aefenglommung (aefenglommung) wrote,

Old wine in old wineskins

Encomia are pouring forth upon the passing of retired Bishop Michael Coyner. He is being called "a uniter," "a visionary," and so on. He is also praised for being fair to everybody from his position of power. I'll go along with that last one. I'll even add to the pile with a tribute to his political sense; he was as shrewd a vote-counter and handler of factions as I've seen. But, de mortuis and all that notwithstanding, I was not impressed with the unity or vision that Bishop Coyner supposedly blessed us with.

For the great achievement of Bishop Coyner's episcopacy -- the vision he cast -- was an attempt to answer the challenge posed by our institutional decline through the merger of Annual Conferences. He managed to pull this off twice, first in the Dakotas and then in Indiana. This was no mean feat. I bow to his managerial and political skill to pull it off, both times. And I should point out that I was not and am not opposed to North and South Indiana being one conference; indeed, I have been greatly enriched by new relationships with people from "the other conference." Not only that, but both former conferences had very strong traditionalist cadres, and joining together their reach has been greatly extended, I think -- an unintended consequence of the merger, perhaps.

Nevertheless, Bishop Coyner's vision was the answer to the wrong question. You can't consolidate your way out of decline. Healthy orgs multiply outlets and subdivide to extend their reach. Dying orgs try to consolidate outlets in order to preserve jobs for senior managers and extend the life of the org without changing organizational behavior. They call this "efficiency" and "elimination of duplicate services." Another word for it is "morbidity."

Are mergers always destined to be like this? No. It depends upon what kind of org you make coming out of the merger. As one friend remarked in the consultation phase leading up to the votes, "I can only see two possible reasons for this merger: either we're going to save a boatload of money; or we're going to grow." We have done neither. Neither was in the design. Instead, we have hastened the decline by doing all the wrong things.

First, we eliminated the huge committee structures of both Annual Conferences and replaced them with a streamlined, centralized structure. This means fewer people (and their talents) are needed to run the org. It also means it's easier to get the structure to do what HQ wants. All funding for programs now goes through this bottleneck, which means only trendy things that central leaders are enamored of gets supported -- and they only can support now this, now that. There is no sustained effort at anything.

Second, we bought into a horrendously expensive and inconvenient HQ and filled it with staff. Only one staff member of the former conferences didn't have a place to land in the new org chart. And since then, we keep hiring Associate Council Directors of all kinds of things. In effect, we've replaced strong conference committees and task forces with paid staff. This means that while our budget has arguably shrunk, we're still spending far too much on HQ expenses.

Third, the model foisted upon us assumes that clergy and lay Members of Annual Conference don't want to be burdened with voting on a lot of things. So everything is pre-chewed in the centralized structure, and the actual business of the Annual Conference has been reduced to rallies, seminars, speaking gigs for the same ol' same ol' from around the connection, and ginned-up missions projects (as if nobody does any of these in their home churches). Annual Conference has become a trade show, not a business meeting. The Members have become employees (clergy) and customers (laity). The result has been not only a badly managed conference, but one which most people can't summon the energy to care about. My daughter attended as a District Equalizing Member this last year and said that everything was tattered and shabby. The vibrant life of the Annual Conference she remembered as a child and youth from the parsonage was gone beyond recall.

Fourth, the Districts were vastly reduced in number (which I support), but then the Superintendents have been reduced to being an entourage for the current bishop, who has saddled them with the grandiose and un-Disciplinary title of Conference Superintendents. There is little happening out in the Districts, and certainly little feeling among the congregations of belonging to anything to care about. "Efficiency" has also led to the spectacle of mass Charge Conferences where Supers glory in not having to do regular business. So, the whole face-to-face accountability, Annual Business Meeting of the congregation has become a thankless chore of submitting reports. If I hadn't been required to attend as a pastor, there were times when no one from our congregation would have attended their own Charge Conference.

In all these ways, the model proposed and enacted under Bishop Coyner's leadership has followed in the wake of other behaviors in the general church. We are busy disinventing Methodism. We no longer believe in our own core processes. The snappy slogan a few years ago was "Rethink Church." Except we never did. Perhaps "Unthink Church" would have been a more appropriate slogan.

Mike was a good man who loved the church. By all accounts, he was a good pastor. I grieve his loss. But his vision was miscast, and the ultimate outcome of his achievements as bishop is the hollowed-out shell we have become. Maybe we'd be as bad off without his efforts as we are now, maybe not. But we are certainly where we are due in large part to his work.


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