The UMC and Multi-Party Negotiation


I really wanted a stock picture of people all around a table talking together, but I also really wanted a picture that *wasn’t all white people.* The latter was more important to me, so this is not the best image of “multi-party negotiation.”

I’m taking weeklong seminar at the Kellogg School of Management (which I love) called “Constructive Collaboration,” and a big portion of yesterday and today focused on negotiating team decisions or conflicts within an organization. I had several brain-exploding moments thinking about The UMC, which prompted me to exclaim “church: we are doing this all wrong!”

Why did I say that? 

Portions of yesterday and today focused on multi-party negotiations within an organization– that is, not a two party negotiation (a bill of sale, a divorce filing), but multiple people with multiple interests and/or teams represented, who hope (many of them, maybe not all) to continue working together. Most the of insights came from the work of Dr. Jeanne Brett, and I will not completely restate what she taught, so as not to infringe upon her intellectual property. A lot of her work focuses on global partnerships and negotiating or making decisions across cultural differences– applicable to our multi-national organization, yes?

Here are my key takeaways for The United Methodist Church: 

  1. Use a rubric before the negotiation to identify the issues at stake, and which ones are your non-negotiable, top priority, etc, and why. Dr. Brett offered us her rubric as a guide. Coming into GC 2019, there were multiple issues– I identified some as: full inclusion, punishments for “offenses,” scriptural authority, autonomy of annual or Central conferences, treatment of marginalized populations (other/in addition to sexuality), church unity, organizational brand, disaffiliation/exit strategy. Why did I value full inclusion most strongly, above, say, removal of punishments? Because for me it is a matter of the dignity of LGBTQ+ persons. That’s a deeply personal why that you’re probably not going to be able to convince me to shake. Church fail: I think many of us conflated a multi-issue conversation into only one or two issues, ie, this is about the discrimination against LGBTQ+ persons, and the traditionalists just want to leave and take their property.
  2. On the same rubric, plot what you think the other parties’ positions and priorities are. Be thorough, and don’t make assumptions. To this I would add: remember that because of intersectionality, some people are in more than one “party.” Don’t leave out parties, and don’t assume people in a party all think alike, or remain in the same position/party. I identified some parties as: LGBTQ+ folk, progressives/allies, other marginalized folk– especially non-white people, moderate/centrists, US-based traditionalists, “Central Conferences.” Church fails: Where to even begin? We left out parties (non-white people); we conflated groups that were not a party into one (“Central Conferences” or “Africa”– huuuuuge arrogance here); we failed to account for movement between parties, we read parties as monoliths (all LGBTQ+ people or all African people want the same thing), and a problem so glaring it gets its own number…
  3. Check. Your. Assumptions. About what other parties really value and want. Was the “traditionalist” top priority disaffiliation, punishments for offenses, retaining discriminatory language, or what? Here’s a novel idea– ask them. We know we disagree, so it’s not like that tips anyone’s hand at this point. Aside from thinking all people in all Central Conferences want the same thing, many people presumed as well that we (read: white, US, colonialist people– and I confess my inclusion and complicity in this group) knew which issues would be a top priority for people other than ourselves, particularly people from African Conferences. We didn’t stop to ask if Central Conferences understood themselves to be dependent on the unity of the church to maintain missional funding (One Church Plan folk presumed they did); we didn’t explore if the issue around “biblical authority” was about scriptural witness, organizational values/brand, safety in the home context, and so on. Did LGBTQ+ people care most about removing “incompatibility” or punishments, or rebranding the values of the church back to “open hearts…”? Church fail: arrogance and assumption, and perhaps fear of tipping our hand, prevented us from asking one another what we really, truly wanted, and upon what “hills” we were prepared to die.
  4. Know and if possible discuss what is at stake for each party if no agreement is reached. In a company team trying to determine a new product to boost sales, if no decision is reached, the whole company stands to lose profit. But this impacts some departments more than others. This was a revelation for me. I had assumed that ALL parties thought that the failure of negotiation was B-A-D, and that all parties might be scared of mutually assured destruction. What I realized this morning was that for Central Conferences, no change is needed in order to grant autonomy, since that is already granted to CCs. Likewise, I realized that for many moderates, staying the course and making no change might eventually push forward the One Church Plan and therefore be a good thing. As a part of the LGBTQ+ community, no change was my worst case scenario, as it would maintain the untenable discrimination and prompt no change. We were not all equally committed to assuring that we had a new decision as an outcome. Church fail: we assumed all parties were equally supportive of or ambivalent to the success of negotiation as we were ourselves.
  5. In the negotiation itself, work on package deals, not independent issues. There’s a because in a second. This made my mind short-circuit, and I had to ask the professor to repeat it. Twice. And that was when I thought church does this all wrong. What do I mean here?: When we have a multi-issue decision like this, our natural tendency is to find the issues upon which we agree first. We think this gives us a good foundation upon which to negotiate. We all agree on making disciples! We all agree on grace (maybe)! We all agree that malaria is bad! We get ourselves a big stack of issues about which we may not feel strongly but upon which we agree (in fact, part of why it’s easier to agree sometimes is that we don’t feel as strongly about these things). We pat ourselves on the back for working so well together. We are totally foolish. Because guess what? Now we have a stack of issues upon which we do not agree and we have no negotiating chips left. Everything we could have used to “make a deal,” we’ve already given away to one another as agreements, and all we have left are intractable positions. We should talk about disaffiliation, punishment, “incompatibility,” missional focus, procedural justice, public image/values at the same time, using points upon which we might agree but could tweak the deal to drive negotiation on the issues that are harder. Church fail: we rush to agreement on issues, and therefore have nothing to work with when we disagree. 
  6. Make sure the people negotiating the agreement then have the power and buy in to live out the decision. Members of the Commission on the Way Forward and the Council of Bishops broke ranks from the decisions these bodies made, demonstrating a lack of will to carry out the decision. The representatives of the parties or caucuses could not speak for the whole party (token representation of a couple of LGBTQ+ people on the Commission did not mean that LGBTQ+ people had fair power on a commission about us, nor that these people could speak for a group– and the latter is also true for the WCA representatives), which means there’s a lack of power to make the caucuses fall in line. Immediately upon the decision by the GC, huge numbers of churches, individuals, conferences, cabinets, and Boards of Ordained Ministry expressed a flat refusal to abide by the decision, demonstrating that the entire system of GC lacks the power to enforce its own decision in the slightest. Church fail: we still don’t get it, but the Church is a living, breathing organism, and representative political governance will never control or impact change in such a system. Ever. Ask the Pharisees.

Yes, but… two things: 

The Commission on the Way Forward was supposed to be this negotiating body. — Or was it? The task they were given was presented as a single issue (fail #1), between three known parties (fail #2), and presumed equal stake in church unity and in reaching an agreement, neither of which were true (fails #3 and 4). As stated above, the people on the Commission were not truly representatives of caucuses, but individuals, and therefore could not force compliance (fail #6) from their caucus members who did not have the experience of building relationships and trust with one another.

The “other party” is not negotiating in good faith. — This is perhaps true. But: a- there is more than one “other party,” and b- each party accuses the other(s) of bad faith. Working through points 2 and 3 should help reveal the deeper motivations of the parties, and the nuances of the positions, revealing points of bad faith, and making clear where negotiation just won’t be possible. However, c- in negotiation, it is not bad faith to have some areas you just won’t sacrifice. Rather, that’s honest. I will not sacrifice my position that removing both the punishments and the incompatibility language must happen for the sake of the dignity of LGBTQ+ persons and the value-driven “brand” of what I know and love Methodism to be. I’m honest about that. That’s not bad faith; these are my principles.

So, is it too late? 

Not at all! I think we are just entering a really exciting part of negotiation. We have determined something that we “agree” upon (by a narrow majority): that we cannot be one body with one polity together. So there are roughly a million questions remaining about process, justice, brand, values, assets, de-coupling….. and I would urge us to take the opportunity to deeply examine what we (whoever we are) need and cannot sacrifice, what all other parties say they need and cannot sacrifice, what happens if we can’t agree upon the terms of our split/structural change and it ends up happening “the hard way” (what does that look like?), and what the buy-in, influence, and implementation strategy and power will be. And, we have to look at all of these pieces together, finding points of resonance rather than issues of agreement (remember, we agree that we are divided, and that’s not really helpful, is it?).

For example, in the past 2 weeks, some moderates and progressives have found that they resonate with we cannot allow the UMC to be defined by its exclusion of people based on sexual orientation. Perhaps some traditionalist and some LGBTQ+ people have found resonance on I cannot remain in a denomination that so fundamentally attacks my ability to do the ministry God has given me to do, and I need a way out of this place (I still do not understand why the far right did not approach the far left and say “one way or the other, one of us is leaving, so let’s write a fair and constitutional model for that together, so we each can live with it.” Instead they kept saying “don’t you want this in case we win? It’s what I’d want if you win.” That’s a huge church fail for them). Some LGBTQ+ folks and non-white folks have found resonance– and poignant tension– on a position that the oppression and marginalization of any people is the ultimate evil here, and our liberation must be collective. None of these things are agreements. But they give each of us tentative allies at the negotiating table, and positions from which to hold our principles and negotiate fair terms.

So, church, let’s try to do this in a more healthy and productive way.