The United Church and General Motors


Pontiac's last stand by tjdewey


In a couple of weeks I am to begin a series of presentations named “Stepping Further Out” (Ottawa – Oct 27; Calgary – Oct 30; Vancouver – Nov 6).

As a way of summarizing the past I am flirting with these paragraphs. I wonder though whether it is too harsh, not tough enough or just true. I’d appreciate any comments. Thanks.

Three years ago, the situations of The United Church of Canada and General Motors had a lot in common.

Although we made gestures, in the form of motions and policy formation, and talked a lot about innovation we did not really appreciate the depth and speed of a rapidly changing context. We operated with varying degrees of a sense of entitlement, our dealers/paid accountable leaders had grown accustomed to a certain degree of “loyalty” from their customers/parishioners and were fundamentally confused by this new reality. Our engagement with the public realm had become sloganistic and we were locked into one “product line”/definition of what it means to be a “justice church.” The organizational structure born in the age of industrialism and refined in the time of institutionalization and incorporation not only proved in adequate to the challenge but, in many cases, inhibited innovation and creative response at the local level, despite being populated by good people with good intentions who worked hard at what they perceived to be the task. Research and development of alternate ways had some support and some exciting prototypes of innovation were pumped up at the yearly trade shows or conference meetings but generally business continued as usual. Some voices tried to point to a context/market that was changing in fundamental ways but there was little sense of urgency within the organization. The result was that people, many people, were hurt and, in the case of the United Church, God’s intentions neutered.

The good old days of The United Church of Canada (and General Motors) predated the arrival of The Beatles and the mythology surrounding “those days” was often as representative of the real church as The Cleavers were of a real family. Certainly the numbers, the prime criteria of ministerial success and proof of God’s celebrity endorsement, were highest a half century ago but the church then was far from ideal.

  1. Keith, I think you are right on with these remarks. I even recall during my Th. M. thesis research encountering documents from the early 1970s in which the five divisions of the General Council Offices at that time were clearly compared to/ patterned after the divisional structure of GM. I’d suggest an even sharper edge to your remarks: we in the UCC love to present ourselves as the voice of the oppressed/ marginalized, but in our very organizational structure we are/ have been set up like a big North American corporation. So, until we get over the organizational arrogance and inertia that comes with such a structure and mindset, will we ever be authentic in ministry? For GM, some would argue that it took bankruptcy and government-ordered restructuring to begin to break through the denial. Who is interested enough to require the same tough love for our own system?

  2. Hi Keith, Let me put the metaphor to the PC test … Nnnggh! No way. Sorry. We already hate multi-national American corporations. That rusted car ain’t gonna fly. Besides which our culture is still heavily committed to cars – unlike organized spirituality. So GM had a problem that could be fixed – and apparently has taken some good steps to do so.

    But we are living in a culture that is individually spiritual but not organized spiritual (aka “Religious.”) The problem we are facing cannot be “fixed.” Responded to? Yes. Fixed? No.

    I think better comparisons can be made with the music industry or with newspapers / TV broadcasting. The means of distribution and the fragmenting market have forever changed these industries. Same for us.

    Your post prompted me to complete a piece I had started over a year ago when I had first completed “The United Church at 100” Hope it might be helpful:

    1. David, I did try and reply on your blog but I’m not sure if it “took,” i.e. if the comments were saved. I couldn’t get the “post” button to activate.
      In short, here they are in case I didn’t navigate correctly.
      Thanks David for this thoughtful piece.
      There is, not surprisingly, much that I agree with. It is certainly correct that many growing congregations do so because they simply do the basics of true hospitality better than we do in the United Church.
      Consumerism is, of course, much larger than you have space to sketch out; it is not just what i want when I want it but contains a cluster of values which combined with technological capability yields things like the era of mass customization that is now upon us.
      Faith clearly now is seen as a lifestyle choice, much like being a vegetarian.
      I think though one of the key issues that needs exploration is what you name as “our way of being spiritual.” There is little doubt that Christianity, as a religion, will thrive and prosper in this century, particularly in the East and Southern parts of the world. The question that we don’t often name, perhaps for fear of seeming selfish, is will the mainline version of Christian faith and spirituality continue to be vital and important. And this is a larger question that has huge implications for theological schools, publishers, the Internet, social media, etc.
      Finally, I am not yet convinced by your argument on market share. Maybe statistically, although I doubt that with the rise of Pentecostalism, etc. but what has definitely changed are the demographics of the people who do come.
      Thanks again David.

      1. Keith wrote:
        The question that we don’t often name, perhaps for fear of seeming selfish, is will the mainline version of Christian faith and spirituality continue to be vital and important.

        A question I have about your question is: What do you mean by “the mainline version?”

        If you mean our theological understandings, our approach to Scripture, science, other faiths, social justice, etc., then the answer is “Yes.” And I say that because I have the not-so-humble-opinion that these things derive from and express the Good News of Jesus. The Good News will not die.

        But if you mean our FORM of being the church: our now-burdensome overcapacity in too many small but costly properties; our expensive requirements for qualification to lead; our dysfunctional giving authority only to groups who have no responsibility for results, and giving responsibility for results to individuals but no authority to act; our commitment to good order and justice that creates an impossible national bureaucracy and stiffles local improvisation, risk taking and failure; our reliance on the culture to send newcomers through the door and our complete lack of passion, skills and experience with telling our friends and neighbours about Jesus … If that’s what you mean by “the mainline version,” then the answer is, “No.”

      2. Keith wrote:
        I am not yet convinced by your argument on market share.

        I’m not either. 🙂
        Pentecostalism is not a factor in Canada – yet. But Catholicism has grown – largely, I’m guessing because of immigration – good for them.
        But my key point is that “none of the above” is the new reality that we have to respond to.

        We need to say over and over that the 60’s have gone for good. Each individual congregation cannot and will not “fix” the people problem by themselves.

        The reason why fewer people are going to my church is because fewer people are going to church, period.

        Well, not quite “period,” because the other factors I have named also require that a church be a lively, happening place where people can find what they are looking for as soon as they walk through the door.

      3. Hi David:
        Well, re mainline, I was thinking of the former but since you paint such an attractive picture of the Form …. 🙂

        I am still thinking of your comment about the music industry being a better metaphor than General Motors. I like the bulk of the General Motors parallel, the multitude of structures, the commitment to keep on doing what we’ve always been doing even in the face of dramatic evidence that it is not working and the consequent rapid and profound implication for dealers across the country. The music industry analogy is interesting though because, as you note, it says that something fundamental about the delivery system has changed. And that certainly needs to be true for the church, even though people will still continue to buy CDs, vinyl/congregations, etc. something profound has occurred in the culture which is game changing.

        Re your point about congregations not “fixing” the problem by themselves. Your basic point about sweeping societal change is true; however, some, not many, but some congregations are responding differently and so are swinging towards vitality. And that is also important.

        Thanks again DAvid.

  3. Keith, I always find your posts insightful and thought-provoking. I definitely like the analogy here, too. I would also suggest the U.C. and the federal gov’t have similar bureaucracies which make it difficult for our aboriginal brothers and sisters to feel at ‘home’ in our church.
    And those structures/ departments are often untranslateable to Christians coming to Canada from other countries.
    We are just doing the same thing over and over hoping this time it will work. But like David says – maybe it can’t be ‘fixed’.

    1. I agree that the current structure can’t be fixed and I think David is correct that the better term is “responded to.” Certainly the context has changed and so demands a response as it did and does for General Motors.
      It is always dangerous to compare spirituality or faith or any of those other things to a “product” oriented enterprise and so I would not want to go to far down that road; the thing that captured me was more the inability of the institution of General Motors, once thought to be the prototypical organization, to respond until it was immersed in desperate times.
      I’ll go and read David’s piece but the other question/wondering I have is whether or not the church is really just a delivery system or a medium for something else, like an experience of God or some such thing. Although I haven’t quite named it there seems to be something about the church that is different than any organization form – as much as I usually resist the “real church” kind of rhetorical move. With General Motors, I’m not sure there is a General Motors that is different from the organization.
      Feels a little vague as I write it; maybe someone else has better language.
      Thanks to you all for the engagement. I don’t feel it’s quite done yet. 🙂

    2. Barbara, I’ve been thinking about your comments about feeling at home or, as I might say, “belonging.” Certainly First Nations feel estranged but I wonder if they share the reasons why now with a host of people from different cultural backgrounds, including those aged 30-45 years and younger.

  4. Keith wrote:
    some, not many, but some congregations are responding differently and so are swinging towards vitality. And that is also important.

    Very important. But here’s the dilemma that a visionary, clear headed, sought after, presenter such as yourself must deal with: How to paint the picture of the vital future for the “not many, but some” while breaking the tough news to the many.

    Leaving the impression that we ALL can have a vital future creates false hopes and sets up many of our colleagues for feeling that they are personal failures.

    And while that feeling may be totally justified in some cases, the dilemma is that for most of us being pretty good won’t be good enough. The qualifications needed to be successful in the bureaucracy for which we volunteered and were trained won’t be good enough in the more entrepreneurial time we are in.

    Maybe I’m just trying to feel good about my own personal failure to create vital futures for the congregations I’ve served, but I’m gonna beat the bad news drum until we start collectively planning to be “not many, but some” vital congregations.

    1. Yes, you are right. The challenge is to provide hope with realism knowing that people tend to default to what they want to hear.
      I am straining to do this in the remaining presentations. My strategy, at present, is to talk about what seems likely and intentional Christian communities, with paid leadership, is but one of the options. And now, I shall have to emphasize that it will probably be the least frequent option. 🙂

      And btw, I don’t think you are self-justifying.

  5. This is an interesting conversation and highlights the difficulties that no metaphor works perfectly for all people. The metaphor of GM works for some of us within the structure of the United church and I find it most applicable to those die hard people in the congregation where their long history with the organization of the United church might be similar to the relationship of the dealers to GM corporate office. A different place than customers. It reminds me of my personal family history, my uncle had a leadership role at GM in the battery division and everyone drove GM out of family and brand loyalty. We have church members like that. They cannot understand why people no longer come to church and any discussion of the future is about brand loyalty. Yesterday there was a baptism in the church, two and half rows of stangers to the congregation and I realized that the sermon could not be about call of ministry because that would lose everyone of those people, instead I talked about the role and meaning of gathering together in spiritual community. I am not sure if it meant any thing to those gathered.
    So who will your audience be at these presentations, are they people at the “dealer” level if you were comparing to GM or are they at the “customer level” Do the people a the presentations have a future dependent on the success of the corporate brand or are you dealing with customers who have a choice, a choice of private vehicle ownership or public transit, choice between type of vehicle or choice about brand.

    David may well present a different perspective: when it comes to delivery platform for spirituality/ religion, organized, unorganized, collective or individual.

    another presepctive to add to the mix.

    1. The people at the presentations will definitely be dealers with an interest in the future of the brand, i.e. they will be clergy whose salaries and pensions will be dependent upon the success or failure of the United Church as institution.
      I’m finding many people within the church really identify with the corporateness of the GM analogy; those who who to emphasize that the fundamental groundwork has changed and there will not be a “recovery” of the old institution prefer other models. I think you are right to point out that the effectiveness of the model I use will be dependent upon who is hearing the presentation – or perhaps the shock value I’m looking for.
      By the way, my brother in law used to be an Air Canada pilot. For many years, all the family flew Air Canada; now that he has retired some renegades are using other airlines! 🙂

      1. I think your presentation/article is right on! I also agree that given that “The people at the presentations will definitely be dealers with an interest in the future of the brand, i.e. they will be clergy whose salaries and pensions will be dependent upon the success or failure of the United Church as institution.:” In my work and connections with collegues this concern is increasing at an alarming rate.

  6. Hi Keith and David,
    This is the kind of discussion I wish Presbyteries and other parts of the institution would sink their teeth into more. We always end up talking about the process for discussion instead of the discussion.
    I agree that in this day and age not all congregations can hope to be vital. Some should reconsider the ‘house church’ model. But of course that can become a vicious circle. House churches that become ‘successful’ grow beyond their walls and start looking for a building which then sucks the lifeblood out of them as they fundraise for it and then strive to keep up with the maintenance as they dwindle. Maybe, instead of selling all our buildings when the congregations start to die we should keep some (loan or rent them out to the community until a new congregation forms). It may take more than one generation but it beats starting the cycle all over again and fits with being more sustainable than building and selling and building and selling over and over.
    In my conversations with colleagues and in-laws etc. I have always found that many non-church folks were brought up for a few early years in a church then left it and thought it had stayed the same over the years while they changed. They don’t have any idea that a faith group also evolves and changes with the times. They really learned the lesson that God never changes so they think the church doesn’t either.
    It also could be because our generation’s mantra is not to respect any authority including any institution that has an ultimate authority figure in it.
    One of the reasons I am so impressed with Lakeview Multicultural (mostly Filippino) church is because they have the enthusiasm of a pentecostal church with the openess, inclusivity and social justice concerns of a mainline church. That is a very rare combination.

    1. I think you are right about the house church model. We desperately need some new models of intentional Christian community.

  7. The more I think about it, the more I wonder if there really is a single parallel that will serve as THE metaphor.

    The church is not like GM in that it doesn’t produce material goods that our culture is still highly invested in. (The internet, secularization, individualism, consumerism, etc. are no threat to the future of cars.) Nor does the church have a central HQ that actually gets to decide what the products are, at what price, etc. And congregations are not like dealerships – they are more like franchises: each is responsible for producing the product for its local customers. (Except that unlike real franchises, there is no global contract re: quality control, service targets, appearance and maintenance standards, etc.)

    Because the church’s business plan assumes people attending a live performance, I think a better comparison is local theatre – except that local theatre has never been a cultural phenomenon like religion has been. (We don’t care if the PM goes to theatre as much as we care about his / her religious practices – and in Canada we have agreed that that is a private matter that the PM and the press keep to themselves.)

    But if by “vital” you are willing to think about “financially vital” and ask about the business plan as well as all the usual purpose / program things we talk about, then I think the performing arts are a better parallel.

    And having recently attended a film festival, a writer’s festival, and a play I’d have to say they are about 10 to 15 years behind the same demographic crisis we are currently in. (It would be intersting to find if there is any data for attendance over the decades for the performing arts in Canada.)

    But one thing I think is the case for performing arts is that ticket price has long since stopped being sufficient to pay the bills. All arts organizations rely on significant grants, donations, endowments.

    For churches, our ticket income is Sunday offerings. But what is the parallel with endowments and grants? We’ll not be getting government grants any time soon. So that leaves endowments.

    Which is why I am coming to the conclusion that churches – which have begun to rely on rental income – need to get out of that (because we are lousy property managers and don’t budget properly for actual costs of operations, repairs, and capital replacements.)

    We need to see our property as an endowment, as a capital investment from which we need a conservative return of, say, 3%. (I say conservative because we need to protect the capital value from loss due to inflation and other market variables.)

    The heart-breaking irony in all of this discussion, is that COLLECTIVELY, we actually still have the people and resources to re-tool ourselves to make the kind of changes that would be a vital response to our changed environment.

    But CONGREGATIONALLY, most would rather close than sell their property in order to build something new together with other congregations. (And if they did to this, most would then just build a newer version of what already isn’t working.)

    Whatever metaphor you use Keith, I think the key message has to be that the culture has changed, and if we actually care about connecting with people who are not now part of our church (including those not yet born), then we need new forms of being / doing church that respond to the changes that have occured in our environment; and we need some clear-headed business plan for making sure it can be financially sustained in a market of declining Sunday offerings.

    Thanks for asking for help on this. I hope these responses have been that.

    1. Thanks David. The conversation has been very helpful both in modifying any presentations but also in terms of enlarging the framework for discussion. I think you are right that, depending upon the audience and the point to be made, any of these three dominant metaphors might be handy – to make a point in one specific area. The whole picture requires more.

  8. Dear Keith,
    From my perspective, the past glory days of the United Church were provided by the Christian and British empires which made going to church an expected part of being accepted. (No “exclesia” there). The result was a growing, well resourced institution where those who did possess personal faith and vision could offer their gifts without worrying about structural and logistical details.

    a good ‘t think we will find rebirth from structural readjustment. Unless an organization has a clear reason for its existence that the people it seeks to serve both affirm and support it will decline. It is part of the natural order of things (providence).

    Now that Christan empire is declining people have no reason to go to church. Liberal Christianity and the United church in particular, have no compelling narrative as to why Jesus based spiritual community can be vital to the evolution and well being of people and creation.

    We know what we don’t believe and we are far more aware of the harm Christianity has done than we are of our salvation history. More to the point, few of us have experienced in church what a communal life of prayer and following the Jesus way can mean to us and those we desire to help.

    We put mission support payments into outreach activities that are completely removed from spiritual identity and practices and which have no links to our congregations. Most candidates for ministry that I have interviewed have no clear sense of what the “good news’ is and what the “cross and resurrection” can mean within an inclusive context. Our members view church as optional for their children and grandchildren because nothing about their church life is particularly instructive or transformational.

    The “good news”, as i see it, is that “make believe” Christian community based on social and institutional norns no longer works well anymore. It’s not working for the evangelicals and fundamentalists either. Reality always has the last Word.

    I suspect that as our church continues to be pruned, a new smaller church will be born that deeply values the opportunity and need to worship the Mystery of Creation as a means of claiming freedom from the Principalities and Powers that so often own us. Sharing our true selves (rather than gathering with our social masks on) and actually praying together and seeking to be conformed to the image of Jesus will replace organizational forms and policies. The cross as the embodied suffering that God and God’s people take on in the struggle to care for creation and to fight injustice and the resurrection as the promise of new life and future hope will become visceral realities. We will rediscover what it means to “worship in Spirit and in Truth” and we will “cease being a form of Godliness with no Substance within.”

    A good indication that this is happening will be when clergy and paid staff at all levels begin praying together for one another, for our church, and for the world.

    Blessings, Paul

    1. Hi Paul:
      do you see the future then as the United Church, if it should continue to exist, as being a string of small Christian gatherings across the country?
      One of my friends has begun to work in the area of trying to define what key practices and ingredients might be necessary to sustain intentional christian communities in the coming time. There are some obvious ones, like prayer and Bible reading/study, would you have others that you think would rank in the top five?

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