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Something Wicked This Way Comes: Wicked Problem Cautions for GC2020

In numerous prior blogs and posts, as well as in articles reaching back to Circuit Rider and Quarterly Review in 2003-4, I have argued that insights from secular Wicked Problem (WP) theory can offer the church collective insight and wise direction in moving toward an otherwise ‘dark and indefinite shore’ known as the future United Methodist church. This piece briefly summarizes relevant highlights on WP theory and offers cautions and encouragement as the ‘usual suspects’ and some unusual suspects gather for the Methodist mash-up or mitosis in Minneapolis. Key facts in facing the immediate future are these:

The UMC has a wicked problem. It’s characterized by multiple issues, competing values, conflicted stakeholders, and no ‘stopping rule,’ i.e., at no point is a neat solution possible to fix the problem. Trust deficits, miscommunication, demographics, outdated and ineffective structures, confused and contradictory theologies that mock Wesley’s ‘Catholic Spirit,’ profound social-cultural-economic disparities among members and textbook denial or some or all of the above by major leadership combine to brew a potion no one dares drink. Shakespeare’s comment in Macbeth of “Something wicked” nails it.

Institutions seek three approaches to tame a WP. Some use strategies of authority. That was GC2019 and will be a temptation for GC2020. The church is episcopal with bishops, a supreme court, a legislative branch and the legal ability to confiscate property and boot unruly players. The appeal of authority is that experts (think Connectional Table, WESPATH, Church and Society, Council of Bishops) can sift the problems and propose the best solution. GC2020 votes to approve the solution and the system finds relief.

Authority has crashed. It crashed at Tampa at GC2012 when the Judicial Council (JC) devoured the meal prepared by the delegates and agencies to restructure the church. It crashed again in 2016 when, after a truce was called, the Western Jurisdiction elected openly-partnered lesbian Karen Oliveto to the office of bishop. GC2019 made official decisions on the sexuality piece, preceded by 75 weeks of prayer and an entire first day of prayer given to asking for God’s leading. The theology of prayer was the first casualty of St. Louis, followed by more rejection of authority. Short of endless lawsuits over property, authority has lost compelling relevance in resolving crucial issues.

Strategy two in WP theory is conflict. The woods are full of strategy two. Ideally, this approach leads to the survival of the fittest, Darwinism at its finest. The world divides into win and lose, with clear labels for all to see. The special challenge within the church has been the collision of conscience among the contestants relative to sexuality. At GC2019 the Connectional Conference plan contravened the conscience of African and other delegates who refused to countenance either perceived separation or any plan that suggested they would become part of a church that would bless certain sexual behaviors. Reassurances that they specifically would not be expected to do so gained no traction. The Traditional and One Church plans likewise called on liberal/progressives and conservatives/orthodox respectively to ignore their conscience. When churches fight win-lose contests, lose-lose is the result.

Strategy three is gently unfolding but faces headwinds. This is collaboration, a serious unpacking and re-forming of differences and expectations toward a goal of preserving conscience, addressing issues and empowering action toward a productive future. The Indianapolis plan and the Protocol are two examples, the latter especially gaining traction. No one is triumphant, no one is pleased but all agree collaborative approaches offer the best alternative to dysfunction or carnage. The constant threat is that institutions fail into collaboration. They don’t move seriously in that direction until they have lost hope that authority or conflict cannot gain a victory. The deeper constant threat is that most efforts at collaboration fail back into conflict, as some stakeholders become disaffected and believe they really can slug it out with others and be the proverbial last one standing with trophies, toys and conscience intact. If GC2020 collapses, this will be the reason.

Wicked Problem Cautions for GC2020

In light of the above, consider the following as GC2020 approaches:

  1. Holy realism. WP theory is clear that GC2020 cannot ‘solve’ what ails the church. Even the taming process of a WP is just that, a process. Unfair and unrealistic expectations on delegates of results will inspire wasted efforts and incentivize angry outcomes and demonize conscientious delegates, regardless of their theology.

  2. Protect conscience. All collaboration theory is clear that when a group’s core values are discarded or negated by the process, no lasting good results. This speaks to true non-negotiables, not preferences or desires. The ability to express the boundaries of

  3. “Out of Egypt hath I called my son.” Logistical challenges (not conspiracies) have prevented a healthy level of involvement by African leaders in developing various plans and approaches. That said, no US-authored plan that sidelines rather than centralizes African and Third World concerns can pass. A stalemated continued status quo is no one’s idea of success. Neither US liberals or conservatives have African delegates in their pockets. Engage and heed Africa from its perspective, for the global south is returning to ascendancy as the birthplace of Christianity.

  4. Affirm what is right and going well. Yes, US decline is real and deep denial is at work, but some Spirit-empowered good things are happening as well. Identify and focus support on the good as well as addressing the bad. Grant that what is good to one delegate isn’t so hot in the eyes of another. Welcome to Methodism…

  5. Think Methodist mitosis rather than scandalous schism. Mitosis is cell division that expands life, increases health. Wise division with multiplication in mind is essential gospel practice. Angry ripping (the literal meaning of schism) drains all contestants. Resist the temptation to make no needed profound change out of fear of upsetting the status quo.

  6. Boil your water. Websites and bloggers that thrive on demeaning and questioning the motives and integrity of others poison the process and grieve the Spirit. Don’t drink. Sites and bloggers representing various views are helpful, if they resist snark and venom.

Bob Phillips

Chair WCA, Illinois Great Rivers Conference

Degrees from University of Illinois, Asbury and Princeton Seminaries, University of St. Andrews

Graduate of Senior Executive Seminar on Morality, Ethics and Public Policy, Brookings Institution

Captain, Chaplain Corps, US Navy (ret)


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