1 assured reliance on the character, ability, strength, or truth of someone or something;
2 a charge or duty imposed in faith or confidence or as a condition of some relationship.
In years past the church has borrowed from management practices of the corporate world. Too often, we have imported much of what is amoral of that world along with it. I offer two lessons in morality that I learned in secular business.
As a young executive I negotiated a series of complex contracts with a supplier for our large chain of privately held retail stores. The contracts gave my company an incredible price advantage over all competitors. I knew it put the supplier in a precarious position and that they would regret the agreement, but I also knew it was legally ironclad and enforceable. I thought this impressive win would receive equally impressive praise from the CEO and the Board of this family owned corporation.
Instead, this secular CEO taught me a moral and practical lesson about trust. After reviewing the contract he noted that the supplier could not possibly live with the terms. This is how I remember the speech I heard that day:
“You misunderstand the purpose of a contract. We put agreements in writing so that each side can remember what we agreed to, so we can each keep our word. We want to maintain a reputation of keeping our word, and we work with those who want to keep theirs. If you are negotiating with a company that is so untrustworthy that you depend on courts to enforce the terms of the contract, then you shouldn’t be doing business with that company at all. We don’t need such people in our life.
I know this company. They will want to keep their word but can’t. I don’t believe the person you negotiated with understands the terms he agreed to. You go back and make sure he understands and, if he wants, renegotiate.
But just in case it ever comes up, remember never do business with someone if you think you have to threaten litigation to get them to keep their word.”
The United Methodist Church is no longer able to reach agreements. Not only is the value of keeping our word greatly diminished, but parties quickly look for loopholes in every new agreement. Now we must write contracts instead of reaching agreements. We are spending much effort on ironclad legislation that is enforceable through our courts. That is a bad thing. We are trying to “do business” with people with whom we shouldn’t be doing business at all. That is not a legislative problem.
The morally responsible path is to sever the relationship. It is wrong to place obligations on people which they can never live with. It is wrong to insist on being a party to a relationship that one knows one cannot honor. It is a dependency so immoral that even the heathen shun it.
A young cashier at a mom & pop store is working alone. A friend is at the checkout without enough money for his purchase. He asks her to let it slide. “The owner isn’t here and will never know.” The cashier replies, “You’re right, she isn’t here and would never know. That’s why she hired me.”
The cashier has an internalized definition of trust:
When acting on behalf of another, one must set aside their own interests, whether professional or personal, or the interests of any other person or organization. Further, they have a responsibility to be faithful to the stated mission and not to act or use their resources in incompatible ways or purposes.
If the cashier had acted upon a greater loyalty to the nobler cause of feeding the poor instead of the store owner’s stated mission of selling the product, then she would not be a philanthropist but a thief. She would have broken trust.
In the church we call this stewardship. It is woefully lacking in the United Methodist Church. The common practice is to set aside the mission and stated purpose of the church as expressed through General Conference and to instead use its resources in incompatible ways and for other purposes.
When the church has expressed its will then that decision is my decision whether it was the day before or not. I am trusted to defend that position to the world and act in accordance with it in the church. I may disagree. I may advocate for change. However, I must not act in dissonance to the voice of the church without first relinquishing my position of trust.
As a local pastor I have a different relationship between bishop and clergy than elders. The local pastor receives the pulpit as a trust from the bishop (we sometimes describe this as serving under the bishop’s umbrella). That is a concept that seems to be largely forgotten, or, at least ignored. When I could no longer in good conscience represent Bishop Holston to the parish I was compelled by that same conscience to step aside. It would be immoral to use the resources which the bishop had placed in my trust to work for contrary purposes.
In contrast, following General Conference, the leadership of the Western Jurisdiction, representatives of our colleges, and the head of out Board of Church and Society all announced that regardless of the expressed voice of the church they intend to direct the resources placed in their trust to a different loyalty and for contrary purposes.
The chaos in the United Methodist Church is not caused by bad processes, bad institutions, or bad legislation. In the church each of these is a good and cannot of themselves be corrupted. The chaos is caused by bad people. People with whom we should not be “doing business.” People who cannot be trusted. There is no charming, winsome way to say that. It’s a hard truth
That is the subject of the next essay. It’s not bad policy: it’s bad people.
UPDATE: 25 March, 2019
Since this post, Stephen Rankin the Chaplain at Southern Methodist University has developed this theme in a manner which makes a second post unnecessary. Instead I attach this link.
I will only add this which he does not address: that I find it unhelpful and unethical for us to continue to refer to people and groups within the UMC as “principled people of integrity with whom we disagree” when they are in fact proven untrustworthy people leading souls on a dangerous path. If that were not the case, I would continue to walk with them.