Sears And The UMC: Both Bankrupt, Looking For Easter

Sears And The UMC: Both Bankrupt, Looking For Easter March 5, 2019

Sears and the UMC: both, bankrupt, looking for Easter. GC2019 lit the charge for the explosion for the UMC. The changing notions of how to shop set up the bankruptcy for Sears.

I predict a resurrection for the Methodist world. We shall again develop workable methods so we may proclaim with joy the message of grace. Easter is just around the corner. Lent gives us space to ponder the death that must precede it. 

Before this disturbing and likely disastrous General Conference of the United Methodist Church, i.e., the one where the news headlines afterward screamed, in one way or another, “The Methodists Vote to continue to exclude Gays,” my husband and I grabbed a walk in a nearby shopping mall, seeking exercise on an inclement day.

Sears: bankrupt, looking for Easter

We stopped at the entrance to Sears, now barred off. Peering inside, we saw an immaculately clean, empty space. With the normal clutter of items begging to be purchased gone, the warehouse-like space stretched deep into darkness.

A clean stable versus a messy church

The verse from the proverbs bounced into mind, “Where no oxen are, the manger is clean, But much revenue comes by the strength of the ox.” (Proverbs 14:4, New American Standard Version). In other words, if you want a clean barn, get rid of the oxen because they are messy critters. But if you want to eat, make the best of the mess because you will not survive without those ornery beasts.

Even then, I was guessing at the outcome of GC2019. In the name of a clean manger, i.e., only cis-gendered folk are admitted to the ranks of the ordained, the Good News/WCA/African branches of the church would end up getting rid of the oxen, which in this case, is the younger generation of would-be Methodist leaders in the US.

Should we lose the youth, the current generation of young adults, and the large numbers of LGBTQIA folk who have discovered the beauty of God’s grace poured out upon them in many of our US churches, we lose the “mess” that makes us rich and prosperous in the wild diversity of a healthy church.

At the moment, Sears is seeking to resurrect itself. It leaves behind those cavernous spaces, planning for a more agile structure with smaller stores. They will focus on the things where Sears has historically led the pack, i.e., tools and appliances.

They may or may not make it. The advent of online shopping, niche stores with individualized products, and easy returns has slammed the assumptions of the former behemoth shopping staple. Little that worked before will work now. Their reinvention may prove, however, a road map for what the UMC must do.

“United” Methodist Church, bankrupt, looking for Easter

This last GC did land the death knell on the “united” Methodist Church. The only “way forward” now takes us to a decisive fork in the road. The “No gays in the rank of the ordained or legally married”adherents will take the right-hand turn. The “All Means All” coalition proceeds with its march to the left-hand horizon. Burning, empty church buildings will line both roads.

Unfortunately, without staying together, there is no way to afford the current, complicated and expensive infrastructure we have now. Also, it is likely that legal fees will drain whatever reserves may be stashed away.

The accounting nightmare of sorting out the pension complexity glares at us. A clergy exodus threatens that system. Currently retired clergy could easily see their fragile pensions demolished, throwing them into scary poverty.

We could end up with this scenario:

The UMC: Bankrupt, looking for Easter

So, let’s talk about the reinvention of Methodism for today’s world. How can we channel our inner “John Wesley’s,” he of the willingness to break rules to spread the gospel in a way that communicated well to his cultural contest; he of the organizational genius; he of the understanding of both the power of and the safeguards of a healthy, vibrant connection?

The complications of this reinvention call for a set of brilliant and creative organizational minds.

Let’s start with just one portion of what has historically connected us: the system of itinerant clergy.

In Wesley’s system, a circuit-riding preacher, carrying with him a few, well-honed messages delivered multiple times in multiple places, rarely made it more than three years. The physical toll of hours on horseback in challenging weather conditions, the constant movement that denied hope of marriage and family, the pittance of the pay: all took their inevitable toll on his men–and in that environment, it had to be male-only.

Ultimately, they had to “locate,” perhaps becoming the shepherd of a single community, with the preaching left to the traveling circuit riders or possibly limited to reading Wesley’s written sermons to the flock.

Clergy stresses today

Today, the clergy stresses again reach unbearable levels.

First, because of the cost of seminary education, many haul around the equivalent of a backpack full of rocks: their crushing debt loads.

Second, the truly “itinerant” clergy generally face a future of moving from small dying church to small dying church, all with minimal pay and coupled with wrenching re-locations for family members or, too often, spouses living apart for extended periods of time.

Each new appointment carries the admonition, “Turn this church around. Never mind the fact that it is in a dying community, bereft of viable employment opportunities, with an unrepairable building loaded with unaffordable deferred maintenance. We know it hasn’t seen a person under 60 enter it in years nor will it because the nursery/children’s areas remain out of compliance with current safety standards and lack desirable accouterments for today’s families. Just trust me; it has potential.”

Third, the “yes I am itinerant but am actually on a career ladder,” of generally young, carefully groomed male aspirants, face another set of stresses.

A few of the often unspoken expectations:

  • Young-family magnets;
  • Skilled fund-raisers because the very people they are programmed to attract are generally the very people who have the least amount of ability to be generous givers;
  • Superb preachers with well-honed theological foundations, able to deliver stunningly good messages week after week after week;
  • Able family men who devote long hours to romancing their wives and helping rear their children and coach little league sports while volunteering regularly at nearby schools;
  • Glorious extroverts who maintain a visible public presence in their local communities;
  • Patient counselors, and experienced in conflict-resolution techniques;
  • Experts in the arcane language and requirements of the often contradictory and nearly impossible to decode, Book of Discipline, and can also devote endless hours to the equally endless district and conference committee meetings and leadership responsibilities;
  • Can leap tall buildings with a single bound.

Two factors add to the stress

In a recent Wall Street Journal article, “The Hidden costs of Stressed-out Workers,” two factors stood out to me.

One, regular work hours, regular, limited work hours:

It’s important for schedules to be stable and, when possible, to give employees some say over when they work. In 2015, after retail staff for The Gap clothing chain protested the rising frequency of last-minute changes in their schedules, the company tried a pilot project in 28 stores in an effort to stabilize work hours. The results, according to a report published last year, included a 7% increase in sales and a 5% in increase in productivity.

Two, staff must have input in designing the plan.

Researchers at the University of Auckland studied the experiment and said participation by the staff in designing the plan was pivotal to its success. Because employees were satisfied that they could take care of personal business in off-hours, “The reduced hours meant that employees could sustain a more intensive work pattern, and they were more motivated upon returning to work,” said Prof. Helen Delaney in her report. In their off-time, she added, “Many reported feeling ‘less psychologically rushed.’”

Those two factors alone remain out of reach of our clergy.

For all, no matter how favored they may be, their futures lie in the hands of their Bishops. Bishops can, if enough complaints reach them from dissatisfied church members who specialize in having “pastor on toast” for Sunday lunches, or if they are just having a bad day or giving in to a punitive impulse, yank clergy from one church to another with little or no warning.

Clergy either go where they are told or risk not having a job. No control, no input.

The whim of local congregations sets their financial compensation. They often live with inadequate housing, either because of poorly maintained parsonages or inadequate housing allowances for their respective areas.

Few work less than 60 hours a week. All have constant interruptions in their schedules, often including middle-of-the-night calls.

Did I mention how glad I am to be retired? I loved serving as a pastor. But after my retirement–and I took it early–it took nine months of good exercise, lots of sunshine, and relaxed hours with friends and family to regain a sense of physical vitality.

We need to take care of our clergy, not wear them out

My husband and I own an agency with thousands of people selling the products we market. Our number one priority: the health and happiness of our staff, especially those who live in the precarious world of commission-driven incomes. Their unhappiness becomes our unhappiness. We work hard to make sure they have all the support they need to do their jobs.

In the church, clergy serve as the equivalent of our salespeople. Without their work, the larger church goes under, because clergy raise the money so the non-sales staff, i.e., the many employed in supporting or supervisory roles, can collect their paychecks.

Frankly, I’ve been to one-too-many clergy meetings where I looked around the room and thought, “this is one beat-up, discouraged-looking group of people.” For all the talk of “make sure you follow good self-care procedures,” there’s little in the “methods” of the Methodists that make it possible.

The “do-over” point, bankrupt, looking for Easter

Again, rethinking itinerancy is just one of several thousand difficult decisions before current Methodist leaders. Nonetheless, it appears likely that we stand at a vital “do-over” point.

I’ve realized since 2012 that our current structure is totally unworkable. Even then, I could not see any way through this except to blow it up and start again.

We appear now to be at that breaking point. Our system no longer works. Let be honest about that and unleash the creativity that springs from speaking truth and getting free.

Sears and the UMC: both, bankrupt, looking for Easter. GC2019 lit the charge for the explosion for the UMC. The changing notions of how to shop set up the bankruptcy for Sears.

I predict a resurrection for the Methodist world. We shall again develop workable methods so we may proclaim with joy the message of grace. Easter is just around the corner. Lent gives us space to ponder the death that must precede it.

Photo credits: (c) Christy Thomas; ID 135784336 © Aleksei Lagunov |



"I imagine the UMC is trying to avoid the ECUSA mess."

Response To The Great Divorce, i.e., ..."
"Very elitist comment, breathtakingly colonialist: “they’ll catch up.”"

Response To The Great Divorce, i.e., ..."
"I’ve spent several hours (as an outsider, though not disinterested), and really don’t recognize it ..."

Response To The Great Divorce, i.e., ..."

Browse Our Archives

Follow Us!

TRENDING AT PATHEOS Progressive Christian
What Are Your Thoughts?leave a comment
  • Reese

    Could we admit that there is NO way forward and cut with the metaphors, the vitriol, and the whining? There is now UMC in name only. It is done. Progressivies and Traditionalists cannot be reconciled. Let’s move on to divorce court and stop with all the inane chatter. To quote philosopher Willie Nelson, “Turn out the lights, the party’s over.”

    • Ivan T. Errible

      But what about “celebrating diversity”???

      • Reese

        We have many opportunities, but what traditionalists are being told to do is well beyond “diversity”. It is counter culture tothousands of years of our beliefs. Nobody is banned from our pews for being diverse, quite the contrary, but demanding that I accept them as spiritual leader or their weddings in the church of my ancestors is not possible. Is my accepting their diversity more important than they accepting my traditions?

        • John Marsh

          Orthodox in beliefs but diverse in expression. As a model Catholicism has been trying to do this for a while. The core theological beliefs (Eucharist, sacraments, priesthood, core mass) is the same and if disputed put down BUT there is great diversity in regional prayer, music, and expression. An Arabic Catholic church will have the same core as a Latin American one as a North American one but some can get quite rowdy and others quite introspective out of respect for the local culture. That said RC is much more slow to adopt “worship gimmicks” as some churches do. This is all to try to form some sort of idea of “Catholics as a People” as well. The UMC loves the idea of a world church because the numbers help but has avoided the heavy lifting of standardizing theology. IMHO.

        • Ivan T. Errible

          Which is why religion is intrinsically ridiculous; you can’t keep hearing voices that no one else does and demand to be taken seriously. Either there’s only one “Invisible Friend” who’s talking or you’re all projecting your wishes.

          • Chuck Johnson

            The ancient world contained a great deal of blind obedience to authority as a source of political power.

            Western civilization has evolved past the need for blind obedience.
            The supernatural messages and teachings are well suited to highly obedient ancient cultures.
            Modern societies work better when people think for themselves.

            So any philosophy that makes use of superstition becomes progressively less successful in modern times.

  • Ivan T. Errible

    Why is church so boring?

    • Reese

      I know what you mean! Many are. Some are not at all. Since the cancer of liberalism metastasized in the Methodist Church, we’ve been going to a fun church called the All-Around Cowboy church, an off-shoot of the Baptist church which allows members to drink beer even in front of other members. Lots of music from a band,not a choir, playing a mix of up-beat rock n’ roll and old style country. No pomp and circumstance. After a half hour of good music,the preacher delivers a sermon like a Mac Truck – with an unapologetic, unambiguous message. One special feature, they serve doughnuts and breakfasts tacos and kolaches in the back of the church BEFORE the service. First church service I could get thru without thinking about lunch. We are in Texas, but you might look around. Many of the non-denominationals focus more on the message, less on the mumbo jumbo. Some can get pretty wild. A few have seat-belts. But, nobody sleeps.

    • Chuck Johnson

      It’s an ancient institution trying to thrive in a modern setting.
      Its messages are more suited to the churchgoers of long ago.

      The supernatural content of the messages is a stumbling block.
      It’s hard to make the messages evolve into messages for modern people because of this.

  • soter phile

    All the churches will be empty & burning you say?
    That’s not what the UMC’s growing African Churches are experiencing… or saying…

    “It’s mind-boggling, and it baffles the Christian leader from Africa — I speak for all of Africa — it baffles the mind of the Christian leader from Africa, who ascribes to the whole Bible as his or her primary authority for faith and practice, to see and to hear that cultural Christianity can take the place of the Bible. United Methodists in America and other parts of the world are far going away from Scripture and giving in to cultural Christianity,” Kulah said.

  • John Marsh

    Yes ministers have a tough row to hoe. With all due respect with to the Sears metaphor I do not see how they will get back to their core business as they have spun off their tools and appliance brands to other companies. They like the UMC have little demand and a lot of valuable real eJCPstate. I would argue that JC Penny which has been declining gently for years decided to throw out their traditional lines for (frumpy but predictable seller) clothes for those appealing to (as the new CEO at the time stated) was more gay friendly trend setters that would (presumably) bring in the youth to replace their aging demographic. The result? Steeper loss in sales as they alienated their traditional base and did not attract enough of their new targeted, very fickle audience because they simply were not “cool” enough. THAT is what I see as a possible Progressive future for the UMC–catering for the future of a relatively fickle and occasionally attending group. And like old mainstream institutions the problems that Sears and JCP faced was not that of “style” but fundamental operational and structural problems.

  • John Marsh

    A further irony in the “Sears and the UMC” model is that the African Church is flourishing in a fiercely ruthless “market” with Muslim and Animist competitors where the cost of joining the UMC can include family ostracism to death. But I bow to anyone with actual Retailer trend analysis experience…

  • RustbeltRick

    As with many other store closings, it’s a little more complicated than just “people are shopping online.” In this case, the CEO of Sears decided to run his company according to the lunatic principles of Ayn Rand, and he ran a pretty good company into the ground. Here are two accounts:

    But I still think the metaphor holds up. Ayn Rand’s philosophy has infected American churches in both subtle and obvious ways. I saw that first-hand in my very conservative United Methodist congregation over the last five years. We finally left this past fall.