Beyond Death and Crisis Metaphors for the UMC... (please?)

"Death." Scupture at the Cathedral of Trier.
Photo JBuzbee. Used by permission. CC-BY-3.0
You hear it. I hear it. More than once, most likely, you or I may have said it: "The United Methodist Church is dying."

But if we're serious about actually delivering on our mission,  it's time for everyone to stop saying it. Okay?


1. Key Overall Numbers Do Not Bear It Out
As a global church, we are not even declining. In fact, the UMC grew in professing members substantially, by 25% between 1999-2009. Part of this growth represents adding Ivory Coast to the UMC as of 2008, but that accounts for only about 30% of the total addition of over 2.4 million professing members during that decade.

Even  financially, while we're down a bit in overall giving, we have actually done better than might be expected given the severity of recent economic recessions.  (Source: 2011 State of the Church Report).

To be sure, our patterns of growth are financially unsustainable if we depend on current funding practices, where the US churches support well over 90% of all General Church ministries across the global church.

But that is in part a side effect of the amazing growth of our churches in the Global South in the past two decades. We simply have not yet adapted our funding models to deal with these dramatically different realities. If we want to continue to function as a global church, we are going to have to work at dramatic, adaptive changes in our funding models.

And keep in mind this isn't because the church is either declining or dying, but actually because it is growing! So the assumptions we use in developing new funding models will have to be based on the realities of dramatically growing mission contexts, both outside and inside the US. Approaching this task with a mindset based on any idea that "the UMC is dying" just won't give us the right set of tools or the Spirit-driven creativity to approach the situations we actually have.

2. It's a Category Mistake
Second, to speak of organizations as "dying" is very likely a category mistake. A category mistake is an error in thinking where one applies characteristics of one kind of thing to another kind of thing to which those characteristics do not apply all that well.

Living things and systems can and do die, all the time. Indeed, all living things and living systems exhibit inevitable life cycle patterns of birth, growth, decline and death.

But to apply the analogy or metaphor of "death" to human organizations turns out not to be all that accurate. Organizations do not have "inevitable life cycles." This is no small or incidental difference. It's actually an essential one. An organization with a sufficiently compelling mission, access to resources and ways of doing their work that are aligned with its mission and effective in using its resources to deliver on that mission in its context over time can continue and even  thrive for centuries with no "inevitable" period of decline, much less "death." Indeed, that's one of the reasons people create organizations-- to keep a mission they care about thriving long after they themselves have died.

Organizations, I might submit, then, do not "die." Relative to their capacity to deliver on their mission they can thrive, wane, drift, gain or lose influence,  or cease to function. But none of those is the same as dying, or even "living" for that matter. 

3. It Inhibits Adaptive Change

The term "dying" when applied to a human organization messes too much with our emotions in ways that don't do nearly enough to help us turn the organization in more prosperous directions.

We will tend to say an organization such as the UMC is dying with two different, though often intertwined, emotional motivations: sadness and fear.


Sadness keeps us stuck or delays us moving on
Some of us  may say "The UMC in the US is dying" to convey our feelings sadness and loss. We have lost people in the US. Fewer people attend our services or join our congregations as professing members now in the US than in the past. We are closing many congregations. Of course, we have also planted over 600 congregations here since 2008, a higher rate than at any time since the early 1920s.  And nearly half of these are non-white ethnic or multicultural new church starts! We used to have  great influence in the culture and politics of the US, but not any more. The proportions of children and younger, more affluent or upwardly mobile adults active in our congregations are shrinking while the older adult populations on limited incomes and facing more health challenges the longer they live are increasing. But we forget or possibly aren't aware that the average life expectancy in the US has climbed substantially (and will likely keep climbing!),   religiously active people live even longer,  birth rates have declined, and death rates are low and predicted to remain low and fairly stable through 2050.

If we say, "We are dying" and then we point to such perceptions of our situation (anecdotal or statistical) to back them up, we are claiming all of these situations as losses subject to our sadness. In fact, not all of them are "losses." Indeed, the "aging" of the UMC in the US puts us in grand position to reach the fastest growing age segment of the US population from now to 2050! But we frame even these opportunities as losses to support our sense of sadness over those things which can be seen as dramatic changes, if not also losses. And then we share the burden of our hearts with others around us, making a contagion of our sadness.

Let's be clear. Sadness in the culture of an organization does not motivate adaptive change. It is far easier for sadness to move toward depression, and depression to keep our minds stuck on what was lost and what used to be, and thereby priming us to try to restore a past state than to discern and make adaptive organizational changes that better fit current realities.  To be sure, remembering and feeling the pain of what is lost is essential when we grieve. But the growth stage of grief, that might lead toward adaptive change (finding new patterns of life in the changed circumstances of the losses incurred), happens long after we have processed the sadness.

And here's the deal. We don't actually have to process this much sadness, much less full-blown grief, if we don't frame the changes we are seeing in the UMC in the US in such powerfully grief-laden emotional frames as "death" or "dying" in the first place! And in fact, apart from the popularity of the "UMC is dying" meme, there is no sound reason to do so.

Fear and crisis thinking may get us "off the dime," but that's all
In more recent years, some more strident voices among us, anxious to get UMC leadership to do something dramatically different,  have underlined, boldfaced and put an exclamation point on the end of those three simple words, like this: "We are dying!" They point to similar stats, but with a very different emotional edge, one of alarm rather than grieving resignation. The next words are, "Do something! Do it now! Do this particular thing, right now, or we shall surely die!"

The purpose is to provoke "motivating fear," the sort of fear that would be powerful enough to get otherwise "rational" adults to jump 100 feet off of a burning oil platform at night into a dark, cold, oil-laden ocean strewn with bits of flaming debris.

Now, if the situation one faces is indeed a burning oil platform, for some persons, at least, that fear-inspired leap to what may be a burning, oil-soaked, watery grave may actually be the better alternative than a nearly certain fiery demise on the platform itself.

As we saw from the massive BP fire and spill in the Gulf of Mexico in 2010,  the primary issues that led to truly catastrophic outcomes weren't primarily "technical." And they weren't merely structural, either. They were cultural, and they pervaded the entire culture of both BP and its contractors. There were  breakdowns in disciplines of inspection, parts replacement and communication compounded by unclear lines of responsibility and authority for key business and safety processes. Issues of this sort and scope do more than lead to disasters. They're also incredibly costly to the businesses of every partner involved, and, by extension, to everyone who uses petroleum products.

And these are issues that require not simply a few "technical fixes" (like, "jump off of a platform if it is on fire!") but rather long term, systematic "adaptive changes."

The attempt to "be honest about our situation" by provoking a contagion of fear and panic may get some individuals (though rarely a whole organization!)  to "take the plunge" for an emergency technical fix in the face of what is perceived as a life-threatening crisis.

But it simply does not have the capacity to motivate individuals, much less organizations, toward the kind of long-term, culture-transforming, adaptive changes they must take not simply to avoid catastrophes but actually to thrive in their current and projectable future contexts.

Why? Because we know what fear does. Fear as a process in our brains actually shuts down parts of the visual cortex so we focus only on what is right in front of us. It also disables creative thinking and reasoning paths. It does this to enhance our capacity to take immediate action to evade an immediate threat. No time for over-thinking, or even much thinking, in such situations! When there are immediate threats, it's helpful to have a process hardwired that gets us to take immediate action to avoid immediate life-threatening or painful outcomes. Fear can be a gift in such situations.

But if it's long-term, systemic, adaptive change we want, something that pervades the entire culture of an organization to make it better able to deliver on its mission effectively through multiple means in changing environments, fear is not our friend. For adaptive change, Ron Heifetz et al are clear that we need all the creativity, multiple ways of viewing our environment and understanding our resources, and strategic, long-range forecasting capacities our brains are wired to muster -- the very capacities fear disables or impairs.

If Not Death or Crisis, Then What?

What if we took the idea of adaptive change seriously, and not merely as a slogan to try to push particular legislative or structural initiatives (actually, more or less varieties of technical fixes)?

And then what if we began allowing the kinds of thinking adaptive change demands to shape our rhetoric both about our current situations and our possible futures?

Heifetz and Laurie describe the essential role of what they call "the balcony view" to discern adaptive ways forward.

Adaptive work is required when our deeply held beliefs are challenged, when the values that made us successful become less relevant, and when legitimate yet competing perspectives emerge... Business leaders have to be able to view patterns as if they were on a balcony. It does them no good to be swept up in the field of action. Leaders have to see a context for change or create one. They should give employees a strong sense of the history of the enterprise and what’s good about its past, as well as an idea of the market forces at work today and the responsibility people must take in shaping the future.

And they must do all of this not by providing solutions, but by raising the right questions, they note.

So in that spirit, rather than arriving at frames for describing the solutions (such as "organizational death" or "crisis!"), what if we started asking some key questions?

And further, what if we take seriously the Six Principles for Adaptive Leadership Heifetz and Laurie developed, and so try to elicit a conversation that makes sure all voices, especially "those from below," are taken seriously?

This post is an attempt to begin to do just that.

So here are some questions that come to mind, directly from Heifetz and Laurie's requirements for adaptive work, as quoted above.

1. What deeply held beliefs about the place of The United Methodist Church in US cultures are being challenged by our current situations?

2. What values that used to make The UMC (and its predecessors) "relevant" in the US now seem to make it less relevant or even obsolete?

3. What legitimate and competing perspectives are emerging about the mission and operation of the various systems of The UMC in the US?

What questions come to mind for you?

Let's talk!

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards