When Structures Strangle Relationships

My post of 3/27 was a tad cryptic and vague, not to mention gloomy. It’s hard to write about matters involving people one counts as friends and colleagues, especially when they are on opposite sides. I don’t want to cast anyone in a bad light. Of course, I still have an opinion.

So, what was on my mind when I wrote about the death of a denomination? For one, I’m still pondering the GracePoint situation. I appreciated reading Shane Raynor’s investigative report. But I’m also thinking about the churches for which I am interim pastor, two small churches suffering from their own kind of split.

The folks at GracePoint left the UMC voluntarily, because of frustration with turf issues and perceived fickleness of annual conference leadership. In the case in which I am now involved, no church withdrew, although a bunch of people did. A popular pastor, seeking to continue as a licensed local pastor, was denied by the Board of Ordained Ministry. As a result, the pastor was removed from the charge, not exactly immediately, but also not at the usual time when UM pastors move. The announcement was made and the pastor had to vacate the charge quickly, without the possibility of any kind of satisfying explanation to the congregations.

Virtually all of one church’s members and about half of the other’s left in anger with the ousted pastor and formed a new congregation, in the same town. In a town of 12,000, where people see each other every day, this division of family and friends is shattering.

Put these two catastrophes together: the GracePoint departure and the Arkansas City tragedy. Toss in a couple of other frustrating conversations with denominational cohorts and I’m feeling something like vertigo, like being in a car wreck that you don’t see coming. One minute you’re cruising down the road and then the next you’re in the ditch with no idea how you got there. I’m looking at United Methodist wreckage and wondering what happened.

We all want to assign blame in these situations. Assigning blame is one way of coming up with at least a partially-satisfying explanation. I can’t assign blame. I know too many of the people involved. I know their love for God and desire to make a positive witness for Christ in the world. And they’re on opposite sides of the conflict.

But as I continue to try to make sense of these messes, I have come to one pretty solid conclusion, I think. Sometimes organizational strictures get in the way of relationships. People with structural responsibilities feel compelled to follow protocol. It’s their job. But protocols don’t take account of relationships very well. Relationships are too demanding, too, well…personal. At the same time, people who feel squelched by the structure forget, perhaps, that they’re actually connected to the people making unpopular decisions. Wisdom says that, in such times, we remember the relationships. We cherish and nurture them.

Sometimes organizational protocols must be honored above relationships. But sometimes…

About Stephen Rankin

Professionally I am an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. I currently serve as University Chaplain at Southern Methodist University. Personally I am married to Joni and we have four grown children and four grandchildren. You can find my personal thoughts on this site, as well as on twitter at @stephenwrankin.

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