The United Methodist brand

I know a lot of people recoil at business talk and vocabulary in the church. I’ve never understood that reaction. We don’t object to using insights from other fields in the organization and management of the church. No one, so far as I know, objects to using modern plumbing simply because it is “secular.”

Nonetheless, I know some people recoil when business language comes up. If that is you, I’ll ask that you hold that to the side for a few moments while I share something that I did yesterday.

I was sitting on a question and answer session for a case competition at my business school when my mind started drifting. Three men from an international consulting firm were talking to students about a hypothetical business that is trying to expand into new markets. They kept coming back to how important it was for the company to stay true to its core values, mission, and brand as it was seeking out new markets and planning to enter them.

They talked about standard practices in opening stores in a new market. When this happens, companies will take their best people from existing stores and send them to the new one to make sure the values, work processes, and identity of the company are firmly rooted in the new store, especially in the first days and weeks of its operations. The company has invested vast resources in establishing its brand, clarifying its values, and establishing work practices. It wants to make sure those are transplanted to the new location from the first day.

Maybe you know where I am going here.

As I was listening, I kept wondering what — if anything — could be identified as the United Methodist brand, values, and processes.

In early Methodism, the “brand” was closely tied to particular theological convictions and methods. Others used similar methods (there were Baptist itinerant preachers, too) but the combination of theology and method made Methodists unique and identifiable.

I don’t think you can say that now. I don’t see a way to clearly distinguish us from a more-or-less generic mainline Protestantism. We have a more liberal inflection in some places and more evangelical in others, but I struggle to identify — to use an old Wesleyan phrase — the marks of United Methodism.

For the last few years, I’ve tried to be part of a conversation in the church about rooting our brand, values, mission, and processes in our Wesleyan heritage. I still believe that would be fruitful, but I know this is a conversation that is many ways at the margins of the actual work of the church. Wesley gets name checked more these days — I gather — than he did 25 years ago, but we often only draft Wesley to argue points we already wanted to make and would have made whether he fits them or not. We use him a bit the way KFC uses Col. Sanders. And often he only gets mentioned by way of dismissing him. You hear it phrased this way, “John Wesley was a great man, but …” So, despite my own interest, I would not say our brand is strikingly or decisively Wesleyan in a way that translates into practices that would be obvious to church members and or even clergy.

This all presses on me as I prepare to move from part-time pastor to full-time this summer. I have done my commissioning work, so I can report what we say in our Book of Discipline our distinctive emphases are. But as I prepare to go to a new appointment, I also find myself wondering how I will identify healthy Methodism in my new charge, articulate it to them, and work with them to instill the values and practices that make us uniquely Methodist. (Maybe it is a good thing that I waited until after gaining approval of the Board of Ordained Ministry to write this post.)

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13 thoughts on “The United Methodist brand

    1. Thanks, Matt. I wonder how to make progress on this issue. Wouldn’t be great to have every candidate for bishop address this issue in a public way?

  1. If you focus on branding your church members you will run yourself silly trying to tidy up all the behaviors that do not fit the model. Many of us “have been there, done that” until we came to our senses and realized it’s all about offering them Jesus Christ. You are going to encounter a great melange of sin-sick souls and broken faith. Be careful to keep your message clear. You are not doing this just to satisfy the BOM, or even your own lofty scruples.

    1. Good distinction. The goal is not to force members into a box, like slapping a uniform on a McDonald’s employee. The branding has to do with what the church teaches and preaches, how it organizes its ministry, and so on. Your point highlights that the boundary of employee-customer that fits in business does not map onto the church, but I think the utility of developing a clear brand has as much to do with guiding internal work and making internal expectations clear as it has to do with outward communication.

      I agree that we should “offer Christ.” But once you get past that phrase you get pretty quickly into needing to have a more fully developed soteriology and theology. “Offer Christ” can become the evangelical mirror of “just love them.” If you don’t have some common theology behind those terms you can have lots of people who way they are doing the same thing when they are doing very different things.

      Thanks for taking the time to comment, Gary.

      1. This is not push back but a little “push ahead”…When you are sitting there with your finger-licking-good KFC, are you meditating on Colonel Sanders? I associate Colonel Sanders with Elvis.:) But closer to home: N.T. Wright talks about “badges of pistis” as indicating membership in God’s single family. Is he suggesting we should all be Anglican? When C.S. Lewis wrote about “mere” Christianity and Tom Wright speaks of being “simply” Christian, do we say, “Ah, that’s Hooker and Davenant.” Well, I could go on to speak of the Apostle Paul, but as he himself said, that would be vain.:)

        1. Just re-reading. I actually don’t think we should trot Wesley out like Col. Sanders or make him the point. But we should have a point and some shared values and standards that guide what we do and mark us as distinct from other bodies. Or else we should dissolve and join with those other bodies. If we have no reason to exist, then we should cease to do so.

  2. This is a rather delicious coffee station argument. What differentiates us from other evangelicals? That’s a tantalizing question. Do we have marks others might recognize? Something like school shirts perhaps? Or 12th Man (of Seattle Seahawk fandom)? How about red kettles, or big tents, or plaid kilts? Or…Southern Gospel style! Now you have me interested (smiling).

    Do Methodists have an existential need to boast of something beyond the cross of Jesus Christ? Going down that road led us to this place of twilight, impasse, and delusive dreaming. Is it true that we are now bereft of a reason to live? In The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis notes that “The earliest converts were converted by a single historical fact (the Resurrection) and a single theological doctrine (the Redemption) operating on a sense of sin they already had…”

    1. So, do you think a preacher who teaches double predestination or refuses infant baptism should be marked as a Methodist so long as they point to the cross?

      1. Now we are getting into the marrow of it. (Exactly where we need to be.) I would count any number of accretions and perversions of scripture (including boastful flaunting of same-sex marriage by our clergy) to be contrary to our Methodist identity and habits of faith. A preacher who makes a shtick out of double predestination or refuses infant baptism, or gaily proclaims the scriptures neutral on sexuality, is a very confused Methodist. We have them, some of them our elite voices: “there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive opinions.” But what is the corrective for this in fissiparous times?

        1. I don’t know the mechanics of the solution, but the starting point is clarity about what our “Methodist identity and habits of faith” are. That is actually what I mean when calling for us to clarify our values and brand. I think we have been side-tracked because we hear current things in the word “brand.”

          I don’t know if this can build from the bottom up, or if the bishops have to be the leaders. It would certainly help if they were. I think our “identity and habits of faith” go back to Wesley – holiness, orthodoxy, active faith, expectation of the work of the Holy Spirit, salvation orientation, practical religion.

  3. The progressives in my annual conference love the re-branding conversation. They believe that’s what “they” are doing. I dare say that for every traditional term we are using (“holiness, orthodoxy, active faith, expectation of the work of the Holy Spirit, salvation orientation, practical religion”) there is an equivalent “pretender,” a falsification or lampoon, abounding in our pulpits, subverting the clergy covenant, flamboyantly and brazenly posing itself as God’s word for our moment, an angel of light, a freshly divined revelation.

    What confounds any attempt to straighten up our household mess is the fact we use the same language, but some shamelessly re-characterize its historic meaning to advance tendentious aims. Even bishops participate in this jabberwocky.

  4. Two words: sermon series. So many of our congregations have forgotten or don’t know who they are, as United Methodists. It’s our job to remind them, or teach them. I think anything else is slacking off. If others had done their job before this, it wouldn’t be such a new ground to plow. I don’t think I’m being an idealist. I really think it’s important. We’ve lost far too much. As our bishop is fond of saying, people need what we have–grace. We don’t hear this or receive this unless we go on a Walk to Emmaus. I’m grateful I had the opportunity to, or as a lifelong Methodist, I would have no grounding for what we believe.

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