Reflections on General Conference. Pt. 1: Are We Who We Think We Are?

In his book, The Fifth Discipline: The Art and Practice of the Learning Organization, Peter Senge lifts up a timeless evaluative tool for organizations.  This evaluative process helps us to see if we are who we say we are, or if we are something else; something we do not intend to be.

General Conference is going on in Tampa, Florida, as I write this.  This is the chief legislative body of the United Methodist Church and meets every four years to decide matters of polity, theology, and practice.  For many United Methodists, watching General Conference online can be an uplifting and sobering experience.  At moments one can be proud to be United Methodist, and at other times ashamed.

Let’s engage in this little test.  If a group of outsiders watched General Conference online, what kind of church would they say the United Methodist Church is?  I’m not sure our leadership really thinks strategically about how our actions line up with our beliefs, as Peter Senge defines them.

Senge points out that Espoused Theory is what we say we are, what our mission statement says we are, what we profess to be, and what we profess to value.  Theories in Use are what we actually do, how we model ourselves through action,  and is reflected by the actual decisions we make.

My espoused view may be that people are basically trustworthy, but I may never lend friends money and jealously guard all my stuff – obviously my theory in use (my deeper mental model) differs from my espoused theory.  We all have gaps between our espoused theories and our theories in use.  This is a consequence of vision, not hypocrisy.  The problem is not in the gap, but our failure to tell the truth about the gap.  We are not always what we say we are.

As I watch the online business sessions and worship services of General Conference, I am left to wonder if we really value what we say we value.  The talk leading up to General Conference was primarily about our decline and inability to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  I wonder whether “what we do” and “what we actually lift up” at General Conference reinforces what we say we value.

While “making disciples for the transformation of the world” may be our espoused theory, is it really our theory in use?  Is it really what we do?  Does the whole denomination embrace it?  Is the vision shared?  Or, are we a collective of differing interests and priorities?

Yesterday, I shared a list of news items from General Conference, both business and worship items, with a friend who does not go to church and who is not a Christian.  I asked him, “based on what they are doing and talking about, what do you think the United Methodist Church is all about?”

He simply said, “Your church reflects what is wrong with America.  I hear what you say the church is supposed to be about – what you call making disciples.  I would never know that based on what is going on down there.  From reading this list of stories and hearing about these worship services, you value a lot of things, but I would never guess it was making disciples of Jesus Christ.”

Sobering.

It’s not over yet.  I am hopeful for our church and for General Conference!  I am reminded what John Wesley used to say about conferencing together as the church.  You should leave more passionate about making disciples of Jesus Christ than when you arrived.

Ask a delegate how this conferencing is inspiring them to engage in what we say we value.  Are we who we think we are?

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