UMC’s Democratic Process Dismissed as “Rigamarole”

When an organization’s executives approach a corporate change consultant, one of the very first things the consultant asks is how they want the organization to change. The consultant asks the client what kind of organizational culture they envision for the future.

This means that the Apex people didn’t pull a reform package off the shelf at random, although the general outline is well established. They were told exactly what kind of operating environment the UMC leadership wanted in the future.  Their goal was the creation of a new line of authority, one to bypass the Annual and General Conferences, which are reputedly guilty of debating legislation at glacial speeds.

Fred Miller, a member of FUMC in Chatham, MA, and CEO of The Chatham Group (a corporate change consulting firm), was understandably a key member of the CTA Steering Team, and very probably a key mapper of strategic goals. This plan wasn’t minted just a year or two ago. These ideas have undoubtedly been in the hopper for years, even decades. Leadership’s “dream list” (CTA, 11) was outlined to Apex. Then Apex, the so-called “independent” consultant, packaged a report for our review, or at least our consent. The entire Call to Action Manifesto is a PR job, and we are the audience.

This is how Miller’s Chatham Group describes part of their philosophy as a corporate change consulting service.

“Our diversity of expertise produces innovative, holistic solutions to external and internal barriers.” (emphasis added)

Organizations face many more internal barriers to change than exterior. And it is people who resist change. Changing structures means changing how people function and relate to one another. Orangutans are skeptical of changes in their cages, as bards of old used to sing. “Internal barriers” — that’s us, or some of us.

An organizational change expert at Harvard Business School has developed what is called Kotter’s 8-Step Change Model.”  Step 5 is to “Remove Obstacles.” One commentator described step 5 this way.

•  Identify people who are resisting the change, and help them see what’s needed.
•  Take action to quickly remove barriers (human or otherwise).

The obstacles in Kotter are identical to the barriers in Apex. The main institutional barriers to stream-lined authority are the General and Annual Conferences, all of which are dominated by people who…talk for a living. The fact that the “Call to Action” views the UMC’s democratic structures as barriers and obstacles to change is clear.

Bishop Palmer described the UMC’s democratic process as “rigamarole” that interfered with the “capacity to make certain maneuvers, decisions, movements, that may not happen in the timely, every-four-year cycle that’s outlined in the Book of Discipline.”

Forgive me, but the persistent vagueness regarding what, exactly, can’t be done under the present “rules” is not reassuring. Please, let’s address that uneasiness and worry that accompanies change, uneasiness and worry that were anticipated by the the Bishops, the Steering Team,  Towers Watson, and Apex. Help us out a little here.

Please give us some examples of the kinds of “maneuvers, decisions, movements” that require a rule change and the authority to do. Provide some examples of “maneuvers, decisions, movements,” that you wished you could have done in, say, 2000, things you couldn’t do because you were hamstrung by rules. And I have to confess that I am not reassured by your explicit exhortation to courageously break existing rules. (But then I’ll bet that reassuring everybody isn’t a goal, is it? I’m reminded of Thin Lizzy’s hit, “The Boys are Back in Town.”)

The Apex Appendix says that “the Church will eventually have many real estate assets to redeploy,” and that there’s a “question of whether to do this proactively or reactively.” (CTA, 174) Do the “maneuvers, decisions, movements” for which you want authority include the “proactive redeployment” of real estate assets before the real estate market bottoms out again? Closing churches with 100 members when your property management people say, “Now would be a good time to sell the bottom 2%”?

Let me clarify something. The following sentence does not appear in the “Call to Action,” but legitimately belongs to the follow-up process.  “Take action to quickly remove barriers (human or otherwise).” Remember The Chatham Group claim that inspires confidence in prospective corporate clients: “Our diversity of expertise produces innovative, holistic solutions to external and internal barriers.” Does this mainly concern “sanctions” against underperforming bishops? (CTA, 22)

I don’t know whether the UMC will be relying on Apex or The Chatham Group as this process unfolds, whether someone is on retainer for the next ten years or what, but can anyone describe the “innovative, holistic solutions” to the problem of “internal barriers” vis-à-vis human assets? Current, existing human assets? These are problems you should have discussed in your meetings.

(I am curious about the sanctions against bishops. What form would they take? Hopefully, however, they won’t have to levy sanctions against anyone.)

But the real request is this: Please provide some concrete examples of what should have been done 5 or 10 years ago had this stream-lined executive authority been in place. The Steering Team has obviously given this a lot of thought, so please tell us what kinds of “maneuvers, decisions, movements” are anticipated in the future that require us to bypass the “rigamarole” of the General and Annual Conferences.

Obviously the UMC has pressing financial responsibilities. The Board of Pension and Health Benefits faces a grim financial picture. The 2012 General Conference looks to be short more than $3 million. 

But financial pressures are secondary in the Call to Action. The “perceived distance” within the UMC is the really big problem. If the recommendations in the CTA Manifesto are implemented, the first order of business for many will be to shut down Claremont and the General Board of Church and Society. Dig a little and I think you’ll find Good News and the IRD have a hand in this.

Forgive me if this post has a little more bite than necessary, but accountability works both ways. We are being asked to surrender some serious democratic prerogatives here, the ends of which do not suffer from “clarity.” If Towers Watson and Apex earned the $500,000 that the Connectional Table anted up for this report (CTA, 32), then the “Headline” talking points in the Call to Action should have been run past more than one focus group.

Is that the real problem? That the real motives behind the enhanced “executive function” just didn’t go over well in the focus groups?

They’ve said in the Call to Action that they want more clarity and trust, less cynicism. Can anyone tell us what they have in mind? Or have I pretty much summed it up? I keep hoping that somehow I’ve misread the documents, but you need to look at the fine print. 

It’s there for a reason.

[To see a complete list of Call to Action posts, click here.]

About Ron Goetz

My first wife used to say, "There's nothing so sacred that Ron won't pick it apart." My desire to be a pastor -- that was a temperamental mismatch. She was so patient. If my birth mother had lived somewhere else, maybe I would've become a cold case detective. But I would have had to be J instead of a P, I think. And that mid-life reevaluation, starting adolescence as a GARB fundamentalist and transitioning to a non-theist, that gave me an unusual skill set.
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10 Responses to UMC’s Democratic Process Dismissed as “Rigamarole”

  1. ewr54 says:

    As I have seen twice now in this blog, this comment by Ron Goetz addresses the intent of the Council of Bishops. This is a problem that unfortunately will be with us for quite a while. Is the intent of the Council of Bishops to sink the UMC or rather, is the intent to modify the church’s direction in such a way that it merely feels as if things are going to sink?

    Yet, this is a process that a healthy church will go through and mature in, even as we leave some less healthy churches behind. Make no mistake about it, in my opinion, there are unhealthy churches out there.

    Perhaps a definition of unhealthy might be in order. In general, unhealthy churches are those defined as churches that managed to split faith and works into two separate but equal parts and then expected the church to be an integrated whole as a result of that split.

    It is an unfortunate truth that such churches, as well as such people abound in today’s world. One need look only in the newspapers or on TV to see the results of a split between faith and works. Not so oddly, this lack of integration has taken root and provides a rich breeding ground for the many problems of the church.


    • Ron Goetz says:

      I doubt that the COB-sponsored Call to Action will sink the United Methodist Church. That result could only come in two ways. One would be if the UMC became draconian in their closures and exits, which isn’t going to happen. The second would be if every pastor used the threat of the “stick” on their church members, which doesn’t seem likely to me because most people have better sense.

      But they definitely do want to create a sense of urgency, so they do want us to feel as if the ship could capsize and sink. To carry out the metaphor, the economy and institutional inertia could be the waves and the winds, and the movement for full inclusion of lesbians and gays could represent the final splintering of the hull.

      The CTA report studiously avoids any doctrinal discussions like the relationship of faith and works. They don’t talk about church health, but rather about Church Vitality.

      I dislike the focus on sheer numbers, but I must say this. It really is a — shame? crime? problem? — that we can invest so much time, energy, and love in our congregations and have so little to show for it. It seems normal to question how meaningful our activities and beliefs are if we ourselves, and a handful of newcomers, are the only ones who benefit.

      But that leads me personally into questions of the validity of the structures of Christendom and the huge chore of institutional maintenance. I know what I would do if it were purely up to me, which it isn’t. If you’re interested in my take, you can check out the Parable of the Hermit Crab, my first post on the site.


  2. daytongriffinsloat says:

    The computer in 2001: A Space Odyssey went crazy and started killing crewmembers because it got two conflicting messages: 1) Freely share mission information with the crew and 2) Keep a really big secret from them. Our authority structure has a similar problem. We have a hierarchical structure whose mission is to maintain control and a democratic structure whose mission is to secure agreement from those we serve. This means that, to use the Native American model, we have a lot of chiefs, making a lot of speeches but, in a country with freedom of religion, lacking the authority to lead their tribes without the consent of the tribal members (read local church participants).

    The solution is brilliant and simple, hold all of our leaders, from the local senior/lead pastor all the way up the chain of pastoral hierarchy accountable for their leadership effectiveness. Define that effectiveness in terms of specific, achieveable goals pertaining to our mission statement: Make disciples of Jesus; Transform the world. Offer penalties if our rules are violated. That’s it! See John Kaiser’s “Winning on Purpose” or Sam Culbert’s “Get Rid of the Performance Review” or “Beyond Bullsh*t” to get a good primer in the Accountable Leadership model.

    There are two really important problems with this basic reform. First, there are no truly effective governance boards on a local level for lead pastors/superintendents/bishops, etc. We would need to overhaul the SPRC/Committee on Superintendency/Committee on Episcopacy etc. in order to really hold our leaders accountable to lead.

    The second problem is that we would have to rethink what it is that we want our leaders to do for our organizations: not maintenance, not relief of anxiety/avoidance of conflict, NOT DOING THE JOB OF MAKING DISCIPLES OR TRANSFORMING THE WORLD FOR THE LAY MEMBERS, but leading the members of the churches in this vital work. It goes against our culture to say that we might hold our leaders accountable for the mission effectiveness of those they serve (church members), but that’s exactly what we need to start doing.

    In our structure this will only happen if clergy can be converted to an accountable leadership approach, and we beef up our local governing groups. Clergy agree to leave voluntarily when they are ineffective and governing groups agree to support them in effective work and treat them fairly. Then an orderly transition can begin from ineffective leadership to effective leadership and mission effectiveness.

    What all this has to do with Apex’ report I am not sure, but I do know that Culbert’s article outlining this kind of approach was the most read article in the history of the Wall Street Journal, so he has definitely hit a nerve. I know I was shouting “amen” by the time I finished reading it. What do y’all think?


    • Ron Goetz says:

      Dayton, what you’ve described seems to me to be pretty much in sync with the Apex report: real authority and accountability for measurable results.

      I’m concerned about the likelihood of more arbitrary exercise of power against people. Many pastors already live with the fear of trouble in their congregation causing their next appointment to be less-than-desirable. There are some laypeople who capitalize on this.

      There is also the likelihood of political abuse. If three or four congregations in a district have low Church Vitality scores and one of them has to be closed, it’s easy to see how the deciding factor could be whether they match the progressive or conservative mood of their Annual Conference.


  3. Jerry Rigdon says:

    Change in any organization, the UMC included, that is formulated from the top is doomed to fail. The Bishops, as a case in point for this argument, have learned and practiced in the existing structure, the language and the usage of the organization very well, well enough to rise to the leadership the UMC. To expect or even suggest that these same people will radically change the organization in which they learned and practiced to become Bishops is unrealistic. This does not mean anyone is malevolent in any way, it is just the nature of organizations. This is the pressing problem, number one as I see it.


  4. Mark Johnson says:

    Spiritually, growth is not a matter of planned, carefully orchestrated change. Real growth happens by death and resurrection. The UMC was raised in response to particular historical and cultural circumstances. Those have changed and so the UMC is dying. Death is not a bad thing. Indeed, when accepted, in can be beautiful and those who remain can be set free to embrace their future. Let us be graceful in death. If there is no death, there is no resurrection.


    • Ron Goetz says:

      I like your reference to Christ’s words, Mark: “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds. Those who love their life will lose it, while those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.” (John 12:24-25)

      “Those who hate their life in this world will keep it for eternal life.”

      Most ordained clergy and officials see clearly how worldly their organizations are. But they don’t seem to consider what the “fruit befitting repentance” of that worldliness would really look like.


  5. Lee Fries says:

    To what Jerry said…I agree! Also, let us remember that we have some interesting language in the above article.

    1- We need to get rid of the guaranteed appointment for clergy…which I believe only works with the elimination of the itinerancy. (As a pastor, I agree to go where I am sent, only as long as you have a place for me. Could the Bishop/D.S. pull me from a church where successful ministry is happening and then tell me that they don’t have a place for me if my theological bent is not their own?)

    2- there’s some funny language going on here. Notice that we can “sanction” Bishops. Bishops by their very definition are elders in the UMC, and their only real power comes in the appointment process. Why can we remove elders for ineffectiveness but not Bishops? Yet again, I don’t know that we have a standard for determining what effective pastors are, but it seems that they are taking steps to insure their continued system of power.

    3-The elephant in the room: What about ineffective, clergy killing, churches? How do we determine if the pastor is ineffective or if it is the church? We want to eliminate the guaranteed appointment of clergy, but I want to see the clergy that we have healthy. Appointing them to those types of churches hurts them and the entire denomination.

    Just a few thoughts.


  6. Ron Goetz says:

    Lee, the authority and accountability called for in the CTA Manifesto cuts many ways. The report itself purports to be objective, yet the ideological agenda is not difficult to discern.

    I have no doubt that many decisions to close churches and arrange for the “humane’ exit of “ineffective” clergy will be legitimate. And “Pastor-Killer” congregations are tolerated much longer than is healthy, and many young seminary graduates are done in by them.

    A lot of the problem with granting increased authority boils down to this: pastors have all seen and heard their superiors in action, and some of those superiors simply can’t be trusted with even more power.

    The CTA Manifesto calls for more trust, less cynicism, and tells us we have a “systemic allergy to authority.”

    If I’ve seen authority abused, then my distrust of authority is not an “allergy.” If I’ve seen laypeople and pastors treated unjustly, then I don’t need spiritual Benadryl to relieve my symptoms.

    The desire for justice is not an allergy.


  7. Pingback: One lay leader’s take on Call to Action | John Meunier

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