Trust is being lifted up as a major problem in the United Methodist Church (Ricky Harrison’s take and Sky McCracken’s take). While I appreciate the concern about trust, the United Methodist connection will not work if we do not trust each other, I think trust is not the problem. Trust is only a symptom of a much larger problem.
The larger problem is that the United Methodist church consists of a series of unhealthy systems. Lack of trust is a symptom of the unhealthiness being lived out in the system. The General Church is unhealthy. Many annual conferences in the United States are unhealthy. Most local churches, even ones who have impressive statistics in the present, are not very healthy.
The issues creating this unhealthiness are manifold. Some overarching ones are : lack of passion, sustainability, unnecessary complexity, cumbersome polity, unhealthy power dynamics, lack of focus, and a survival mentality. With so many overarching issues, let alone localized issues, the systems are stressed in many ways. While I cannot speak to why others are experiencing symptoms related to trust, I know why I feel like a symptom bearer.
First, the only part of these unhealthy systems that can be controlled easily is pastors. General Conference cannot enforce mandates on local churches. Annual conferences are reluctant to use any actual power they might have over a local church, because it opens a can of messiness, Pastors cannot control local churches. Our Book of Discipline gives pastors many responsibilities, but little real power. Pastoral power has to be earned in our system.
Pastors can be controlled. The different systems can control their employment, their compensation, their benefits, their quality of life, and so on. Financial problems? Make the pastors sacrifice. If they complain, call them entitled brats and remind them that they are servants. Pastors can be held responsible in ways congregations cannot. Ineffective pastors can be the boogeyman to scare all pastors into submission.
Problems create opportunities for power. Perceived problems create opportunities for power as well, ask Harold Hill. Once a person names a problem, the person often has a solution. Since the person was “bright” enough to name a problem, the person’s solution is often given credence. The leaders in our denomination have been adept at naming particular problems.
Many of their solutions have involved controlling pastors. End guaranteed appointments. Lower pension obligations. Use the word missional to make it harder to argue against these changes. If you oppose our proposed changes, you are obviously opposed to the mission of the church.
The people who want trust are also the people who have the least to lose in all this. Bishops and most General Conference delegates have little to lose in terms of guaranteed appointments or changes in compensation. It is easy to ask people to become vulnerable and sacrifice when you have little to lose. Frame it in terms of mission and you make your opponents look bad.
From my perspective, I find it hard to trust the leaders of our denomination. I sense little sympathy or understanding for those of us on the front lines doing our best to serve faithfully our call, but are not seeing much fruit (Edgar Moore has an interesting article on the subject). Further, pastors are only one unhealthy part of the whole system. To what extent pastors are creating the unhealthiness or bearing the unhealthiness is debatable.
Trust is only a symptom of much larger problems. If we want trust, we need to look beyond trust. Perhaps if we dealt with some of the other issues fairly, trust might be restored. When I get a sense that we are all sacrificing and all being held responsible in a fair way, I might start trusting again. Until then I reserve my trust for God alone in our system.