When Democracy’s Not Working

Like you, I’ve been struggling to digest all of what happened at General Conference, still trying to process the emotions and the results (or non-results, as the case may be).  Not having been there, I’ve been reading all I can and trying to discern what kinds of questions might help us move forward as a church.

Here’s my first one…does democracy really work?  Seriously, I want us to consider the question.  Have we bumped up against the limits of what democracy can do?

It strikes me that GC did what was expected of it and approved a restructuring plan.  Judicial Council did what was expected of it and pronounced a ruling on the legislation.  The democratic process “worked” in that sense.  But we didn’t get any closer to solving any of our problems, and in fact the process seems to have wounded us more deeply than ever before.

The Call to Action Steering Team Report identified the UMC as facing an “adaptive challenge.”  An adaptive challenge is different than a technical challenge.  Adaptive challenges are not about tweaking what we’ve got, they’re about redefining who we are and our fundamental approach to almost everything.  That’s hard to do at General Conference when your starting point is:  “what section of the 2008 Discipline would you like to amend?”

I would argue that democracies are not inherently good at dealing with adaptive challenges.  Tampa is my exhibit A.  My own reaction to the removal of guaranteed appointment is emblematic of the problem.  (I’ll use myself as an illustration, but I’m still not ready to concede that point just yet.)  My reaction is about loss, and responses to adaptive challenges always lead to feelings of loss somewhere in the system.  In a democracy, the result is a divided/fragmented electorate marked by interest groups who become focused in their opposition to any reforms.

It strikes me that the democratic process seems most prone to failure and dysfunction precisely at the moment when the need for change is most critical (field trip to Washington, anyone?)

Winston Churchill said, “The Americans will always do the right thing…after they’ve exhausted all the alternatives.”  I wonder if this isn’t true just of the U.S., but of democracies in general.  It may take a real crisis moment before adaptive change becomes an option.  Perhaps nothing less will do.

So what are the alternatives?

I know what happens in the local church.  Dying churches don’t vote their way to vitality.  Typically, someone – usually a pastor together with a couple of lay people – starts doing something different.  It might be worship, it might be small groups, it might be missions.  They don’t ask permission or take a vote, they just start doing it.  At least, that’s how I’ve done it.

I’d love to hear your thoughts on democracy and declining institutions.

Next post:  We’ve got trust issues.