Addressing the Vertical Nature of the Institutional Church

By Bill Mefford

One reality facing all United Methodists that rarely gets mentioned, but which is felt in the struggles United Methodists are facing is the structure of the institution. Yes, the supposed answer that institutionalists always give to challenges of decreased membership, lagging morale, and unaddressed conflict is to restructure agencies, boards, and committees. However, this is akin to rearranging deck chairs aboard the Titanic. It makes us feel good because we feel busy and even purposeful, but it in no way alters the direction of an institution heading for disaster.

No, what I want to discuss briefly is the vertical nature of the institution. Virtually no one currently in the hierarchy wants to discuss this and for good reason. Vertically structured institutions thrive when there are two realities present. Those are:

  • those who occupy the positions at the top are considered “experts” in their field, and,
  • those at the bottom of the hierarchy are in need of their expertise.  

These two realities are no longer realities.

Expertise in various fields such as mission, church planting, spiritual care, or organizing for justice, to name a few are no longer located solely at the top of the institutional hierarchy. One reason for this is due to the democratization of information. This has resulted in greater access to necessary and innovative information and this access has lead to a necessary flattening of structures; there is literally no longer a need for top-heavy structures. You no longer need top-down communication conveying information about how to build up churches, how to do outreach and mission, or how to engage in justice or prayer. When information is democratized then the best form of training comes from those who not only “know” the information, but who “practice” or live out the information in specific contexts and with innovative approaches. And the best place to engage the information is in a local context where that information is incarnated in peoples’ lives.

This means that the best place to learn about churches doing mission in an urban context is in Des Moines, Iowa where Las Americas United Methodist Church has been doing amazing ministries for years. Or the best place to learn about prison ministries is in the prison in Chillicothe, Ohio where United Methodists have been leading impactful prison ministries for years. The list goes on. Long gone are the days, if those days ever existed at all, when "expertise" for building transformational churches was located in the upper echelons of the institution.

In addition, with the constant restructuring being done in response to shrinking membership and related giving, and with the democratization of information as explained above that has created greater access to information, then the expertise of those who occupy the positions at the top of the hierarchy is increasingly relegated to an operational knowledge of how the structure operates. This means that when you want to know how to change the institution the ones who possess that information are least in favor of institutional change. Thus, the top of a vertical hierarchy is evermore inwardly focused as a means of self-survival and has become largely irrelevant to local churches ministering in their local contexts.

The other dilemma the United Methodist institution faces is that there is a faction in the church that is no longer subservient to the vertical hierarchy. In order for the vertical hierarchy to effectively function it is dependent on a large number of those at the bottom of the hierarchy to be dependent on the upper echelons. But alas, to my utter surprise and dismay, the rebellious faction not dependent on the hierarchy is not centered among liberals, who should be wired to question repressive vertical structures, but rather, the rebels are the conservatives. And predictably, they are not very good at being rebellious. 

Conservatives rebel against the vertical nature of the United Methodist institution primarily so that they can keep their resources located locally. Thus, their rebellion is not so much out of a passion for building the church, or for doing justice, or for reflecting the Kingdom of God in all of their mission and ministry. Instead, they question and defame and pour money into shoddy organizations who spend all of their time needlessly attacking the agencies of the institution because they demand uniformity of belief; hardly an enterprise worthy of the Kingdom.

But the sad reality on the other side is that far too many liberals have occupied the position of wanting to hold together, at almost any cost, an arcane, ineffective, and overly top-heavy institution and they do so primarily because holding it together places them in direct opposition to what the conservatives are wanting to do. This seems like a dumb reason to do anything and results only in gridlock. 

Therefore, I emphasize the vertical nature of the institutional hierarchy to hearten my plea to my fellow liberals who remain in the United Methodist institution: unless you draw your employment or your identity from the institution, the institution is not serving you well (and even if you do, it is still not serving you well, but you are probably unable to see it). In fact, it is not serving you at all. So, my prayer for you for 2018 is this: literally, for the love of God, renounce your dependence on a vertical institution that serves only itself and recover your imagination. There is literally a broken world that would love for you and I to dream new dreams, create new networks, and raise up new leaders this coming year. And rest assured, if United Methodists turn aside from this uncharted and holy mission, God will certainly find others to walk forward. In many ways, God already is. 

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