Getting to yes in the UMC

Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God. (Matthew 5:9)

I’ve been thinking lately of Fisher and Ury’s classic book on negotiation Getting to Yes. It is a book about reaching successful agreements, success being defined in part as an agreement that all parties to the agreement observe. (Here is a summary of the book’s main ideas.)

I know the very thought of negotiation and compromise on the matters that threaten to split our denomination is anathema to many. To both sides of the conflict, it is tantamount to turning away from God’s righteousness.

I understand that. I am exploring these questions, however, as one who is not persuaded that splintering is either God’s desire or the cure for what ails us.

Here is the book summary on the difference between positional and principled bargaining. Which one sounds like us?

Negotiations often take the form of positional bargaining. In positional bargaining each part opens with their position on an issue. The parties then bargain from their separate opening positions to agree on one position. Haggling over a price is a typical example of positional bargaining. Fisher and Ury argue that positional bargaining does not tend to produce good agreements. It is an inefficient means of reaching agreements, and the agreements tend to neglect the parties’ interests. It encourages stubbornness and so tends to harm the parties’ relationship.

Fisher and Ury argue that principled bargaining requires four steps:

  1. separate the people from the problem
  2. focus on interests rather than positions
  3. generate a variety of options before settling on an agreement
  4. insist that the agreement be based on objective criteria

Let’s look briefly at a few parts of that first step: separating people from the problem.

Fisher and Ury argue that a large problem in any negotiation is that people tend identify personally with their position, and so experience any non-favorable response to their issue as a personal attack. This tends to make it very hard to see the issues clearly and to speak about them rationally.

Fisher and Ury highlight three kinds of people problems: perception, emotion, and communication. (Read the summary of the book for a quick take on these.) The bottom line on the first step in the process is summed up nicely on the web page:

Generally the best way to deal with people problems is to prevent them from arising. People problems are less likely to come up if the parties have a good relationship, and think of each other as partners in negotiation rather than as adversaries.

And so, the impasse emerges. Are the two sides in our denominational crisis willing to come together as peacemakers seeking an agreement that speaks to the interests of everyone? Or are we locked in a struggle that both sides can cast only as a competition between angels of light and angels of darkness?

I know and greatly admire individuals on both sides of this conflict. I also am aware of people on both sides who would never be interested in unity. They see unity as a rag of shame when it requires compromise on the principles they hold most dear.

I understand that. But I still want to explore whether it is possible to be peacemakers in the midst of our conflict. Can we enter into a process — if not all of us then some of us — that does not seek to destroy each other but to make peace in the midst of our conflict?

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20 thoughts on “Getting to yes in the UMC

  1. This is a worthy addition to the discussion.

    I’m not sure if separating people from the problem is possible. This conversation is wrought with personal, spiritual investment on all sides.

    In any case, getting to yes requires actual talking and listening. When do such conversations ever get to take place?

    1. Your question does name the biggest issue. Who can have these kinds of conversations and where can they take place. At the moment, we have well-organized groups that could take a role. As for venue, I don’t know. I would think the Council of Bishops could convene something.

      The biggest issue I see is that people are being pretty naive about how great a thing it will be to split the denomination. Everyone seems to assume it will both bear great fruit and cost little. I think both assumptions are without any basis in facts.

      1. In fact John, our history shows us how painful and harmful schism is. It is a really naive idea indeed. So we have to figure out how we can live together. That is also in our history and theological DNA.

  2. This is LOL funny (but through tears). The United Methodist Church has been “holy conferencing” about sexuality at every General Conference since 1972 (as Riley Case has enumerated aptly for us). I have experienced these conversations ad infinitum at the annual conference level, always contrived or bent towards a preordained outcome favoring the so-called progressives. The only “accomplishment” was to beat down minority viewpoints (evangelical and ethnic). Evangelicals were swimming in muck up to their necks. Ethnic colleagues of mine compromised on everything for the sake of their appointment status. Let’s get real, remember Jude?

    1. But your description of these conversations indicates that they were not the kind of principled negotiation that Fisher & Ury advocate. A manipulative exercise with a pre-ordained conclusion is not what I am asking for.

      1. But this only underscores my point, that the church in intentional “good faith” has designed countless conversations (at ALL levels), but these strenuous efforts have only increased the severity of the problem. This matter, by the way, is an ECUMENICAL issue, not a question United Methodists can truly negotiate to resolution. To alter understandings of marriage & sexuality DIVIDES us from the Church at-large (Anglicans, Roman Catholics, the Orthodox, Pentecostals, Southern Baptists, and other Wesleyan communions). We need to see this in real context.

        1. What has been the goal of these talks? Hasn’t it been implicitly or explicitly about changing people’s minds? What I’m proposing is talking about what has to happen to stay in union.

          “You must agree with me” is a position. Starting there is positional bargaining.

    2. Nor would that constitute a “holy conferencing”, to pick up John’s point. And let’s not act like it doesn’t happen both ways.

  3. First, I’m not sure a secular tome can inform situations in which matters of the spirit and faith are concerned. I’ll have to mull over whether Scripture contains any example of this approach.

    Second, it is impossible to separate people from the problem when we have elected to believe that our sexuality is a fundamental aspect if identity. One side apparently believes that to forego the expression of one’s sexual identity is tantamount to oppression – or worse.

    1. I agree that these are issues of concern. I am looking for ways to preserve unity. I welcome other proposals. I have no illusions that I have the wisdom of Solomon.

      1. “What I’m proposing is talking about what has to happen to stay in union” is, ironically, how all parties to this crisis would view their efforts. But disobedience is the unyielding nut. The disobedient are (politely but adamantly) refusing to cease, and the bishops will not enforce, so “principled negotiation” becomes an oxymoron.

        1. Perhaps. Again, though, I’m not sure it has ever been actually tried. Maybe no one wants to do so.

    2. I never replied to your first point, Joe. I don’t think secular methods are ruled out. The Bible gives us our purpose and does lay down some markers for how we are to live and function together, but it does not cover every possible base. There is no biblical warrant for putting indoor plumbing in churches, and yet we do. If a secular process for improving communication can help us achieve biblical goals — without causing us to sin in the use of that process — then I don’t think it is necessarily a bad thing.

  4. John, I admire your desire for a solution and I am deeply concerned about the effect of a schism or even a fight as we are now having on the viability of the Denomination. However, it seems to me that the issue in this disagreement as in many extremely difficult to resolve disagreements (e.g. Israeli Palestine) is whether there is a possible end state that would be acceptable (not necessarily desirable) to both sides. The one side appears to be of the position that anything less than affirmation of same sex marriage is heartless discrimination. The other side appears to take the position that any acceptance of same sex marriage is affirmation of sin. I am hard pressed to see how this can be resolved by negotiation, because there does not appear to be any mutually acceptable end state to negotiate to. The nearest analogous issue is acceptance (e.g., ordination) of pastors who were divorced and remarried. We do not appear to be particularly troubled by Matthew 19:9, as our Roman Catholic brothers are and as we were prior to about 1960. It might be useful to try to understand how we got to this place in just over 50 years.

    1. I have no doubt that on either end of the bell curve we have folks who cannot imagine any way to live in the same denomination with each other. I suppose those folks are not my audience. Part of my thinking in all this is to stop letting the extremes drive the discussion by creating another discussion or another topic of conversation other than the mutual recriminations.

      Your point about divorce and remarriage is another case that might be interesting to learn more about.

  5. I have been meaning to read “Getting to Yes” and the follow on “Getting Past No”. Maybe there are lessons to be learned there that might apply. In our case we are talking about passionately held view points that do not lend themselves to compromise. Separating the people from the problem might be difficult. Try imagining a homosexual admitting that his homosexuality is a problem and that it is separate from him. Good luck with that.
    We have one group willing to engage in unethical behaviors under the premise that the end justifies the means. I find that disturbing in a Christian setting. I do not even want to be in the same room with people who think that way.
    Unlike negotiating a teachers’ contract we have no designated representatives for each party in the negotiation. Even if there were we have no mechanism to bring the solution back to the membership to vote for approval. Simply establishing such a process would be unsettling to some folks as it would look like a thinly disguised schism panel. We have a trust gap in The UMC that gets in the way of such things.
    I am not for unity at all costs. If I no longer feel comfortable in The UMC I will find another church. I believe that the Holy Spirit will work through our organizational issues one way or another. I have no trust issues there. Maybe Methodism has run its historical course.
    I have been one of your regular readers for a while and have long since concluded that you are a pretty smart guy. If you cannot see a path toward unity then it is not because you cannot see it. It is because there isn’t one. Hoping for a Solomon to solve our problem for us is a pointless waste of time. The baby is going to be split. If we are willing to put our heads together maybe we can keep the baby from exploding.

    1. Thank you for the kind words.

      Part of my thought is that the focus of this is not theological conversion but finding out if there is an agreement that can be worked out that allows enough of us to stay in communion with each other that we don’t devolve into schism. I have no doubt that there are people who will not tolerate living in a denominations with weeds mixed in with the wheat. I’m trying to suggest ways we can tolerate the weeds until Jesus comes and settles the issue at last.

      I agree 100% that my whole line of thinking is compromised by the fact that we have no management and union reps to be designated negotiators. I’m not sure that means we cannot identify such voices or even legitimate some in the process of discussion.

  6. John, thank you for your creative thinking. Your reservations about separation are entirely appropriate. Everyone I know who is open to separation is doing so reluctantly and with a heavy heart. It truly is a last resort.
    At the same time, we must recognize that there are costs either way. Separation will bear high cost, but so will maintaining the status quo. Accelerating conflict, widening gap in terms of the practice of church from one part of the country to another, accelerating decline as evangelicals leave a church that violates in practice their understanding of sexual morality and theology, and a widening trust gap between laity and leaders are just a few of the costs. The comparison is not between a high-cost separation and a low-cost “unity.” It is between a high-cost “unity” and a high-cost separation.
    Some have come to the conclusion that separation would yield a lower cost long-term, with people freed to pursue mission and ministry in the way they feel led by God to do so, without the constant conflict.

    1. Tom,

      Thank you for taking the time to post.

      I hope nothing I am writing in any way disparages the motives of those who are talking about separation. I trust the motives arise from a sincere desire to obey Christ.

      I did not mean to imply either that unity was low cost. Like any marriage, unity is seldom easy.

      I understand that some people have concluded they cannot live with each other anymore — even though we have been able to do so for 40 years despite disagreements over a wide range of theological issues.

      A smaller, more theologically uniform church likely would be free of many of our conflicts and problems.

      But I have not discerned that it is God’s will that the church split. I understand all the human arguments about how it might make certain things easier and less stressful, but I do not see how it is God’s desire for the church.

      I don’t see the scriptural grounds for separation. I do see lots of scriptural indictments of our church for its lack of holiness and discipline, but I can’t think of an argument that says dividing the church is what God desires.

      That is where I am and what motivates my quest, as foolhardy as it may be.

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