The United Methodist Church in a United Airlines moment

Those who need to fly will, for the immediate future at least, book flights on any other airline than United Airlines, whose skies are now distinctly unfriendly. Those who long for God and God’s goodness will go to any other church, uninterested in a “United” Methodist Church with no evidence of real unity.


United Airlines Stock, April 11, 2017. Source: MarketWatch
United Airlines Stock, April 11, 2017. Source: MarketWatch

EVERYBODY has seen it. The horrible video of the uncooperative passenger forcibly dragged from the plane after being told he must relinquish his seat whether he liked it or not.

A public relations disaster

To put it charitably, this is a public relations disaster for United Airlines.

Short-sided management, likely burdened by overly complex “Who gets to make what decisions” structures, didn’t plan adequately to get those crew members on board. There was probably some policy manual someone was trying to follow to the letter that led to a series of bad decisions.

If even one thing had changed, had the offer to take a later flight, sweetened with some cash, come before the ticketed passengers boarded the plane, it would have been business as usual. No big deal.

But it didn’t.

As I was writing this, an article came out that said that United has lost $600,000,000 in stock value so far today.

United’s mistake should never have happened. It’s the classic “want of the nail” situation.

For the want of a nail the shoe was lost,
For the want of a shoe the horse was lost,
For the want of a horse the rider was lost,
For the want of a rider the battle was lost,
For the want of a battle the kingdom was lost,
And all for the want of a horseshoe-nail.

And now, the fallout . . . I wouldn’t be surprised if the airline never really recovers from this incident. It could be a fatal blow. We know too much now.

Can the UMC recover our big-tent vision?

And I’m going to say it: I don’t think the United Methodist Church will ever recover from the fallout our short-sighted decisions.

What’s the nail we lack?

A coherent, focused vision for what it means to be a “big-tent” religion.

Had we genuinely understood what it meant that United Methodism could embrace both George Bush AND Hilary Clinton and all they represent, we would still be thriving today.

But we, in our pitiful way, modeled what happened as the Protestant revolution unfolded. For want of a vision of what it might mean to abolish the corruptions in Roman Catholicism at the time, Christianity has splinted into millions of tiny little feifdoms, each with its version of “correct” thinking and practice.

There’s no unifying vision for Protestants.

I don’t see a unifying vision for United Methodists either. Separate special interest groups have taken over, each unwilling to concede that there might be larger truths that can hold us together.

Even in my pessimistic outlook, I want to say how much I admire the work so far of The Way Forward Commission. A report on the current state of their work is here.  It sounds like they are addressing these very issues.

Commission members indicated that they were leaning toward a simpler structure with clearer processes for decision-making and accountability for the church in its mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ.  In personal responses, the members showed that they were honoring the learnings of the Call to Action and a worldwide Book of Discipline. Conversations during the meeting indicated a commitment to finding a way forward that honors the complexity of the global denomination and the unity of a shared faith in Christ.

Is it too late? Are we unrepairable? Has our stock value fallen too much in the eyes of the public? Can we right ourselves and display to the world yet once more that the way of Jesus brings us together in a unique sense of holiness and wholeness in our differences, not splits us apart?

Monoculture in a potato field: efficient, but not effective in the long run
Monoculture in a potato field: efficient, but not effective in the long run. Photo courtesy of Wikipedia Commons.

We need a healthy ecosystem not monoculture for real unity

I’m a gardener. I know that a healthy ecosystem needs a large variety of foliage and insects and creeping, crawly things and birds and animals to eat and scatter the seeds.

Efficient agriculture plants one thing in one place and ends up needing giant amounts of toxic chemicals to keep it growing. Effective agriculture plants a multiplicity of crops and encourages the healing properties found in a diverse environment.

We need all parties, the radical right, the radical left and the faithful middle, to be a healthy, big tent, effective church.

But the press, the public opinion court, does not have kind things to say about us any more than it does about United Airlines right now. Our infightings have become public knowledge to a larger world that longs for hope and holiness but is sick unto death of fractious fights.

Those who need to fly will, for the immediate future at least, book their flights on any other airline than United Airlines, whose skies are now distinctly unfriendly.

Those who long for God and God’s goodness will go to any other church, uninterested in a “United” Methodist Church that has no evidence of real unity.

I don’t think it is too late. But will not survive without a cohesive sense of who we are and a willingness to embrace differences.

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  • Linda Coleman Allen

    Yes, I think that United Airlines has shot itself in the foot. Possibly lethal. UMC, please don’t destroy yourself as well. You were there for me in the 1960’s when I needed you. There are many who need you now.

  • johnwleek

    Christy, it would not shock me to see United flying high in three months or less with no evidence of lower bookings. If I invested outside of UMPIP I might buy stock. Unlike with denominations there really aren’t many options when it comes to air travel and as long as people use kayak and others.. they’ll continue to buy the cheapest option on their route..

    Separately, United Methodism routinely scores among the highest marks on public opinion surveys. From inside the Methodist bubble it may seem that the house is on fire, but from outside for most people it continues as business as usual!

    (Your post popped up on my google news page for some reason.)

    • http://www.christythomas.com Rev. Christy Thomas

      Have no idea why my post popped up in your news feed but do appreciate your comments here. It’s nice to know that from the outside, we are viewed positively.

    • http://www.christythomas.com Rev. Christy Thomas

      My husband, who watches the stock market carefully, calls this a “buying moment” for United Airlines stock. Will be interested to see if he is right.