Voter’s Remorse (Or When The Connection Goes Bad)

A decade or so ago, United Methodists in Indiana were encouraged to “Imagine Indiana,” a plan to unite the two annual conferences in the State into one. For years, Indiana shared one bishop between two annual conferences that were defined roughly along an east-west division of the northern and southern halves of the State.

I grew up in the North Indiana Conference as my family followed my father, an Elder in that annual conference, to his various appointments. When I returned to The United Methodist Church after a ten year hiatus I lived in the South Indiana Conference. I answered my call to ministry which had been felt nearly twenty years earlier and my appointments to churches all were within the South Indiana Conference with the exception of the two years with the General Board of Global Ministries as a missionary in West Africa. Even then my sense of connection was strongly with the South Indiana Conference. Then came the call to “Imagine Indiana.”

“Imagine Indiana” was greatly influenced by well-connected and influential laypersons who were well-known in both church and corporate circles and clergy appointed to influential churches that had been complaining about the amount of apportionments their congregations were expected to pay to support the shared bishop and the two annual conference operations. We were assured that the proposal was not based on financial reasons.

The proposal we were urged to imagine, however, did call for a drastic reduction in the number of districts in the new structure. In fact, the entire length and breadth of Indiana would have only the same number of districts as the South Indiana Conference alone had at the time. This would result in halving the amount required to support district superintendents, the mid-level managers in our connectional structure, and district offices and secretaries. The proponents of the imagined Indiana Conference dangled the carrot of video conferencing capacity in the new “district resource centers” which would reduce the need to travel several hours for meetings. We were also enticed with the assurance of the “inverted initiative” in which the local church would be the most important part of our connection rather than the top-down hierarchical corporate model in which the annual conference staff and leadership would offer or impose its one-size fits all programs and policies that had become the norm whether they worked or not. A carrot dangled before the clergy in the South Indiana Conference was the availability of more larger churches for appointments with presumably higher levels of compensation up north.

I arrived at the Annual Conference Session where we would vote on whether to unite the annual conferences with the intention of voting against the union. I do not know if I was naive, hypnotized or caught up in the moment, but I ended up voting for the union. While I doubt that it would have made a difference in what has resulted, I now wish I had stuck to my original intention.

I majored in political science as an undergraduate. Among the topics I studied was bureaucracy. While I plead guilty to over-simplification, bureaucracy arose to carry out necessary tasks of government, but was subject to sinful human nature in the form of bribery, favoritism, patronage and nepotism. So systems were developed which, among other things, were designed to curb the bureaucrats’ ability to abuse their authority and discretion. Since human systems rarely remain in some semblance of moderation and sanity, this led to further circumscription of the bureaucrats’ opportunities to abuse discretion to the point that regulations prevented bureaucrats’ ability to exercise any discretion no matter how sound or compassionate. In addition, bureaucrats, who do provide valued service to the entity which employs and empowers them, make themselves more and more valuable to the entity, gaining more and more authority and power, protecting their positions and influence and isolating and insulating themselves from the rank and file of membership organizations or the public in terms of governmental bureaucracy systems.

While I do not ascribe nefarious or even intentional efforts on the part of the bureaucracy of the Indiana Conference to do so, that is what has happened. The “inverted initiative” has been subverted. “District Superintendents” have now become “Conference Superintendents.” This change in nomenclature is very much reflective of the ongoing trend to centralize authority and importance in the annual conference and its decision-makers, further distancing the annual conference from the districts and especially the local congregations. Directors of the various annual conference program and service units are now members of the “Bishop’s Extended Cabinet.”

Prior to the union, district superintendents were expected to visit each church within the district annually. Often this was done at annual charge conferences, but diligent superintendents were often known to show up unexpectedly and without announcement at Sunday morning worship. District clergy gatherings and other opportunities gave superintendents the opportunity to know pastors and their families better and vice versa. Presently, the districts are so large “Conference Superintendents” simply cannot do this and have embraced the expedient of holding “cluster” or even district charge conferences. The result is paltry attendance and participation by members and leaders of the local churches within the cluster or district beyond the pastors. Laity have a remarkable ability to discern when something is a poor or unwelcome use of their time. When actively serving a local church I often offered to have such gatherings at my church knowing that would assure me of having most of my church’s leaders and influencers attend. The end result is that superintendents do not and indeed cannot know anything about the strengths and weaknesses, hopes and fears of the churches and pastors ostensibly under their supervision beyond the often inaccurate official reports Methodists are so well known for.

District resource centers with video conferencing capability never appeared. In fact, most districts now do not have offices, much less resources.

The Indiana Conference leadership has been greatly influenced by management consultants and gurus who claim to have the latest silver bullet approach to arresting the decline of local churches and the denomination. The result of this has been an increasingly corporate approach to being the church in which local congregations are treated as franchisees and clergy as fungible employees. Decision-making bodies have been downsized in the name of efficiency, leanness and nimbleness. While decisions made by large groups of people are often painful to achieve and sometimes poor in result, the reverse puts decision-making in the hands of smaller groups that are very susceptible and subject to influence by the annual conference bureaucracy.

Shortly after the union I was elected to chair the annual conference board of trustees, the board of directors of the corporate entity recognized by the State of Indiana. As such I was part of the assembly of committee and board chairs that was empowered to make decisions on behalf of the annual conference between Annual Conference Sessions. At one meeting, a newly hired annual conference staff member made a proposal regarding this person’s portfolio. I pointed out that we had just decided at the previous meeting of this body to approach the matter slightly differently. Another member of the annual conference bureaucracy chastised me and exhorted the rest of the body to support the new staff member’s proposal because the staff member had just been hired and we needed to support the new staff member’s first proposal for annual conference attention, showing our loyalty and welcome. Soon thereafter a proposal was made from the top of the annual conference bureaucratic hierarchy that the decision-making body be reduced in number of decision-makers. Among the positions to be removed was the one I held. At the time, I was not the least upset since this meant there would be fewer expenditures of days spent traveling to and from the conference headquarters for meetings.

In retrospect I realize this was just one more step in the implementation of secular corporate management models and means in the life of our church, further separating annual conference leadership from the rank and file. Recently those chickens came home to roost when this smaller, leaner, less representative and less diverse body made a decision to disenfranchise a constituency from voting for representatives at the Annual Conference Sessions.

The union between the two annual conferences in Indiana would have been difficult under the best of circumstances. The two had distinct differences in the culture particularly of the clergy. The South Conference clergy were much more fractious when it came to relationships between liberals and conservatives. This really reflected the political and social divisions between many communities and churches in the south from those in the north. The southern half of Indiana was and remains more conservative and this was and is reflected in the congregations in those communities. As the conference began the process of cross-pollenization by moving clergy back and forth from north to south, east to west it became apparent that those making such decisions had no effective understanding of many churches and the most effective clergy to lead them. Many decisions since have only made things worse. Corporate methods have replaced community. Connectionalism has been redefined as deference and obedience to hierarchy. Relationships between churches and among clergy have become frayed even when they exist in geography or theory.

Rather than uniting the church in Indiana, it has contributed to the untying of our connection. Stay tuned for the next manifestation of this. Perhaps when The United Methodist Church finally makes the needed decision to dissolve, what remains or what is raised from the ashes will be able to rebuild the connection in smaller settings and structures.

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