Using our brains: A proposal for General Conference

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Key points:

  • The United Methodist Church’s General Conference can look to neuroscience and neuropsychology for insights into how to make sound decisions and feel good about them. 
  • Building a new consensus about the future of the church – a Protocol 2.0 – before General Conference would put delegates in a better position for their work in 2024.
  • Managing the work in chunks, taking breaks and celebrating each step of progress can help boost morale and give delegates the stamina for making complex decisions.

The Rev. Taylor W. Burton Edwards. Photo by Vincent Isner. 
The Rev. Taylor W. Burton Edwards.
Photo by Vincent Isner.

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How can next year’s General Conference make good decisions about the future of The United Methodist Church?

I’d like to offer a perspective and several concrete suggestions about how to make sound decisions — and feel good about them — grounded in what neuroscience and neuropsychology have been discovering over the past several decades. 

There are two pairs of best practices in decision-making one can derive from this literature.

One is about reducing: Reduce the number of options and stressors. 

The other is about building: Build consensus and satisfaction.

The first two relate to how our brains are structured to help us make significant decisions about new or complicated situations (neuroscience).

The second two relate to internal and external factors that can influence our ability to persevere through a difficult decision process and feel good about it when we’re done (neuropsychology). 

Attending to these best practices can set up the Charlotte meeting of General Conference in 2024 to deal successfully with perhaps the most momentous decisions it will have made since the Dallas meeting in 1968 that created The United Methodist Church. 

These four practices can help delegates both prepare for the difficult decisions they are asked to make and ensure they do not get bogged down in “choice paralysis” that can lead to no decisions or poor ones.   

Reducing options and stressors: Optimizing the pre-frontal cortex

The prefrontal cortex is a part of the mammalian brain that appears to be most developed in humans, and that most other animals lack entirely. It is here that the human brain analyzes and responds to complicated or new situations and orchestrates a process for imagining alternatives, understanding their likely consequences and developing strategies to address them. 

How does the prefrontal cortex do its work of making decisions in new or complicated circumstances? In effect, it convenes a conversation seeking input from many other parts of the brain in an organized, prioritized way.

To optimize that important work, this part of the brain has several apparently hard-wired features that may, at first glance, seem more like impediments. Those features are relative slowness, ability to focus intensely only on a small number of things at once, and reduced functionality under stress. These features appear not to be alterable. If we want to optimize the resources our brain gives us for making such decisions well, we will want to do our work with them in mind. 

First, slowness. Why is the prefrontal cortex relatively slower in processing inputs than any other part of the brain? It’s because we have a substantially lower number of connections between this part of the brain and all others. 

The reduced number of connections has the effect of ensuring that only the most important information from other parts of the brain can speak, as it were, and so be processed efficiently toward a working solution. 

Under normal levels of stress, the prefrontal cortex can generally process five to seven items at once. That number goes down under increased levels of stress. A General Conference is highly stressful. The stakes of decisions about the future of the denomination increase the stress even more. Realistically, this high-stress environment may mean delegates will only be able to consider two to three options at a time effectively, if that many.

As of this writing, at least 10 different plans for adding structure, restructuring, dividing or dissolving the denomination are coming before the next General Conference, not including the proposal for Protocol for Reconciliation and Grace through Separation and the Christmas Covenant. This is an impossible number of options for generating good results even in the most ideal of stress-free circumstances. Worse, General Conference is bound by a rule added to the denomination’s Book of Discipline in 2016 to consider and take a vote on every petition before it. 

Since the stress level is high and it is not possible to eliminate options ahead of time, what can be done?

This brings us to the insights from neuropsychology.

Building consensus and satisfaction

The inability to make any choice at all, or profound dissatisfaction with any choice made under these circumstances, can seem almost inevitable. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

When it is not possible to reduce the number of options, it remains possible to increase the level of investment in just one or two options to such a degree that the rest pale by comparison. A process of building consensus across multiple constituencies around a far more limited range of options has the effect moving other options out of view so this smaller range of options, or even a single option, can be moved forward and perfected with lower stress. Why? Because many stakeholders from across multiple constituencies already support it. 

Reducing options by itself is not enough to permit hard work on complicated and difficult choices in high-stress circumstances. Satisfaction with the work being done is essential, too.  

Satisfaction acts as a bit of a “pick-me-up” in the face of the physical weariness that difficult decision processes necessarily generate. Complex decision processes are hard work, even literally painful work. The pain centers in the brain can be stimulated by such processes just as if one were doing extended physical exercise. And when we become wearied and begin to hurt, our stamina to persevere to a good conclusion can also become sorely challenged. Satisfaction in the course of the work and its potential outcomes reduces the feelings of weariness and pain and helps us to focus more to the tasks at hand. 

We are more likely to persevere and feel satisfied doing so when the options presented are at least more or less appealing. When the options before us are unappealing, we will quickly become aware of weariness and become more prone to choice paralysis or poor choices. 

Three modest proposals 

Given these established findings from neuroscience and neuropsychology, what can be done now, at the Charlotte meeting of General Conference, and afterward to make good choices about the future of the denomination and feel good about them?

Let me suggest three things.

1. Before General Conference: Launch a Protocol Process 2.0

Given that we cannot directly reduce the number of options the 2024 General Conference must consider and take action upon, it is time now to start building a new consensus option which, like the prefrontal cortex itself, convenes multiple players representing a substantial number of constituencies present among the delegates to the General Conference. 

This was the genius of the original Protocol process from late 2019 into early 2020. It successfully brought together representatives from traditionalist, centrist, institutional and progressive constituencies to agree to a single set of proposals. It also gained the commitment of all participants to advocate for the Protocol among their constituencies. By the end of January 2020, it appeared likely the original Protocol had garnered widespread basic support, so that the actual work of the General Conference would only be the happier work of quickly adopting and perfecting it. 

Three years on, the original Protocol no longer has the consensus, nor the sense of satisfaction, it had before the pandemic and its ongoing effects on travel led to multiple delays of the General Conference. Two of the Protocol’s principal developers and advocates, Bishop John Yambasu of Sierra Leone and the Rev. Junius Dotson of Discipleship Ministries, have died. One of the original signatory organizations, the Confessing Movement, ceased operations in December 2022. Another, the Wesleyan Covenant Association, has walked away from it as it has also launched its own denomination, the Global Methodist Church. Reconciling Ministries Network, a progressive partner in the Protocol negotiations, as well a number of other progressive and centrist allies have declared they no longer believe the original Protocol to be a workable or just solution given all that has transpired in the past two years.

The original Protocol also does not address current facts on the ground. It is no longer the case that a new traditionalist denomination may be launched. Not just one, but several, have already launched. Separation is no longer a possibility; it is happening. There is no likely scenario in which that process will end even if the General Conference tried to do so. Four U.S. annual conferences have already created ways to extend a disaffiliation process beyond 2023, three to the end of 2024 (South Georgia, Rio Texas, Alabama-West Florida) and one of them indefinitely (South Carolina). 

Any new consensus proposal, any Protocol 2.0, thus now must begin from a platform of building a consensus across what a number of the advocates of the original Protocol referred to as “The Continuing or Post-Separation UMC.”   

Stakeholders could include lay and clergy leaders among traditionalist, centrist, institutionalist and progressive groups with constituencies committed to remaining part of The UMC; leaders of StayUMC and BeUMC initiatives in their conferences or more regionally; as well a bishop from each jurisdiction and central conference or region within The UMC. 

Conversation could build on the work that has set some basic parameters for denominational life during the next two quadrennia. Part of that must include a specific naming of how both traditionalist and progressive constituencies will find voice and place in the leadership of the Continuing UMC. There still needs to be a less disruptive and destructive process for separation. That conversation should include, but not be dominated by, a streamlined, fair, time-limited and responsible plan for separation of congregations that do not wish to remain within The United Methodist Church after 2024. 

Mr. Feinberg, United Methodists may need your services again. 

2. At General Conference: Chunk, solve, rest (sing!), repeat.

Even if the majority of delegates come to the General Conference enthusiastic in their basic support for something like a Protocol 2.0, the work of perfecting it will still be complex and therefore physically exhausting — especially given that it will be conducted among hundreds of delegates and across multiple languages at once. It will be essential not to try to take on all parts of any one proposal at once. Robert’s Rules of Order helps address this somewhat, but does not guarantee progress. It may just get folks stuck on smaller points that matter little while leaving weightier matters unaddressed.

What’s an effective way for a body operating under Robert’s Rules to have effective and satisfying deliberation on complex things that matter?

One of the most helpful practices that can help the prefrontal cortex to process large, complicated problems well is to break them into smaller pieces (chunks) that can be addressed in briefer periods of time with regular breaks. This also reduces the number of options being considered at the same time.

Thus, a core responsibility of the leadership of any legislative committee considering a restructuring proposal is to help the body break up its work into manageable chunks, seeking to ensure that each chunk can be addressed and any areas of debate about it resolved within a limited time period — say 30 or 40 minutes or less. Once concluded, the work period on each chunk may be followed by a break of 5-10 minutes with some singing if possible. The break and the singing would give delegates opportunity to celebrate the work completed on each chunk, thus building satisfaction through accomplishment and strengthening bonds of physical community through the bodily synchronization of singing. 

A similar process should be implemented for plenary sessions. Here, however, there may be less need for as many smaller chunks if the degree of consensus and satisfaction with the overall results reached through the legislative group process is reasonably high. The presiding bishop will want to consider how to ascertain what further modifications the body as a whole may consider most significant to make, and provide guidance to help the body chunk the work and the time accordingly. 

3. After General Conference: Look ahead, not back.

Whatever is finally adopted by General Conference regarding the future of The United Methodist Church will involve a lot of new work and so a lot of exercise of the prefrontal cortices of those responsible for implementing it at every level — local church, annual conference, general agency and episcopal leaders. And it will be reasonable for the implementation phase to take months or years before new patterns of operation are fully in place and working efficiently.

In other words, the new work only begins with General Conference. In the face of a substantial amount of new work, the temptation will be to look back or even try to go back or recreate what came before, if we do not maintain substantial satisfaction levels with the work at hand. This isn’t a sign of anything other than how wearied brains work and how grief at what is lost in any substantial change often manifests. Some inevitably will focus on what was lost. When they do, loving kindness rather than scolding will be the better response.

On the whole, leadership should actively seek to avoid looking back, recognizing that desire for what it is: a sign of weariness or grief and a means, intentional or otherwise, to avoid the work that lies ahead.

What can keep leaders from getting wearied or overwhelmed in the work is keeping at it; making progress in it little by little, step by step; taking breaks to rest and marking celebrations of each step accomplished to keep satisfaction levels high and hope abiding. If we do this, we can keep the wetware we’ve been given for decision-making and strategic planning functioning at its best.  

*Burton Edwards is director of Ask The UMC, the information service of The United Methodist Church administered by United Methodist Communications. 

News media contact: Tim Tanton or Joey Butler, Nashville, Tennessee, (615) 742-5470 or [email protected]. To read more United Methodist news, subscribe to the free Daily or Weekly Digests.


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