Maybe it was the Chili Dog…..

My Sunday morning had been great so far. I had just returned from preaching at one of my favorite churches, Warren Chapel UMC and was sitting down to a Father’s Day lunch with my husband Jeff. As we each opened our class A healthy meal of Chili Dogs and Tater tots from Sonic and our respective newspapers, I thought, “Wow. this is a great day.” Little did I know what the Metro section of the Dallas Morning News had in store for me. There on the front cover of the Metro section, was a full page above the fold story about the second most traumatic event in my life (now known as Annual Conference) in all its gory details.

Now I must confess to you, that since Annual Conference, a day has not gone by when someone (two or three..) has not asked me when I was going to write about it. But like Mitt Romney dodging the immigration question, I just stuck my hand in the rhetorical sand publicly. Frankly, I thought that my “Shut the front door…” post would satisfy both my obligation as contributor to Patheos and as an outlet over my own frustrations and sorrow over this matter. Yet as it as I sat there trying to finish that dagblasted Chili dog my stomach began to turn. Thinking that it might be the mixture of my advanced age and Sonic Chili, I ignored it. But sitting here at 11:00 at night before I have to wake up in 4 hours for a flight, I know now it wasn’t the chili.

I still don’t want to get into the personalities of Annual Conference nor do I want to get in the dangerous game of assuming motives. I truly believe that only the Holy Spirit can search us and know our hearts. Yet, aside from that, I do believe that I can add something constructive ( I hope) to the discussion.

One of the things that has become incredibly clear to me in the multitude of roles I play in this little organizational drama (clergy wife, candidate, lay member, and professor), that our denomination’s failure to take communication seriously has led us into an organizational ditch. Don’t get me wrong. Within our denomination, we have some strong professional communicators but on the whole most of them are not in the ranks of the ordained ministry.

Here is something that could explain why we may be finding ourselves in the middle of these very public acts of dysfunctional organizational communication: no other professional school dedicated to public affairs or administration requires less managerial communication and praxis than the seminary. Unlike other pedagogical curricula for emerging leaders in a professional field, the vast majority of United Methodist curriculums do not offer candidates a class in managerial, interpersonal or strategic communication. Now, before I get hate mail from my friends at Duke, Claremont, Perkins or even my beloved Candler, be clear on what I am saying. I am not saying there is not a class in Church Administration or Leadership in the Parish. What I am saying is that these classes as good as they are, are not good enough for the emerging communication reality of a global organization.

Where is the course work on personnel evaluation and counseling? Where is the course work on staff development and conflict? Where is the assignment on writing a termination letter or a letter of discipline? Where is the course on donor relations and stewardship campaigns? A 3 hour course in homiletics (which is all that some require) and a 3 hour course in Church Administration that focuses on case studies and leadership style simply will not prepare the clergy of today for the litigious, complex world of running a non-profit organization.

Yet, seminaries can only respond to the demands of their chief consumers and donors, the Boards of Ordained Ministries around our connection. Demands for more Biblically astute, theologically savvy, and doctrinally sound ministers have, I believe, been successfully addressed. As a group of educational entities, I do believe that our seminaries are at the top of the game they have been asked to play. I have no doubt should they be asked to address any issue, this group of world-renown scholars and leaders will make it happen.

Corporate organizations, often after they are chastened publicly by some huge failure, often re-tool their practices to address their failures and demand that their business schools do the same. One of the most exciting things about being a scholar/practitioner of strategic communication right now is the fact that we are getting professionals from every field, every profession, asking the question: How can we communicate better to our customers? How can our teams communication in ways that bring us together even across the miles? How can we use today’s communication channels to LISTEN and to respond to a changing world.

Yet, despite this secular realization most denominations with the lone exception of the Southern Baptist Convention really understand how strategic communication can be leveraged to strengthen a public brand. Despite the baggage their name carries, this week here is the central message from the Southern Baptist Convention: Racial Reconciliation is alive and real in the SBC. Stories of their election of their first African American leader has overshadowed any contentious statement on homosexuality or submission. You know why? Because the SBC understands message discipline and strategy. As the daughter of a Baptist minister, I could only stand back and applaud their strategic communicators work.

UMCOM under the leadership of Larry Hollon, one of the best communicators in religious communication, has been preaching the message of brand management and strategic communication for years. Yet, limited by a denominational structure that places little value on collaboration and synergistic organization, United Methodism remains a brand without a truly distinctive message. Though limited structurally to help the denomination, UMCOM has worked wonderfully with local churches and conferences to leverage their communication assets in various ReThink Church initiatives. Praise Jesus that these initiatives are making a difference in communities like El Paso, Texas and rural North Carolina. Thank God for dedicated Conference and church communicators who keep on keeping on!

Yet sadly, we remain a denomination whose leaders on every level fail to understand the essential role that their communication OUTSIDE of the pulpit plays in shaping the organizational reality of a church they proclaim to love. Our leaders go off message, around message, and under message but rarely are they on message. When I see those responsible for ordering the life of the church fail to recognize the dangerous game that emerges when personnel matters are discussed in press releases and without discernment for how it can harm the brand of the denomination, it breaks my heart. Yet, more importantly, I believe it breaks the heart of the Body of Christ.

I know of no professional communicator who would have advised their clients to engage in the discursive behavior we have witnessed over the last two months in Methodism. Where boldness of vision should have been articulated there was silence. Where humility and reflection should have been offered there was hubris. Where reconciliation and peace should have been shouted, only resentment and anger remained.

Maybe one day, we will take communication seriously. Maybe one day we will insist that our clergy be as literate as managerial communicators as they are at exegesis. Yet until the, I will just keep some Tums handy and lay off the Chili dogs.

About Maria Dixon Hall

The Rev. Dr. Maria Dixon Hall is an associate professor of organizational communication and non-profit studies at Southern Methodist University.

  • Ernestina

    Customers? Public brand? Message discipline? I truly understand your concerns about communication. In fact, Methodists seem to have a difficult time communicating among themselves as well as with the non-Methodist public. It’s true we need to collaborate much more effectively and to get out our message of Jesus and love for all. Frankly, however, I think we would be best served to forget the strategies of corporate capitalism and return to the Christian gospel. We have to be excited about the gospel and Jesus Christ and the importance of loving our neighbor as ourselves. “Where does your faith live? In the head? In the heart?” asks Fr. Daniel Berrigan, SJ. Your faith, he tells us, “is rarely where your head is at, just as rarely where your heart is at. Your faith is where your ass is at! Where are you living? What are you doing? These things – our actions, our charity, our morality – are what determine whether we believe or not.” When we converse with other Methodists and with the world outside of Methodism, what people will understand will be “our actions, our charity, our morality.”

  • Wes Magruder

    This column begs the question — What precisely are you referring to when you say that the problem with the UMC is “dysfunctional organizational communication”? You beat around the bush so widely that I’m not really sure what you’re referring to. I respect the fact that you’re trying hard not to get sucked into the negativity and gossip, but I wish you would be more specific.

    From your perspective, I would also like to know specifically how things could be communicated better. I think we all have our opinion how the different players could have communicated differently, but do you have some specific guidelines or advice that would be pertinent here?

    And then I also have a deeper theological question: Your position assumes that the UMC must find a way to learn how to communicate better for the sake of organizational proficiency. But I want to know if that’s something that the church of Jesus Christ should really be concerned about. Perhaps the problem with our church is the problem that faces any institution which attains a certain size and then assumes a certain hubris based on its sense of self-importance. In other words, I think it’d be better if we spent LESS time worried about our brand/marketing/advertising and spent MORE time actually following Christ into the world. Do we really need a marketing department?

    Thanks for your insight, and I greatly appreciate your columns!

  • Creed Pogue

    When people put their own goals above that of the organization, it really doesn’t matter how many courses in strategic communication they take. When “Love Your Neighbor” decides that they will be the “star” of the show no matter what, then the only thing to do is to send the message that the disruption of a lawful assembly won’t be tolerated.

    If Bishop Bledsoe had simply announced (without the pathos) that he changed his mind and decided to try to stay on, then people would have given him credit for standing up for himself. Instead, we get the theatrics. Instead, we get the accusations of racism. Instead, we get the dividing up the community by what people look like. Unfortunately, seminaries don’t offer courses in mature judgment.

  • Mickey

    It’s not the chili dog when so many others are sharing the same thoughts. Thank You and God Bless.

  • Bill

    Consistant messaging is important to branding, public image and expanding a market. Business phrases may be a put off in a church context but strategic messaging is important in faith communities. It is ( lack of.., ineffective) communications within a conference that have painful consequences. As a non Methodist, I went to our local methodist conference for a social justice discussion. While there, I said my business partner was very concerned about his church and how the pastor’s tendency to autocratic leadership and missed opportunities to engage the congregation were weakening the church fabric. I suugested they may want the input of some church officers. The answer was the annual review was in a couple of months and it would be discussed with the minister. The congregation found via the published conference report that their pastor was going on a leave of absence and a replacement been chosen. When the conference representative came to address church members about what they had learned, he started by saying it was wrong for a congregation to withhold funds because they had issues with the pastor. The church treasurer said they hadnt withheld funds, 1/2 the church had left in the last 12 months. The conference representative said “why didnt I know this?”. The members asked why did we find out in the conference report our pastor was taking a leave of absence with no planned replacement. Yes, there is a failure in organizational communication.