All but the shouting…

Well the Methodist Armageddon came and went by 12:30pm EST. The world didn’t end; the earth didn’t rattle; nor did Jesus come back (which would have been great all things considered but I think given the state of General Conference 2012, he wouldn’t have been given credentials to be seated anyway). By 12:33, every one had become an armchair pundit in their assessment of the winners and losers from the Methodist Battle Royal aka the Plan UMC vote.

I must admit for several hours afterwards, things were pretty anti-climatic. Lunch was had, a few high fives were shared, but mostly delegates filed out and tried to just wipe that deer in the headlights glaze out of their eyes. If yesterday’s vote to end guaranteed appointments was known as the “What have we done vote?” then today’s restructuring vote shortly became “What does this mean for us now?”Resisting my scholarly urge to engage in organizational prophecy, it might be better to embrace my other commercial skill assessing organizational communication.

From the beginning of their presentation to the very well timed rise of Jan Davis’ calling of the question, the Plan UMC folks were an exemplar of strategic communication excellence. Previously leaving a lot to be desired, both the folks of Plan B and the IOT had made serious miscalculations regarding the desires of their audiences. Whether it was the IOT’s failure to remember that they had to ‘inform and persuade’ or Plan B’s inability to frame themselves as something other than ‘not the IOT’, both combo plate of sides clearly benefited from the first key necessary for strategic communication–LISTEN TO YOUR AUDIENCE.

Folks, let me be clear. The entire UMC was never the audience. It never is. Truthfully, and you know I am right, at least 80% of the folks who come to our churches don’t give a rat’s hindquarters about Plan B, IOT, LMN, PQR, well you get the point. Most didn’t even realize that General Conference was this week until their senior pastor didn’t show up in the pulpit last Sunday. No, the real audience were the delegates of the 2012 General Conference. Each delegation, each conference, each country, and each member had a different need from this plan. For Jurisdictions like the Southeastern, it was having more say in a Church in which they seem to be footing the bills; For the Central Conference’s African Delegates it was about recognition of their growing churches and representation; For the Central Conference Europe and Asia, it was making sure that their voices would be heard and their needs addressed despite their small population. For some delegates it was the recognition that something had to be done to indicate that the church they loved was not simply going to atrophy while waiting for a CRISIS to force it into change. For many board members it was the need to protect the valuable work being done by their agencies. But for a majority of the delegates, after Saturday night’s debacle (really my favorite word this week), nobody wanted to see the bloodletting, personal, contentious, winner take all drama surface on the plenary floor today. They wanted information, a little tweaking, and they wanted to make this decision quickly (not always the best recipe for organizational change but in a democratic process–which by the way academically and practically speaking is not the best governance form for change). And that’s what Plan UMC gave them. From the rhetorical visuals that signaled inclusiveness (Ricky Henderson is a young UMC rock star); to the clear visual aids that were presented; to the carefully constructed language that offered measure reason, humility, concern for the church,  with every amendment offered a willingness to compromise, Plan UMC’s communication indicated that they indeed knew their central audience.

Meanwhile on the margins, rhetorically and organizationally, MFSA alienated the delegates with language, anger, and a moral superiority that won them few friends. Let me be really clear here–especially since I have started getting hate mail from my MFSA family—I believe in your mission. I appreciate your work. You have a valuable voice within our Church. But I am absolutely ticked off with your tactics and strategy. You squandered an opportunity to educate our delegates by failing to understand how to communicate. Communication is not words its the ability to use signs and symbols that create a ‘shared’ meaning and shared values. The key word being SHARED.  The idea to try to shame the Plan UMC folks by asking to ‘see’ who created the plan only created the impression that the motive was pettiness rather than a statement regarding inclusion. More importantly, think about the inherent hypocrisy of such a move– it amounted to racial profiling. The request amounted to saying ” the value of this plan will not be judged on its merits but on the color of the skin of the people who wrote it”.  To judge someone by the color of their skin..well I thought it was against everything MFSA stood for.  Yes, MFSA was trying to make a statement but in the end they didn’t get heard not because of what they looked like but how they sought to frame the message.

Let me take a page out of Dr. King’s book from Chaos to Community. Dr. King for years argued the immorality of racism, however it wasn’t until he illustrated the economic infeasibily of racism that Montgomery and the rest of the South began to listen. Did it change hearts? Not at first, but it was a first step. LBJ, only was able to advance the war on poverty by arguing the economics of the issue not the immorality of the wealthiest country in the world allowing its people to squander their gifts because of poverty. My point is, in order to persuade you can’t use the arguments that persuade you: you must find the arguments– whether ethos, pathos, or logos that persuades your audience. When you try to out Christian people, whether you are on the right or the left, you tick them off and you turn them off.

Over the next two days, there will be attempts to derail the Plan UMC. Judicial hearings, Amendments, protests, etc. And with each attack, those opposed won’t be heard they will merely become more marginalized. The tactics of shame, emotional intimidation, and badgering are playing out for the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street. Audiences are by nature much more moderate and will listen to the middle before they listen to the extremes, especially over time.

I love a good debate on the ideas. Which is why in 99% of elections I am independent–I really want to hear who has the best argument and I don’t want anyone to take my vote for granted. I don’t vote for Democrats just because they are Democratic and I don’t vote against Republicans just because they are Republicans. I truly believed that had the Progressives in our denomination understood their audiences better their voice would have been welcomed, especially by those who value it, like me. But for now…all we have is the shouting and that’s a rat’s shame.

About Maria Dixon
  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/02853456707702224688 Betsy

    I'd be intersted in hering your organizational prophecy. After monitoring General Conference from the hinterlands, I'm beginning to wonder if the denomination as such is already done for, it is just taking a while for it to crumble.I love your insight into communication; I have a passion for that myself and am constantly frustrated by the poor, inconsistent communication within my local church. I am dismayed to see it repeated at this level.

  • http://www.blogger.com/profile/10697971669973819468 walkintheway

    thanks for these words. one comment…really? you have rec'd hate mail from MFSA? what does that say about them?


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