So how do you build trust? In the conversation the United Methodist Church is having about structure, there is a proposed movement towards a model of an oversight board utilizing some of the principles of policy governance. People are suspicious of such a small board, 45 people, with an executive staff person, who would oversee the other agency directors. In the corporate world, there would be no question about such a structure. Most large, global corporations have such a structure with one CEO. The ultimate accountability for the board is of course with the stockholders who are usually pretty clear on the outcome they are seeking:profits.
The United Methodist Church is currently structured for representational decision making. We have believed that we will have a better quality to our conversation and decision making if we can have representation from the different constituencies. Therefore we have tried to build our boards with paying attention to age, gender, ethnicity and geographical representation in proportion to the demographics of the church. So why is that a challenge now? We need to have large numbers of people to get that diverse representation, and we have paid such attention to representation, we have not always paid as much attention to giftedness. And when you consider proportionality in the equation of representation, some voices from the edges will always be underrepresented.
But I think what is at the heart of the matter is trust. We have not developed clear agreement on what we want to be doing together. We have not been able to say with one voice this is what matters most. Without clearly articulated and mutually shared outcomes, we try to manage our individual hopes and desires by seeking to have control over the who and the how. We do not trust whoever we have named as the other to take us where we want to go as a church. We are concerned they will not uphold our values, make decisions that will be in our best interests, and ultimately this will be a church we will not recognize and we are unsure it will be a church we will want to be a part of. And therefore we try to get more people at the table who might look and think like us, block others who are trying to do the same with their coalition groups, and we try to build such safe guards into our system in order to keep power in check, that in the end we limit our ability to make significant and substantive changes. A fast changing world requires quick adaptation or we are going to find ourselves obsolete. And policy governance only works when you have well articulated ends: what difference are are here to make and for whom, and clear and agreed upon governance policies including executive limitations.
So what would it look like if we spent less time talking about how we organize ourselves and more time talking about what we want to accomplish together and what kinds of values we will hold. I know this was the attempt in the holy conversations but those seemed to be add ons to the general conference process, not foundational work. So for example, we keep talking about how we are a global church but we don’t have enough substantive conversation about what shape we would like that take. We have lots of disagreement about what we mean by full participation, relationship, financial support and responsibility, contextual freedom etc. Until we have that conversation and work hard to get to clarity about what we mean by being a global church we will continue to have this sense of mistrust, and believe that any group acting that does have not “me or someone like me” at the table, cannot possibly be acting in my best interest.
That kind of work to get clarity about who we are and what we are ca
lled to do and be as a church also takes time. In team building it is called the principle of going slow in order to go fast. If you spend the time to build the shared identity and purpose, as well as relationships of trust, then you are able to make huge decisions in a relatively short period of time because we know this team is clear about who they are here to serve: the mission. But do we even have agreement about what the mission? We can quote the words: making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, but do we have a shared understanding of what it means, and how it shapes our life? Therein lies the heart of the issue for us a church.
General Conference Day Five
Holy conferencing can work. The committee I was observing had a complex piece of legislation to consider. There was not agreement about how to proceed. They did something unusual. Instead of using the legislative process that is at the heart of general conference, the two people who were identified with the opposing views had a conversation. They listened to one another to see where they did have agreement, and what were the core philosophical pieces on which they could find common ground. From there, they invited others into a process of holy conferencing. They asked permission of the subcommittee to take a small group to go off and talk about these key components and then together write legislation that they believed could be supported.
This team took the better part of an afternoon and morning to work. Again, they listened to one another to see what the concerns were that each needed to address. They gave on issues that were not critical that they knew the others could not support. They worked together to write legislation that they hoped would make a complex process simpler. After all this work, they brought back their proposal to the committee and it was passed with little debate.
I don’t know if the legislation will make it through the plenary next week. I don’t even know if it is better legislation than what is currently in the Book of Discipline. But I was impressed with the process. It gives me hope. People who disagree can come together to work for the well being of the whole church. I have often said how we live and work together as the body of Christ is as important as what we do together. Today I saw that in action.
General Conference Day Four
On Monday, I sat in an Academic Affairs Committee of the board of trustees of an university where we were authorizing tenure for professors. Around the table there were people from other fields who were trying to understand tenure, and what were the implications for the university in terms of a long term financial commitment to a person. The practice of tenure in university life is long standing and the primary purpose was to guarantee academic freedom, so that professors could not be dismissed capriciously for their opinions and ideas. It was to create a robust academic environment. And yet, the upside of anything has a downside, in that in the case of an ineffective teacher, there is now an arduous process to terminate them, and in essence a life long employment contract.
On Friday, I am sitting in the judicial administration committee of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church where they are working on overhauling the complaint process for clergy. This process is modeled on the justice system of the United States. In essence to remove a credential from a clergy, if they do not choose to act voluntarily it could require a church trial. It is expensive, lengthy and complicated. Again the intent of such a process was good. It was to protect freedom in the pulpit so clergy could preach and teach out of their convictions. At times in our history, this protection has been important as clergy have been engaged in working toward civil rights or preaching against military involvement. But now, I wonder about what we have done for a variety of reasons.
First of all, is the US justice system the best model for us to work our life as a church? Should be using more discernment and holy conversations versus committee on investigations and counsel for the church and clergy? Secondly, it just amazes me again and again, when we have such pressing issues as a church about how we are going to remake ourselves to be relevant to new generations, that good people are giving three days of their life to talk about the role of the committee of investigations. Aren’t there better things we should be doing? And in creating a process for chargeable offenses and church trials, does it just foster an adversarial relationship?
The church is having a major conversation right now about homosexuality. Many faithful people disagree about how we live out our Christian beliefs. For some clergy, to act in what they believe are faithful ways to the gospel, is categorized a chargeable offense. So do we really have the freedom to preach, teach and lead that the complaint process was set up to ensure, or is it being used to punish and remove from our midst those with whom we have disagreement? As more and more clergy are feeling called to act in ways as they name as faithful civil disobedience, there could well be a significant uptick in the number of trials. And from experience, every complaint process takes a huge amount of hours and energy on the part of district superintendents and bishops. Is this really where we want to spend our time? Don’t we have better things we need to be doing as a church? It seems to me that the system is already broken and trying to fine tune it makes little sense.
So what if we got rid of the complaint and trial process all together? I understand that healthy organizations have grievance processes so that the rights of the individuals are protected. We need something in place that hold clergy mutually accountable to a standard of practice as well as protecting any person by the abuse of power by a supervisor. But there has to be a simpler way…and a way that allows the clergy and church to work for change and justice in the world without being in fear of losing their credentials.