on-line adventures, preceded by countless hours of preparation by a creative and courageous team. Many other US conferences have or will engage in a similar pandemic approach. Others also may share similar comments on how quickly key matters were decided this year. Why so quick a conference? Infomercials were eliminated. The ‘usual suspects’ from the sound and fury lobbies had no easy path to dominate plenary sessions with their menu of woes.  The amendment rangers, who annually expect a gathering of 800+ to deep dive into reasons for changing ‘happy’ to ‘glad’ in the wording of some legislation, gained no leverage. This approach is not ideal as a norm but did enable the conference to do what must be done, for now.

All this begs the question of AC2021, to be followed by GC2021 and for many annual conferences, a special called AC in late 2021 to act on decisions made by the general body. In beginning a gentle and constructive ramp-up to the inevitable profound changes that will follow, consider these aspects, in some cases ‘rules of engagement’ toward a healthy church:

It is not about people. It is about process

Edward Deming was the father of Total Quality Management, an approach to organizations that transformed mediocre businesses into thriving companies. “Made in Japan” once was a label for junk. When Deming’s influence hit Japan, Toyota, Sony and other corporations became known for excellence. One of Deming’s key points is that when an institution is having problems with producing quality products, the tendency is to find someone to blame. The better course is to “fix the problem, not the blame,” realizing that 95% or more of the issue rests in fouled-up processes, not lazy or fouled-up people. My conference has a residual war chest of several million dollars for church development and growth. During the ten years in which this resource has increased exponentially the conference has closed 70 congregations and dropped attendance by 25%. A superb bishop, passionate about bringing people to Christ, is not the cause. Dedicated leaders in congregational development are not the villains. The process, under which the IGRC lost 38% of its members and 42% of its attendance since 1995, is busted. The loss of 62% attendance in that period from Sunday school is not because of lousy teachers or churches that don’t care about spiritual formation in children and adults. The process is busted. Other annual conferences, every other annual conference in the US without exception, have similar indicators of deep and systemic decline. Put good people into a bad process and the product will be mediocre at best.

It is not about sex. It is about the system

IThe Western Jurisdiction and the New England conference have ignored church teaching on the ordination of sexually active gay and lesbian clergy for a decade. Having spent 19 years affiliated in those two settings while serving as a Navy chaplain, I observed firsthand the gentle, unmistakable and finally complete marginalization of more evangelical clergy and churches from meaningful influence, delegate elections and the like. Same gender marriages are conducted freely and openly. Sexually active LGBT clergy are ordained and appointed openly. What has been the result? Young adults have not poured into their churches. The decline in attendance, the rise in the median age of members, and other indicators unite with bad news of accelerating decline. The progressive Northern Illinois, once an anchor conference for American Methodism, struggles to maintain enough membership to justify a resident bishop.

It is not about conflict with “them” but confirmation bias among “us.”

Conservatives, beware spiking the “I told you so” ball. Every US conference that fairly is described as more evangelical (think Mississippi or Alabama-West Florida), where openly gay clergy or same sex weddings never have been accepted, decline is the norm as well. The issues are systemic. Movement senior pastor leaders of large congregations of left and right share (with some exceptions) the uncomfortable truth that their megachurch settings now are flatlined or declining in attendance. Confirmation bias arises from our fallen human nature the tendency to see and hear what confirms our beliefs while rationalizing or ignoring data that musses our hair and spits in our soup. The ability to fairly describe and to feel the reasons and assumptions behind what ‘others’ believe that we reject is a vaccine against such bias. It remains unpopular medicine, born of the mistaken belief that admitting such bias is the prelude to surrendering to the ‘others.’ It is no such thing.

It is not about repairs. It is about reboot.

Focusing and fighting about sexuality is an illusory dead end. The system of preparing and training spiritual leaders needs a total reboot, aligning its training and education with validated requirements on what skills-tools-knowledge-abilities actually are necessary for effective leadership. The appointive system needs a total reboot, breaking dangerously outdated assumptions about the nature of authority that has allowed other religious groups to ‘eat our lunch’ through innovation while we defend the fortress of the status quo. Nurturing trust in a system riddled with trust deficits and miscommunication requires a reboot. Addressing the demographic realities that “mainline Protestant” types are not reproducing spiritually or literally require a reboot. Fighting over the stove, while the fire has left the building, will give us a patched, cold stove. There is a better way.

It is not about being a winner. It is about being a witness.

Secular politics offers object lessons in civic dysfunction. The US society stands in sore need of a gracious witness that demonstrates one can hold clear convictions about truth with needed passion…and not be a jerk. In 2008, at a town-hall political rally, Senator John McCain gently took the microphone from a follower who insisted Barack Obama associated with terrorists and was a Muslim extremist who hated the USA. McCain defended Obama as a fine man, a good father and American with whom he had deep differences on policy, but would make a good president. For that, McCain was booed…at his own political rally! When McCain died of cancer in 2019, a eulogy was offered at his funeral by the man he defended that night, a fellow American who defeated him in the election,  President Barack Obama. Consider this earlier example. When Union General William T. Sherman died in New York City in February, 1891, one of his pallbearers was former Confederate General Joseph Johnston, Sherman’s most able and successful opponent in his ‘March through Georgia’ total war campaign.  When someone encouraged the 84-year-old Johnston to put on his hat in the bitter outdoor cold, which he had removed in a sign of respect, he replied that if roles were reversed and Sherman was at Johnston’s funeral, he would not put on his hat. He caught a cold that turned into pneumonia and died 10 days later.  Rather than turning the past horrors of the war into a cottage industry for sustained mutual grudges and hatred, both men embodied an approach that contributed to “bind up the nation’s wounds,” in meaningful ways. 

The attitude that various parties, lobbies and groups take toward others in the 2021 cycle of Annual and General Conferences can bear a redemptive witness that Christians can deeply disagree without demonizing, denigrating or de-humanizing others. The two secular examples previously mentioned point the way. Paul’s call to speak the truth…in love, affirms the way. The temptation to dishonor the motives, intelligence or integrity of the “others” to gain momentary leverage is not the way. If American Methodism fully engages the profound change and institutional “mitosis” needed for a Wesleyan rebirth, but does so in a spirit of grace, the witness to secular society and to our brother and sister Methodists outside the US will be profoundly positive. For Jesus’ sake, say no to nasty postings on blog or Facebook. For Jesus’ sake, be kindly but immediately responsive to correct words or actions designed to wound others with heat rather than light. To be clear, secular and some religious media eagerly await the raw meat of personal destruction and character assassination. May they find themselves hungry and unfed by our example. What awaits the church is not about being the winner in the eyes of the world. It is about being a witness in the eyes of God.

Bob Phillips

Chair WCA, Illinois Great Rivers Conference

Degrees from University of Illinois, Asbury and Princeton Seminaries, University of St. Andrews

Graduate of Senior Executive Seminar on Morality, Ethics and Public Policy, Brookings Institution

Captain, Chaplain Corps, US Navy (ret)