Strategic Dis-Harmonization

In their excellent book, Episcopacy in the Methodist Tradition, my friends Russ Richey and Tom Frank quote from a book that I wrote some years ago with Andy Langford. “In a church that is overmanaged and underled, we desperately need our bishops to become leaders in the decentralization and creation of a new connection.”

I believe that more than ever after four years as a bishop. Tom Bandy has a wonderful phrase, “strategic dis-harmonization.” That is what a declining institution needs from its leaders, in my opinion. Unfortunately, too many of our leaders continue to administer the church as their greatest challenge as leaders was to insure constant, undisturbed harmony in the church. They still act as if the church were growing by leaps and bounds, as if our greatest challenge were to keep things in order, slow down movement, and stifle change.

We have expended too much time tweaking structures and machinery when what we need is to abandon unproductive, laborious, slow moving structures. Sometimes I think that many of our traditional ways of working were designed to make sure that they take the maximum amount of time to produce the minimal amount of fruit! Simplify, simplify!

I therefore applaud the work of the leaders of the North Alabama Conference who, in just a few years – completely reorganized the work of Connectional Ministries, getting the staff out into the Districts; moved from twelve to eight districts thus greatly simplifying administration and saving nearly a million dollars a year on administrative costs, money than can now be put directly into ministry; and changed the format of Annual Conference to make our annual gathering less expensive, more accommodating of the laity, and more efficient.

A number of our elected members of this year’s General Conference and Jurisdictional Conference said that they did not know how much had been accomplished in North Alabama until they witnessed the laborious, poorly planned, time-consuming and ultimately unproductive work of these gatherings. (Hooray for the North Alabama Delegation that introduced a resolution at Jurisdictional Conference entreating the planners to be more respectful of delegates’ time and patience by planning a better Conference.) All the more reason for us in North Alabama to forge ahead and show the rest of our Connection the good that can come by holding the church more accountable for the use of our time, the actually results of our work, and the stewardship of our resources.

William H. Willimon

5 thoughts on “Strategic Dis-Harmonization

  1. Will, I find it interesting that no one has commented on this entry. I think this is a crucial area of concern. I first learned of the re-districting when I was visiting my family in Tuscumbia this summer. I applaud the UM disciples in NAl going on out on a limb this way. I am concerned that we spend more time and energy on re-naming our structures while making only fairly tweaks than we do on reconsidering the whole structure. One of the things that some of us in VA have been concerned about is how do really do Conference so that it Holy Conferencing not just a way to do business as usual. I understand the need to celebrate what we have done, to inspire folks about what is coming ahead. But it is almost impossible to truly confer with one another about some of the deep issues of faith, justice and practice confronting us. The way we’ve done has just led to divisions or ennui (which could be worse). Just some thoughts from up here in Falls Church. Your friend and student, Mochel


  2. Thank you for this article.I believe that the emerging church is indeed a church of dis-harmonization guided by the explosive power of the Spirit. A new generation is emerging that defines church in terms of passion and movement and not in terms of institutions. This is of course not new, it is ancient. I am concerned, but at the same time I have a stubborn hope that God is doing a work of transformation through the pain of institutional decline. I pray that we grow to ride the waves the Spirit in order to become the new thing God is creating.Though for a variety of reasons I disagree with the approach of strategic dis-harmonization, I have a passionate yearning to ask questions that are bigger than “how do we turn around decline” and “how do we fix it?” Our strategic efforts are well intended but I wonder if they are limited to attempts at finding institutional answers for institutional questions. It can be a form of institutional works righteousness to think that if we worked harder or smarter we can save ourselves. If transformation happens, it will happen through a cross and resurrection. A cross can be painful, but this is the very definition of Christian hope.Whatever the reasons our denomination is declining numerically, it is horse-blinder thinking to address them without seeing that we must be declining numerically for the same reasons all mainline denominations in America are. The larger questions include “what is going on in our culture,” “where is the Spirit already at work and we’re missing out” and “how can we bring Christ to the broken places?” The more we can focus on the greater questions, the more we will be in mission mode rather than being limited to institutional “fix it” mode.Thank you so much, bishop, for being the kind of leader who asks difficult questions and, I hope, desires conversation and dialogue about the church that we love.


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