UMC facing ‘slow, agonizing, organizational death’

By Maria Dixon Hall, Special Contributor…

The other day, in an attempt to get some distance between me and the traumatic event now forever etched in my brain as General Conference 2012, I decided to brave the Texas heat and work on my flowerbeds and ideas for the lawn. Isisas Barrario, my faithful landscape and lawn man for over eight years, stood by me in the heat as we discussed what to do about the yard. It’s important to know that when Isisas and I first met, I was single, working toward tenure and couldn’t have cared less about my yard except I wanted it cut and to look good—which meant he had the run of the yard. Now, married with a bigger yard and in a nicer neighborhood, I have become more involved. (Gender roles are very hard to break sometime, but that’s another column).

As we looked at the deck, I told him that I saw some nails popping out and that he should get the carpenter to fix them and then get the deck  painted. He said, “My friend, the earth around the deck has changed. The sun and rain have taken their toll. It is warped and nailing it won’t fix the problem—the structure is bad. You must tear it down if you want it to do any good.” A gardener had become a prophet right before my eyes and ears.

 While many things will be written about General Conference 2012 and its inability to enact real change for the United Methodist Church, here is one thing to take from our week and a a half Tampa: The world around us changed. The heat of the culture wars and the rain of a changing demographic are having huge impacts. We are warped and cosmetic changes won’t help—we must dare to tear down to our foundations if we ever hope to be any good to the world.

 Don’t get me wrong. There are dozens if not hundreds of local churches, annual conferences and general agencies who are doing the work of Christ in wonderful ways; but that’s not the issue. That’s like saying all of my boards in my deck aren’t bad and that many of them are working just fine. Because the good boards are attached to a bad structure, in the end they can only do so much good.

Real organizational change cannot happen until an organization reconnects with its foundation—its central mission. This is a lesson I learned from Herb Kelleher and Colleen Barrett, legendary leaders of Southwest Airlines and two of my closest mentors (I didn’t even get married to my husband without them meeting him first). Herb and Colleen often point out that the problem with other airlines is that they believe that they are in the airline business—so they focus on planes, fuel, etc. But at Southwest Airlines, they are in the customer service business and they just happen to use fuel, planes, etc., to ensure that they are serving their customers (which includes their employees, customers, and lastly their stockholders) in an excellent way. Guess what? It works and it has been working well for over 30 years.

The United Methodist Church has so much wonderful potential. As many of my colleagues who study religious organizations point out, it is the only one that has a true opportunity to succeed where other denominations have failed. At its core the UMC has always affirmed education, religious and secular inquiry, the ministry to the poor and those on the margins, and dared to speak when others were silent. Our other chief attribute is that we are a pragmatic people, a people known for our reasonability and rationality. But anyone watching the show (and that’s what it was) on Friday, can tell you that when you have United Methodists standing on tables, shouting down the presiding officer, and engaging in personal attacks on and off the floor of the plenary session, we have more than walked away from reason: we have run from it.

Our structure is contained in the Book of Discipline. Interesting word—contained. Because that is exactly what our BOD is doing to us now—it is containing Methodism. When organizational change, or attempts at organizational change, can be ruled unconstitutional because they do not permit a new structure to emerge, then your organization has ruled evolution and change out of order.

The issue is that the General Conference has powers that it cannot delegate to anyone but the bishops and even then in a limited role. Simply put, only a full delegation from all of Methodism can enact administrative change and no matter how well-equipped another body or bodies may be in executing that legislative and administrative role on their behalf, only 1,000 people can make that decision. 

Because our system of governance is based largely on the U.S. system of governance, it encompasses both its laudable ideals and its terrible inefficiencies. I think what is attractive philosophically about this system is it tries to provide for everyone to ensure that whether you are from the South Central and Southeastern Jurisdictions or Central Conferences, which have the most members, or the Cal-Pac Conference, where membership is small,  everybody has a voice in our governance. But here is the problem: everybody has a voice.

Our system allows for minority voices (whether of philosophy, race, gender, sexual orientation) to take an active role in the shaping of policy and legislation. This is a good thing. The majority is not always right, especially if it is made up of homogenous point of view. But as Michel Foucault points out, the minority can exercise its own tyranny over the will of the people just like the majority.

Anyone listening to the debate regarding restructuring last week watched an evolution take place. Former adversaries came together and created a coalition that created legislation that was supported by Central Conference delegates, as well as other UMC delegates of all colors, sexual orientations, educations, age and genders.  A small minority decided that that because they didn’t get individually consulted that they would use whatever means necessary to stop attempts at reorganization. What really is irritating is that every time I heard, “All voices weren’t represented,” I realized it was code for Adam, Don, Betty, Forbes, Christine or Joe didn’t talk to me personally, so I am offended!  Let’s be crystal clear about this: while 40 percent of the delegates did not support Plan UMC, all of them did not support the action taken to take this to Judicial Council. Some were willing to see what reorganization wrought and were willing to come back to the issue in 2016.

Again, winning the battle and losing the war became the strategy of the day. The minority point was clear: if we don’t like what you do or we don’t feel like you gave us enough deference, we will shut it down regardless of whom it hurts. Funny, whether it’s Grover Norquist and the Tea Party or the Methodist Federation for Social Action,  the rhetoric of organizational hostage-taking has the same effect—polarization, distrust and, in the end, slow, agonizing, organizational death.

One of my students in Organizational Communication could look at this mess called GC2012 and diagnose the problem immediately: An 18th Century structure cannot sustain a 21st century global organization. We must be willing to let go of the non-essentials to get back to the first fruits and ideals of why we are a People called Methodist. Asking 1,000 people to make organizational decisions and restructuring is not only dangerous, it is impractical for long-term survival. Being limited by a BOD that has increased in regulation but decreased in effectiveness is an indication that we have become all sound (and petitions) and very little fury or significance. While as a denomination we will not disappear over the next four years, I believe that the Fat Lady has taken off her kaftan and is looking through sheet music and for an evening gown.

We must Rethink Church (which is a wonderful campaign if I must say so myself). We are not in the agency business. We are not in the conference business. We are in the soul-saving and soul-sustaining business. Agencies, boards, conferences, elders, deacons, and laity are just the resources we use to do that God-given business. Let’s create a governance structure and reorganization that places this priority first. Over the next weeks I will be exploring how I think that can happen.

In the meantime, repeat with me: Hello, My Name is United Methodist Church and I need to change.


Maria Dixon Hall is an associate professor of communication studies at Southern Methodist University and a United Methodist.


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16 Comments on "UMC facing ‘slow, agonizing, organizational death’"

The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
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Bob Hilldrup
Change is what cancer does, so be careful. Thirty years ago when we joined our UMC, attendance was 15 in a 150 year old church. This Easter, it was 1,500. So change can be good also. But the open endorsement of homosexuality in pastor and layman will tear the church apart. All sinners are welcome, But the endorsement of sin never is, and that is what is being pushed by our church leadership so often. We would be wise to remember that the Christian faith got along without Methodism for over 1,500 years. It can do so again.

It appears from reading the reports of Bishop Willimon and Professor Hall that the people of the General Conference were infected with the virus of self-centeredness that poisons the world. From the reports of the behavior exhibited at the GC, it would appear that its usefulness is at an end. Biblically, we should separate ourselves from those who would do us harm in pursuit of their own intentions.

"The faith of the Protestants, in general, embraces only those truths, as necessary to salvation, which are clearly revealed in the oracles of God. Whatever is plainly declared in the Old and New Testaments is the object of their faith. They believe neither more nor less than what is manifestly contained in, and provable by, the Holy Scriptures…. The written Word is the whole and sole rule of their faith, as well as practice. They believe whatsoever God has declared, and profess to do whatsoever He hath commanded. This is the proper faith of Protestants: by this they will abide,… Read more »
The written Word is the whole and sole rule of their faith, as well as practice. They believe whatsoever God has declared, and profess to do whatsoever He hath commanded. This is the proper faith of Protestants: by this they will abide, and no other." [John Wesley, "On Faith," Sermon #106, I.8]. "A catholic spirit is not speculative latitudinarianism. It is not an indifference to all opinions: This is the spawn of hell, not the offspring of heaven. This unsettledness of thought, this being 'driven to and fro, and tossed about with every wind of doctrine,' is a great curse,… Read more »
I have read this article, and a few other articles, on the 2012 General Conference with great interest. I grew up in the UMC from the age of 7 through the age of 22. I accepted Jesus as my personal Lord and Savior on a UMYF retreat in 1972. I was president of our youth group and attended state conferences for the UMC youth. I attended a UMC college and majored in Religion/Philosophy with the intent to attend seminary and become a pastor. I was an UMC ordination candidate. While in college I served as a youth pastor at a… Read more »

Talking about Jesus is what we do. We are responsible for introducing anyone who will listen to our Lord and Savior. We initiate the relationship. It is up to God to decide how that relationship will be nurtured and grown. If people are too embarrassed by their relationship to Jesus to mention his name, they should spend more time in prayer to find out why.


Loved the article. I agree with the points you made, but not the premise.
You are an organizational Communications prof, and you are commenting on an organizational restructure. The United Methodist Church's problem is not one of structure or organization. It's a spiritual problem. Plan UMC, Plan B, even plan A (whatever that was) wasn't going to change our identity or our malaise. Only Jesus can.
The Fat Lady is picking "Nobody Knows the Trouble I've Seen."

I read this with interest as someone who has left the Methodist Church. The pattern here is common to a lot of organizations. It is not a function of size, but of the fact that the leadership does not reflect the membership. In short, most of the people I knew in the Methodist churches I attended were rather theologically conservative and slightly socially right of center. The leadership I met were universally theologically liberal and socially left of center. That lead to a disconnect between the membership and the leadership that most members were willing to live with, since small… Read more »

This has to be a troll posting or one of the most specious posts I have read on the Interwebs. Someone who has left the church by their own admission sure spends a lot of time and energy to push their political agenda. Too bad they seem to derive so much pleasure being a grumpy apostate.

umc grown

If UMC US is already big so that it needs 1,000 people for it to decide something. Why not for organizational purpose (decision based), let the US UMC be divided? West Coast, Easct Coast e.g. Why would we change how we do things when that is who we are?

We should not aim to be a megachurch when we can no longer attend to the needs of our members. If a one 100 people is already too big, why not make it two 50s.

umc grown

If the "Methodist Way" is no longer feasible for a big organization, why not make it to a small organization?

Rather than become one big shark, be two cute dolphines. 🙂

Ms. Hall, thank you for succinctly stating what I and many others experienced at the 2012 General Conference. I have blogged, posted, tweeted in the wake of those 11 days, perhaps to make sense of the often chaotic process or to persuade myself and anyone else who would listen that what was accomplished could have and should have been better. What continues to amaze me is the reoccurring vitriolic replies and comments.. Sadly, there are a lot of angry people who have essentially done very little apart from demanding their voices be heard. I can imagine the transformation which would… Read more »

Thank you!

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