The second meeting of the Commission on a Way Forward got underway in Atlanta February 27, as commission members spent time in reflection, discussion and work team meetings.
Bishop Sandra Steiner Ball led the Commission in discussions of accountability and their covenant, the complexity of the work ahead, and building relationships of trust by going deeper in conversation and understanding. These three values—accountability, complexity, trust—are considered essential to taking the steps toward decision-making.
On Tuesday, the Rev. Jorge Acevedo led a Bible study on Galatians 1, a letter that stirred the fires of the Protestant Reformation and was important to both John and Charles Wesley. “Paul gets to the heart of the matter. He’s concerned; very concerned for the church,” said Acevedo.
Learning from history
Does a divided era of the church's past provide some clues for how to move forward towards the future? Commission members heard from Bishop Woodie White as he reflected on the period that spanned the 1940s, 50s and most of the 60s when African-American churches were segregated and placed into the Central Jurisdiction. That lasted until the formation of The United Methodist Church in 1968.
"Fifty years ago, the church was -- as everyone knows -- structurally segregated. Annual conferences were segregated, most of our colleges were segregated, our institutions were segregated, and the church said that that had to come to an end," said Bishop White.
Bishop White likened the church to a family. "I believe we are brothers and sisters in Christ, and because I believe that, I won't let you write me out of the family and I won't write you out of the family. That gives me hope, that we are children of God," said Bishop White.
"Because I believe that everybody in this room is a brother or sister, it impacts how I treat everybody in this room. I believe everybody in this room is of infinite worth. I believe everybody in this room is entitled to be loved and accepted. I believe everybody in this room is more than their opinion or their ideas or their philosophy or their theology. I think everyone's essence transcends all of that, so I have to find a way to always evidence how important I think you are even when I think you're 1000 percent wrong or even when I know you are working against my best interest."
Bishop Ken Carter said that the moderators invited Bishop White to reflect on his experience as a leader having lived through the divisions of the church and the Central Jurisdiction and how that might help the church in the future.
"I think Bishop White is a leader and a sage, wise voice across our denomination," said Bishop Carter. "He both lived in a time of segregation and exclusion and also in a time of reunion -- as imperfect as that was. I feel like he has a unique perspective and a historical perspective; and if we didn't listen to that kind of voice, we'd have a gap in our knowledge of where we are at a time when the church is also struggling for unity.”
White says it’s a mistake to think that we will ever have a church where we're never struggling with issues. "Somebody's always struggling and I think it's unfortunate when we believe that because it causes people to become discouraged."
Centralized vs. decentralized organizations
Gil Rendle led commissioners in a learning session on centralized and decentralized organizations that provided basic organizational information as a foundation for later conversations on denominational structure.
"A way forward cannot be an extension of the same path that got the church to this point," said Rendle. "Albert Einstein said, 'We cannot solve our problems with the same thinking that created them.'"
Organizational theory notes that all organizations go through a swing in behaving in centralized and decentralized ways. Each type of structure has both advantages and disadvantages, but when the disadvantages become too pronounced, centralized organizations move toward decentralization and decentralized organizations begin to move back toward centralization.
“The United Methodist Church in some contexts experiences itself as a highly centralized organization that often wishes it could be more decentralized,” said Rendle.
Rendle said that organizations become deeply embedded in a particular way of thinking because it works; but if practiced to excess, such thinking can easily become a weakness. As leaders who are schooled in the structure and polity of the denomination, Rendle says the Commission may have to set aside some of their current assumptions.
Rendle talked about organizational theory and polarity management, that is, managing two equally important truths that cannot be held together at the same time. For example, an organization should be well ordered and efficient, aligned in purpose and resources; and it should also be quick and agile, responsive to immediate needs and inventive enough to meet those needs. But how can it be both? How do we get out of our own constraints?
“I think there is an assumption by others that the work you are doing is to fix the centralized system we already have or how to improve it. But that's a question that comes within the framework of assumptions about the goodness of being centralized. If you stay within that box, you will not be able to address the questions about how to move forward.”
The Commission on a Way Forward continues their meeting through March 2. Additional information on the meeting will be forthcoming.