Monday, April 30, 2012

And the winner is.....



 “In the West it seems that everything is about winning and losing…..”


Walking back across the bridge from the Convention Center tonite, the observation of my Central Conference friend kept ringing in my ears. Of course, I had to admit he was right. The go big or go home mentality pervades every aspect of our lives. It is a symptom of what is wrong with our political; educational; social; and dare I say, our religious institutions. At least 9 or 10 times a semester, I will have a student come into my office and tell me they are dropping my class—not because they don’t like it; not because they won’t pass it; but because they won't get an A in it. As one student put it to me, “ I simply cannot afford not to be a winner at everything I do.”


It appears that every piece of legislation that made its way to the floor today was shaped by a zero sum mentality of if you win, then it must mean I am a loser, and I won’t be a loser—so you can’t win. The pettiness of the disagreements extended to even an inability to take a simple test vote to determine which Apostle was the delegate favorite. It took 4 times for the Apostle Peter to get a majority and I honestly don’t think Jesus would have fared much better. In the two major votes today: to establish a set aside Bishop and to limit Bishop terms could not come to a 2/3rds majority with the house almost evenly split. Now think about the insanity of that reality. No we don’t want Bishops to have power but no we don’t want to take away Bishops positions of power--EVER! Such inconsistent deliberative outcomes indicate a deeply troubled and flawed organization that is moving fast toward a major life cycle crisis. Organizations like people are living entities. They are born, they live, and they will eventually die. The only thing that extends life is a willingness to change, otherwise the descent is slow but the descent will happen. When an organization focuses on short term, immediate gratification motivated by personal needs such as winning and losing, its an indication that an immature organization is going to descent even more quickly.

Even the news of a compromise legislation being developed between the IOT and the Plan B folks didn’t assuage the reality of the winner and loser concept being at work. The only thing that finally got all those good folks in the room (which they could and should have done oh say 8 months ago) was that nobody wanted to go home a loser. They knew they could not let their legacy be that they failed to address the needs of the Church, so finally they sat down and began what you would expect intelligent, caring, Christians to do—WORK IT OUT. Interestingly enough, as I predicted MFSA was left out of the room by all accounts. True, their ideas may have shaped some of the compromise but as a negotiating body they were left on the bench, which is what happens when you wear swimming trunks and flip flops to a football game.  The reality is, that if MFSA had not been trying to WIN on Saturday, we may have averted this legislative crisis in the first place.


When you talk to people around the conference the one sentiment is that everybody is afraid of losing something--losing jobs, losing security, losing power, losing respect, losing voice or losing visibility. Sadly, it is becoming crystal clear that for many delegates and leaders of our denomination, their self-identities are wrapped up in the outcome of every vote that is taken. Isn’t it funny that a group of people supposedly led by a leader who told them to lose everything so that in turn they could have everything is struggling so badly with the idea of loss?


My friend from East Africa, who was a member of the General Administration Committee, continued to lament that he just could not understand our obsession with winning at ALL costs.  As I looked down at my IPhone to check the Texas Ranger’s score to ensure they were beating down the BlueJays, I said mournfully, “Neither do I”.


Sunday, April 29, 2012

It Ain't Adam's Fault



 I knew that the UMC’s foray into re-organization could have significant impact for agencies like the one on which I serve as a commissioner.  Yet as an organizational scholar, who is fascinated by Church changes (and break-ups), I knew that GC2012 was for Methodism, what 1979 was for the Southern Baptist Convention—a fork in the road; the time where the two hands from each side of the aisle that had been leading the denomination would have to make a decision, would they work together or would they begin the slow descent into destroying the organization known as the United Methodist Church?

My original plan was to take all the notes, reflections, interviews, and the surveys from my time here and do what academics on sabbatical do, work on the book (and talk about being on sabbatical). Consequently, as I walked through General Conference everything was a data point, a piece of the puzzle, an opportunity to learn. But as fingers were being pointed at who is to blame for the inability of the UMC to reorganize itself, I felt the need to take to my blog with this simple assessment: “It ain’t Adam Hamilton’s fault.”

Now before I get the hate mail, let me say this: I don’t know Adam from Adam. Never met him, never heard him preach, never read his books or until yesterday even followed him on Twitter. As a matter of fact when I saw him in the hotel lobby this morning, I didn’t even say hi (ok, I’ll admit that’s kind of rude but since I didn’t know him, its not totally unexpected since my mother told me never to talk to strangers).

Yet, over the last four days, reading the tweets, the posts, and overhearing conversations in bathrooms, agency booths, elevators, and hotel lobbies, one thing became clear:  the debacle of the IOT; the inability to get Plan B to the floor of the Plenary; Global Warming; and the failure of the Dallas Cowboys to make a decent draft pick for the 8th year in a row is all being laid at the feet of this preacher from Kansas (now as a Mizzou grad I know that Leawood ain’t really Kansas—its just KC’s backyard sister).

Maybe its envy. Simple hateration (the African American word for individuals who hate that you are good at what you do; that you know that you are good at what you do; and that you know that THEY know that you are good) could be the cause. Given Adam’s rise as a national presence in our denomination, this wouldn’t be surprising. Or maybe its what some are calling his ability to walk through the hall with an above it all stride that says, “I don’t know you and I really don’t need to know you.” that opened him up for blame.  Or maybe it is that innocent way he can ask a truly penetrating question by sounding so sincere as if there is no secondary agenda behind it (yep, I saw that one in action for myself) that sends people over the edge.  But considering it all, I am willing to come back to the belief that hateration is at the heart of most of the finger pointing.

The debacle that became the General Administration Legislative Session that produced not one single plan to take to the floor, is too big to be laid at any single individual’s feet no matter how well heeled they may be.  No, folks: that foolishness (which will be the subject of books for years—at least by me) happened because of arrogance and ignorance—two very dangerous conditions to have when you are trying to change an organization (just ask American Airlines).

The IOT, which I thought had some very good points, simply didn’t do the hard work of communicating the plan in a way that didn’t frame it as a forgone conclusion but  as a starting point for the discussion on reorganization. If you don’t remember anything from this post, remember this: Communication is more than words, it requires strategy and forethought (which is why people need to remember that Communication is not a skill—its a STRATEGY to create shared meaning between individuals and groups). The IOT didn’t leave the audience with a sense of  ‘shared’ creation and ‘shared’ future—it reeked at times of what I believe what an unintended (God, I hope it was unintended) exclusion of voices.

Which brings me to Plan B. I love my Southern Brothers and Sisters (yes, I know it was more than the South but let’s face it there was a certain twang to this plan). What the authors of Plan B did was understand the feeling of exclusion that IOT left their audience with and exploited it. Exploited it they did. They promised everything to everybody especially the Central Conference delegates and Agencies. In the end, it was a beautiful tactic but nonetheless it was a tactic, which backfired when it got to the small committee assigned to ‘tweak’ it.

God love the MFSA. They never expected to be at the table to shape this legislation, so when they found themselves able to ‘tweak’ Plan B, they were overwhelmed and ill-prepared.  They added all their amendments without the numbers, the facts, and most of all the implications of what their changes to Plan B would mean financially. With each amendment they made, each victory they thought they won, they were not aware that they were creating a document that was too complex, too fiscally bloated to ever get out of the subcommittee.  In the end, all their too cool for school amendments and overreaching was the move that set the GA up for failure especially since it took the subcommittee almost 4 hours just to make all the MFSA tweeks leaving it little time to sell it to the larger body that was mortified by the audacity of the amendments.  Lesson here: If you are going to demand a seat at the table learn how to play the game and come prepared to play regardless of the sport.

Lost in all of  this was the demeaning way in which I observed supporters of each plan especially Plan B and MFSA trying to manipulate the Central Conference delegates from Africa. Playing on their fears of exclusion and their desire for recognition; deals were struck not for ‘real’ inclusion but simply to swing a vote here and there. As an African American, that’s what hurt me the most. I broke down when I realized that regardless on what side of the ocean we are on, black folks are still getting played even by the most well meaning progressives for their own ends.

For all of those angry with Adam Hamilton and other IOT members for abstaining in subcommittee—get over it. They had already made it clear that they were going for a minority report and they were never asked to be a part of the discussion. It was the MFSA show and they played it to hilt.

The General Administration Debacle happened because in the end, when it mattered, arrogance and ignorance sat in the front seat of the UMC leaving common sense and the Holy Spirit to sit in the backseat wondering “are we there yet?”