It’s 2012 – the year of quadrennial events. As a kid I was always fascinated with the fact that Leap Year, the Olympics, the presidential election, and United Methodist General Conference always happened in the same year. I’ve always been interested in seeing or participating in these important and infrequent events. I’ve been to the Olympics, attended a presidential nominating convention, and this year am attending General Conference as part of the Oregon-Idaho Delegation. You should also know that I’m something of a “legislative geek” with degrees in political science and legislative affairs, and that my first job out of college was working in the US Senate. In short, I enjoy the “sausage making” Clay referred to in his earlier blog post.
The political scientist in me is thrilled that this year’s General Conference will tackle the issue of reorganizing the centralized administrative structures of our denomination. Many people probably consider this an incredibly boring topic, but there are some critical questions raised by the proposals put forward so far: What does it mean to be a connectional church? Where is the right balance between “representation of specific groups” and “trust in others to keep everyone’s interests in mind”? What is the role of the centralized denominational structure in revitalizing local churches that are on the front lines of ministry and service to the world?
The primary proposal (the ”IOT proposal” crafted by the Interim Operations Team) came out of a major denominational study (the “Call to Action”) commissioned by the UM Council of Bishops and the UM Connectional Table. The proposal focuses on streamlining the governance structure of nine General Boards and Agencies. At its core, this proposal eliminates the representational oversight boards for all of these groups, replacing them with a single 15-person board to oversee all activities of the nine boards and agencies.
I will admit that it is always easy to poke holes in someone else’s proposal. There are serious challenges that we face as United Methodists and we shouldn’t assume that we can just do the status quo better than we’ve been doing it. That said, I have significant concerns about the governance implications of the IOT proposal. While it claims at its core a “competency based board,” it so drastically reduces representation from the different parts of United Methodism that it clearly favors expediency of decision-making over discernment. (I usually use the term debate, but my colleagues on the Board of Ordained Ministry have beaten that word out of me.) There is no question that this proposal leans toward a “corporate” model of governance.
This corporate model of streamlining and centralizing decision making completely ignores the other trend in society today—crowd-sourcing. Crowd-sourcing is the concept that the collective abilities and knowledge of large groups are superior to individuals or small groups. The game show “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” even built this concept into its “lifelines,” allowing a contestant to “ask the audience” for an answer to one of the questions. I never saw the audience collectively get the answer wrong (though a quick internet search documents that audiences have gotten the wrong answer).
The United Methodist Church isn’t the only organization thinking about its decision-making models. So many people think that the US Congress is fundamentally flawed that there are regular calls for significant reform, with most hoping for more efficient decision making and less ability for dissenters to suggest a slow-go approach. I recently came across an article suggesting a new approach to Congressional reform. It wasn’t the typical term-limit or filibuster reforms, instead it argued that members of Congress are too distant from their constituents and therefore not truly representative of their interests. The author pointed out that at our founding, the ratio of members of Congress to constituents was much smaller and that if we had the same ratio today, there would be 10,000 members of Congress. I’m not ready to embrace such a model for Congress, but it’s helpful to think about core principles and ask questions like: Is efficiency always such a good thing? What voices would we hear differently and more clearly in different governance models?
I am also not suggesting that we should give every church in the denomination a vote in a webinar-based General Conference because there would be significant problems and distortions in such a system. But I believe there are significant downsides to the IOT proposal that is before General Conference this year. There are other proposals related to reorganizing the administrative parts of the denomination (notably a proposal drafted by the Methodist Federation for Social Action-MFSA, and a proposal called Plan B). We will need to analyze each proposal, looking at what it is trying to fix and how its proposed changes pursue solutions.
Governance matters. As a denomination we need to look at our core values and decide whether a streamlined process accomplishes enough good to have reduced the number of voices at the table.
Mark Bateman is a delegate to the 2016 Western Jurisdiction Conference and will be attending General Conference as an additional reserve delegate and observer. Mark serves as a lay representative on the Board of Ordained Ministry and was part of the 2012 Delegation. He lives in Salem, Oregon.
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