Stay or Go ... How Boards Decide - in Light of UMC 2019 General Conference and Judicial Committee Ruling

Stay or Go? How Boards Decide          

As the United Methodist Church fractures, leaders are making decisions for themselves and/or their congregations. Stay or go? This process may unfold more slowly than some might have predicted. The General Conference chose by a slender margin to ignore the advice of the Bishops and opt for a more conservative and less flexible way forward (i.e. “traditional”). Those American lifestyle segments that are more liberal and culturally adaptive tend to “think laterally” rather than “vertically” and take more time to consult with mission partners, discuss options, and customize their reactions.  

The process of disaffiliation approved by the United Methodist Judicial Committee sounds simple. All it requires is a 2/3 majority of official congregational members, a negotiated agreement with Conference Trustees to distribute the assets, and the majority approval of the Annual Conference. Unfortunately, this process is more complicated than it seems, and requires strong leadership from a board. 

·       Many of the most active church participants are adherents, not members, and they expect to have a voice. The board should advocate their moral right to speak, even if legally they cannot vote. It might be argued that adherents have nothing to lose, having made no commitment to membership. The reality is that the church has a great deal to lose if they are excluded and leave, because they are often the most committed to discipleship. 

·       Church trustees are generally not elected to office because of their spiritual maturity. Of course, there are exceptions … but usually trustees are elected because they have membership seniority and/or special expertise. The assets of a church, however, include sacred space, significant symbols, and designated mission and education funds.  The board has a spiritual duty to honor visible signs of faith and the religious motivations of donors and use the assets for mission impact rather than institutional survival. 

·       Annual Conferences, like all bureaucracies, are vulnerable to strident voices who might be minorities in a local congregation but claim to speak for “thousands” of anonymous members. They can easily sidetrack or delay the request of the 2/3 majority. The board has an organizational responsibility to protect and support the integrity of a congregational decision. 

Board members do not speak for themselves, nor do they represent any particular committee or faction. They provide spiritual guidance to the entire congregation (not just members), guarantee free and equal debate (not just parliamentary procedure) and oversee the integrity of decision making (not just enforce grudging acceptance).  

Boards are naturally slower to make decisions, regardless of being liberal or conservative. They usually wait to test the reactions of members, observe the impact on visitors, and listen to the views of their pastors. They also take more time to make up their minds because most UMC boards are too large; include committee representatives who think tactically rather than visionary leaders who think strategically; and operate in an atmosphere of relatively low trust and accountability for daily spiritual life. Board members are not on the “same page”, and often have not read the entire “book” of church participation, community diversity, and program relevance.  

Historically, this has created significant stress among some visionary board members who are more impatient for change. These board members tend to resign out of impatience rather that waste time persuading other board members to follow a particular course of action. This only contributes to the cycle of tactical, rather than strategic thinking that encourages inertia. This is why smaller boards make faster decisions. They are comprised of visionary and strategic leaders; who have always had routines of accountability for mission attitudes, leadership integrity, professional skills, and practical teamwork; and who are in touch with the full range of lifestyle diversity in their memberships and communities.  

Boards must face one reality before they even discuss what to do. Some people will leave. Among them, some of their best friends will leave. There is no way that the board can maintain the status quo, keep everyone happy, and preserve universal harmony. Frequently their temptation is not to decide what strategy is most faithful, but rather which people they prefer to keep and lose. You must not succumb to that temptation! Boards cannot plan the future through a hidden system of patronage. Nor can they plan the future deciding which members are more “useful” to institutional survival and which are not. Boards cannot pretend to be gods. They can only aspire to being sound strategic planners. 

Boards must also recognize that good strategic planners avoid making two crucial mistakes.  

The first mistake is to base decisions on surveys gathering individual member preferences. Surveys never provide a truly balanced insight into congregational opinion, partly because human beings tend to claim viewpoints that are pleasing to others rather than be personally honest, and partly because especially difficult decisions are never clear cut and surveys leave little room for real life ambiguity. Moreover, surveys tend to reinforce the public perception of membership privilege and missional hypocrisy, and only add doubt and confusion to an already chaotic situation. 

The second mistake is to base decisions on so-called “Town Meetings”. Town Meetings never create consensus, and always encourage division. Theoretically it offers every member a voice, but in fact only the most strident voices dominate the meeting to manipulate emotions. Introverts, moderates, and relatively powerless people will not have a say and very often don’t attend. Town meetings usually end with a “secret ballot” that feeds suspicion and a “straw vote” that exacerbates division and solves nothing. 

The best strategy is to deploy pairs of board members to meet with small groups in a variety of settings within and beyond the church building. Small groups can intentionally reflect the lifestyle diversity of a congregation and encourage even the most timid people to speak their hearts. This takes time. It is more difficult to collate feedback, but that is precisely the point. Boards need to immerse themselves in the complexity of the problem and variety of viewpoints, rather than rely on stereotypes and  generalizations, and untested assumptions inspired by personal biases. 

There are five essential elements to make any hard decision with integrity. This is especially true when making a recommendation to a congregation whether to stay with a denomination, join a different one, or go it alone. There is enormous pressure from passionate conservatives and liberals to decide immediately. Wise boards understand that there is urgency, but they also understand that the strength of their recommendation depends more on the integrity of the process of decision-making than the decision itself. Some will like it and some not, and in the end the congregation may disregard your recommendation, but you will deserve respect. Even if you don’t get respect from all church factions, board members can still hold their heads high knowing they have fulfilled their responsibilities as faithfully and sensitively as possible. 

Trust 

Trust is sustained through intentional, visible, and universal accountability for all members, volunteers, and staff to basic core values and convictions. Core values are anchored in the fruits of the Spirit: love peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, generosity, steadfastness, and self-control. Core convictions are anchored in gratitude for God’s grace and confidence in Christ’s presence every day, everywhere, in every situation, across the entire lifestyle diversity of the public. Accountability extends not just to the prepared speeches and choreographed actions in a worship service or meeting, but also to the unrehearsed words and spontaneous deeds exhibited in daily behavior. Trust is broken when fine words and public gestures are contradicted by cruel comments and private denigration.  

Leaders lead. If the board members really trust each other, then the members follow. If the board behaves immaturely, the members will do likewise. Board members must trust each other, so to speak, with their reputations and their wallets. They must be able to rely on each other to consistently, spontaneously, and daringly behave in the spirit of Christ. They must be role models for the entire congregation, demonstrating how mature Christians interact with each other in meetings, in worship, and in daily life. 

Comparative Diversity 

The second essential to make hard decisions with integrity is a clear and objective understanding of the similarities and differences between the lifestyle segments that shape the culture of the church, and the lifestyle segments that shape the culture of the community. In 25 years of consulting experience, I have yet to see a congregation (urban, suburban, rural, or remote) in which church participation truly mirrors the lifestyle diversity of the community (age, gender, race, ethnicity, income, or attitude). 

The rule of thumb is that the top 50-60% of lifestyle segment representation generally shape the culture of any given community or church. In the community, that critical mass shapes the emergency, health, and social services, and the retail shopping, restaurants, and entertainment options. In the church, that critical mass shapes the staff, pastoral care priorities, and programs, and the education, hospitality, and worship design. For most churches, the board can focus on comparing lifestyle needs and ministry expectations for 3-6 segments in the membership to 6-12 segments in the community. (Use the MissionInsite ComparativeInsite Report and the lifestyle portraits described in MissionImpact.

This is the only way the board can overcome opinionating and personal bias and get objective insight into what people are really thinking, hoping, and expecting about God, grace, and the church. Moreover, a clear understanding of proportionate and disproportionate representation between church and community will help the board distinguish between privilege and mission. Much of what church insiders consider “mission” is in fact self-serving “privilege”; and much of the stress church insiders experience in ministry is that adaptive programs are about “mission” rather than “privilege”.  

The combination of trust and lifestyle sensitivity allows the board to experience a “Come to Jesus” moment. It is time for prayer that is painfully honest and earnestly faithful. Is the decision to stay or go driven by a desire to reward membership privileges? Or is it driven by the desire to impact the community? If the decision is driven by the former, the church will likely become more ingrown, older and smaller. If the decision is driven by the latter, the church will likely become more outgoing, younger and larger.  

Outcomes 

It is very difficult to make decisions to stay or go (or any strategic decision for that matter) if the board is not clear about what they expect the church to accomplish in its ministry context. If they are unclear about what the church should accomplish, they cannot anticipate how any particular denominational allegiance might help the congregation thrive. 

Outcomes are not mission statements. Most congregational mission or vision statements are so nebulous or generalized as to be worthless in a crisis. They can be interpreted by any faction to justify almost any action. Measurable outcomes are precious and practical goals that, once achieved, will cause the entire life of the church to be healthy, all the programs of the church to be successful, and entire community (in all its diversity) to be truly blessed. The board must define outcomes that measure spiritual growth, volunteer development, participation of both majority and minority publics, transformed lives, and positive impact on their community and the world. They can now decide what denominational or network partners can best help them fulfill their goals. 

Costs 

When churches are trying to decide whether to stay or go, it is up to the board to anticipate the cost of change. The lifestyle segments over-represented in church participation will inevitably experience stress if ministries change to bless people in the community who are under-represented in the church, just as lifestyle segments under-estimate in the church will experience stress if ministries do not change to bless a much larger representation in the community. Effective boards measure the true costs of any decision in the following seven ways … and in this order. 

1.       Attitude Costs:                Changes in perspective toward groups, tactics, or assumptions;

2.       Tradition Costs:               Changes in religious practices or historic behavioral patterns;

3.       Leadership Costs:           Changes in staff and volunteer training and deployment;

4.       Organization Costs:        Changes in structure, corporate status, or accountability;

5.       Property Costs:               Changes in location, property, and facility;

6.       Technology Costs:          Changes in internal and external communication

7.       Financial Costs:               Changes in budget, fund raising strategy, or priorities. 

The church deserves to know the real costs involved in any decision to stay or go.  If a church is willing to pay the price of changing attitude and tradition, then then it will be less stressful to change leadership and organization. If a church is willing to pay the price in the first six cost centers, the financial cost will almost never be a problem. Indeed, financial support will likely go up rather than down because people give more generously to non-profits they genuinely respect, and that measurably improve the community. 

Stress Management 

Only now can the board anticipate the stress of change and develop a plan to address it. It is irresponsible to make controversial decisions without a plan to deal with the after-shocks. Church leaders manage the stress of change in four ways. 

·       Stress resulting from changing attitudes or traditions is addressed through strategies for adult spiritual growth. Churches create more options for worship, small groups, and education. 

·       Stress resulting from changing leadership or organization is addressed through accountability. Churches create grievance policies, training and evaluation practices, and upgrade nominations processes to ensure that future boards are made of spiritual leaders rather than factional representatives. 

·       Stress resulting from changing property or technology are addressed through strategies that increase lifestyle sensitivity amid the diversity of church and community. Churches discover the different ways people seek information, and learn to do new things, and experience the Holy in different ways. 

·       Stress resulting from changing finances is addressed through coaching members to make lifestyle changes. Churches help members not just give money to an operating budget, but coach them to shape an overall Christian family financial plan to manage their lives. 

These are the essential elements to make any hard decision. These five elements must be done before making any recommendation about policy or strategy to the congregation. If you do not do this, you may well lose the respect of members, adherents and visitors, clergy and staff, and the general public. Indeed, you may well lose self-respect. If you do this, you can be proud of yourselves regardless of relative popularity. Conservatives or liberals may disagree with the church, but they will still respect the church. 

Heart to Heart 

Both national and local church factions want boards to believe that their primary role is to decide whether to agree or disagree with a particular ideological perspective. They try to persuade boards that they should spend all their time trying to master complex ethical issues, make political decisions about power sharing (inclusivity or exclusivity), and lobby for particular causes. Since even the Apostles weren’t able to do that regarding a wide variety of issues troubling the earliest church (just read the Acts of the Apostles and the epistles of Paul and others) it is hard to imagine the average church board can do that regarding the variety of issues troubling the church today.  

Board leadership is very pragmatic. You are not appointed to be theologians or ethicists, professors or activists. You are appointed to keep the church aligned to its foundational mission purpose, accountable to the spirit of Christ, effective and sacrificial in achieving its local and regional goals, calm in the face of change, and compassionate toward the least of Christ’s brothers and sisters. Stay, go, or find a third alternative, but let your choices be informed, faithful, and driven by God’s mission.

Thomas BandyComment