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The book of the Acts of the Apostles tells the story of the early church. The story is told, not by a description of interesting early church buildings or details of early procedures and organization, but rather by accounts of the early church's leaders. Acts is, for the most part, stories about leaders, such as Paul, Peter, Philip, Aquila, and Priscilla. In some organizations, truth is reached by a majority vote of the membership. In others, guidance is achieved by reference to constitution, by-laws, and organizational flow charts. The church, however, is historically, sometimes frightfully, dependent on its leaders. The truth of Christ comes through a person. It is personal. The church never outgrows the need for people who have the gifts and graces to lead us where we would not be able to go without their leadership. In Acts, early church leaders argue, debate, provoke controversy, encourage, rebuke, preach, suffer, and die for the sake of the Christ and his church. Today's church never marches beyond our leaders' vision.

The persons in key positions in The United Methodist Church today are primarily managers and not leaders. Leaders are persons with a vision that they are able to articulate. They can name the needs, desires, and hopes of the people. They have a charisma that inspires confidence. The people sense that the leader understands them and is working on their behalf Because of this, they will follow a leader into new and uncharted paths.

Leaders establish new institutions; they revitalize and reform old ones. In the process, the established order may be drastically altered. Some existing institutions may be discarded to make way for new. Leaders tend to be controversial because they inevitably challenge existing social structures and accepted ways of doing things. They will inspire both love and enmity, but never indifference.

In contrast, managers accept the validity of the institutional status quo and give their attention to its maintenance. They see that everything is done correctly by the proper person and consistent with precedent. They write and revise policy manuals; the machinery is oiled and polished. In due course, the institution becomes an end in itself, rather than a means to serve a larger goal. Because managers assume the validity of the organization, they expect the constituents to be loyal to and supportive of the institution. This loyalty is expected even if the people do not feel that the institution is serving them and even if they are opposed to what the institution is doing.

Managers tend to become identified with an institution or that part of it for which they have responsibility. Their status in life is derived from their particular positions. A great deal of time and energy goes into defining and protecting one's area of responsibility or "turf." It does not matter whether the manager thinks of himself or herself as a political "liberal" or "conservative"; any change is threatening and will be resisted.

Every institution needs both leaders and managers; there are certain routine tasks that must be attended to. The problem has become that The United Methodist Church is dominated by managers. Maintaining the institution is their major concern; a great deal of energy is going into ensuring that the various parts are correctly organized and staffed by the appropriate number of designated categories of persons. More attention is being given to the form and composition of church organizations than to what these groups are actually accomplishing. Today the goal of these agencies is not to do but to be. The mere existence of the board or agency is considered to be a sufficient purpose for the board or agency. Our denomination thinks we have solved a given problem of met a particular need when an agency has been created and funded in the name of that problem or need.

Our church is overmanaged and underled. The rules are being followed, but there is no vision. Managers may be efficient in keeping the organizational wheels turning smoothly. However, leaders help people to see and to move toward significant goals.

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What Jobs Are Considered Important?

A major indication of the managerial mentality prevalent in United Methodism is the importance given to the organizational form and work of the denominational agencies. There are 226 pages, or one-third of the text, of the current Discipline devoted to the organization and responsibilities of the general boards and agencies. It is safe to assume that this section is read only by that very small group of persons directly involved with the bureaucracy - those persons who derive their livelihood and their reason for being from these paragraphs in the Discipline.

The proportion of the Discipline devoted to the general agencies is an indication of the importance given to this part of the church. It is generally accepted, particularly among clergy, that the most significant positions are administrative and bureaucratic. These are perceived as being more desirable and as having more status than the local church pastors. The individual who moves from being a pastor of a local church to a position in a general agency is perceived as being promoted. The reverse is also true, as the person who leaves a bureaucratic staff job to become the pastor of a local church is perceived by other pastors as having been demoted. An illustration of the path of upward mobility was expressed by a young pastor serving his first appointment after graduating from theological seminary. He said, "After serving four or perhaps five charges, I'd like to become a district superintendent. After that, I hope to get a position on the staff of a general board." This minister reflected an attitude that is probably widely held but not often expressed so candidly.

It is a little difficult to understand why the administrative and bureaucratic positions are so highly prized. The salaries, except for the few highest positions, are not much better than those of a large number of local church pastors. When the value of the parsonage or housing allowance is taken into account, the actual income of many pastors would be equal to or higher than that of agency staff. The working conditions, such as regular hours and weekends free, are different from those in a parish. But like any job, there are negative aspects, such as extensive travel. One veteran agency staff member jokes, "These are good jobs for someone who does not get along with his wife."

Agency jobs are fewer in number than appointments to local churches, a factor that may contribute to their desirability. Persons in such posts may be perceived as exerting power, which is attractive to some people. However, the major reason is the overemphasis on a certain form of the institutional machinery as the reason for the church's existence. Those who manage and care for the machinery see themselves as and are perceived as doing the denomination's most important work. Recently, an annual conference held a pastors'school - a time for four hundred of the conference's clergy to meet, worship, and study. The bishop in that conference sent word that he would not be there, since he needed to attend a meeting of some national church committee on which he sits. The four hundred clergy surely got the bishop's message: Attending committee meetings is the real purpose of the church and its pastors.

To rectify past practices, which tended to exclude minorities and women, the denomination has been placing them in administrative and bureaucratic posts. A complicated quota system has been set up to ensure that women, ethnic minorities, persons with handicapping conditions, youth, young adults, and older adults will be represented as voting members of agency boards.1 Executives are under considerable pressure to employ minorities and women. Various caucuses lobby for this goal. It is a curious, almost tragic, circumstance that has led our women and minority members to accept the notion that the way for the church to rectify past inequities is to have more female and minority managers. Women and minorities have accepted the idea that the administrative and bureaucratic positions represent the highest level of attainment in the church and eagerly seek such posts.

The result of all this is that much time and energy goes into management of the institution. This is time and effort that is not going into preaching, winning persons to the gospel, building up congregations, and ministering to people. The sad fact is that the newest group (minorities and women) to move into leadership in the denomination has accepted some of the least desirable and most organizationally conservative values of the persons it is attempting to displace. Nothing is changing but the actors. Minority bureaucrats fail to increase our minority membership. People do not join a congregation saying, "Let's become United Methodists; they have an agency executive who is Hispanic." All too often, we have tried to attack the problem of the lack of ethnic evangelization by our church by removing effective ethnic pastors and moving them into positions that cut them off from the possibility of evangelizing anyone into the denominational structure beyond the local church.

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The Rhetoric and the Reality

The self-image of most denominational officials is not that of institutional managers. Many of these people probably see themselves as leading the church into the battle against such evils as racism, sexism, agism, "handicapism" (an awkward contribution to the language invented by a church agency), and perhaps even other "isms" yet to be discovered. The rhetoric is that of bold leadership; the reality is that of control and maintenance of the institutional status quo at all levels of the connectional structure and suppression of alternative points of view. Managers know that there is no reason for their existence other than management of the existing machinery - so their vigilance over that machinery is fierce.

One need only look slightly below the surface to see the high priority placed on institutional maintenance. The test of loyalty for both the pastor and the congregation is whether the local church has paid all of the apportionments in full. The most detailed part of the annual report of each local church is that which gives the amount contributed to the various denominational causes. One type of information that many cabinets will have available at the time they meet to consider pastoral appointments is the amount of money apportioned to each charge during the preceding year and the total each paid. Pastors endeavor to persuade their congregations to pay these askings in full because of the possible effect on their next appointment.

Some will argue, "This is as it should be. Apportionments mean mission. In paying our apportionments, a congregation is moving outside its own selfish preoccupation with the pastor's salary and its internal needs and reaching out to serve the needs of others." This is not so. Apportionments represent agency salaries as much as they mean mission.

The money provided by the apportionments to the local churches are, in the main, used to pay the administrative expenses and the costs of the programs of the various denominational agencies, including subsidies to other churches and institutions. Many of these institutions are creations to meet the missional needs of an earlier day. Managers administer yesterday's decisions rather than lead us toward the creation of new institutions for new missional needs. The work of these groups is important and, in general, makes a contribution to the church and to the society. What is significant is that denominational officials indicate by their actions that it is the most important work that The United Methodist Church does and that it is the main means of mission. Keeping a steady flow of funds necessary to maintain the institution receives the highest priority. Despite the rhetoric, maintaining and managing the institution are what many officials feel is important.

Anything that threatens a part of the institution will be met with strong resistance. A recent example is the conflict between the General Board of Global Ministries and the independent Mission Society for United Methodists. The latter group wants to send missionaries but has encountered determined opposition. The underlying issue is a theological conflict over the nature of the church's mission, but the battle is being fought over bureaucratic authority. The General Board of Global Ministries claims it has been designated as the only missionary-sending agency by the General Conference. A number of the bishops have closed ranks with this board and have refused to appoint ordained ministers as staff or missionaries of the new independent agency; yet United Methodist clergy continue to be appointed to a variety of ecumenical and other, sometimes highly partisan, agencies. The difference in this instance is that an unofficial (but totally United Methodist) group is challenging a part of the institution. The new Mission Society is probably receiving some of the money that United Methodist people previously gave to the General Board of Global Ministries. The theological differences and the consideration of the most effective strategy for the church's mission are not being debated, while the struggle over bureaucratic turf continues. Here, again, we have an example of the prevailing attitude that makes maintenance of the institution paramount.

The manager may create the illusion of progress by tinkering with the ecclesiastical machinery. United Methodists are continually involved in this process, which has ranged from a general restructuring of the boards and agencies to reorganization of parts of the bureaucracy. Titles are altered, offices are moved across the hall or across the nation, and some of the actors are replaced, but relatively little actually changes because those in power will not surrender power easily.

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The Desired Type of Leader

It is axiomatic that people get the kind of leaders they want. If this is the case, then United Methodists, and particularly the clergy, want managers who will care for and preserve the institution as it is. Managers tend the institutional machinery. They are not threatening because they can be counted on to see that no radical changes will be made and that no tough choices will be faced. They may be dull, but they are comfortable. There will be some conflict, but it will be among people or groups who aspire to be the managers. We are told that there is nothing wrong with the machinery; we just need more female or black or conservative or liberal managers to run the machinery. The names on the doors change, but not the machinery; so nothing changes. The long-term result is a kind of institutional dry rot, which preserves the form after the strength has gone. The end result is, predictably, fatal.

Clergy tend to be comfortable with the denominational managers because they can be trusted to maintain the status quo, including protecting the status of the clergy. They are the main beneficiaries of the present machinery. The laypersons who are elected to denominational offices in both the annual conference and general church seem quickly to take on the perspective of the clergy. Despite the attempt of United Methodism to include laypersons in and on the various agencies, there is little evidence that it has had any effect in altering either the style or the direction of the denomination. The machinery is greater even than the laity; it turns all of us into managers.

While United Methodist laypeople will patiently tolerate managers as pastors of local churches, they welcome and respond to leaders. Laypersons want their church and their pastor to be effective. Members talking about their minister will often say, "He is a good man, but . . ." This is followed by some comment that reflects disappointment in a pastor who is uninspiring, unimaginative, and perhaps downright dull. The pastor is managing the local church, but not giving leadership, and the laity know it.

Dozens of congregations that are in trouble have been studied. These studies reveal that the three factors most important for revitalizing these dying congregations are leadership, leadership, leadership. In a declining congregation, the pastor appears to be depressed, impotent, immobile, not in control, a passive victim of the surrounding neighborhood or of the squabbling lay leaders or of the national bureaucracy; any alibi is given for the pastor's inability to see a vision of the church and to communicate that vision to the laity. When pressed to lead, these managers become rigidly legalistic, invoking one paragraph in the Discipline as their authority because they lack the leadership skills to convince, to convert, and to persuade. On the other hand, researchers can point with joy to a number of United Methodist congregations in which almost any obstacle has been overcome by the firm, visionary, enthusiastic leadership of a pastor who is a leader.

Take the case of the United Methodist church in Ossining, New York.2 Three years ago their pastor, the Reverend Paul Bowles, was told, "We're old; we can't do much." Today the attitude is different.

For many years, the Ossining church had had no Sunday school. It had been thirty-five years since the last vacation Bible school. By 1983, there was barely a child left to light the candles on the altar. The church was empty and dying, the congregation depressed. Hopeless was the tenor of all conversations about the parish's future.

The pastor went to work. He called on everyone remotely related to the church and on many who were not. During that summer, he made 375 calls. He also spent time finding and training Sunday school teachers. When the prospective teachers were asked to name their greatest fear, they replied, "What if nobody comes?" But somebody did come; the day Sunday school opened, thirty children came.

Other things happened. The children brought brothers and sisters. Many had never attended Sunday school. Some parents followed. The youth group grew to twenty. Ten young people were confirmed in 1985 and twelve in 1986. There are two children's choirs. Last summer's vacation Bible school had ninety-two participants. The church is now a vital agent of ministry in families and the community.

Growing and effective congregations have ministers who are leaders, not managers. Vital denominations have leaders who lead, who chart new courses, and who inspire persons to follow, not simply to manage the institutional status quo. A strong leader releases strength in all of us. Too many clergy and laity today feel impotent, unable to move because they have been so effectively thwarted in their earnest efforts to get things moving. While we agree with most of Bishop Wilke's And Are We Yet Alive? in its enthusiastic call for renewal, we predict that such calls will produce only cynicism and despair if we fail to attend to the specific changes that are needed to turn our enthusiasm into the power to be effective. A revitalized United Methodism must place persons in official positions who are leaders and not simply managers, persons who have a vision of what the church can be and who inspire other people to risk making that vision a reality.

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What Can Be Done?

If it is true that The United Methodist Church is dominated by managers instead of leaders, the question is what, if anything, can be done to change the situation? A change in the type and style of people now directing the denomination is not only possible, but also absolutely essential. Pastors and lay members can do several things to make a difference.

First and most important, United Methodists must become more assertive. We are too passive and accepting of what church officials do. There is an ethic at work that believes that one should not disagree or make waves. Such action is thought to produce conflict that will greatly damage the church. Mavericks are silenced or driven out. When this is combined with the feeling that persons in the local church cannot influence what the denominational agencies do, the result is a debilitating lethargy.

Furthermore, a kind of halo effect surrounds the minister. Some laypersons are reluctant to challenge the clergy because the laypersons seem to feel that to do so is almost like challenging God. The laity assume that the clergy - by training, vocation, or divine gifts - automatically know what is best for the church when, in reality, the clergy may be among the least able to look honestly at the church. This is particularly true in regard to denominational officials. United Methodists, both clergy and laity, must demand leaders and not simply managers who will maintain the institutional status quo.

Second, United Methodist clergy and laity must look carefully at the process by which denominational officials are chosen. The manner by which the selection is made can determine the type of person who will fill the position. The trend has dearly been toward an overt political process, in which persons openly campaign for a denominational office.

This is most obvious in, but not limited to, the election of bishops. The Discipline now permits the formal nomination of episcopal candidates (par. 506). Getting such a nomination is the equivalent of winning a primary election. This has resulted in campaign literature that requires the solicitation of funds from supporters or an investment by the candidate. It has also resulted in the exclusion of persons who might serve the church well, but who will not submit to the indignities of an ecclesiastical political campaign.

This present trend has shifted the emphasis from persons being called into the difficult role of leader to the finding of persons who can and are willing to put together the right coalitions to be elected. Caucuses and quotas produce managers, not leaders. The process by which persons attain church offices has contributed to the dominance of managers. People who openly campaign for an office in an institution can be counted on to maintain that institution or to make changes favorable to their supporters. They have already had to make so many compromises to be acceptable to so many different groups in their coalition that they can't remember what it means to lead.

Third, United Methodists must be willing to find ways to ensure that the person selected to become church officials are leaders and not just managers. Because an institution employs the type of leaders the constituents want, the people, if they desire, can have a different type of leader. When the institution is not doing well, the people tend to demand a change in leadership. The United Methodist Church has not been doing well. "If my company had lost 13 percent of its business in the last twenty years, I would be out of a job," one corporate vice president told us. Resistance to ideas for innovation can be expected from those who have presided over our current decline. It is time that the people called the church officials into account and demanded changes.


  1. The 1984 Discipline provides that each annual conference shall nominate at least fifteen persons to a jurisdictional pool, out of which the managers of the various general agencies are elected. This pool is to contain clergy (including at least one woman), laywomen, laymen, and at least one person from each of the Asian American, Black American, Hispanic American, and Native American minority groups. Age categories include youth, young adults, and older adults. Finally, the nominees must include persons who have a handicapping condition. (Par. 805.b)
  2. "Depressed Church Reaches Out for Cure." People to People, vol. 2, no. 1 (Nashville: The United Methodist Publishing House, 1986), p. 1.

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Copyright© 1987 By Abingdon Press

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