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.



  1. beckymotley says:

    After following and reding articles from GC delegates, I am even more concerned about our denomination and its well-being than ever. Never before have we needed a strong church like we do today. Our world is hurting from the neighbor next door, across the city, country and to nations abroad. Before we can address the needs and hurting of others, we need to be healthy ourselves. We need to get about the business of loving each other within before we can do His business and "spread the love!"

    Maria, I like your "Rethink Church" notion and revisiting and living, "Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors."

    He is watching us!

  2. creed pogue says:

    We have a large number of people (not a majority) who seem to operate under the paradigm that allowing the closeted gay clergy to come out is the most important issue facing The UMC. When Amy DeLong, instead of being defrocked, is allowed to dictate the agenda for General Conference “we have a problem, Houston!”

    We also have a large number of people (again not a majority) who have created idols out of the general agencies particularly GBCS, GCRR and GCRSW. The argument that the general agencies “only” consume 2% of the local church budget ignores the fact that they also consume at least 20% or more of the benevolence budget for local churches. Most local churches after paying their building expenses, for their pastor(s), and their own program expenses only have about a dime out of the dollar left. Yet, the people who are creating a modern version of an Asherah pole don’t want to hear anything about whether the millions spent is actually bearing fruit for anyone besides the employees.

  3. methodistpie says:

    I read somewhere that this is a sign of a dysfunctional organization: It can't do what it knows it needs to do because of its own rules. Given the current state of "vetoaucracy" in the connection, it's hard to see how anything is going to change. Thank you for this excellent article.

  4. Thank you!

  5. 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 take place if we directed that energy toward the poor. Our "Methodist Spring" has not gone well and it appears that we have chosen meetings over mission. We have voted for siloed, expensive duplication of services rather than redirecting some of our resources toward those critical places where even a drink of clean water would be a gift, where a hug would be a great kindness, where the word of God's love would be welcome. I pray we learn from our failure to proclaim vision rather than division. I will begin with an honest confession that I need to do better at caring for the gift which Christ has given to us, the church.

  6. umc grown says:

    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 says:

      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. :)

  7. 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 differences were eclipsed by the traditiion and habit. But that disconnect has grown, to the point that when I talk to my friends who are still Methodists and ask them about the political and social positions taken by church, they just roll their eyes.

    That leads to two problems for the church. The first, and most important, is that it leads to the same problem that caused the rise of Fundamentalism at the beginning of the 20th century. Liberal theology decided that it wasn't really all that important if Jesus really died, really rose from the dead, whether or not there really was "sin" and Hell and Heaven. Instead, we shouldn't worry about whether or not Jesus "really" died and rose again, but what that "means" in terms of how we live our lives. The Bible was "true myth," a morality tale in which one could see important constants of the human condition, but not something that one really "believed" in any concrete sense. People realized that if one didn't need to really believe all this Jesus stuff, then all this church stuff was just smoke and mirrors. One might as well go to a psychotherapist. This coincided with the rise of Fundamentalism (not to be confused with the pejorative stereotype "fundamentalism"), and the revival of the early 20th century, which saw a decline in liberal churches and rise in conservative ones.

    Methodism failed more slowly than the Anglicans (for instance), because it suffered less from that stance at the turn of the century. However, it has also slowly moved steadily in that direction, and with each step, it is losing members. At its base, Methodism doesn't have anything to offer a new believer that he or she can't get more of elsewhere, and it is losing new believers to churches that really believe in all this Jesus stuff, and not so much in an essentially quasi-secular socialist agenda. Its losing base members, like me, as it continues to drift. In the end,as those who attend out of tradition and habit die off, it will be another United Church of Christ — consisting of people who like the idea of being Christian, but are not so fond of all the socially inconvenient bits. Eventually, it will be the Church's position on gun control, socialized medicine, racial politics, etc. that determines its membership, and all this Jesus talk will be nothing more than a convenient hook to hang it on. The tail will wag the dog. This came home to me when the Methodist Church took the position that it was better than Elian Gonzalas be returned to his father to be raised as an atheist than stay with his mother's family and be raised as a Christian. Why? Because of the Church's sympathy with socialism and, really, who believes all this stuff about souls and heaven and hell, anyway? If damning a child to Hell was the price to pay for a political statement, then that was a price the Methodist Church was willing to pay.

    And it will only go in one direction, because as theologically conservative Methodists wander away, the remaining cadre will become more and more self-selected and less and less inclined to listen to accomodate folk in flyover country. This is a well-documented pattern. If you want to see the future of the Methodist Church, look at the American Medical Association. At one time the AMA was "the" voice of medicine. Then, little by little, the leadership became distinct from the membership, and more enamored with managed care and government-controlled practice. Each step it took along the way, it dropped a few percentage of the medical practitioner community, until now it is a small coterie of primarily academic and government physicians and a few members by convenience. Only about 14% of physicians now belong — and those who are running the organization can't figure it out because all the folk they hang out with think they are doing a great job and have *exacly* the same vision they do.

    Methodism is following the same pattern. Indeed, it will eventually overcome those silly theological conservatives, and Methodism will become another United Church of Christ. And it will suffer the same fate. Don't give up hope. Eventually, the foundations you dislike so much will be completely destroyed, and Methodism will be indistinguishable from any of the other socially-directed essentially secular churches. The only real question is, by the time that transforation is complete, whether or not anybody will care.

    • oldnslow says:

      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.

  8. Maria,
    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."

  9. tnlawguy says:

    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 large UM church.

    My experiences working with youth was tremendous. It was my experiences dealing with the UMC politics and leadership that lead to my decision to leave the UMC. Instead of receiving encouragement organizing evangelical events, I received criticism for spending money. At one event 200 youth at a city-wide event came forward to accept Christ. I was told that the money for the event should have been spent sending out a newsletter to the entire city's youth population – not just on an event for those who attended. Who was criticizing me? A future bishop.

    I was criticized for teaching lessons on sensitive issues (abortion, homosexuality, politics) using scripture – rather than just teaching lessons on those subjects. Years later (after I had left the UMC) I was asked to give a children's message at a UMC. I was told to "make it an enjoyable experience for the children, but don't talk about Jesus because we want them to have a good time and want to come back to church." I was called the week before I was supposed to deliver the message to make sure I remembered the service. I responded that I did remember the service and was looking forward to it. They stated they were glad I was going help out and then "remember you don't need to talk about Jesus because we want the kids to come back to church."

    Many years later I received a call from a "young" man who was a few years younger than me in my home church's youth group. He informed me that the man who was leading the youth group at the time – the same man who recruited me to attend the UMC college – had sexually abused him. Instead of reporting that man to law enforcement the conference leadership moved him and his wife to a western state. The young man called me to ask me to check with my brother to see if he might have been abused as well, and to urge him to attend counseling if he had been. (My brother had not been abused.)

    Feed the homeless and needy is a wonderful thing. The church I currently attend serves 800 meals a month to the homeless and needy, operates halfway houses for men and women, helps formerly homeless and addicted individuals secure jobs and rehab, and even runs a recycling business operated by formerly homeless individuals. But those are only an outward ministries that "put feet to the Gospel." The real ministry is leading individuals to Christ and encouraging them to lead Holy Spirit-led lives. Churches can feed every homeless and hungry person alive, but unless they are lead to Christ they will die a tragically satisfied death and live in agony through eternity wondering why people from church cared more about their stomachs than their souls.

    Abandoning the Word of God (or selectively applying it) to be inclusive and make sure no one feels uncomfortable has been the UMC leadership for a long time. During the same time membership has fallen – drastically, not risen. Does no one who supports that policy see the relationship?

    • pingpaul says:

      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.

  10. 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, not a blessing: an irreconcilable enemy, not a friend, to true catholicism. A man of a truly catholic spirit, has not now his religion to seek. He is fixed as the sun in his judgment concerning the main branches of Christian doctrine. It is true, he is always ready to hear and weigh whatsoever can be offered against his principles; but as this does not show any wavering in his own mind, so neither does it occasion any. He does not halt between two opinions, nor vainly endeavor to blend them into one.
    Observe this, you who know not what spirit ye are of; who call yourselves men of a catholic spirit, only because you are of a muddy understanding; because your mind is all in a mist; because you have no settled, consistent principles, but are for jumbling all opinions together.
    Wesley's Works, Hendrickson Publishers, Inc. vol 5:502. 1986

    "You have nothing to do but to save souls; therefore spend and be spent in this work."

  11. "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, and no other." [John Wesley, "On Faith," Sermon #106, I.8].

  12. pingpaul says:

    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.

  13. 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.

Speak Your Mind

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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