Call to Action: Executive Authority as Crisis Management

Batman, Michigan, and the Call To Action #UMC

In Batman: The Dark Knight (2008 – IMDB), Harvey Dent is at dinner with Bruce Wayne and their respective love interests. They start talking about what role Batman plays in Gotham. Dent recounts what happens when a community is in crisis (script link – PDF):

Natascha: But this is a democracy Harvey…who appointed the Batman?

Dent: When their enemies were at the gate, the Romans would suspend democracy and appoint one man to protect the city. It wasn’t considered an honor, it was considered public service.

Rachel: And the last man they asked to protect the republic was named Caesar. He never gave up his power.

Dent: Well, I guess you either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain.

Thus, Batman represents a failure in the civic system to deal with a crisis. Since democratically-elected people couldn’t change the tide, Batman stepped in and seized authority as judge, jury, and punisher (not executioner, of course). When the people can’t fix a problem, an executive steps in who uses power without accountability to fix the problem. Done and done.

In our contemporary world, we have the state of Michigan where amidst budget crises the government has given authority to “Emergency Financial Managers” to take over struggling towns, cancel contracts, and fire elected officials. From Forbes:

Snyder’s law gives the state government the power not only to break up unions, but to dissolve entire local governments and place appointed “Emergency Managers” in their stead. But that’s not all – whole cities could be eliminated if Emergency Managers and the governor choose to do so. And Snyder can fire elected officials unilaterally, without any input from voters. It doesn’t get much more anti-Democratic than that.

In other words, when crisis hits, those in power turn to executive authority to guide us through the mess, regardless of how undemocratic it is. This has already been utilized to a predominantly minority town. When Rachel Maddow had this scary development on her show, she reiterated that this is not about the budget, it’s about power. These people are using a crisis (or manufactured crisis) to give more power to executives.

Finally, we get to the United Methodist Church. In the Call to Action report, there’s talk of “executives” who would guide us through this mess:

Establish a general church executive function that carries responsibility, authority, and accountability; employs and deploys general church executives; allocates resources in keeping with needs and desired outcomes; and resolves disputes.

(Call To Action Report, 27-28)

This sort of role has not been strongly fleshed out as of yet. But elements of centralizing authority are mentioned elsewhere. The Report repeatedly mentions reducing the size of the leadership teams and general boards. The GBGM has already reconfigured its operations by reducing their board’s size.  But even in these centralized committees they seem to be weighted. By a 4-to-2 vote, the Interim Operations Team gives more power to the episcopacy than the laity (see A Potter’s View). In short, there’s a narrowing of church leadership roles with a focus on consolidating administrative power in the hands of the few.

As with other periods in history, in times of crisis (or manufactured crisis) we turn to the executive. Clearly, the UMC is also seeking this sort of change in our polity to centralize authority in a smaller number of fruit-filled clergy and laity to guide the ship through the choppy seas.

I am leery of this development when you see what power these executives and smaller boards would have. For example, the word of the day is alignment:

Provide base funding to the reduced number and size of agencies, with competitive access to substantial performance-based financial grants, and specifically using criteria that is tightly aligned with increasing congregational vitality

(Call To Action Report, 28)

In short, there will be fewer people who narrow the focus and if you don’t fall into the narrower focus of fewer people, then your funding gets cut. Executive authority narrows the scope of potential outreach by the church because there is less diversity for funding applicants to appeal to and to see value in. Even as boards try to be as diverse as possible, there’s no shaking the monoculture of privilege that board members tend to represent.

Finally, we’ve talked before about suspending the rules (“In Times of Church Conflict, the Law falls Silent“). I concluded with this comment:

In times of war, the law falls silent. In times of stress and fear, the law falls silent. The words of “immediacy” and “crisis” permeate the Call to Action report and clearly insinuate that in our time of crisis, we ought to disregard our polity and turn over the keys to some church executives and fruit-filled pastors to guide us out of this mess. That’s a good idea for sure. But I’m not sure it is a Methodist idea.

The key thing is the “Methodist” way of doing things. Every faith organization has this identity and structure. For example, when our Catholic friends have crisis in their communities, they turn to the monks. For example, when Cardinal Law presided over the Boston Child Abuse scandal and stepped aside, the RCC went to the Capuchin (a monastic order) Cardinal O’Malley. O’Malley sold the opulent mansion and cleaned house, as far as I can tell.  My worship professor at the time said that has been their process through the ages: when the priestly order falls short (I forget the proper term for Law’s vocational lineage), they turn to the monks whose order is more bottom-up than top-down.

That’s the Catholic way of handling crises. Criticize the results how you may want, but it’s the Catholic way. The Methodist way is through democracy: elected executives, diversity of opinion, big-tent Methodism, social action in varied stratum of society, committees, boards, and mutual accountability. This has been the Methodist way ever since we lost our chief executive in John Wesley and we haven’t replaced him until, perhaps, now. It is through this Methodist unwieldy connectional system that we find both our bane of slow to respond and our strength of holding together diverse groups. Even though I really can’t stand the abuses of the democratic system by the caucus groups…it’s more acceptable than increased executive power, in my opinion.

My problem is that my generation has not seen any segment of society become more centralized. For example, music distribution went from the Big Records to Napster to Gnutella to Limewire (becoming more decentralized at each step). I honestly cannot think of any other organization in the world that is moving to a “top-down” system rather than away from it…other than corporations and 20th century power bases. And yet this move towards centralization and negation of connectionalism is exactly the direction the UMC seems to be heading with the Call to Action movement.

In short, God is found in the back-and-forth, the struggle for consensus in groups, the diversity of belief and passion that large groups bring. They are unwieldy, they are not uniform, they are slow, they are full of sinful humans…but they are Methodist. And it is exactly that quality which I fear is being lost as we excise difference and consolidate power in the hands of the few. There’s trimming that needs to happen to our family Methodist tree, but I don’t think cutting off the taproot is the best way to go about it.

I pray we do not replace the lifeline of collective striving to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world, and I hope you do as well.


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  1. michael says

    The basic insight here is interesting and provokes thought.

    Trouble is: “…they are slow…” [re our connectional ‘large group’ struggle for consensus].

    That’s the key problem. We are plainly not a nimble people. Yet, we live in a time when all organizations simply must be nimble to even survive. “Every organization must be prepared to abandon everything it does to survive in the future.” ~ Peter Drucker

    So, this article’s argument is basically to let the ravages of present reality take their toll while we ‘slowly’ remain “methodist?”

    Sure, we can let things take their course, just let gravity do its thing, but if we do, will the remnant we’ll end up being even look at all “methodist” in composition anyway?

    …just wondering,

    • says

      Thanks for your wonderings, Michael! The purpose of this conversation is not to sit idly by but critique the current direction of reform. While you appeal to Drucker, I appeal to Brafman and Beckstrom who talk about the power of decentralized movements in their book “Starfish and the Spider.” This movement towards centralization of authority goes against their argument that decentralization is more nimble and relevant.

      I don’t know what decentralization looks like in the UMC yet, but I’m pretty sure replacing conversation amongst equals with appeals to authorities is not it. I have been watching closely the GBGM with its reorganization towards smaller boards and authority and I hope I’m wrong about it.

      • michael says


        Thanks for your response.

        i couldn’t agree more re the need for decentralization.

        If we [UM Church] could just cut loose of the limiting aspects of ‘connection’ [such as, it’s present slow pace which is truly unsustainable without losing most of the rural churches] and actually tap into the potential it holds of being fractal-like.

        If we [UM Church] could agree on a focused, Christ-centered mission and learn to think of local churches as laboratories all purposed to the same mission, striving to learn ways to make the mission work, and sharing the results (good, bad, and ugly) to help all churches thrive in the common mission, then the true power of a committed connection in Christ could be revealed, again.

        i know, those are some mighty big “ifs!”

        With regard to saving the rural church, i am becoming convinced that one of the questions we need to be asking and discussing is: “Can we be the church without a building?”

        Thanks for your blog post, very thought provoking.

        …by God’s grace only,

  2. says

    I think the early Methodist movement can best be described at a benevolent dictatorship by John Wesley in England and by Asbury later in America. Those are our roots. Wesley purposely kept the connection to only 100 people and it only expanded after his death. In America, while Asbury was alive, there may have been other Bishops on technically equal ground it was the Asbury show until his death as well.

    Recently look at the turn around at Apple under Steve Jobs or Larry Page, a google founder, retaking the helm. In both cases these central figures seek to keep the culture of these large organizations focused on there core values and purpose and avoid them getting scattered.

    A central authority that holds others accountable to keeping the focus on our shared culture and vision seems like both a good idea and a Methodist idea.

    • says

      I agree with your historical analysis. I remember the UMC being described as a head-less and feet-less movement. The entire structure of class meetings and circuits was so the feet could report to the head, which was Wesley and later Asbury. Now that both the class meetings and Wesley are gone, all that remains are the connectional middle that has defined us ever since.

      Your statement here is the one I struggle with: “A central authority that holds others accountable to keeping the focus on our shared culture and vision seems like both a good idea and a Methodist idea.”

      Yes, it does and it worked for the UMC’s time and place in revolutionary America. Executives function well at the episcopal, connectional, and local church level. This isn’t a tirade against executive authority: it has its place and indeed I’m a clergyperson and thus function as an executive within my roles’ understanding.

      However, in the UMC post-Asbury, executive authority functions best as a complement to collective authority, not as a replacement of it. What I read in the report and in teh conversations is replacing collective authority with executive authority, replacing ideals with standards, and narrowing the decision-making ability to probably 50% less people. I fail to see how reducing collective authority and responsibility is going to be a catalyst to change this church.

      Further thoughts? Thanks for pushing me to think beyond what I wrote.

      • says

        There’s a property of starfish that’s important to remember here. It’s not the case at all that cutting off a leg “any old way” will generate a new starfish, or even a new leg.

        It could also produce fish food (the severed leg) and even dead starfish.

        For the more productive outcomes to occur, it’s important that part of the leg that is severed ALSO be attached to part of the “core” of the starfish. If that happens, you can indeed get a regenerated leg on the one and a regenerated starfish on the other, though for a while both will be weaker and rather vulnerable for the loss of the limb or the rest of the starfish.

        So I think its a bit misleading to refer to an organization like Al Qaida or the Apache (as Brafman and Beckstrom do) as “leaderless” per se. They’re actually leader centered! The difference is that the leader they’re centered on isn’t a particular person (unlike early Methodism, which was clearly centered on the Wesleys, and, over here, on Asbury) but rather on a particular “ethos”– a tightly aligned set of ideas and practices — what Wesley later referred to as “the doctrine, spirit and discipline with which we started out” (Thoughts upon Methodism, 1786).

        What I think we found in the late 18th century in England and before the mid-19th century over here is that Wesley’s hope that we might be an “ethos focused” organization, after all, did not transpire. What I might say he found is that specific leaders were actually part of the core that also needed to be attached to the “legs” so that the “starfish of Methodism” could actually multiply rather than mutate into a dead sect.

        I don’t think that analogy is true for every kind of starfish organization– but it does appear true for us Methodists. Perhaps the problem was that the “doctrine, spirit and discipline” had not gotten fully into “the people called Methodist” on either side of the pond before the Wesleys and Asbury died. Truly, the changes in ecclesiology that Methodism pioneered were so dramatic that this result may not be surprising.

        For all of these reasons I find myself more skeptical of the capacity of a more decentralized leadership system, in which “neither the doctrine, spirit or discipline with which we started out” abides in recognizable ways, much less the sort of leadership to ensure it continues to abide, can actually get us very far, at least in the US, where this same kind of model for denominational leadership continues to fail, and often fail dramatically, everywhere it is tried.

        It may well take more centralized leadership, and a tighter alignment with what had been our core values, to move those values from ideals to lived realities, from directions by identified leaders to an actual ethos held by the people called Methodists again themselves.

        But here, too, I would offer a word of caution, and one with which I think you would agree. Centralization and alignment per se do not guarantee much. It matters critically around what we are centralizing and trying to align.

        The Wesleys did not centralize or try to align around trying to create, prop up, or sustain “vital congregations.”

        They had planted exactly zero congregations.

        Their mission was “to reform the nation, chiefly the church, and to spread scriptural holiness across the land.” Their strategy was not to do this in congregations– by rather alongside them, through Methodist societies, including a constellation of class meetings, bands, and the raising up of field preaching. They succeeded in reforming the nation, and indeed transforming the world! Methodists were deeply involved in nearly all of the revolutionary yet bloodless social transformations of the early 19th century in England that they spread worldwide through the British Empire– the abolition of slavery, labor reforms, prison reform and the elimination of debtors prisons, the rise and rapid spread of hospitals and other health care systems, to name just a few. If that’s not disciples of Jesus engaged in transforming the world, I don’t know what is.

        Their key means to do this wasn’t to change or fix congregations. It was to find, identify and invite people who were ready to flee the wrath to come and to be saved, completely delivered, from their sins, to join hands with the Holy Spirit and each other, watching over one another in love, to grow in holiness of heart and life, to attain that holiness without which no one can see the Lord, to strive for perfection in love– in all its parts– in this life.

        And so they were changed.

        And those changed people changed the world.

        Yet apart from the revival of sacramental life in the Church of England, it’s a bit difficult to see how they actually succeeded in reforming the church in England. And given the demise of their core process for discipling people in the way of Jesus over here– the class meeting –by 1848, when when the Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church essentially made it optional (and it’s clear from Disciplines from at least the 1820s on that it was on its way out!), it’s hard to say how Methodists any longer represented a significant alternative to standard American Protestant church life, either.

        The more Wesley tried to focus on changing congregations in his earlier years of ministry, the more he found his words resisted, his presence banished, his person threatened, and his message largely ignored. When he gave up, not on congregations per se, but trying to bring about discipleship for people through them, everything changed, dramatically. He still got threats and banishments, but his message and influence as a discipler of others in the way of Jesus became a life-changing and widely spreading wildfire.

        We do need leadership, and perhaps more centralization. But may it be around the doctrine, spirit and discipline with which we started out– the doctrine of full salvation by grace, the spirit of holiness and loving zeal, and the discipline of watching over one another in love (largely outside of congregations per se, while we also attend them, pray for them, and work with them!), prompting one another to love and good works as we see the Day approaching.

  3. says

    Even more than God appearing in the back and forth, I believe the Holy Spirit is in the consensus of Christ’s Body. Centralized authority beyond Christ’s headship is antithetical to the Church’s operation. If we, and that’s the whole we of the Church, worked more towards consensus rather than executive power, we’d probably move a lot less but when we did move we would know the Spirit was with us in it.

    Great blog, by the way. I only discovered you recently, sir, but I appreciate you very much.

    • says

      You are definitely speaking my language of mutuality and trust in the Holy Spirit. We are, unfortunately, behind the curve in that changes we should have made decades ago are only now being seen. This leads to a crisis (a real crisis in numbers and money, obviously) whereby we choose which path to follow. The CtA is advocating an executive approach, and I am obviously leery of such an appeal.

      I got your email and was articulating how to respond. Thanks for your kind words and glad to find another naysayer to the culture that celebrates death (off-topic to what we are discussing here, peanut gallery!).

  4. Lance Houghtling says

    What you describe as centralizing I just watched happen in a local UMC. A by-product proved to be a dearth of pastoral care. I do not honestly know if it was the process, or the personel that created the by-product, but the loss is lamentable.

  5. says

    I’ll add a couple of comments. What I think this is doing (and this could also be that I need to reread some of the CtA) is recognizing that we have already moved to a more decentralized structure. Local churches and conferences have already moved to take on missions and other works that used to be relegated to denomination wide agencies. I view this move as a good one. The more that local churches and conferences can do this work on their own, the better.

    The problem with decentralized structures is that they need some sort of central control, otherwise it falls apart. That central control is charged with maintaining the identity of the organization. The more decentralized the org. then the stronger the central leadership needs to be.

    But that central figure has to be careful. They have to walk a careful line between over controlling and under controlling. I see the need for an executive as important and necessary, but should be undertaken cautiously.


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