May 4 was a big day. As delegates waded through petitions and amendments on the last day of General Conference, I finished my spring semester as a senior at Indiana University. I had four finals that week, including tests for classes like British Film and The Music of Bob Dylan. To study for my British Film final, I had to watch The Queen, a 2006 Oscar-nominated film about the monarchy and its struggle to relate to the grieving masses after the death of Princess Diana. Throughout the film, Prime Minister Tony Blair attempts to convince Queen Elizabeth to acquiesce to the demands of modern society. This proves to be a difficult task. In a moment of exasperation, Blair exclaims, “Will someone please save these people from themselves?”
After witnessing General Conference 2012, I understand Blair’s frustration.
The structures and processes of the United Methodist Church are self-preserving. The size and frequency of our meetings encourage passivity; our current Book of Discipline and its structures favor institutional stagnation; and, as some discovered in Tampa, our Constitution prohibits most forms of restructuring. The systems that we have created for ministry protect the status quo against revision, and our denomination cannot effectively make disciples of Jesus Christ without the ability to adapt.
This procedural and systemic self-preservation is natural, but it does not differentiate between gratuitous and essential change. Our connection’s ability to protect itself from unnecessary change is valuable, but sometimes adaptation is necessary. In the past five years, the membership in the United States has declined by 4.5 percent; worship attendance has declined by 7.9 percent; and the number of young people being confirmed in the UMC in the United States has declined by 18.44 percent. The need for adaptation is well-established, yet General Conference yielded little change.
In part because of procedural technicalities, our plan for the future is undefined, and this gives the United Methodist Church a unique opportunity. General Conference revealed the ugly side of our connectional processes, the unholy realities of strict procedures and self-preserving structures. The Judicial Council decision that undid days (even years, depending on your perspective) of work and deliberation by ruling Plan UMC unconstitutional offered the United Methodist Church a candid view of our denomination’s systems. Despite support from approximately 60 percent of General Conference delegates, Plan UMC died on May 4th. Now, like Queen Elizabeth, we have the opportunity to self-reflect.
General Conference unveiled harsh procedural obstacles to change, and those realities highlight the necessity of institutional introspection. The gasps of delegates after the Judicial Council statement signaled the need for a level of self-examination that extends beyond hackneyed theological sound bites and Twitter wisdom. The hope is that, in the aftermath of General Conference 2012, we may have the clarity of vision to accept a fundamental truth: Our system will not change unless United Methodists believe with intentionality and enthusiasm that our structures and processes require transformation.
Our opportunity for denominational adaptability lies in our capacity to view General Conference 2012 as evidence of detrimental institutional inertia. The failure of three fairly well-supported restructuring proposals—the Connectional Table recommendations, Plan B, and the proposals from the Methodist Federation for Social Action—to effect substantial change supports the idea that our structures can be obstacles to our own mission. We must recognize that, as a Christian body with life-changing ministries across the world, such ineffectiveness is unacceptable.
Our current stagnation is not the fault of delegates, general secretaries, the Judicial Council, or bishops; instead, it is a symptom of a stubborn, self-preserving system. When plodding through our post-Conference thoughts and emotions, we should direct our energy toward the obstinate structures and processes of our denomination. Blame of individuals or groups only strengthens the nasty distrust that permeates our ministries, and that distrust often manifests itself as opposition to new styles of leadership. The polarity of our denomination is, in many ways, a by-product of our connection’s inability to structurally and emotionally distance itself from secular, democratic politicking.
With introspection comes a responsibility for growth, and all levels of the denomination must take responsibility for the self-reflection fueled by General Conference. Bishops must boldly identify and challenge ineffective structures, and each general board and agency must justify its existence by engaging in courageous, transformative ministry. Delegates must not bury memories of General Conference 2012 under sarcasm and theological aphorisms. In four years, General Conference 2016 will assemble in Portland, Oregon, and those delegates must be prepared to face our stubborn structures with the belief that the status quo is not effective.
Ben Boruff has served on the UMC’s Call to Action Steering Team and Connectional Table.