The Big Bet

Lane Davis
May 15, 2016 · 6 min read

As a page, I’m assigned to where I’ll be helping out for the day. So far, my favorite spot to help out has been the “runner” on microphone 3. It was a solid spot…good view, good vibes, good people. But sometimes you get put in serendipitous spots, which I think happened yesterday for my committee assignment — Finance and Administration.

Now, it was fortunate only for my informational purposes…I have no voice, no vote, and no say in the General Conference. I am the help. Smarter and more capable people than I are doing the hard work. But the information shared might have been some of the most important of the Conference. If our Church is going to see a turnaround in the next 30 years, the seeds of that turnaround might have happened yesterday in this committee.

You might be thinking, “Finance and Administration…booooring!” Oh, but you’d be wrong.

The big open secret of any legislative body is that while speeches make news, budget committees make things happen. That’s why someone like Paul Ryan, current Speaker of the House of Representatives in the U.S. Congress, became so influential and powerful in Washington (he served on the Budget Committee). And every entrepreneur knows that the best business idea in the world is totally at the whim of your venture capital partner.

The same is true in the church in many ways. The headlines of this General Conference will come out of the Church and Society Committee (the committee that deals with human sexuality) but, in some ways, the future of the Church gets decided in Finance and Adminitration.

And yesterday, F&A took a big bet.

Yesterday, the F&A committee debated and approved the budget for the next four years of the United Methodist Church (it’s a $599 million budget, by the way, which is a net decrease in the General Church budget, but an increase in per person contributions). Before it was passed, however, Don House, an economist and influential delegate from Texas, was allowed by the chair of the committee to give a 20 minute presentation on membership statistics in the Church. As you might imagine, this wasn’t one of those happy presentations. House’s presentation documented a narrative of crisis*.

  • A persistent decline in worship attendance since 1972.
  • 2014 saw a 2.6% decline in worship attendance, the largest decrease in denominational history.
  • Church closures are reaching a tipping point. The number of conferences has also declined by 19% and the number of districts has declined by 21% putting a huge strain on bishops and district superintendents.
  • If trends continue, the UMC will have under 10,000 churches with less than 1 million members in the U.S. (currently, there are over 40k congregations with 4 million members) by 2050.
  • By 2030, there will be a shortage of UMC elders (possibly as many as 5,000).

So, when the budget came before the committee for approval, House stood up and offered an amendment — a $20 million “carve out” that would fund a special committee that focuses on Church turnaround. The committee would be made up of up to 20 entrepreneurs (House said he had 9 that he wanted on the committee) that would have autonomy from the General Boards and Agencies to do their work and suggest specific turnaround strategies for the Church to pursue. The debate that followed lasted for over an hour; numerous appeals were made for special presentations from denominational leaders to help clarify.

Proponents argued that this was the equivalent of a positive “disruptive” force in the business-as-usual nature of the institutional UMC (what I would define as an “Uber” economic narrative) and that we had come to the point of needing extraordinary measures. This $20 million would fund initiatives that focused on new church plants and young clergy recruitment, amongst other efforts. Because this committee wouldn’t be fully accountable to the General Boards and Agencies, it would be able to target specific areas and goals that would offer a laser focus on growth edges.

There were vocal opponents as well. Some used “gambling” terminology to describe what was being proposed; they argued the proposal had a lack of oversight and information on what was actually going to happen, and a lack of measurable goals that would be helpful if you’re going to hand someone $20 million dollars. The underlying narrative is that opponents are worried that the $20 million would be disproportionally taken from the budgets of the General Commission on Religion and Race, the General Commision on the Status and Role of Women, and the Board of Church and Society; three of more liberal agencies of the Church which conservative members have been trying to defund for years.

As a point of personal privilege, I can personally appreciate both sides: we need economic and entrepreneurial disruption in the denomination. Business as usual has only accelerated our decline. On the other hand, $20 million is a LOT of money and the amendment that the committee voted on was just barely over 1 page long (single spaced). A Silicon Valley venture capitalist would probably look at the 1 page of information given to delegates and say, “you’re going to give him $20 million with THAT!” Once again, the limits of Robert’s Rules of Order, in which $600 million dollars is dispersed with a conversation that consists of three speeches for/three speeches against, is the awkward neon orange outfit in a room of gray suits.

There’s a fine line between an investment and a gamble, and this particular proposal is doing a “Man on Wire” walk all the way across. When it comes to church budgets, I try and operate on a “how would I use my money” type of scenario. Feeling like I’ve wasted someone’s tithe gives me really bad dreams for weeks, so I’m sensitive to this debate. The information given to delegates on how this $20 million would be used was scant and $20 million is a lot of money. If this was “Shark Tank” I’m pretty sure Dr. House would have lost a limb.

However, I also do think we’re at a point of denominational crisis and if there has ever been a time to bet on something disruptive, now is probably that time. The places where Dr. House’s committee would focus — new church plants, young clergy , etc. — are on point, and align with the really good news out of LifeWay research (Baptists!!!!) that shows that UMC new church plants are a head above other denominations when it comes to starting new faith communities (thank you Path 1!). I also think that the UMC could catch up with other denominations by putting to use some of the best entrepreneurial minds in the US who happen to be a part of our membership** .

So, would I have voted for this? Yes, I would have and I’m super glad I was there to witness the debate. Now, as I explained in my last post, all of this could be amended and undone by the whole General Conference next week. But, I’m glad to see us taking some big gambles (and yes, investments are gambles, no matter what we want to call them). But sometimes bold gambles pay off, and I want to be a part of one paying off the UMC. I’ll let you know how this plays out.

*Interjection: I want to raise my hand and say that one of the most valuable things my seminary education taught me was to be skeptical of narratives of crisis [thank you to Dr. Tom Frank who taught me this from afar]. Narratives of crisis tend to play off of our worst fears about ourselves and each other and allow people to push through agendas…think, “Make America Great Again” and you’ve located a narrative of crisis. However, there also comes a time in any journey when you have to decide that what you are hearing is not just a narrative of crisis, but an actual crisis. I think, in the UMC, we may be at that saturation point.

**I hereby nominate Chris Hanks, Executive Director of the Entrepreneurship Center at Kennesaw State University, who is super cool and has a super cool family.

Lane Davis

Written by

PhD student at SMU in American Religious History. Elder in the #UMC. Twitter.

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