The Stuck State of the UMC and Some Therapy


Three significant and unusual things happened this summer in the life of The United Methodist Church.

  1. General Conference passed a re-structuring plan.
  2. General Conference removed “guaranteed appointment.”
  3. A bishop was involuntarily retired because he was deemed ineffective.

The Judicial Council overturned the first decision in a matter of hours. They overturned the second decision exactly two weeks ago. They overturned the third decision exactly one day ago. Every significant decision in the large UMC from this summer (other than the pro forma ones, like elections of bishops) has now been voided.

There’s already all kinds of hand-wringing about this. “Can we do anything?”

The UMC’s Absolute Inability to Make Major Change

Before General Conference this year, I wrote a piece on “Why the American UMC is Dying a (Somewhat) Slow Death, and Concerned Leaders’ Best Response.” In it, I said, “We are a democracy – a large democracy – unready for significant change. Large democracies do not vote for major change. It brings too many fears. It moves too far from too many people’s comfort. The majority cannot effectively be educated to the point that they understand the problems that make such drastic change necessary and the reasons proposed solutions might do better.”

I ended up only partially correct. We have, indeed, established a behemoth of a system, and we’re finding that the system we’ve established makes significant organizational change nearly impossible.

But our problem wasn’t just getting people to vote for change. Despite the near total failure of GC2012 to accomplish anything, they did successfully vote for change on structure and guaranteed appointments.

So now, what we’re finding is that even on the rare instances when we can pull off a large democratic vote for change, there are more systems in place to assure that the change doesn’t actually take place.

What’s a Concerned Leader To Do?

I’ll point you back to the post mentioned above. Part I is about “Why the UMC is Dying a (Somewhat) Slow Death.” I think my experience at an Annual Conference was what we’re experiencing everywhere. But part II, “Concerned Leaders’ Best Response,” is what I hope all the hand-wringers will read and consider. I wrote the piece as therapy for myself. I hope anyone else who is discouraged might find something therapeutic in it.

I think we have great opportunity for change and good things in the UMC. Please don’t let our unwieldy and ineffectual system discourage you to the point of inaction or ineffectiveness. And if you’ve found yourself wondering if it’s even worth sticking with this big system, well, I’ve wondered that myself. I wrote “Why I am (Still) a Methodist” as a bit of self-therapy for that question. Hopefully it might be helpful, too.

d.k. Allen says:

As a former Methodist church member, I am wondering exactly what the General Conference, the Judicial Council, and the politics in general, have to do with the Gospel of Jesus Christ. I’m coming up nearly empty…

revfife says:

Brian McLaren once said,
Institutions exists to preserve.
Movements exists to change.

Without movements institutions stagnate.
Without institutions movements evaporate.

We are indeed in a stuck state.

Unfortunately, the most important decision has NOT been overturned. The refusal to honor John Wesley’s “Agree to Disagree” provision. The decision to remain “Exclusive”. The decision to condemn and deny full membership to all. Until all really means all, “Why I am (Still) a Methodist”… may become “Why I am (No Longer) a Methodist!

Teddy Ray says:

Hi John,

I have a hard time believing Wesley’s “agree to disagree” provision was related to issues of sin and holiness. I think he was talking about issues of doctrine that fall within the broader stream of orthodoxy. Otherwise, I think you’ll have a hard time explaining why Wesley expelled people from societies over issues such as cursing, habitual Sabbath-breaking, idleness and laziness, evil-speaking, etc. In your terms, that was denying full membership to all. I think it’s enforcing church discipline regarding sin and holiness.

““I do not fear that the people called Methodist shall ever cease to exist either in Europe or the Americas. I only fear that they shall exist as a dead sect having the form of religion, but not the power thereof, and that undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast to the doctrine, spirit and discipline with which they first set out.”” ~John Wesley, 1786

calebshenry says:

I cannot comment on the inner workings of the UM Church, but I did want to note that according to a recent study which was given attention in the New York Times last month ( the number of every single Christian denomination/tradition is in decline, with the exception of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy (and these exceptions may have more to do with immigration rates and comparitively large birth rates than anything else).

Though I rarely give much creedence to these kind of studies, I think it may point to something systematically awry. Perhaps more than that, it can offer the Methodist Church a consolation of soildarity: Everyone’s in the same boat. And if that’s not consolation enough, just remember that The Episcopal Church is way ahead (or way below) you.

Dave Robertson says:

There is something the general population can do. It is painful, it is decisive, and it is certainly risky. But at this point it may well be the only viable option. Those “leaders” (and I use that term extremely liberally) that feel that they can trump the voice of their constituents all share a common need – financial support. Someone must pay to fuel this machine we’ve created, and when those payments stop, so does the machine. We need a boilerplate letter/email to effect of “To whom it may concern, until I feel that I am being fairly and honestly represented, all contributions to the UMC at large will cease immediately.”

I am not advocating that we stop giving – I am saying quite clearly that we redirect our giving. Give directly to Habitat, Outreach, Evangelicals, Missions, UMCOR, whatever. And by the way, give more that you were before.

I may not be able to defeat the machine head on. I may not be able to outflank the machine (as evidenced by their ability to undo whatever was previously done). But I’m betting I can starve the machine, and probably very efficiently. The bigger the beast, the more food it requires, and the bigger target that makes it.

“I live in the Managerial Age, in a world of “Admin.” The greatest evil is not now done in those sordid “dens of crime” that Dickens loved to paint. It is not done even in concentration camps and labour camps. In those we see its final result. But it is conceived and ordered (moved, seconded, carried, and minuted) in clean, carpeted, warmed and well-lighted offices, by quiet men with white collars and cut fingernails and smooth-shaven cheeks who do not need to raise their voices. Hence, naturally enough, my symbol for Hell is something like the bureaucracy of a police state or the office of a thoroughly nasty business concern.” C.S. Lewis