Sticky Denominations? (by Jennifer Gutierrez)

This post is written in conjunction with the “Becoming a Public Scholar” course and is directed by Monica A. Coleman.

Rev. Jennifer Gutierrez

Why are mainline denominations dying?  I was recently in a trustees meeting for one of these denominations.  The trustees were grilling a representative from the committee that works with campus ministry.  The overall concern of the trustees seemed to be that their investments in campus ministry over the years had not yielded significant returns.  They were experiencing increased debt, and were not willing to continue funding campus ministry.  The campus ministry representative’s main concern was making sure the various campus ministers she represented were able to receive a salary and continue their ministry.  The tone of the conversation made it obvious that neither of these groups understood the other.  I left the meeting thinking, “perhaps the mainline denominations are dying because even people that are working for the same denomination, and supposedly the same general mission, are unable to talk to each other in a constructive manner.”

In Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die, Chip and Dan Heath speak about the communication gap they have observed in many organizations.  Corporations will often focus on communicating to the people outside of their agency, their consumers or clients.  But the people that work within that same corporation are not effectively communicating with each other.  According to Heath and Heath, it is this internal communication that determines whether an organization thrives.

The key to constructive internal conversation, and even constructive conflict, is having a simple, core message that defines the mission of the organization.  The Heath brothers focus the majority of their book on how this core message can be communicated in ways that will stick.  These methods include highlighting the unexpected, using concrete images, focusing on credibility, appealing to emotion, and using stories to illustrate the message.  The book itself is full of memorable stories that illustrate their points about effective, sticky communication.

The mission statement of the United Methodist Church is “Make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  Most of the mainline denominations have a similar statement that includes ideas about disciple-making or the Lordship of Jesus.  However, I don’t believe that these statements would pass the concrete test as defined by Heath and Heath.  They tend to be broad enough to include many different definitions of discipleship and a variety of ideas about how the world should be transformed.  These statements are purposefully broad so that a variety of people with different faith understandings can fit inside them.  However, neither the statements, nor the denominations offer a common language the members can use to discuss with one another how the mission should shape their actions.

Both the trustees and the campus ministers could make reasonable arguments about why their positions are the best ones for disciple-making or world transformation.  But what if the mission statement was more concrete?  “We are the church of and with the poor.”  Then, it would be easier to assess whether the campus ministers were working with the poor or encouraging students to engage in this ministry.  What are your ideas for a concrete mission statement for our mainline denominations?

Rev. Jennifer Gutierrez is the Director of Urban Ministry for the California Pacific Conference of the United Methodist Church.  In this role she has the privilege of supporting church leaders throughout Southern California and the Pacific Islands, helping them start and sustain a variety of neighborhood initiatives, community organizing projects, social justice activities and service programs.  Jennifer may be contacted at

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