A Methodist moonshot

What if the entire way we organize the work we do in the church is the source of our problems?

I was reading today about the history of the Apollo space program and the first moon landing. When President Kennedy made his bold claim about going to the moon before the end of the decade, NASA had shown little ability to pull off the task. The Russians were ahead and the European ELDO space agency looked as likely a candidate to get to the moon as the United States.

What shifted the equation was not a technological breakthrough but a complete overhaul in the way NASA organized itself. It knocked down silos and created networks of constant communication so that different departments shared knowledge and worked on problems together instead of separately. These changes got Neil Armstrong on the moon.

The European ELDO space agency remained in silos and did not share information in the same way. It had a series of failed launched traced directly to the fact that different parts of its structure did not know what the other parts were doing and did not coordinate their work. ELDO ceased to exist a few years after the US reached the moon.

When I look at the way the United Methodist Church organizes its work in my conference — and I assume most others — it feels more like being a part of ELDO than the Apollo-era NASA. I look over the county where I serve, and I see several individual silos. Horizontally there is not much communication between churches. Vertically, few people in the local church understand what is happening in the annual conference and almost no one can explain how the general agencies and seminaries tie in to the work of the other parts of the system.

The authors of the book Team of Teams, from which I took the story about NASA and ELDO, argue that 21st century organizations must be organized not as top-down, mechanical, assembly-line-style organizations but as networked teams of teams. These teams of teams are marked by a shared purpose, trust, and intentional information sharing.

The concept is new enough to me, that I’m not even sure how a team of teams approach to organizing the work of the church in a county or district would work. I know it would look radically different than what we do now. I suspect we can see some glimpses of what it might look in the multi-site churches that have been forming in many parts of the connection.

What I see in my minds eye right now is a collection of clergy, worship specialists, discipleship experts, and others appointed to serve a geographical region rather than an individual church. They would work as a team or group of teams charged with the mission of spreading holiness in a certain region. Their work would require and entail connections with other organizations — secular and religious — in their geographic area. The United Methodists would bring some special skills and resources to the teams but would not try to do everything ourselves.

Like I say, I’m just beginning to sketch in my head what this might look like or how it might function.

I know there are a bunch of things I’ve not begun to think through and a bunch of aspects of our polity that would make this difficult to do. But I’m convinced how we do what we do matters.



7 thoughts on “A Methodist moonshot

  1. I’ve wondered about (at least) a parish model to ministry with teams of clergy covering regions, though this may be far less ambitious in goal than what you describe. I think this has been done in some places and clergy can focus their time on their strengths at least in theory. I’d love to have something like that at least in my current context. It seems (to me) that smaller churches officially linked with county seat churches could be very beneficial.

  2. Methodists are an ambivalent people; we equivocate on essentials, disobey our Discipline, remain unchastened by Scripture because we cannot agree on its authority, and we are narcissistic about our brand. Reorganizing would not purge these faults. We can’t agree that we should go to the moon, or evangelize the lost, or stake a stand on marriage, or even preach the atoning death & resurrection of an incarnate Savior. There’s enough irresolution to go around for all to partake of his share. Still…your old folk shall dream dreams and young shall see visions.

  3. Found you! Now to comment on your posting. It seems to be a critique of structure, offered ‘in media res.’ With regard to church structures in particular, two notions occur to me: 1) NASA’s changes were prompted by the pull of a particular “eschatology,” in this case the first footprint on the moon being U.S. American. Similarly, structural changes in organizations work best trying to actualize an eschatological vision beyond us that pulls us toward it (God’s reconciliation theough Jesus Christ, now embodied in the human institution of church, animated by the Spirit of the risen Christ, anyone?). 2) remembering always that we live in a fallen world, which means that we excell in the spiritual gift of messing up things. So: semper reformanda! Thanks for the post.
    Bob Howard

    1. Thank you for the comment. I agree that the pull off the footprint was powerful. As I look at my denomination, from my vantage point in its lower reaches, it is not clear to me that we have a strong sense of shared eschatology to pull us forward. And hence, it feels as if we add to the unavoidable failures of falleness the avoidable confusion of cross purposes. I may be wrong about that, but it is how it looks and feels to me.

      1. I, too, doubt there’s a “strong shared sense of eschatology” in United Methodism today. In fact, the suggestion seems almost quaint. In fact, returning to the NASA analogy, we did not return to the moon in human boots. The urge to go there, and all that talk about moon bases, is now pretty stale, like Vision 2000, Quest for Quality, Rethink Church, etc.

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