Blowback: Lamenting an Open-Source #CallToAction

Computer Programming, Boston University, and The United Methodist Church

The best term to describe the Call To Action right now is, in a word, blowback. There’s tons of organized opposition to some of the plan’s particulars right up to the entire thing itself. Pretty epic. The church hasn’t seen anything like this before. Heck, I’m closing in on 20 blog posts on the Call To Action myself, so this is pretty bad.

  1. The Methodist Federation for Social Action has a plan. This is the most substantial one and the only one submitted as actual legislation. And I’m biased because I was on the team that wrote it.
  2. The Western Jurisdiction Bishops and constituencies have a plan. Theirs is not just criticism but is a major tweak of the CTA plan.
  3. The Plan B website has a plan. There’s no spokesperson, but a WHOIS search indicates it is owned by Joe Whittmore, former North Georgia Lay Leader. He also opposed the Constitutional Amendments in 2008 and the marriage-covenant signers in 2011. Doesn’t get my hopes up about the beliefs behind the project even as I agree with some of their conclusions and recommendations.
  4. The Wisconsin Delegation has refuted the Call To Action and called for more vague changes. More criticism than alternative proposals.
  5. Heck, even the Connectional Table had to revise a proposal and then it failed in their own committee. Amazing.

But all the blowback and opposition caused me to wonder about what alternative past we might have had.

A reader made a comment on the previous post about the Western Bishops’ response to the Call To Action that really struck my imagination. Here’s part of Anne’s comment:

I’m wondering why the Call to Action (when finished) was not shared with the bishops who could then do this type of session to discuss the pluses and minuses and offer revisions before the CtA ever came out to the UM public. The findings from the meetings of every jurisdiction could then be passed on to the CtA team who could then make some revisions and then release the CtA in a more constructive manner. I honestly think we would be in a better position of knowing what might be best for the church if these things had happened.

Anne’s comment caused me to start thinking about how the Call To Action could have been done as a more grassroots initiative much like an open-source software project.

In the computer world, there’s a conflict between closed-source and open-source software.  While there are many differences, closed source and open source have different processes of creation that are helpful to this conversation:

  • Closed source (Microsoft Windows, Adobe Photoshop) means that you hire a professional team to make the code, they beta-test it, they write it, they release the product the code makes, then they fix the bugs and problems for the company.
  • Open source (Linux, the Gimp, OpenOffice) means that a loosely-affiliated amateur or off-the-clock professional team invests time, money, and energy into writing code, they keep every stage open, and they release the “source code” alongside the final product.

Clearly the Call To Action was approached in a closed-source fashion. Instead of Anne’s suggestion above, the consultants did their research, reported it to the Call To Action committee, who then made the presentation and report to the Connectional Table and Bishops. It was then distributed as “The Plan” with the expectation that we would make smaller changes and “perfections” at General Conference. Privately-hired consultants did the research, reported it, and a small team presented it and the legislation to the people. There would be bugs to fix, clearly, but the bulk of the recommendations were expected to be done. While General Conference would ratify it, the expectation was that it would be passed more or less intact.

Compare this process with Boston University, my alma mater, whose visioning process had each department come up with a vision and all those were incorporated into the master document. President Henry explains:

In the winter of 2005, about three months into my term as BU’s president, I set in motion a strategic planning process, aimed at establishing our institutional priorities and enabling us to make wise resource-allocation choices in the months and years to come. That process started with the deans of our 17 schools and colleges asking their respective departments and centers to come up with 15-page descriptions of their places in the world today, and their aspirations for tomorrow. (To avoid boring my readers, I’ll simplify the overall process here.) The deans, in turn, used these collections of mini-strategic plans to create 15-page school-wide strategic plans—a major feat of distillation, for which I commend them and remain grateful.

These plans were presented at a University leadership retreat held in April 2006. Several weeks later, after Commencement, I asked a group of faculty members and administrators to serve as a formal strategic planning task force. They were charged, specifically, with thinking about the needs of the University as a whole. They sat down with the deans’ reports—as well as volumes of additional material, and also the fruits of numerous briefing sessions—and set to work. Their report, entitled “One BU,” was submitted to me on December 1, 2006, and was posted on the BU website for feedback.

In short, the various departments gave a vision and goals, the schools distilled the goals down, and then the entire university from the ground-up made a strategic plan with goals. Perfect? No. Process-perfect? Maybe!

The point is that open-source takes information from a variety of sources, even those opposed to the goals of the project, and constantly incorporates them until they release a version of their work (called ‘compiling’ in most projects). While the CTA will say they did plenty of talking, research OF individuals and congregations is different than conversation WITH organized groups.  And that’s where they fell short in their approach.

Imagine an alternative past: What if they had released their research and recommendations to the public and invited feedback before submitting legislation or re-forming the general agencies. They could have gotten the open-source alternative plans (called “forks” in the computer world) from MFSA, the dissenting Bishops, North Georgia, and others together and heard their counter-proposals. Then the Connectional Table could have taken months to craft a middle way forward or one that addressed most of the concerns and counter-proposals. With the rest of the loudmouths on board, the plan would only require tweaking, beta-testing and bug killing before being compiled again at General Conference. Just like an open-source project.

Instead, we are stuck with a closed source approach: the small group dictated the decision, the counter-proposals are flying everywhere…and the General Conference committee of 40 people (and only one young adult) will have to make all the decisions in a week. Instead of a leisurely study, they have one week to weigh all the alternative plans (only the MFSA plan is actual submitted legislation, however), and decide.  Instead of having a structure that was battle-tested and the little bits to iron out, we have a vague goal that is approved across the board (building vital congregations) and huge swaths of the church to iron out in a week’s time.

It’s not too late, though. There is always the option for a closed-source project to release itself to become open-source.

  • Confession of Reality: The Connectional Table can be honest about the state of unrest both during their process and the state of the UMC right now. They can stop using as a mouthpiece for their proposal and honestly invite conversation. They can not put out whitewashed spin pieces about the CTA. Their proponents can stop referencing other delegations’ endorsements as evidence that their delegations need to respond as well. In short, stop the stonewalling that their proposal is the only way.
  • Pre-GC Conversation: Sponsor a Pre-GC meeting of the General Administration committee to just focus on the General Agency and Governance changes. Give that committee time to debate as a group, then they can gather again at GC to get it done and truly join in holy conferencing rather than rabid politicking.
  • Open the Church: There’s still a change to make a non-hierarchical and non-executive-focused reform at the top of the General Agencies. There’s still a chance to bring in more diversity. There’s still a chance to fuse metrics with contextual goals so that there’s a holistic way to evaluate churches. And, given Afrca’s dissatisfaction at the Pre-GC briefings, there’s still a chance to truly engage with (rather than report to) Africa to get their help in the restructure.

We may not have done the Call to Action in an open-source way. But the source of the Church, the Holy Spirit, is still at the center. If we are honest about the state of the church, put our money into conversations instead of consultants, and seek open systems at the top of the Church, then we may see that truly the Holy Spirit is not finished with us yet.

Please distribute this to your delegates. Forward them this website address. Print it off and mail it to them. And encourage the Connectional Table to respond to a heartfelt appeal for an open church not just an open process.


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  1. Will says

    In response to Anne’s initial question, minutes prove that both the Connectional Table, and Council of Bishops, were refused the opportunity to debate the proposal. It was provided in the form of an on-line ballot with no forum for discussion (at least for the CT).

  2. says

    Open Source is alive and well at GBOD. Right now I’m with a group of Hmong pastors who are developing a new baptismal liturgy based on an open source development platform (kernel in Linux terminology) being shared with (at the moment) 7 other denominations.

    So yes– this can be done. It is being done. Just not for denominational decision making…. yet.

  3. says

    The blowback is pretty huge on this one. Far more so than the Connectonal Process Team of yesteryear. The CPT, as I recall it, was far more open source in its originations but came to the floor of general conference with a widespread suspicion that it contained a ‘hidden agneda’ of some sort. Namely, that the North American church organizing on par with the Central Conferences was a way to enable the left. So it was ‘affirmed in its 5 principles’ then the rest of the legislation was shoved aside. The constitutional amendments came up as the last gasp of this process and we know what happened there.

    So my fear with an open source process, is that for all the rosy picture you paint, we are already so polarized into a winner take all political system that instead of collaboration, we’ll see something more like the Mac v. PC fights with various flavors of Linux being entirely overlooked.

    I will say, something needs to happen this cycle though because if the General Conference decides to ‘affirm in principle’ and set aside everything else again, we’re likely to just bury our heads in the sand and lose all the livey and vital conversation about these issues that have arisen as a result of the CtA.

    One thing I don’t thing is in dispute is that the current set up is not financially feasible into the future and the longer we wait to do something, the closer we get to beng flat outta luck and bucks.

    p.s. what happened to our schedule for the syncblog study?

  4. says

    I love the analogy to open source efforts…as a fairly new geek; I have come to appreciate the way projects are improved and refined as people are given power and freedom to have imput. That is a GREAT model for the church.

    This afternoon, I came across the statement by GCFA that OPPOSES the CTA. I believe GCFA’s assessment that the proposed plan puts the ASSETS of the church at risk, may doom proposal. Read GCFA’s statement here.

  5. says

    I love the analogy to open source efforts…as a fairly new geek; I have come to appreciate the way projects are improved and refined as people are given power and freedom to have imput. That is a GREAT model for the church.

    This afternoon, I came across the statement by GCFA that OPPOSES the CTA. I believe GCFA’s assessment that the proposed plan puts the ASSETS of the church at risk, may the doom proposal. Read GCFA’s statement here.

  6. says

    Oh wow, Holly. That is a find. And one that should be heeded widely. There’s some disturbing concerns there indeed.

    And if my own experience in writing and wrangling legislation through General Conference that had the ‘”budgetary implications” tag on it (to create a Committee on Deaf Minsitries) is that a good deal of anything of budgetary consequence is pre-determined by GCFA before it ever hits the legislative groups at General Conference.

    I think we’re in for one of the most fascinating General Conferences in the history of our church!

  7. Victor Harner says

    What amazes me about all of this is that we are proceeding in our Annual Conference as if this is a dine deal before even a single vote has been cast.

  8. Anne says

    We use the term “listening session” a lot. The CtA could have started discussion, but passed around to different groups and Bishops and panels at their discretion. From there, I think some of the ideas that other groups have had (and some are good) could have been incorporated or changed language for a new CtA. It would be semi-open source.

    The thought came because of all the new proposals (though only one was submitted for GC) that came because of the CtA. If these “extra” ideas had been thought about before writing the official CtA, there would be less need for discussion at GC. Honestly, I’m wondering if 2 weeks is enough to flesh out a plan that is not disjointed, rash or change for change’s sake.

    Florida’s delegation recently endorsed the CtA, but in their endorsement it also discussed that there is disagreement with things in the CtA.

    “Can we find parts of it that we don’t like? Yes, but we love our church, and it’s got to change, and we’ve got to begin somewhere.” (Holly, I hope you know I’m not picking on Florida.)

    I don’t think anyone would disagree with this statement, but it concerns me that we may pass something just because it’s a place to start or worse, we’ve run out of time at CG to discuss and have to pass something.

    I certainly appreciate all the CtA team has done, but from an outsider’s perspective who’s seen the conversations going on about the state of the church and changes that need to be made BEFORE the CtA came out, I wish someone from the team had been listening to the social media conversations (at least) to see what some concerns were and some ideas to fix it. If the CtA group had only added this type of listening (no other outside discussion), their CtA, I believe, would even look different than it does as proposed.

  9. Creed Pogue says

    It seems that the diagnosis of CTA is on target with the concerns about trust and distance. But, it seems like the same old “solutions” were then put in. What is a “presiding bishop” going to accomplish other than someone who can meet with the President (if the President wants to meet)? Reshuffling the agencies won’t result in any streamlining of functions by itself. It would be better to take a hard look at what agencies and what functions do not contribute to congregational vitality and cut them. It would have been better to look at questions of equity when, as an example, the Western Jurisdiction barely pays for its own bishops and contributes nothing toward the costs of central conference bishops and the retirees. Or, whether the current apportionment formula adds insult to injury that makes a conference like mine (Greater New Jersey) pay more because our dollars are valued less than others. We pay 100% and find ourselves subsidizing our brothers and sisters in places like Mississippi or California-Nevada who are paying very low levels.

    It is too likely that someone will make a motion to refer and punt on all of these issues for yet another four years. We may disagree about specifics but we should all be able to agree that the discussion needs to be more meaningful.


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