19. Logjam

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I run along a bike trail that has a number of small bridges stretched across creeks and streams. These former railway structures were built with thick steel girders that rise high above the creek beds. I often pause in the middle of a bridge to look down for fish, snakes, or turtles, and to listen to the refreshing gurgles of the stream through the rocks.

After a few days of hard rain upstream, the soothing picture changes. The small streams become raging currents that rise to the bottom of the bridge. During flood conditions, the steel girders form a grate that catches tons of sticks, branches, and logs until the combined effect is a dangerously large and impenetrable dam of densely-pressed debris. I can feel the bridge shudder under the pressure of the flow against the blockage. As I look at the tons of accumulated matter, I wonder, “Where did all this come from? What happens if all these branches and logs and trunks totally dam up the streaming flow?”

I’ve just described a logjam. Any one branch or stick or log does no damage and has no effect on the flow. But if the stream picks up enough of them, and they seize together at a narrow spot, then the results can lead to disaster—the stream is stopped, the floodwaters overflow the banks, or the bridge is put at risk.

Logjams are risks to organizations as well. Remember, my friends, that I am one of us, and I’ve poured my life into the task of serving the church I love. I do not offer critical observations in order to feed cynicism or anti-denominational feeling. But as I’ve watched the effect of successive General Conferences and Annual Conferences and Church Conferences, I’ve often felt that many of the changes we make to policy and practice result in tossing more logs and sticks and branches into the stream, a practice that inevitably contributes to the formation of logjams for our mission.

Each individual change may grow from positive motive, but the cumulative effect can be dangerous to our mission. I recently reviewed a list of changes to the Book of Discipline resulting from our last General Conference. There are requirements that all conference committees name a “witness” coordinator, and requirements that mandate in more detail the composition of the Board of Ordained Ministry. I’m not arguing for or against any particular requirement; it is the combined effect that limits the flow of creativity and adaptability and responsiveness. If you wish to see what I mean, look at the Discipline’s paragraphs related to the Conference Board of Higher Education and Campus Ministry (¶634) and you will see nearly sixty duties and responsibilities. Look at the list of more than thirty “Specific Responsibilities of District Superintendents” (¶419–425) or check out the fifteen other places in the Discipline that speak of Superintendent responsibilities. Or review the requirements for Charge Conferences or for Annual Conference organization. If new committee members or superintendents sit down to study their tasks, the list of accumulated disciplinary requirements would more than occupy the whole calendar year before they even consider their own context, mission fields, or their own gifts and callings.

All the individual sub-paragraphs were adopted because well-meaning individuals, committees, constituencies, and boards offered ideas to address concerns, redress problems, and increase ministry by prescribing connection-wide remedies. But the effect is as if each of us picked up a branch and set it afloat in the stream. We’ve unknowingly contributed to the logjam, the experience of intransigence and paralysis that we see at nearly every level of the church, of people focused and absorbed by unending and unclear policies, procedures, and requirements to the neglect of the mission field around them.

Logjam describes the inevitable intertwining and accumulation of policies, procedures, standards, requirements, and structures that result from years of recorded decisions in a mature organization. The dense, impenetrable mass stifles creativity, blocks the flow of innovation, discourages experimentation, and thwarts inventiveness.

Methodism began as a movement. Life and faith are fluid and flowing. Growth involves adaptation, change, creativity, motion. The principal identifying elements of our tradition began as tools to maximize adaptability and movement—itinerancy, connectionalism, conference, and episcopacy. These were strategies to enhance maximum flexibility and responsiveness to changing circumstances and opportunities.

Recently someone asked me if organizational changes at General Conference can really make any difference in whether we have more vital congregations. In the short term, growing churches will continue to grow and declining churches will continue to decline no matter what General Conference does. But in the long term, it matters how we address issues of clergy recruitment, education, training, deployment, and evaluation. It matters how we realign resources to start new congregations, develop ways to interrupt decline, and help congregations focus on their mission fields. It matters that our leaders focus on the right questions and deal with issues relevant to our mission around the globe. It matters that we connect our money to our mission. It matters that we leave a legacy to the next generation, not of complex and impenetrable rules and ineffective systems, but of a church that is clear about its mission and confident about its future, and which is agile and responsive and engaged with the world for the purposes of Christ.

 

Can you think of “logjam” policies and procedures that limit creative response in your congregation? In your conference?

How do we avoid innocently contributing to organizational intransigence? As a leader, how do you help sustain the life of the Spirit and of community in Christ as something alive, fluid, and flowing?

 

For deeper consideration, read some of the passages in which Jesus confronts the corrupting influence of systems more tied to their rules than to their God-given purposes. For a fresh look at Matthew 23, read it in Peterson’s translation, The Message. Or if that’s too harsh, read Luke 6:1-11.

For more on this theme, you must read Back to Zero: The Search to Rediscover the Methodist Movement by Gil Rendle, or his earlier book, Journey in the Wilderness. For a delightful quick read about the same idea, read Orbiting the Giant Hairball by Gordon McKenzie.

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