This annual conference season in our church reminds us how important trust is to the healthy functioning of The United Methodist Church. To pick just one example, we trust the Annual Conference Board of Ordained Ministry to examine candidates for ordination and approve those who are gifted and effective in ministry and subscribe to our United Methodist doctrinal and ethical standards. Ninety percent of the clergy and laity of an annual conference have no experience with a candidate and have no way of knowing whether they truly do meet the qualifications for ordained ministry. We trust the Board to have done its job well, and most times rubber stamp the Board’s recommendations.
What happens, however, when trust goes away? In a system that is built on trust, a lack of trust can corrode the functioning of the system. Thus, some congregations are withholding apportionments because they do not trust that their money is being spent in line with their beliefs and values. Some pastor-parish relations committees subject prospective pastors to an intense grilling because they do not trust that the district superintendent has done a good job of matching the candidate to the congregation. The list of examples could go on.
This mistrust between the grass roots of the church and the denominational leadership gives rise to the feeling at local churches that they are not truly part of the annual conference. The annual conference is “them” and “they” are doing things “to us” that we find hurtful. It is worth quoting from the conclusions of the 2010 Apex report for the Call to Action Steering Team:
“General lack of trust within the Church was a pervasive and recurring theme in the majority of interviews. … Trust was cited as one of the most important challenges that the Church faces, it was cited as a force working against a vital connexion and it was cited as a root cause for under-functioning structures and processes of the Church. Sources of distrust ranged from “old wounds” to representative and/or protectionist behaviors and agendas that were not putting the broad interests of the Church first. Lack of accountability was also cited as a root cause of distrust. … Interviewees related that trust and good intent was not presumed in relationships and frequently the opposite was true. … Often mentioned was the observation that leaders themselves frequently do not demonstrate trust behaviors.” (Apex report, pp. 12-13)
This trust deficit leads to the kind of behaviors like withholding of apportionments and questioning the appointment of pastors.
Since these findings in 2010 (based on 65 hours of extensive interviews with church leaders and a random survey of nearly 1,000 church members), almost nothing has been done to rebuild the trust deficit that exists between the grass roots and the leadership of the church. In fact, the leadership has continued to operate in such a way as to exacerbate the trust deficit by failing to hold people accountable for breaking the Discipline and by using a cloak of confidentiality to hide actions (or lack of actions) that undermine trust.
Nowhere is this counter-productive behavior more evident than in the plan proposed by the General Commission on the General Conference to address the controversy over homosexuality at GC 2016. The proposal is to form some 58 small groups among the delegates, who will discuss the issue in those groups. Reports of the discussion are to be compiled and reported by a team of six facilitators. This same team of six will then take the feedback from the small groups and craft or recommend legislation that they believe would reflect a majority opinion of the delegates.
This proposed process is rife with the opportunity for misrepresentation and manipulation. General Conference delegates will apparently have no input as to which legislative proposals are withdrawn from the legislative committees and turned over to this new process. It will be nearly impossible for observers to sit in on all 58 small groups (if that will even be allowed) to ensure that the groups are fairly facilitated and that everyone has the opportunity to fairly express their views. It will be impossible to verify whether each group leader fairly represents the feedback of the small group. It will be impossible to verify whether the team of six fairly compiles and represents the feedback that they receive from all the small group leaders. And it will be impossible to verify whether the team of six adequately captures the majority opinion of the delegates in whatever legislation that they craft or recommend.
From start to finish, this is a closed process. The 58 small group leaders and the team of six facilitators will have unprecedented power to influence the outcomes of the process. They might do so intentionally because they want to advance the agenda that they have for the UM Church. Or they might do so unintentionally because their own perceptions and beliefs will influence how they hear people and how they select the feedback to compile and report.
Because this whole process will operate “in the dark,” the legislative outcome will be suspect in the eyes of whichever group is not in agreement with what is proposed. While some delegates will be predisposed to accept the recommendations of the team of six because it theoretically represents a consensus of the compiled responses, other delegates will be predisposed to reject the recommendations because they do not trust the process.
I believe in the value of the small group discussions around the controversy over homosexuality and marriage. Such an opportunity would enable many to participate in the conversation who could not do so in any other format. However, turning that conversation into legislation is a process that ought to happen in the open, for the entire world to see. The only way to rebuild trust is to have maximum transparency, so that all can see that actions are taken in good faith and reflective of the will of the body. The small group conversations can inform how the individual delegates understand the issues and vote on the proposed legislation. But to take the legislative process out of the legislative committee will only increase the mistrust of delegates and church members alike toward the moral authority of General Conference. We need to either scrap the proposed process altogether or modify it in a way that returns the legislative function to the legislative committee.
It is crucial that we find ways to rebuild trust in the year ahead if we plan to continue operating as one united church.