Sunday, May 6, 2012

Some Advice from the Master Gardener.....

Yesterday, 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 8 years, stood by me in the heat as we discussed what to do about the yard. Its important to know that when Isisas and I first met, I was single, working toward tenure, and could 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 blog).

As we looked at the deck, I told him that I saw some nails popping at that he should get the carpenter out and fix them and then get it 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 80% will be written by me and Mike Sykuta of Mizzou) and its inability to enact real change for the United Methodist Church, here is one thing to take from our week and a ½ in 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. Why? 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, founders 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—your organization has ruled evolution and change out of order. Keep in mind that under the ruling of our Judicial Council any of the three plans submitted would have failed this constitutional test.

The issue is that the General Conference has powers that it cannot delegate to any one 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 1000 people can make that decision.  

Because our system of governance is based largely on the US 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 Southcentral, Southeastern, or Central Conferences, which has the most members, or the Cal-Pac where we have the least, everybody has a voice in our governance. But here is the problem: everybody has a voice.

Our system, just like the US 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 and this week watched an evolution take place. Former adversaries came together and created a coalition that created legislation that was supported by Central Conference delegates, 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% 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 its Grover Norquist (a United Methodist by the way) and the Tea Party or the MFSA, 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—folks it doesn’t take a PhD. An 18th Century structure cannot sustain a 21st century global organization. We must be willing to let go of the non-essential to get back to the first fruits and ideals of why we are a People called Methodist. Asking 1000 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 4 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.

Friday, May 4, 2012

And Jesus wept...

I don’t like crying. I hate it. Other than sex, it is one of those things that no one and I mean no one looks good actually doing (forget that Hollywood stuff). So when I found myself standing in the Plenary Hall of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, weeping uncontrollably, I knew that it was not going to be a good day.

I don’t cry easily. Even when facing my mother’s slow descent into dementia or my sister’s breast cancer or the struggles of being a Black woman in academia, I rarely found myself in tears. But today, as I watched my church rip itself and its members into shreds over the issue of homosexuality, I could do nothing but weep. I wept for the words of my brothers from Africa who equated being gay with bestiality. I wept for Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter’s loving act of seeking compromise between the diverse opinions of the Church. I wept as I saw many moderates, some who are truly seeking to be inclusive but struggling with old frameworks be pulled the mantras of ‘it's a sin” of the right and the human desire to acknowledge the beauty of difference. I wept for my cousin, my friends, my ‘queens’ and my students as I would struggle to explain how I can continue to be a member of a denomination that cannot even agree to put in their book of Discipline, that they disagree on this issue.

It wasn’t as if we didn’t know this was coming. It wasn’t as if we didn’t know that this would be a painful day. But just like Christmas or Childbirth, you won’t really what to expect until you are in the moment.  Hamilton’s attempt at pre-emptive compromise was the Church’s out to save itself from looking like a bunch of out of step homophobic bigots. Let me be clear, I know how deeply the views are held on both sides of this issue. Yet as the world, would seek to interpret our actions, regardless of who we really are, the world would end up seeing our organization and us as hopeless bigots (and disorganized ones at that). Gone were the slick presentations and scripted arguments of yesterday. No today was Adam and Mike out there on their own unable to direct their troops (if they had any willing to be directed). It became a rhetorical free for all.

The organizational scholar in me was intrigued by the rhetoric.  Those opposed to inclusion allowed the delegates of the Central Conference to carry their water. Knowing that they had to go back to Churches and Conferences that were divided on this issue, many who chose to vote against changing our disciplinary language HID behind the passionate language of the East African delegates, which would place progressives in the difficult position of fighting those they had just lobbied for support for in opposing the restructuring. So passionate was one delegate from Congo, that his translator actually refused to interpret him and said, ‘as his translator I must stay true to his words but…” In the end the delegate, equated being gay with lying with beasts.  Other conservative voices pointed out that rather than being wishy washy, we just needed to say where we stood, because all the growing churches like Saddleback and Willowcreek, had taken public stands against gays and done just fine and actually grown—so we should do the same (It is clear those arguing for this type of model have no idea what they are talking about and that such Church’s are possible when they have only one person choosing their Church’s orthodoxy rather than 987 people from all over the daggone world).

In the end, it was too much for the LGBT community. Despite my thinly veiled advice offered in my last blog—in which I hoped they would think about tactics that would not alienate their audience—when the vote was 39%-60% against embracing more inclusive language, they shouted and disrupted the closing prayer. When the Conference tried to return to business after a break, they sang and stayed in the middle of the conference, forcing the presiding officer to threaten to throw all of us out and only allow delegates in. Refusing to move even after an early adjournment, the protestors left the Bishops in a painful position. Some strong allies of the LGBT community were hung out to dry trying to keep the other COB from actually trying to close of the General Conference. Others begged for the protestors to not have us re-live Cleveland in which arrests were made.

As negotiations happened others wandered the hall looking dazed, many with tear stained eyes. Some left the building to try to compose themselves. Some were angry feeling that the tactics went too far and damaged any opportunity to continue to close the vote gap, which was getting tighter every 4 years. Some were even angrier that by shouting during the prayer, that the individual agendas of the protestors were place in a higher place than a prayer for peace. The twitter feed blew up with very hateful things being said by both sides including those who urged that we break fellowship with the Central Conference (which again I find funny since, the Central Conference was everybody’s friend when their vote was needed for the MFSA/IOT/ Plan B and ultimately the Plan UMC restructuring plan).

For those who have never been to Africa, it is impossible to truly understand the impact AIDs/HIV has had on the countries in East Africa particularly. In Uganda, where I do ministry with one of my former students, an entire generation has been lost to AIDS, there are few between the ages of 25 – 45, leaving children to be raised by grandmothers. I say this only because no matter how wrong they are, rather than understanding the link between unprotected sex of ANY KIND, it has been easier for them to blame this scourge on Gays. Moreover, understand that the majority of new church starts in East Africa have been by very conservative denominations. Having attended a Presbyterian Church in Uganda during my time there, I wasn’t sure if I was in a Presbyterian Church or a good old Southern Baptist Church in Roswell, Georgia. For the Africans, however wrong they are (and I know they are) this is not a cultural issue, it is a survival issue. But be clear, in themselves they could not kill this legislation but linked with other strong conservatives, this voting block will be deadly to any human sexuality legislation for years to come.

Organizationally, this places us where every other mainline Protestant denomination is: on the verge of a split. Perhaps it is Africa’s revenge that it is the fasting growing mission/Church field in the world and is forcing every denomination including the Anglicans and the Catholics to deal with their power. Honestly, Hamilton’s legislation might have prevented a schism but today almost guarantees that one is in our future. My dear Uncle a former DS reminded me that the UMC often follows the mood of America. If I keep this in mind as I reflect on today, the politics of the edges is indeed threatening the middle. The voices of the extremes, which accept no compromise, are pulling on Moderates to choose one way or another. And Moderates, afraid to choose are doing nothing. Want to know how that works out for you? Ask the former Southern Baptists who refused to stand when faced with the same issues in 1979, 1980, and 1981. They are the Former Baptists and they didn’t even get to keep the name.

Our language is ill equipped to express every human emotion. It is too limited at times to truly express the wide diversity of human existence. We limit it to two options because we are often afraid of the in between, the untested middle, the both/and. Consequently, we cannot discuss the most profound realities because our language fails our hearts and in the end, we end up hurting others and ourselves because of our linguistic limitations. Perhaps that is why at one point all the scripture can say is: Jesus wept.  After Thursday’s debate and the way his children tore each other up, somebody really needs to pass Jesus some Kleenex.  I would but I can’t stop crying either.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

All but the shouting...

Well the Methodist Armageddon came and went by 12:30pm EST. The world didn't end; the earth didn't rattle; nor did Jesus come back (which would have been great all things considered but I think given the state of General Conference 2012, he wouldn't have been given credentials to be seated anyway). By 12:33, every one had become an armchair pundit in their assessment of the winners and losers from the Methodist Battle Royal aka the Plan UMC vote.

I must admit for several hours afterwards, things were pretty anti-climatic. Lunch was had, a few high fives were shared, but mostly delegates filed out and tried to just wipe that deer in the headlights glaze out of their eyes. If yesterday's vote to end guaranteed appointments was known as the "What have we done vote?" then today's restructuring vote shortly became "What does this mean for us now?"Resisting my scholarly urge to engage in organizational prophecy, it might be better to embrace my other commercial skill assessing organizational communication.

From the beginning of their presentation to the very well timed rise of Jan Davis' calling of the question, the Plan UMC folks were an exemplar of strategic communication excellence. Previously leaving a lot to be desired, both the folks of Plan B and the IOT had made serious miscalculations regarding the desires of their audiences. Whether it was the IOT's failure to remember that they had to 'inform and persuade' or Plan B's inability to frame themselves as something other than 'not the IOT', both combo plate of sides clearly benefited from the first key necessary for strategic communication--LISTEN TO YOUR AUDIENCE.

Folks, let me be clear. The entire UMC was never the audience. It never is. Truthfully, and you know I am right, at least 80% of the folks who come to our churches don't give a rat's hindquarters about Plan B, IOT, LMN, PQR, well you get the point. Most didn't even realize that General Conference was this week until their senior pastor didn't show up in the pulpit last Sunday. No, the real audience were the delegates of the 2012 General Conference. Each delegation, each conference, each country, and each member had a different need from this plan. For Jurisdictions like the Southeastern, it was having more say in a Church in which they seem to be footing the bills; For the Central Conference's African Delegates it was about recognition of their growing churches and representation; For the Central Conference Europe and Asia, it was making sure that their voices would be heard and their needs addressed despite their small population. For some delegates it was the recognition that something had to be done to indicate that the church they loved was not simply going to atrophy while waiting for a CRISIS to force it into change. For many board members it was the need to protect the valuable work being done by their agencies. But for a majority of the delegates, after Saturday night's debacle (really my favorite word this week), nobody wanted to see the bloodletting, personal, contentious, winner take all drama surface on the plenary floor today. They wanted information, a little tweaking, and they wanted to make this decision quickly (not always the best recipe for organizational change but in a democratic process--which by the way academically and practically speaking is not the best governance form for change). And that's what Plan UMC gave them. From the rhetorical visuals that signaled inclusiveness (Ricky Henderson is a young UMC rock star); to the clear visual aids that were presented; to the carefully constructed language that offered measure reason, humility, concern for the church,  with every amendment offered a willingness to compromise, Plan UMC's communication indicated that they indeed knew their central audience.

Meanwhile on the margins, rhetorically and organizationally, MFSA alienated the delegates with language, anger, and a moral superiority that won them few friends. Let me be really clear here--especially since I have started getting hate mail from my MFSA family---I believe in your mission. I appreciate your work. You have a valuable voice within our Church. But I am absolutely ticked off with your tactics and strategy. You squandered an opportunity to educate our delegates by failing to understand how to communicate. Communication is not words its the ability to use signs and symbols that create a 'shared' meaning and shared values. The key word being SHARED.  The idea to try to shame the Plan UMC folks by asking to 'see' who created the plan only created the impression that the motive was pettiness rather than a statement regarding inclusion. More importantly, think about the inherent hypocrisy of such a move-- it amounted to racial profiling. The request amounted to saying " the value of this plan will not be judged on its merits but on the color of the skin of the people who wrote it".  To judge someone by the color of their skin..well I thought it was against everything MFSA stood for.  Yes, MFSA was trying to make a statement but in the end they didn't get heard not because of what they looked like but how they sought to frame the message.

Let me take a page out of Dr. King's book from Chaos to Community. Dr. King for years argued the immorality of racism, however it wasn't until he illustrated the economic infeasibily of racism that Montgomery and the rest of the South began to listen. Did it change hearts? Not at first, but it was a first step. LBJ, only was able to advance the war on poverty by arguing the economics of the issue not the immorality of the wealthiest country in the world allowing its people to squander their gifts because of poverty. My point is, in order to persuade you can't use the arguments that persuade you: you must find the arguments-- whether ethos, pathos, or logos that persuades your audience. When you try to out Christian people, whether you are on the right or the left, you tick them off and you turn them off.

Over the next two days, there will be attempts to derail the Plan UMC. Judicial hearings, Amendments, protests, etc. And with each attack, those opposed won't be heard they will merely become more marginalized. The tactics of shame, emotional intimidation, and badgering are playing out for the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. Audiences are by nature much more moderate and will listen to the middle before they listen to the extremes, especially over time.

I love a good debate on the ideas. Which is why in 99% of elections I am independent--I really want to hear who has the best argument and I don't want anyone to take my vote for granted. I don't vote for Democrats just because they are Democratic and I don't vote against Republicans just because they are Republicans. I truly believed that had the Progressives in our denomination understood their audiences better their voice would have been welcomed, especially by those who value it, like me. But for now...all we have is the shouting and that's a rat's shame.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

The Games we play....

Someone stopped me today in the Convention Center to ask me what I did for a living. I explained, “ I study organizations, their communication, and how they work.” The questioner just shook his head and said, “Boy I bet the last three days have really given you something to write about.”  To that all I could say was, “You ain’t lyin’.” Truth of the matter is, if this General Conference had been 8 years ago, I would have had at least 4 books by now and now be an MSNBC commentator (hey, if every other professor who has written a book can get a MSNBC show so can I) and a frequent guest on Meet the Press.

For the last 36 hours, the authors of Plan C have been huddled in Ballroom 24 of the Tampa Convention Center. Everybody knew where they were and folks came and went like it was a Quick Trip at 7:30am on a Monday morning. Do not be fooled by the misinformation some want to put out there—there were a little bit of everybody around that table—Plan B; IOT; Central Conference; and at a later stage, MFSA.  What emerged was a plan that had a little bit of everybody’s ideas including MFSA’s. They demanded 10 points of reference and got 6 of them—that’s better than the Democrats in Congress can do. The plan shaves a considerable of board agency size while allowing for a more nimble structure, when you do a quick comparison, you will find that the representation of Plan C takes strong advice from the MFSA and Plan B.

The sticking point seems to be the fact that lost in this reorganization is the   Commission on Race and Commission on Women (yes, I know their titles are longer but I have been typing them all day). What emerges is a single entity, called the Committee on Inclusion that keeps the same function but not the same structure. Frankly, what this means is the loss of some leaders/board members and any time there is loss there is anger. Don’t think the Archives folks are happy either. As an African American woman seeking ordination, do not think that I take issues of inclusion lightly. At SMU I am only one of two African American women tenured in my college and only one 9 African Americans tenured in a faculty of over 700. So I don’t want to hear anybody tell me about his or her stories of being excluded. Been there AND fighting that. I also know there are a number of ways to make sure voice and representation is obtained. Am I happy that these two key Commissions are lost? Nope but I understand the principal behind it.  Reorganizations rarely make people happy—Why? Because like it or not reorganization means we must try a new way of doing things.

Late today, perhaps in rallying the troops several missives emerged on the Convention floor, around the hall in the gathering areas, and online accusing the Plan C folks of being racists, control freaks, who were Anti-woman, Anti-youth, and Anti-Central Conference. At first I thought, this wasn’t true and then I started reading it and hearing it for myself. Again, it became a better day to be a scholar than a member of the Church. When honest disagreement becomes dishonest character assassination—something has gone terribly terribly wrong with the Body of Christ.

Want to hear something crazy? There were actually people who are aligned with MFSA who said that they liked key elements of the plan but they refuse to support it because they don’t like the process.  They actually said that they would rather vote everything down to teach the Church a lesson. Really? And you want to be taken seriously as the future leaders of the Church. I hate when Congressmen play chicken with my life and for daggone sure hate it when my fellow Methodists play chicken with my denomination.

Honestly, I only want the Church to have an honest debate with honest theological, structural, and organizational arguments. If those arguments are persuasive fine, if they are not fine but we have too much at stake to let pettiness, yes, I will say it even if no one else will—childishness, get in the way of sincere attempts by Methodists of all colors, political ideologies, agency commitments, etc to try to get our organizational ship in order.

The strategy of divide and destroy have rendered not just the United States but France, Spain, Italy, and much of Africa unable to move forward to address the shifting reality of the needs of its people. I am confused how these same politics will benefit a Church that carries the one message that can change the world into the place God intended it to be.

Let’s hope that those intending to play the game obstruction understand the lives they hold in their hands both inside and outside of the Church. If you are against the plan, vote no because you are against the plan. But if you know the plan is a good plan, then the only statement you make by voting against it is that your ego, your way, and your ideology are more important than the Church.  If you choose this route, just own it. Don’t hide behind righteous indignation or moral superiority—just call it what it is—your move in the game of destroy the Church.