By Patrick Scriven
Regardless of how one identifies theologically, this last week was not a good one for the United Methodist brand.
If you were conservative, you may have welcomed the news that the General Conference adopted the Tradition Plan, but soon media reports from across the country belied any notion of a denomination unified in this understanding.
If you were progressive or moderate, you may have been left wondering if there was any place for you in The United Methodist Church. The grass-roots action of many such clergy and laity to counter the message out of St. Louis was in itself an acknowledgment that the brand was badly damaged.
In some ways, none of this is new. For years, United Methodist churches, including many church plants, have beat a slow but steady march away from the denominational branding.
For some, this has meant a name sans “United Methodist” or positioning the denominational language in a secondary heading or description, often hidden in a footer or on an ‘about us’ page.
In other cases, it has been the adoption of a different logo with a modified cross and flame, or no cross and flame at all.
With only around 3.5 percent of the U.S. population identifying as United Methodist, denominational
Open Minds. Open Hearts. Open Doors.
Remember “Open Hearts. Open Minds. Open Doors.”?
Since 2001, this slogan has shown up in numerous advertising campaigns on billboards, radio ads, television spots, and now the internet. Today, you can find it described on the denomination’s website as our “brand promise.” A brand promise is understood as the deliverable, or something people should experience when encountering an organization or product—think “falling (low) prices” at Wal-Mart, or “fresh, local food that it is ethically grown and sourced” at Chipotle.
Like the rash of E.coli cases linked to Chipotle last year, the recent General Conference has caused many to wonder if this is the same denomination they have dedicated their prayers, gifts, and presence
By reputation, Steve is a consummate professional, without a reputation as a partisan or one prone to be hyperbolic. Because of this, I think there is something significant in this key formulator of The United Methodist Church’s brand promise, more or less, declaring it dead on a denominational level.
When the One Church Plan was defeated legislatively, this was a repudiation of the big-tent idea of United Methodism that many were promised by the brand. Just as a previous General Conference narrowly defeated a petition recognizing that United Methodist are not all of one mind, the decision leaves members in a terribly unhelpful space when it comes to defining their corporate identity moving forward—deeply divided but saddled with a polity that pretends otherwise.
What you can do right now
“Oh my Gosh! We have to do something!”
Yes, you absolutely should.
In the shadow of General Conference, pastors and lay folks all across the connection have been incredibly active, with many making it clear that they don’t intend to honor or follow the new restrictions
Across the Greater Northwest Area, this response has taken the form of signs, newspaper ads, worship services, and more media appearances by local churches over the span of a couple of days than we would typically see in a year.
As the immediacy of the situation dies down, local churches will be left with some of the same questions, without all of the bonus media coverage. Do we remove the cross and flame from our building? Do we change the name of our church? How can we share who we understand God is calling us to be in ministry with, without the baggage of the brand and the stories of conflict?
Leaders should keep in mind the importance of agency as they navigate these waters. People in your local church may want to do something—right now—but changing your churches name should be a process that follows serious discernment. Inviting people to join that conversation is something you can do today.
One benefit of the diminished brand recognition of denomination is the reality that local churches are more responsible than ever in shaping their own brand. This opens up other opportunities for action.
The partnerships your church makes with local schools, other non-profits, and the service work you do to meet the real community needs outside your doors all help to shape your neighbors’ impression of you more than the story out of St. Louis. This is an excellent way to channel the desire for change into action people can see real fruit from.
Your website and social media platforms are also great tools to help people to understand the way you seek to live out God’s love in mission and ministry. I’ve spent a lot of time on church websites; putting it kindly, there is plenty of room for growth on many of them. Some offer very little to prospective visitors regarding the vision or theological make-up of the local church. A few lean too heavily on the denominational brand, which hasn’t been a good strategy for quite some time.
We all can take some agency in remembering that personal invitation is one of the best ways to welcome new people into a congregation—and personal relationships are a great venue for questions to be both asked and answered about what a church is really like.
Curb appeal isn’t just an issue for realtors to be concerned with. How you care for your church’s property communicates a lot about the vitality of your local church. If removing the cross and flame from your church sign is the first act of maintenance it’s received in years, let me say that you are likely missing other, easier opportunities to improve your local brand.
Finally, for those local churches that are progressive, or moderate with a lean in that direction, this is an excellent opportunity to move into serious discernment over whether you would like to be a reconciling
Will you open your sanctuary up to
If we are eager to have our hearts, minds, and doors remain open—to ” believe in it, teach it, and live [the UMC brand promise]” as Horswill-Johnston writes—we need to start/continue to do this work on the local level, and hope it grows into something larger from there.
Patrick Scriven serves as Director of Communications and Young People’s Ministries for the Pacific Northwest Conference of The United Methodist Church.