We’ve Got Trust Issues

“We have huge trust issues.” – Adam Hamilton

Finally I’ve calmed down enough to do some thinking about GC 2012 without getting worked up.  Like a lot of folks, I spent a few weeks angry and depressed.  So I threw myself back into the work of the local church…confirmation, new members…and again God proved to me that the actions of GC don’t change anything about Jesus or about the community I pastor.  For that, I’m so grateful.

Adam Hamilton is absolutely right, building trust will take a lot of conversations.  Not just among Methodists in the US but around the world.  I’m convinced American Methodists have no clue about the structural, spiritual, or cultural realities of the Church in Africa or Europe.  I know I don’t.  In fact, I doubt those in the Southeast Jurisdiction really understand the situation in the Northeast, or vice versa.  So conversation is definitely important.

I want to remind us of another key component of trust:  transparency.  Hamilton alluded to the issue in the interview linked above, when he touched on (hidden) “agendas.”  He said, “Sometimes there IS an agenda going on and sometimes good people are trying to make the next best decision.”

We all have agendas.  Let’s start there, because the statement implies that good people don’t.  I disagree.  I hope all of us – and I imagine at least most of us – are good people who want what’s best for the Church.  But we all have different visions of what would be the best Church and hence different agendas.

Usually when we use the word “agenda” it’s a pejorative to describe a preferred outcome that is driven more by ego than by big-picture, what’s-best-for-the-Church thinking.  No question, that element is always present, even in “good people.”  We’ve got to ask God’s wisdom to recognize it.  That said, much of what we derisively label an “agenda” is simply someone else’s preferred outcome based on someone else’s vision for the Church.

In other words, when we do it, it’s “wanting what’s best for the church.”  When someone else does it, it’s an “agenda.”

If we want to build trust, we’re going to have to find the courage to bring our agendas into the light of day.  I can work with someone when I know where they’re coming from and what they want – even if we disagree – because then I understand what might make for compromise.

Here’s the catch.  Revealing our agendas often means revealing either:  1)  that we fundamentally distrust the other person; or 2) that we believe they’ve failed to do their job.

An illustration:  it’s hard for me to look at the restructuring proposals and counter-proposals without seeing them as a clash of agendas between (primarily) the bishops and the agency executives.  We talked about the various plans in terms of efficiency and adequate representation but my sense is that what we really should be talking about is 1) why these two groups distrust each other and 2) why someone feels someone else isn’t doing their job.  Of course, this is what we’re not doing.

Ugly, I know.  Personal, I know.  Best done one-on-one, in private, behind closed doors.  But I don’t see evidence that it is happening.  Because if it were, where people were coming clean on their agendas and working out their interpersonal stuff, I’m guessing we wouldn’t be slugging it out on the floor of GC.

The problem:  the only alternative to working things out in private is speaking them in public.  Maybe this can be done, but it strikes me as incredibly risky for everyone involved.  What’s spoken at arm’s length seems harmless enough until you suddenly find yourself in the same room with the person who’s been insulted by something you’ve said.

I’ll leave you with a few questions to ponder and pray over:

Do we value transparency – in ourselves and others – as foundational to relationships?

Are we willing to reveal and articulate our agendas, even if they paint us in a negative light?

Can we develop trust without first revealing the dimensions of our distrust?


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.

The New Terms of Employment

As I follow General Conference, I can’t shake a feeling that my church is dramatically changing the terms of the relationship between the church and clergy in the order of elders.  The move to end guaranteed appointment is one of a several things making me wonder.

I want to start by saying I recognize that we can’t continue to let bad pastors kill churches.  That’s first, and most important.  I’d urge you to listen to this interview where Bishop Will Willimon describes how he’s dealt with the problem.  His argument, in part, for the end of the guaranteed appointment is that some of his colleagues aren’t willing or able to do what he’s done to remove ineffective clergy.

It’s not just the appointment issue the GC is dealing with.  There are also the changes to the pension plan.  This will be the third plan we’ve had in 10 years.  I’m reminded of Jacob’s complaint in Genesis 31:7, but I can understand this and deal with it.  It’s everyone’s reality now.  I honestly wish we’d just go to some kind of 401K with a match and be done with it.

Then we’ve got the CTA with its emphasis on numbers.  I was an engineer before I was a pastor.  I know numbers are important.  I track them and have been blessed to see ours going up.  Our congregation set some aggressive targets in the Vital Congregations planning.  Still I can’t help but wonder – if we miss, how will that miss figure in the cabinet’s evaluation of my work?  (Maybe we should have sandbagged a little bit.  I imagine a lot of churches did.)

And here’s where I wonder about the end of the guaranteed appointment. I don’t really fear for myself (except when I consider how freely I tend to speak my mind.)  The congregation I serve is growing and vital.  I believe God has called me and gifted me for this work.

But I do know good pastors in tough appointments – places where they get beaten down by the people for trying to make changes that will lead to vitality and beaten down by the hierarchy for not paying the bills.  Or where pastors are immediately rejected just because they are female.  Or Korean.  Or both.  How will we measure them?

There’s a lot of talk about the typical layperson not having any job guarantee.  I get that.  But honestly, the UMC doesn’t much resemble a free market.  Between the bishop, the conference, and the local church, not just my employment but a good deal of my life is under someone else’s control.  That includes the church-owned house we call home and even the credentials that allow  me to do my job.  Imagine a lawyer whose bar association assigned her a job, a salary, and a residence.  That’s a lot of power to give into the hands of an institution.

It’s no small thing for a family to commit to live under itinerancy.  The question always comes up in the spring:  should we plant a garden or not? Someone might say, “you knew what you were getting into.”  I guess.  I thought part of the deal was that if I offered myself to serve, I’d always have a place to serve.  I thought that was part of the reason the Conference asked me to undergo 7 years of education and evaluation before ordination.

I can accept the end of guaranteed appointment.  But I don’t want to give it up without something in return:  if we go this route, we need term limits for bishops.  That didn’t pass today.  I pray that in time we’ll see that simple fairness requires the issues of  guaranteed appointments and term limits to travel together.

Meantime, my prayers are with General Conference:  the delegates, the bishops, and all who have come to observe and serve.