Only a Trademark?

In his post-General Conference podcast, Adam Hamilton recounted his spiritual journey from the Holiness Tradition of his undergraduate days at Oral Roberts University to finding a home in the United Methodist Church. For him and many of us, United Methodism has been the sweet spot that combines personal piety and social concern. It brings together conservatives, moderates and liberals as a big diverse family.

The outcome of St. Louis is truly the demise of the denomination as a big family. Rightly so, moderates and progressives are going through the stages of grief of the denomination as the matriarch.

But maybe we need to see the United Methodist Church through a different metaphor. Instead of familial images, we should see the denomination as a corporation.

The corporate metaphor echoes what our leaders have been promoting for years. We have talked about “making disciples” like a corporation markets its services to consumers. We have assessed our “fruitfulness” with quantitative metrics through “vital sign” reports. This is no accident. Our leaders have consciously, enthusiastically adopted the tactics and strategies of Corporate America without a hint of critical self-reflection.

The metaphor fits our size and practices. Increasingly, itinerancy and the covenant of ministry reflect a corporatist approach. For example, my district has over a hundred churches. Due to an economy of scale for appointment-making, pastors are known, good or ill, by truncated descriptions. Our anxiety over numerical growth is a religious version of a corporation’s market share.  Like corporate marketing, buzz words, like “missional,” abound. We confuse mere rhetoric for real transformative ministry.

We are the victims of our own marketing because our real problem was never effectiveness but authenticity.

One prescient way to understand what happened in St. Louis is to think of “United Methodist Church” as a trademark. For progressives, the trademark was tarnished beyond repair. The brand is now inseparably linked with the traditionalist agenda.

If it is only a trademark, then let the traditionalists have it. Let them have full reign over the rebranding process.

The trademark problem may largely be an American issue. Outside the United States the label “United Methodist” is more than branding. In the former Soviet Union countries, the organizational lineage has legal ramifications. In parts of Africa it has vital poignancy. All the more reason, traditionalists should probably keep the title.

To be sure, vast parts of the denomination will not follow the traditionalists, regardless of the trademark. For example, most of our colleges, universities and seminaries will refuse to be defined by the brand. In the next few years, the various parts of the denomination could realign with a yet-to-be named denomination.

In other words, even though the trademark “United Methodist Church” will be traditionalist, “United Methodism” as an ethos that Hamilton and others love will continue. It will just be under a different name. For the sake of creating closure at the 2020 General Conference, it is prudent that moderates and progressives start seeing the difference between the trademark “United Methodist Church” and the ethos of United Methodism.

It may be that the unintended gift of separation will be the opportunity to disentangle the spirit of United Methodism from the spirit of capitalism. A new Methodism will carry the best of United Methodism with it while leaving the worst of it behind. What needs to be left behind is the corporatism, which is a problem that goes beyond the issue of sexuality. Quite literally, we will not be able to afford it.

And that’s a good thing. The hope is that a new Methodism can become a real church family of God’s grace.

For more perspective order my book The Secret Transcript of the Council of Bishops

Published by

Notes for a New Methodism

Rev. Darren Cushman Wood is the senior minister of North United Methodist Church in Indianapolis, Indiana and is an elder and full member of the Indiana Annual Conference. He is a graduate of the University of Evansville and Union Theological Seminary (New York). Darren was a delegate to the 2004 & 2008 General Conferences and a delegate to the 2000 & 2016 Jurisdictional Conferences. He is the author of "The Secret Transcript of the Council of Bishops" and "Blue Collar Jesus: How Christianity Supports Workers' Rights."

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