General Conference in Tampa made history as the most expensive ($1,500 per minute!), least productive, most fatuous assemblage in the history of Methodism. Sunday evening’s “A Celebration of Ministry” fiasco was a metaphor for our nearly two weeks at church expense: four hours of belabored supplication by the General Commission on Status and Role of Women, five Ethnic National Plans, Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century, United Methodist Men, Girl Scouts, Africa University and a number of other agencies I can’t remember. A subtheme of that long night: even though we can’t cite specific fruit, please don’t force us to change or to expend less on ourselves.
Even after suffering this abuse, General Conference succumbed to the agencies’ pleadings. In a post-GC blog, Mike Slaughter (who with Adam Hamilton eloquently—and futilely—warned GC that we must change or face certain death) told the truth: “Our denominational systems continue to resist change by protecting archaic structures. From our seminaries to boards and agencies, institutional preservation was a strong resistant influence throughout GC. Entrenched organizational bureaucracies resist accountability …”I did not attend myself, but one delegate, whom I know, said that more than anything else, this General Conference was about money. That is practically the hallmark of the death paroxysms of Blue Model organizations: who gets how much of a shrinking monetary base. And whatever else it may be, the UMC is one of the bluest of the Blue Model organizations out there.
Probably a review of what the Blue Model is would be useful here. Scholar Walter Russell Mead describes the Blue Model as "The core institutions, ideas and expectations that shaped American life for the sixty years after the New Deal." The problem is that these things,
... don’t work anymore, and the gaps between the social system we’ve inherited and the system we need today are becoming so wide that we can no longer paper them over or ignore them.
In the old system, both blue collar and white collar workers hold stable jobs, a professional career civil service administers a growing state, with living standards for all social classes steadily rising while the gaps between the classes remain fairly stable, and with an increasing ‘social dividend’ being paid out in various forms: longer vacations, more and cheaper state-supported education, earlier retirement, shorter work weeks and so on. Graduate from high school and you were pretty much guaranteed lifetime employment in a job that gave you a comfortable lower middle class lifestyle; graduate from college and you would be better paid and equally secure.
Life would just go on getting better. From generation to generation we would live a life of incremental improvements — the details of life would keep getting better but the broad outlines of our society would stay the same. The advanced industrial democracies of had in fact reached the ‘end of history’: this is what ‘developed’ human society looked like and there would be no more radical changes because the picture had fully developed. The blue model rested on the post-Second World War industrial and economic system. The ‘commanding heights’ of American business were controlled by a small number of monopolistic and oligopolistic firms. ...
The stable economic structure allowed a stable division of the pie. Workers (much more heavily unionized then than now) got steady raises and stable jobs. The government got a stable flow of tax revenues. Shareholders got reasonably steady dividends.Peter Skurkiss of The Buckeye Institute assesses that the Blue Model is in its death throes:
Simply put, the blue model is unsustainable. The compensation, the benefits, and privileges that were afforded to government workers was possible only with an unusually healthy and robust private sector which itself was made possible by the lack of serious foreign competition. That world no longer exists, nor is it ever likely to again. Governors like John Kasich (Ohio) and Scott Walker (Wisconsin) recognize this fact faster than others, but in the end, all states will have to conform to the new reality.And not just states and governments or corporations at every level. Blue Model institutional churches are going to be swept away by the new reality as well. And so with the United Methodist Church. Here are the portents that bode ill for the UMC, but these portents are true for most any Blue Model organization.
The focal point of dissension within Blue Model organizations is money - who gets it and how much. Beside this question, all others pale. The problem for the UMC is that the General Conference is delegated by a huge majority by men and women who grew up under the Blue Model in its heyday and whose personal influence is derived from expertise in navigating Blue Model sub-institutions.
More than anything else, what brings down Blue Model organizations is that the money stream starts drying up. This is what has happened in the UMC. Personal giving among Methodist church members has declined markedly. Much of the decline can be attributed to the ongoing recession, yes, but not all. Besides, charitable giving is as much a matter of habit as devotion. Even households that have recuperated from the recession have not, on the whole, returned to the prior level of giving, mainly because it is no longer a habit.
And so it was that the General Conference was a two-week scramble by the countless special-interest groups of the church to protect their slice of the pie, without, apparently, much caring that the pie is getting ever smaller. If it is true, as Charles de Gaulle observed, that graveyards are full of indispensable men, it is truer that the UMC is more full of boards and agencies whose special-interest constituents would count it as the Apocalypse come in power if they were more than token downsized. As Bishop Willimon puts it, " The Methodist Federation for Social Action received new life, the [General] Board of Church and Society went home unscathed by reform" and pretty much every other entity of the church maintained an even strain.
What all this means is that the main activity of the two weeks of Conferencing was lobbying by countless entities large and small to protect their share of the general budget. This is exactly why Southern Methodist University Prof. Maria Dixon Hall, a delegate to the Conference, wrote that the UMC is "facing slow, agonizing, organizational death."
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.Two
A second mark of a Blue Model organization in its death throes is that the Old Guard tries to tighten its grip on its power while the Young Turks demand they relinquish.
In the UMC, the Old Guard are the boards and agencies and the spin-off movements and various constituencies of the church. These are 100 percent American and almost all white. The Young Turks are non-U.S. Methodists, mainly Africans, whose numbers are growing rapidly at the same time that domestic American Methodists continue to dwindle. In 2008, 30 percent of delegates came from outside the United States; this year it was 41 percent. No one doubts that in 2020, foreign Methodist delegates will be the majority and that may well happen only four years from now.
Yet U.S. Methodists paid for 99 percent of the Conference's costs despite insistence from foreign delegations that they pay a larger share. To these requests, the US-based UMC said no, even to the Norwegian delegation!
Money is power, they say, and so we see the real meaning of the Golden Rule:
The American wing of the UMC has passed its peak of influence. Money will not buy it back. As Mark Tooley, president of the Institute on Religion and Democracy, puts it, "United Methodists Transition from Liberal to Global."
Unlike the other traditionally liberal-led Mainline denominations, United Methodism is fully global in membership. ... There are 7.5 million United Methodists in the U.S. and 4.5 million overseas, almost all in Africa, mostly in the Congo. With the U.S. church losing about 100,000 members a year (down from 11 million 44 years ago) and the African church gaining over 200,000 a year, the denomination likely will become a majority non-U.S. church in about 10 years or less. ...
With over 4 million and soon to be 5 million members, the African churches are now too large to ignore. A few liberal activists, in their blogs, complained about Africans from impoverished countries who don't contribute dollars into the denomination now having so much power. But disenfranchising the poor is not a successful battle cry for progressives. Some U.S. liberals quietly try to paint the Africans as primitives who reject enlightened Western liberalism. ...
Inevitably the growing African membership will alter these preoccupations with American leftist themes. They believe the church's role is primarily evangelistic, not political.This is the same type of competition and foreign pressure that led to the decay of the political Blue Model. Back to Prof. Mead:
The blue model began to decay in the seventies. Foreign producers began to erode the market share of lazy, sclerotic American firms – like the Big Three automakers. The growth of offshore financial markets forced the financial services industry to become more flexible as both borrowers and lenders were increasingly able to work around the regulations and the oligopolies of the domestic market. ... These days, private sector blue companies can only survive with vast and continuing government support.But there is no such equivalent entity to prop up the Blue Model UMC. And so the structure will crash. As economist Herbert Stein said 40-plus years ago, "When something can't go on forever, it won't."
I do not mean that the UMC will disappear, although there is still significant shrinkage of the domestic American church yet to come. I mean that the main indicator of the Blue Model Church's demise is plain: The inability of existing organization to help the UMC prosper.
Like other Blue Model entities, the UMC is organized vertically, itself a consequence of America's victory in World War II, which taught the country that organizations with clear boundaries of authority and defined responsibilities are the keys to success. The defining characteristic of Blue Model organizations is a vertical chain of command and layers of supervision. And so the UMC is organized to the hilt: Bishops preside over Conferences (which is what Methodists call dioceses; each year every Conference has a convention, called an Annual Conference, and every four years the general church holds the General Conference. It took me years to understand all this.) Geographical conferences are further divided into districts, each with a superintendent, who exercises supervision of individual pastors. In turn, Conferences (dioceses) are organized into several Jurisdictions, each with its own set of jurisdictional agencies, and the denomination operates 13 general (churchwide) boards and agencies.
The result is practically a textbook example of a vertically-integrated organization, "An organization whose members look up to bosses instead of out to customers. Loyalty and commitment is given to functional fiefdoms, not the overall corporation and its goals." The Old Guard's loyalty, as Mr. Tooley, Bishop Willimon and Prof. Hall point out, is mainly to the "functional fiefdoms" of the Blue Model church and not to either the structures or goals of the emerging UMC in Africa and elsewhere. Yet, once again, the emerging UMC is really emerging while the Blue Model UMC is declining.
This situation is aggravated by an ecclesial equivalent of the dysfunction of government's Blue Model. Prof. Mead puts it thus: "they are poorly equipped to respond nimbly to the fast-changing conditions of America today." And so with the vertical, Blue Model structure of the UMC. American society is rapidly moving to a new model (of sorts) of horizontal organizations, often of self-organized networks that arise as needed as can pass away just as quickly. This is multi-modal and multi-nodal - flexible of purpose and structure and oriented toward purpose and process more than place or personnel. This is 180 degrees out from the way the UMC works now.
Yogi Berra is supposed to have said, "It's easy for forecast the future, especially in retrospect." One thing is for sure: there are many more tears to be shed and agonies to be endured before the nature of UMC of the 21st century is evident. For the next three or four General Conferences (extending to 2028), the Blue Model devotees will try to hang on. Mead:
[C]ulturally and intellectually, bureaucrats and politicians [read: the UMC's general boards and agencies] often remain blue. That is, they think instinctively in the old ways, come up with blue solutions to non-blue problems, and often fail to grasp either the constraints or the opportunities of the new era.But this will fail because the Blue Model's center is the American branch of the church. And the center cannot hold. Here are some consequences of the breakdown of the Blue Model UMC that are already evident and will become stronger in the coming years:
- The great majority of the shrinking domestic base of Methodist lay people are not personally invested in propping up the Blue Model Methodist Establishment -- and so they won't. Their own Blue Model organizations (unions, job security and guaranteed pensions, etc.) have already gone a-glimmering. Lay people increasingly will see no benefit to themselves from maintaining a Blue Model church. Their concerns are almost exclusively related to the local church and its mission and ministries and not to the activities of general boards, denominational ministries or even the "connectional system," a term that not one lay person in 20 can define.
- Lay people and pastors more and more will not accept the bureaucratic inertia and plodding deliberatism of the Blue Model -- and again, will not pay for it. The hierarchical structures of the church must rediscover what servant ministry means and devote themselves to helping local churches and pastors succeed rather than, in usual Blue Model style, issue edicts from Sinai's peak that must be obeyed. Flexibility and responsiveness by church leaders and agencies to the needs of local churches will be key. From bishops down through Conference offices and superintendents, it must become an embedded value that their purpose is to empower, assist and support local churches. The line of support's direction must run down, not up the chain of command, but this is, frankly, exactly opposite of what we have today.
- Church leaders at all levels will become increasingly frustrated by the glacial inability of the General Conference to accomplish anything meaningful regarding to structure and revisions of UMC's Book of Discipline (the canon law of the church). This will strengthen the already-evident movement among lay people toward congregationalism in the church instead of traditional Methodist connectionalism. Churches will increasingly see themselves as franchise operators rather than subordinate offices, and will begin to take increasing liberties with the directive documents of the Church.
- We are long past the day when Methodism as a “brand” was uniquely attractive. It is very naive to expect that the laity or pastors will somehow become more devoted to the Church's connectional system and the work of general boards and agencies than they are now. The great majority of our people attend our churches because of personal relationships and the particular church’s programs and internal ministries, not because the sign says Methodist.
- The growing influence of the foreign Methodists will become the focal point of dissent among American Methodists over the future of the general church. Largely because of Africa's delegations, the routine quadrennial attempt by the gay lobby (eleventh in a row) at the General Conference to liberalize the church's stance on homosexuality was crushed by 61-39 percent, a larger margin than four years ago. Already there is a move by the liberal wing of the church to form a domestic-church-only Conference, but this would essentially schism the Church and leave the General Conference even more directionless than it is now.
Beyond that my crystal ball is cloudy. One thing is for sure - Bob Dylan had it right:
Update: Rev. Andy Langford's assessments are similar to mine: "Rearranging the deckchairs of a sinking ship, General Conference tossed the paying passengers overboard and saved the lives of the crew."