Finding Hope in an Airless Room: Renewing The United Methodist Church

Iwrote yesterday about attending meetings in which it felt as if the oxygen was being sucked from the room. That sense continued and became more frustrating. But it’s not the whole story.

As I watched what was happening in the meetings I was attending, I thought back to my life as a staff member of the National Council of Churches several years ago as it went into a state of decline from which it has emerged only recently under the leadership of Bob Edgar.

Organizations in decline exhibit pathologies that organizational theorists identify as life stages. Mainline denominations are in various stages, but most struggle with decline. It’s not only religious organizations, of course, virtually every mass membership civic organization formed in the past several decades is having difficulty attracting young people, and maintaining membership and participation. Robert Putnam’s Bowling Alone analyzes this dynamic and his defense of his concept of decline in civic participation has held up rather well.

To be sure, the Council was hammered unfairly and unrelentingly by Reader’s Digest on the right and a journalistically terrible story by Morley Safer of CBS’s Sixty Minutes, which executive producer Don Hewitt later said he regretted. This onslaught hurt but it’s also true that the leadership at the time did not read the environment in which they were working and adapt to it. They continued to function as they had in the previous decade. They misread how they were being perceived and how they needed to adjust to contemporary realities.

They relied on past practices and procedures and became even more enamored with centralized command and control. At one point they had so constricted their capacity to communicate that news releases had to be cleared by so many it took days. Public reporting on emergency response to disasters required a cumbersome process with the result that reports appeared long after media coverage had moved on. The leadership did not “get it” that even then timing was everything. The electronic media and nascent digital media were changing how information flowed.

Centralized management resulted in constriction of programs, partnerships and public media. I recall the day I was instructed to change the emphasis of a successful marketing campaign, ignoring research and a strategic plan that was working effectively. In fact, I was to attend an Emmy Award banquet at the New York Marriott that evening. (It was the first time I’d worn a tux.) A television spot I had helped produce received a national Emmy nomination. It was ironic this was the afternoon the general secretary chose to clamp down, micro-manage communications content and disregard the knowledge and experience of his staff and a significant amount of research and strategy.

For more than two years staff had to support a series of re-organizing plans and changes in budget processes. They were demoralized and worn down. The result was an inward focus and ultimately futile efforts to effect change. Organizations can’t legislate themselves out of decline. Re-organizing without analyzing the context in which they operate isn’t a panacea either. Staff who could, began to jump ship and institutional knowledge, skill and memory was lost.

Declining resources led to serious conflict over how to fund the Council. The net result was preoccupation with internal organization, tighter controls, less outward looking programming and communication, and internal bickering over funding.The most disappointing result, however, was the loss of vision that occurred during this time. The organization has a long history of innovative, courageous vision. It was often far ahead in theological and social analysis about human rights, humanitarian public policy and Christian education. This vision grew dim and short-sighted. It was easier to analyze the past than envision the future. Data from the past buttressed papers and articles analyzing the organization but none were visionary. We were playing with the bones.

Am I writing that The United Methodist Church for which I work is approaching this same desolate state? No. The pathology is similiar, but the reality is enormously different. I see leaders with great vision. We have an outwardly focused mission, a vibrant theology, a deep reservoir of good will and, more importantly, commitment to the life of faith as disciples of Jesus Christ. There is no lack of energy and the generosity of the people of The United Methodist Church is staggering. We’re not playing with the bones. But the air is stale in some rooms and a few limiting ideas are floating around. The temptations of decline are insidious and I believe we must guard against the futile attempt to look inward, clamp down rather than free up, and look backward rather than dream the future. I think we know this and our leaders are leading us in a different direction. We’re at a critical point. A few want to close the windows and hunker down. But many more want to open the windows and let in fresh air.

A conversation is underway about this challenge. It’s an invigorating conversation and it occurred at the meetings I attended as well. I think the future is exciting. I think we will need to take careful, calculated risks, stay in touch with the social and cultural communities in which we live, continue to learn from our Wesleyan theological heritage and struggle with the imperatives of scripture to be faithful.

We must continue to be a people who see the world as our parish and engage with the poor, marginalized and ignored. We stand on history that calls us to “do no harm, do good and love God.” I believe we will continue to honor the foundations of the Wesleyan movement –scripture, tradition, experience and reason– that were enumerated by John Wesley.

But the most important reason is theological. This isn’t our story. It’s God’s story. And faith is the response to the actions of God in history. So no matter what legislation is passed if the community is not faithful, it will be for naught. What we can do is quit whining about decline, look to the future and how we can effect change individually and corporately, and recognize the remarkable actions of local congregations around the world doing life-changing acts of ministry. If we do that, perhaps we’ll let some fresh air into the room.

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