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 identity is not a surefire way to get new members. The recent actions of the General Conference are not likely to help, as they undermine some of the key marketing strategies of The United Methodist Church for the last several decades. Folks outside the church (and many within it), if they know anything, tend to remember one marketing campaign in particular.

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 to. A Facebook post by Steve Horswill-Johnston, Chief Communications Officer at Discipleship Ministries, helps to illustrate the problem. (Click the See More link to read all of his text on this page).

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 proscribed by the Traditional Plan. While others are expressing satisfaction with the passage of what they consider Biblical values, the moment is giving voice to growing frustration in the U.S., and disappointment that the denomination couldn’t seize the moment to live into its brand more authentically.

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.

One example, this one targeted for social, of how United Methodists moved quickly to name that they are not of one mind despite a vote affirming more doctrinal uniformity at the General Conference in St. Louis.

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 congregation, if you haven’t done so already. At the very least, all congregations should take the time now to clarify where they stand on the key issues at debate in the denomination.

Will you open your sanctuary up to same-sex couple to commit their lives in love to one another? Would your church welcome a gay pastor? These are no longer hypothetical questions for United Methodist churches. In all honesty, they haven’t been for years as LGBTQIA folks are among our neighbors in almost every community. There deserve our clarity, regardless of how we might answer these questions, and that clarity is essential in filling out your local church’s brand.

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.

5 COMMENTS

  1. Patrick, I appreciate your thoughtful article about the UMC’s brand, especially its brand promise. I believe brands are like the souls of the dead in the movie “Coco”–even if they’re mostly dead they’re never completely dead until the last person who remembers that organization forgets about them. The UMC can break its brand promise but it can never break its brand because it never controlled its brand. I believe brands belong to the people “out there” interacting with companies and organizations, and not to the companies or organizations themselves who are trying to shape those brands. As long as people exist who experience and remember the UMC as a place where they encountered open minds, open hearts, and open doors then that will be its brand. To people who experience something else, the brand will reflect the thoughts and emotions created by those other, possibly less welcoming, interactions. I found in the UMC a church where people weren’t petrified to talk about the messy, fascinating, generative particle accelerator where faith and science smash into each other and we see what’s underneath. I also found a church where people didn’t ignore the constant calls to justice in the Hebrew scriptures and sought to create shalom in their cities. Because I am privileged to be a white, educated, middle class, married straight man with kids I have never experienced a church shutting me out. “Open doors” is a part of the brand I experience from not only pretty much every church but from almost every organization in the U.S. The brand of the UMC is most confused, I believe, when it comes to a person’s expectations about whether she will be welcomed or not. I know I will be welcomed. Almost without exception churches value people, want people who fit my profile. I long for the UMC (or what grows from it) to be a place where everyone who needs to hear the words “Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest” can hear them with complete sincerity, without reservation. Currently, that sincerity is in doubt. The reservations have been covered by the national media. The work ahead of rebuilding trust among those who do feel shut out, I believe, will be difficult. It may be impossible–at least for anything calling itself the United Methodist Church. Whatever becomes of UMC churches in the West, the recent TurboTax commercial patterned after an 80’s word-hint gameshow where the clue-giver and the clue-receiver carry on a whole contest using only the word “free” could be a useful guide. Perhaps we should replace “Open Minds. Open Hearts. Open Doors” with the much simpler “Open Open. Open Open. Open Open.” Perhaps it is time to move our pictures of our beloved UMC from our Instagram profile pic to the Dia de Los Muertos altares de ofrendas. If the UMC is dead, long live the OMC.

  2. Patrick,
    Thank you for your article. Thank you for encouraging all of us to be intentional about knowing what we believe, why we believe as we do, and how we want to, and will communicate this in ways that let people know what to expect from us and with us. These are wise and encouraging words for all of yss regardless of where we fall on the theological spectrum. I stand in agreement with you on this. Thank you for this gift.

    For me, when we are able to thoughtfully and clearly share what we believe with others, people will have a choice. They have a choice presented to them regarding what they can believe. They have a vision before them regarding what they can become and of what they can be a part. When we are silent about our beliefs, no one (new) can see the beacon of the light of Christ that we bear as they experience the restless seas of life–looking for hope, help and a community of faith with whom to journey. Who needs the light if Christ in you to shine near them today?

    In light of this mist recent General Conference, more than ever before, it is clear that each of us has a responsibility to clearly and broadly communicate the Good News of who Jesus is, and what He has come to do for all people, with all people, as best we can. Yes this will conflict with what others believe and share at some point, but growth requires change and learning requires being challenged with new ideas for us.

    If the truth be told, it’s taken more than one witness over the course of the last 49 years to help me to get to know the Jesus I know and love; and am continuing to get to know better. Every voice matters. Every witness to who Jesus is, and who Jesus is not can help us to gain clarity as we seek understanding. I have become a better follower of Jesus because of the witness of others that have believed similarly, challenged my understanding, and offended my understanding of Jesus. It is because of the diverse witness of the church, grounded by what Jesus has said about himself, that I can say that I have and will continue to experience the transforming, loving and powerful good news of God in Jesus in my life as I believe in and follow Jesus the Christ–the one from whom we all draw our family name–Christian.

    (Paraphrasing from Luke 4) Jesus said, I speak to you as one of you who is with you. The Spirit of the LORD is upon me and if you want, I will heal your broken hearts, set you who are captive by any one or anything free and break the strongholds that have kept you imprisoned–including in your own mind, body and emotions. I will give sight to the blind, speak good news to the poor and I declare that all of this and more is available to you, anyone, and everyone starting now no matter where you are inside or outside of the church if you believe in me because this is God’s gift and will for you.

    It’s all true and for everybody who wants it. Everybody!

    So, let us keep sharing God’s good news for all, to all as we understand it!

    Your Sister in Christ,
    Cecilia

    P.s
    I’m typing on my phone so I don’t have “The Faith We Sing” in front of me, but I would prayerfully offer to any who would receive it, encouragement that comes from the following song:

    “Bind us together Lord, bind us together with cords that cannot be broken. Bind us together Lord, bind us together Lord, bind us together in love. There is only one God. There is only one king. There’s only one body, that is why we sing.”

    Amen.

  3. As a follower of Jesus Christ I must point out that, yes, we are to love all people. However I believe brotherly love is the kind intended not homosexual practices. It is clearly stated ( man shall not lie with man nor also woman with woman.

    • As a follower of Jesus Christ, I would point out that brotherly love is short of what the Bible calls us to, which is actually agape love. Agape love is often defined as sacrificial and unconditional; it doesn’t require one to understand or agree to have charity for another. It is that kind of love that appealed to me, as represented in Jesus’ teaching and and witness up to the cross, to be a Christian. It is the same kind of love that forced me step beyond my own preferences and discomfort to try to get to know people I had previously judged, because that is what the culture I grew up in taught.

      But that is all beyond the realm of this post. Regardless of where one falls theologically, I think one can understand the problems a brand that promises to be open has when it is attached to a denomination that has decided to be closed to a specific community.

      Thanks for reading, Shirley. I’m truly sorry we disagree.

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