Before I begin, this is a big discussion in my neck of the UMC woods and you can find other discussions on fellow Texas Conference bloggers’ sites too. Richard Heyduck is here, and Peter Cammarano is here.
This past Saturday, November 19, the Texas Annual Conference of the UMC gathered at our conference camp for a special session and overwhelmingly passed proposed changes for our conference. The proposals were more or less a package deal, but came in three sets. The first piece dealt with foundational issues: vision, mission, key drivers, and values. The second piece was a set of three resolutions seeking to amend our structure to bring it into alignment with the foundational pieces: (1) establish a center for congregational excellence, (2) establish a center for clergy excellence, and (3) reform the districts of the annual conference from a 12 district to a 9 district formation. The third and final piece was a set of three resolutions that are supportive of the first piece above and the three structural changes. They authorize the Strategic Mapping Team (the task force the conference commissioned to study and bring proposals for change) to complete three additional tasks: (1) propose rules and structure in alignment with the above, (2) propose a definition and process of implementation for accountability, and (3) propose budget changes to the Conference Council on Finance and Administration (CFA) in alignment with the first piece above. These three tasks are to be completed and ready for vote at the May 2006 meeting of the Annual Conference.
The process followed has been quite well done. I think the bishop and the leadership of the conference have done on a conference level what one would do in a local congregation in order to bring change: ask questions that facilitate ground-up conversation and discussion, do pertinent research, present findings with proposals, disseminate information broadly, gather a team of respected colleagues, present opportunities for feedback, and allow time for discussion and debate to take place before the meeting for the vote.
The debate centered on the middle set of proposals that restructured the Annual Conference (AC), adding the centers for congregation excellence and clergy excellence and reforming our districts from 12 to 9. One of the important considerations included in this is redefining the role of the District Superintendent and relieving the DS’s of some responsibilities so that they may focus on tasks that would be more responsible stewardship of their time and energy.
Several folks spoke up, but the most passionate voice was from a retired District Superintendent of some stature. He was opposed to all three of the middle set of resolutions that would change the AC and his speech, crudely summarized, presented the opinion that the older approach would work if the present practitioners (DS’s) would get their acts together and do it. He rejected the idea that we need to change our approach in order to get better results. Two points he made produced moments were both poignant and unfortunate.
Both of these points centered on Conflict Resolution. He related a current event in the church he now attends in which, for the last several pastors, there has been a group of folks (12-15, according to him) who always get worked up, give the preacher fits and try to get him moved. He told of the conference’s (his DS and the bishop) response of calling in the Mennonites to help deal with the conflict present in the congregation (we’ve been drawing on the work of the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center for help with conflict resolution). He appeared incensed that we would call in the Mennonites for help with conflict. He told this to the conference as if we didn’t know that this is the approach for churches with systemic conflict and as a warning to us, obviously expecting everyone to join him in rejecting the notion out-of-hand: “They’ll send Mennonites to your church!” At this point the conference erupted in laughter (poignant & unfortunate moment #1) at the shock and comedy of this perspective. Then, not far removed from the remark about the Mennonites—disagreeing with the statistic provided regarding the time current DS’s spend dealing with congregational conflict, he made another comment, drawn from experience: “When there was conflict in a church, we found that the easiest way to deal with it was to move the preacher!” Again, the release of laughter (poignant & unfortunate moment #2).
I found these moments poignant because they reflect a clash of worldviews, and unfortunate because this gentleman was out of touch with the vast majority of his colleagues, which showed as the conference laughed at some of the comments he made. I doubt that any of us meant disrespect; the laughter seemed to me a release at the surprise and absurdity of his assertions.
The problem was the same: congregational conflict. But the answer in his day and the answer in our day is markedly different. In his day, the answer was to take the path of least resistance and move the pastor appointed in order to appease the congregants at odds over the given situation. In his recent example, though, he noted that the group responsible for the conflict was small (12-15 people out of a church of 1500 members or more). Today, we are working to reject the notion that 1% of the membership may be allowed to hijack a church’s mission and relationship with their pastor by creating problems and demanding their way. This has probably been one of the reasons for decline in congregational effectiveness over the years. So we are open to help from folks like the Mennonites who understand the dynamics of conflict and systemic conflict resolution better than we do. We are attempting to be more discerning about when to move pastors in conflict situations—not ruling out that moving may be the best thing but also not ignoring the underlying problems within the people responsible for the conflict. One lay person expressed this when he spoke to oppose the gentleman’s opinion, saying that he didn’t like a system that produced 2-3 year pastorates routinely and wanted to see the growth and ministry that could happen when we can work through problems and conflicts and produce pastoral tenures of 4, 6, 8, 10, and even 20 years in order to build stronger and more healthy congregations. This layman was hungry for a better, more fruitful, more faithful way. I believe we have taken the first steps toward that way.