by Bob Phillips
The United Methodist Church is in travail due to its “Wicked Problem.” This is when an institution has no “the” problem but a perfect storm of issues. For the UMC the most visible issue of sexuality actually is one of the lesser of her problems. Every US conference and nearly every US church is and has been in serious decline for decades, regardless of its stance on sexually active gay clergy or same sex marriage. Issues of miscommunication, lack of trust at all levels of the denomination, demographic challenges of aging congregations, and buildings no longer located where most people live whirl within the storm. Wesley’s great statement, “At all opinions that do not strike at the root of Christianity, we think and let think” has been hobbled by the inability to form a unified definition of what precisely is included in ‘the root of Christianity.’ Sears shut its last store in Illinois on November 14, with experts pointing to the spirit of denial as crucial to its demise. The denominational-wide absence of urgency over the loss of over half of our “market share” reflects a nearly identical spirit of denial at work. Structures that have failed to fulfill the mission of making disciples of Jesus Christ remain solidly intact and combine with denial to feed further decline.
A wicked problem cannot be ‘solved’ for its dynamics mutate (like the delta strain of COVID 19) into fresh types of issues. A wicked problem can be tamed. A spiritual mitosis, a healthy division for the sake of creating new expressions of the Wesleyan way adopted to the 21st century, is the key. Old wineskins no longer cut it, or at least I recall Someone who said that!
Collaboration among various stakeholders is crucial. This includes bishops, conferences, jurisdictions, laity, nationalities, and special interest groups with significant followings (Uniting, Reconciling, WCA, etc.). Wicked Problem theory warns that institutions “fail into collaboration,” and turn to collaboration when other options are exhausted. That was the originating spirit of the Protocol. Representatives with serious followings from major expressions and groups within the denomination met in the Fall of 2019 hoping to avoid another GC2016 or GC2019 outcome.
One stand-out aspect of the Protocol process was the facilitator, world-class impartial negotiator Kenneth Feinberg. He was able to ensure that all voices in the room received permission to speak. He worked to ensure that all in the room heard and responded constructively to what those of other opinions had to say. The Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace was the result, with all “sides” contributing for the sake of creating fresh directions.
Devolving Back to Competition
A huge danger is that most collaborations fail back into competition. The delay in the General Conference has set the stage for well-intentioned efforts that can have the unwitting consequence of derailing meaningful collaboration and sending the church into a public spectacle of fighting and litigation that can rocket easily toward 100 million dollars. Keep in mind The Episcopal Church senior leadership renounced anything like the Protocol. Over 50 million dollars in attorney fees have resulted to date, and we are over four times their size.
The North Central Jurisdiction recently completed a huddle of its delegations and issued statements without reference to the Protocol. Unlike the atmosphere that birthed the Protocol, all “sides” were not represented and the main writing team for the final document contained no “self-avowed practicing evangelical.” The product was one that instantly and obviously contained significant assumptions that only the violation of conscience of theologically traditional delegates could achieve. No neutral mediator was in the room and it showed. The intentions were honorable; the outcome wildly skewed. The product of being a Be-Loved Community communicates to traditionalists the simple message, “Just go away.” Recall after the 2019 vote in St. Louis to affirm the Traditional Plan that Adam Hamilton took the floor and made the same observation about what that plan communicated to American progressives and many centrists, i.e., “Just leave.” Communication Theory 101 is clear that “Communication is the creation of meaning in the receiver,” so protests that such a message was not intended does not matter. The fact that some traditionalist leaders heard what Hamilton said that day in St. Louis and took seriously the pain and anger behind the words helped to prompt the movement toward the Protocol process. The willingness of key Progressive and Institutionalist leaders to engage the challenge and hurt created on all sides at St. Louis likewise contributed to the positive process.
In the light of the above, consider this summary of reasons to stay the course with the Protocol as the church moves toward Minneapolis in August/September 2022:
- The Protocol is the only process with serious representation from major stakeholders and facilitated by a renowned, objective negotiator. It offers an unprecedented positive ‘Methodist Mitosis’ alternative to legal fighting and bitter schism.
- The Protocol involves concessions by all groups, with mutual awareness that any scenario perceived as win-lose by some is actually a lose-lose for all.
- The Protocol was negotiated with fresh memories of the colossal financial and spiritual harm done in some other Christian bodies by the refusal to negotiate with an objective facilitator in the room to hold all accountable.
- Money matters. Two years ago, for example, a small congregation sought to leave the NCJ conference (not a WCA church) and went to court rather than agree with conference requirements. The conference expended a 6-figure sum in litigation for that one congregation, which eventually did leave with its 40 members. If some object to a 25M amount negotiated in the Protocol designated for the creation of new Methodist expressions, is the thought of an amount exceeding 100M for potential litigation a more attractive option?
- Every delegate to General Conference has the right to offer amendments to the Protocol. Efforts to deconstruct it in the name of improving it can have the common result of “failing back from collaboration into competition,” as all sides go to war on the floor for this or that item. Minor tweaks mutually collaborated among the various stakeholders may hold some promise. Suggestions arising from one lobbying group or another without serious mutual vetting prior to presentation invites calamity.
- The Protocol ‘tames’ the issue of sexuality but leaves other challenges unaddressed. The reboot and reformation of the theology, the system and its assumptions are next on the menu. The future of a renewed and refreshed Wesleyan multiple witness for Christ to the world is the prize. That is the real, larger challenge, that all can meet in the power of Christ.
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)