The Call to Action is political manifesto, a blueprint for the takeover of the United Methodist Church. It calls for de-emphasizing, and ultimately dismantling, anything related to social reform, “the transformation of the world.” People who persistently bring to the floor “sub-optimal,” “lesser matters” like justice and inclusiveness within UM Church are considered “divisive” as they “continue behaviors that arise from narrow interests and subordinate objectives” and threaten “disintegration.” According to the Steering Committee, one issue trumps every other concern: Church Vitality as measured in comparative statistics on attendance and giving. It would be a mistake to bicker over the Towers Watson portion of the report and what we think are the true measures of church vitality, because the Apex report describes the nuts-and-bolts of the conservative plan to takeover the United Methodist Church. (The “Call to Action” can be downloaded at www.umc.org/calltoaction)
If fully implemented, the CTA Manifesto will, based on the “independent” recommendations of the Apex report, create a new General Church executive function with the authority to “de-emphasize” social and church reform, suspend rules for the sake of “efficiency,” ignore Conference resolutions, evaluate present and future clergy according to their “alignment” with the proposed “de-emphasis” of social reform, and establish new, “preferential relationships” with seminaries that are in “alignment.”
These are sweeping new powers for the proposed General Church executive function. While they have our attention diverted toward those four undisputed factors that contribute to congregational health, the Steering Committee hopes that, under the pressure of an unrelated financial crunch, we will rush Conference approval of these new newly engineered power relationships under the popular buzzword “accountability.”
The CTA Manifesto has the stated goal of reducing the number of Agencies, and most of the “distance” reduction rhetoric is aimed at them. Undoubtedly members of the Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA) and Open and Affirming (O&A) congregations will eventually feel the heat.
In its rhetoric and in every aspect of its agenda, the CTA Manifesto takes careful, deliberate aim at United Methodist progressives, just as Circuit Riders, Inc. did against the MFSA during the McCarthy era, when they convinced the General Conference to repudiate the MFSA in 1952.
This commentary on the politics of the CTA Manifesto is divided in two parts. First I will comment on passages in the CTA Manifesto that highlight strategy-related rhetoric. Second, I will comment on specific elements of the Manifesto’s plan that will institutionalize the suppression of anyone who is vocally or legislatively concerned with social reform and with justice and inclusion within the United Methodist Church.
“Making this change requires leaders to forge strong coalitions, joining with willing partners who agree to disagree about lesser matters and setting aside many passionate causes in order to focus instead on overarching goals for the greater good. Choosing to continue behaviors that arise from narrow interests and subordinate objectives will lead to increased divisiveness and accelerate the current disintegration.” (19)
COMMENTARY: This section has nothing whatever to do with the highly commendable Watson Towers four-point plan for congregational vitality. It has everything to do with halting all discussion about gender inclusiveness at the level of the Annual Conference and above. And, as we shall see below, the CTA Manifesto has articulate plans to enforce the suppression of United Methodism’s tradition of social activism via the proposed executive powers function. This suppression is planned at the Agency level and especially at the Annual and General Conference levels, as suggested by the programmatic exhortation for “leaders to forge strong coalitions.”
Notice how the Manifesto provides its proponents with prefabricated talking points. This rhetoric serves two functions. First, it inoculates proponents against criticisms of the CTA Manifesto by characterizing critics as “divisive” people concerned with “narrow interests and subordinate objectives” who make bad choices and “accelerate the current disintegration.”
Notice also the low-key fear-mongering in the last phrase, “accelerate the current disintegration.” The UMC is in no danger of disintegrating. Could there be a split? Of course. But a church split is a far cry from the tiny pieces conjured up by the word “disintegration.” I have no doubt that there are Methodists who welcome the departure of Open and Affirming sisters and brothers, wishing they would leave the denomination and leave them alone.
One comment reads, “People live with differences and do not allow politicization of differences to block ministry work – there is an overarching focus on mission and vision – results are expected.” (159)
COMMENTARY: This might possibly be in the ballpark for acceptability were it not for the last three words, “results are expected.” In the CTA Manifesto, “results” has but one meaning: measureable, quantifiable results in attendance, giving, and a lower average age for both clergy and laity. “Mission and vision,” which are equally applicable to both disciple making and world transformation, have nevertheless been staked out as the exclusive property of social conservatives.
One Methodist leader “dreams” of “more work on the Four Areas of Focus and less on many worthy but ultimately sub-optimal tasks.” (11)
COMMENTARY: The condescending note hit by this Methodist “dreamer” rings clear and loud. I can think of many “sub-optimal tasks”: visiting orphans and widows in their distress, doing good to your enemies, lending without expecting repayment, helping people left for dead by the side of the road. It was very prudent of the Steering Committee to leave the “sub-optimal tasks” language in the mouth of an anonymous denominational official.
“Although the crisis is being influenced by financial duress, it is not foremost a financial crisis. The implication of this conclusion is that the opportunities or “levers” that we sought to identify would likely be more about mission/values/culture – and the structure and process influencers of mission/values/culture – than about financial matters.” (25)
COMMENTARY: The CTA Manifesto mentions two “crises.” One is the “creeping crisis” of relevancy. The second is the “acute crisis of an underperforming economic model.” The so-called “creeping crisis” is no “crisis” at all, but is the chronic, measureable decline since the 1960s. Without doing anything differently, U.S. church membership grew massively during the years after WW II, benefitting from the intense emotions triggered by the end of the conflict. And beginning in the sixties, again without doing anything differently, the UMC dwindled in the winds of cultural changes.
The chronic decline since the 1960s has nothing to do with today’s economic downturn. The downturn is, however, a good excuse to implement changes that conservative United Methodists have wanted to implement for decades. Similarly, 9/11 was the excuse for the U.S. invasion of Iraq and the creation of the Department of Homeland Security. The same dynamic of waiting for the precipitating “opportunity” worked for FDR when he wanted to join the war against Germany, but had to wait for the Japanese and their “sneak attack” to galvanize an isolationist public.
Today, a generalized sense of crisis and fear permeates the American public, and the Steering Committee knows better than let an opportunity like this get away from them.
This tug-of-war between UMC conservatives and progressives didn’t suddenly spring up with the advent of marriage equality or full inclusion. In recent history it extends back to the Circuit Riders, Inc. campaign in 1952 to shut down the MFSA during the McCarthy era. We need only remember the bitter dispute between Southern and Northern Methodists during the Civil War to realize that differences like these result from cultural and social differences that have been around for hundreds of years.
The CTA Manifesto is completely honest and accurate when it admits that this “crisis…is not foremost a financial crisis.” The Steering Committee’s goal for the complete overhaul of UM mission, values, and culture has been a conservative “dream” for a very long time.
The sweeping authoritarian reforms proposed in the Apex report are not organically tied to the “common sense” prescriptions for a health church described in Towers Watson. A rejection of Apex is not equivalent to rejecting good preaching, lots of small groups, and vigorous lay involvement.
The goal of Towers Watson is congregational health. The goal of Apex is denominational control.
“Amid the numerous critically important theological and spiritual considerations there are unassailable organizational and operational realities that both illustrate and affect them.” (18)
COMMENTARY: So let me see if get this straight. The “realities” of the institution trump theology. And “operational realities” (finances) trump the Holy Spirit of God. I’d better stop before I get snarkish and forget the need for “civil dialogue.”
“We need passionate and focused leaders who will name the truth of the current situation and lead us toward bold and achievable goals consistent with our calling. We yearn for leaders who take responsibility and deliver observable, bountiful, and sustainable ministry outcomes. Courageous, collaborative leaders are much more important than layers of intricate legislation or revamped organizational structures.” (18)
COMMENTARY: Let me rehearse how to present this to my minister. “Pastor, I need you to be more passionate about paying the apportionment! I can’t tell you how many nights I have cried myself to sleep, yearning for a pastor who would increase our attendance 15% per annum. Please, be brave and get with the program!” I’m sorry, but not all sections of the CTA Manifesto translate well.
And this is a key weakness of the CTA Manifesto. It’s a case of The Emperor’s New Clothes. You can’t turn a financial crisis into a moral and spiritual crusade without an awful lot of people seeing through the charade. And it’s also hard to mask what is essentially a power grab—once you’ve got a handle on it. When you know the truth, and your leaders deny the truth, morale suffers. Trust suffers.
“We need…strong leadership to vividly change what we emphasize, and de-emphasize many current treasured approaches and programs and forego familiar rhetoric that, though valued, does not lead to effectiveness in achieving different and desired outcomes.” (19)
COMMENTARY: It’s interesting how rhetoric can fail nearly anyone at some point. What was the intended goal of the phrases “treasured approaches” and “familiar rhetoric”? What response were they aiming for? “Vividness” means bright and distinctive, visually striking, perceived with freshness and immediacy. What changes in the “de-emphasis” process could have more “vividness” than shutting down a third of the Agencies, targeting half the churches in the bottom 10% of Church Vitality for closure, and refusing to ordain three-quarters of the graduates from a notoriously liberal seminary?
We must keep in mind, however, the sage advice of an expert in organizational behavior. “Injuries should be performed all at once so resentment does not develop; favors should be bestowed little by little.” I understand why so much effort has gone into creating this false sense of urgency. People need to get with the plan, now! “Vote for the Patriot Act now! Don’t stop to read it. Trust us.”
“Courageous, collaborative leaders are much more important than layers of intricate legislation or revamped organizational structures.” (18)
COMMENTARY: Of all the statements in the CTA Manifesto, this one demonstrates the broad strategy of the takeover of the UMC more than any other. They intend to bypass the legislative and organizational structures of the United Methodist Church almost completely. They plan to usurp these democratic and consultative processes with their “courageous, collaborative leaders” with new “General Church executive function” authority (27) to require “alignment” and “consensus” (passim) and impose “sanctions when needed to address under-performance.” (22)
Institutionalizing “No More Social Reform” via New Lines of Power and Authority
RULE SUSPENSION: “A KEY RESPONSIBILITY”
“Vitality will take multiple forms in light of varying circumstances. Since rule-bound structures inhibit innovation, continuous renewal, and viability, a key responsibility of leaders is to suspend rules in order to test and assess the efficacy of new, worthy ideas.” (20)
COMMENTARY: The 2012 UMC General Conference will vote on legislation to give the new “General Church executive function” authority to bypass and ignore the rules put in place by the General and Annual Conferences. Since “a key responsibility of leaders is to suspend rules,” they will be held accountable if they fail to implement any policy formulated by their “courageous, collaborative leaders” because of some misplaced regard for the Book of Discipline or the Book of Resolutions.
Cicero said, “In time of war the laws are silent.” Make no mistake. War has been declared.
“STRENGTHEN KEY ORGANIZATIONS THAT DRIVE MISSION GOVERNANCE STRUCTURE. Mismatch of form and function of legislative and operating entities with their respective governance structures is “blocking factor” in achieving greater organizational effectiveness.” (131)
COMMENTARY: The CTA Manifesto can present any plausible explanation for the Church’s chronic problems, but the solution remains the same: a new, stream-lined “General Church executive function,” with the authority and power to mandate acceptance of the de-emphasis of “sub-optimal” activities.
ACCOUNTABILITY = AUTHORITY + POWER
“Establish a general church executive function that carries responsibility, authority, and accountability; employs and deploys general church executives; allocates resources in keeping with needs and desired outcomes; and resolves disputes.” (27-28)
COMMENTARY: The authority to hire and fire and to transfer personnel across the country, the power of the purse for functional and political ends, and the authority to bypass courts and councils.
The UMC is poised to turn its back on democratic and consultative governance and return to the Anglican-Catholic hierarchical model Wesley grew up in. This model has also been described as the Corporate Model, the Imperial Roman Model, the Authoritarian Model, the Monarchial Model, etc.
THE CHURCH’S “SYSTEMIC ALLERGY TO AUTHORITY”
“In the words of one interviewee, the Church ‘has a systemic allergy to authority.’
“The opportunity here is for the Church to confront its long standing ‘allergy to authority.’ If the Church were to choose to pursue this opportunity, undoubtedly a lengthy process of creativity, debate and discernment would have to occur.” (168)
COMMENTARY: The wording here is an excellent example of using a disease metaphor to stigmatize anything undesirable. Disease metaphors (discussed by Susan Sontag’s Illness as Metaphor) allow the user to ascribe qualities to something poetically without having to make an argument as to the ascription’s validity. Mein Kampf was a detailed description of Hitler’s plans for Europe. In it are Hitler’s well-known descriptions of Jews as parasites, as poison, and many other disease-related metaphors. Pathologizing people has always been an effective way to marginalize and isolate your targets, as “mentally ill” gays and lesbians have known for years.
The Call to Action could have made their point by saying Methodists “have a problem with authority,” they “distrust authority,” or they “have an uncomfortable relationship with the concept of authority.”
As true as they may be, these don’t carry the same implications as saying the Church “has a systemic allergy to authority.” There are genuine philosophical, theological, and Biblical reasons to critique authoritarianism (the exercise of authority), not least of which is Jesus’s remark about gentiles lording it over one another. The “systemic allergy” metaphor distracts our attention from the fact that there are good and legitimate reasons to have problems with authority. The phrase “systemic allergy” seems to justify a “systemic solution” like a massive injection of authority and accountability to the United Methodist Church.
One of the most telling aspects of this statement is the opportunity to bring the all of us along with the Church is completely optional. That “lengthy process of creativity, debate and discernment” is just the kind of time-wasting inefficiency the CTA Manifesto hopes to abolish.
“CONSENSUS AND ALIGNMENT” LANGUAGE
The CTA Manifesto utilizes many words as it urges us to accept and work under the New Regime. Their most popular words are alignment, coalition, consensus, collaborative, and attitude. These appear in phrases like “assure collaboration,” “powerful, cohesive, guiding coalition,” and “working in concert and fostering alignment.”
COMMENTARY: All of which says, “get with the program,” “get on the band wagon,” “team player,” “peer pressure,” “don’t make waves,” “keep a low profile,” etc.
NEW “ATTITUDE” CRITERIA FOR CLERGY
“Create and implement prompt and humane ways to decline entry to or to arrange exit for persons who lack requisite skills, attitudes, and a proven desire and capacity to improve and meet established standards.” (21)
COMMENTARY: The CTA Manifesto announces new criteria for the people eligible for retention in ministry and those eligible for ordination. What’s their attitude? “Do you support the policy to de-emphasize social reform? Or do Biblical mandates for justice and servant ministry still matter to you?”
NEW CRITERIA FOR SEMINARIES
“Establish preferential relationships with seminaries preparing clergy who are equipped and aligned for higher levels of achievement in leadership related to the key drivers of congregational vitality.” (27)
COMMENTARY: The reference to “preferential relationships with seminaries,” demonstrates a strategic concern for pastoral training. Is the Steering Committee is looking for seminaries who agree to reduce the number of classes and professors concerned with justice, equity, and full inclusion? When you connect “attitudes” with “de-emphasis” with “preferential relationships” the long-term political goals of the CTA Manifesto become clearer and clearer. And with the new and efficient executive function, executives seem accountable for their stats, but unaccountable for the just exercise of their power and authority.
FUNDING TIED TO “ALIGNMENT”
“Provide base funding to the reduced number and size of agencies, with competitive access to substantial performance-based financial grants, and specifically using criteria that is tightly aligned with increasing congregational vitality.” (28)
COMMENTARY: The proposed General Church executive function is concerned about setting a “vivid” and “courageous” example of Just-Say-No-to-Justice-and-Equity, and will decimate the Agencies, which, because of their great unpopularity in some quarters, will generate no little enthusiasm. Following their courageous example, their subordinates have one one set of tempting targets at the district and Conference levels, those irritating and divisive Open and Affirming congregations with their never-ending proposals for social and church reform.
New executive leaders have been encouraged to suspend any rules that interferes with efficiency and the ability to “assure alignment.” This means that some leaders can courageously refuse to allow select motions to come to the floor. Other leaders can courageously ignore any resolutions passed by the pathetically irrelevant and weak legislative bodies. All they are accountable for, in the new Regime, are their stats. Watch for fast-track executives who stir great procedural controversy, have excellent numbers, and get promoted.
CORPORATE-STYLE AUTHORITY IN PERSONNEL MATTERS
“Discontinue ‘guaranteed appointment’ and consider ways to ease the deployment of talented personnel (clergy) across annual conference boundaries to assure access to the greatest talent for places where there is readiness and need.” (27)
COMMENTARY: Intense opposition to reform-minded clergy in any given district or conference could be dealt with under the rubric of “accountability,” especially since “attitude” and “alignment” are highly emphasized. The pastor of a small O&A congregation could conceivably be transferred to a different Annual Conference if the political climate were right.
Keep in mind that if and when this new, muscular line of authority is introduced, anything can happen. The CTA Manifesto promises “profound respect” for local congregations, but words like “profound” are meaningless in this document. Objective Data + Political Will + Accountability = Power. This increased Corporate-Style authority in dismissing and transferring personnel further illustrates the degree of cultural change the CTA Manifesto would institute as we “live into the mission together.”
[To see a complete list of Call to Action posts, click here.]
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