Technocrats or Innovators?

April 25th, 2012

To the average United Methodist, General Conference is a mythical place where we send our delegates to be the authorities of our conference and they emerge after two weeks with the best decisions about how the church can relate to the world. It is all that. But it is also more. There is more than just who we are. There are decisions made of how we are as well.

If we want to talk about how to change the church, then one of the problems that General Conference has to deal with is how to distinguish the technocrats from the innovators.

As my friend Kirk VanGilder has posited, a technocrat is someone who understands how a system works and how to best excel within that system. They do not push the system, they do not overhaul the system, but they are great champions within the system. The innovators are those who do push the system, who do go to the margins and back again, and who remain faithful to the core values as well.

My fear, informed by Dr. VanGilder, is that we are creating a system that awards the technocrats rather than the innovators.

The attached photo by the United Methodist Women is a great visual of this dialectic.

There’s a huge room with booths and areas where all the general church agencies have stuff set up. The United Methodist Women could have done what all the other general boards have done: put together shiny displays overloaded with information and relevant stories. Most of them have nice plush seats so that delegates and board members/staffers can chat about their values and offerings. And, finally, all these apportionment dollars are spent so that the delegates won't cut the apportionment dollars or do away with agency offerings entirely.

Enter the United Methodist Women. Instead of the above, they took their space, roped it off, put nothing in it, and put up a sign that said they could have done everything that everyone else was doing but they didn’t. And here’s why:

“So, instead, we used the money to fully fund the seminary education of two female local pastors in Cameroon.”

It's a gamble. The United Methodist Women is not playing the game. They aren't doing the flashy banners or "conversation nooks" or anything like that. Instead, they are critiquing the system and refusing to boil down their historic and extensive ministry to 600 square feet of flash and substance.

In the same way, the United Methodist Church is also deciding whether to build up a generation of technocrats or innovators. And by looking at the room full of similar conversation nooks, posters, images, the silent space of the United Methodist Women is deafening.

Our church has a huge number of technocrats in their ranks, and the proposals by the Call to Action for greater emphasis on church metrics will only exacerbate this tendency. By focusing on dollars in the plates and warm bodies in the pews, Dr. Van Gilder explains here why that is a worrisome focus for mission’s sake.

Just as United Methodist Women refused to spend their money as technocrats working the system and instead emptied themselves in a risky endeavor towards building up women in Cameroon, the United Methodist Church has a choice of whether to perpetuate and exacerbate a culture of technocrats under the guise of accountability, or instead to recognize churches that are truly emptying themselves in thankless ways.

I usually say the choice is ours. In this case, I could say "The choice is the Delegates'," but in reality, it isn't. Every local church can participate in the technocracy. Every local church can participate in the raising up of an innovative culture that doesn't play the game an instead takes congregational life to a new level. My prayer for General Conference to innovate is also for you. The choice is yours. 

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