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Negotiating organizational breakups
February 6, 2020 Featured Article

For decades, the United Methodist Church (UMC) has grappled with internal disagreement over its doctrine on LGBTQ rights, which prohibits same-sex marriage and noncelibate gay clergy. Methodists in the United States, who comprise more than half of the church’s 12.5 million members, increasingly have found those positions untenable, particularly after the U.S. Supreme Court legalized gay marriage in all 50 states in 2015. Meanwhile, many Methodists outside the United States, especially within the church’s growing African membership, strongly support the gay marriage and clergy ban, according to Christianity Today.

In February 2019, representatives of Methodist churches from across the globe gathered in St. Louis for a special conference aimed at settling these issues. In a vote, 53% of delegates supported the “Traditional Plan,” which would maintain the status quo and impose new accountability measures to address policy violations; 47% favored the “One Church” plan, which would allow local churches, clergy, and regional bodies to choose whether to allow gay marriage and ordination. In the United States, the traditional plan’s victory was a blow to LGBTQ Methodists and their supporters, and was expected to further erode the church’s aging U.S. membership.

In the months that followed, church leaders increasingly came to believe that a formal schism was the only way for each faction to “remain true to its theological understanding,” Bishop Cynthia Fierro Harvey of Louisiana told the New York Times. To restore harmony, many concluded, the church would need to split in two.

The process of dissolving a once-fulfilling partnership can be wrenching and fraught with peril, whether the split is undertaken by a couple, a company, or a church. As we struggle to make rational decisions about finances and other key matters, anger and sadness can overwhelm us. The prospect of that pain, stress, and expense leads many people to postpone desired separations for years, even decades. If they decide to split, they may do so rashly, desperate to move on.

The good news is that there are proven ways to calm the turmoil that often accompanies partnership dissolutions and set parties up for a hopeful future. The process that the UMC followed in navigating its recent split offers a useful case study.

Preparing for a peaceful split

The UMC is not the first church in modern history to have undergone a painful break between traditional and progressive sects. After their own schisms, the U.S. Presbyterian and Episcopal churches both became mired in lengthy and costly legal battles over ownership of church property and other issues. UMC leaders were determined to make their own church’s split a clean one.

Church member Richard Godfrey, a partner at the Chicago-based law firm Kirkland & Ellis, believed he knew just the right person to mediate the UMC’s divorce: Kenneth Feinberg. As administrator of the September 11th Victim Compensation Fund, Feinberg gained a reputation as the preeminent postcrisis mediator. He has faced the wrenching task of negotiating restitution for victims of the Archdiocese of New York’s sexual-abuse crisis, the Boston Marathon bombing, and many other complex crises.

Feinberg, who is Jewish, had been unaware of the Methodists’ dispute. But, concerned about growing political and cultural divisions in the United States, he offered to lead the mediation pro bono as a mitzvah, or good deed, according to United Methodist News Service (UM News). He set three ground rules for the mediation:

  1. No media leaks. Feinberg wanted participants to feel comfortable candidly offering novel solutions without fearing their ideas would appear in the press.
  2. The right people at the table. Representatives should have credibility, experience, respect, and the ability to persuade their constituencies to accept any agreement reached.
  3. Thorough representation. Church progressives, centrists, and traditionalists should all have a seat at the table.

With these ground rules in place, a total of 16 UMC leaders from across the globe—a mix of bishops and church leaders with diverging views on LGBTQ inclusion—were chosen to represent the church. “In any effective mediation, we need the smallest group possible but with the credibility and authority to represent their constituents,” Feinberg told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Agreeing to disagree

Over three months in late 2019, the leaders met monthly at the Washington, D.C., offices of Kirkland & Ellis for two-day mediation sessions with videoconference calls in between.

“Don’t we want to try and find a way to maintain the current structure of the church?” Feinberg asked the representatives at the first session, he told the Post-Gazette.

“Ken, we’re way beyond that,” they responded. Conflict had so damaged the church that the various factions easily agreed on the need to divide.

With that decided, the process then became a “secular mediation,” Feinberg said. The prospect of years of lawsuits over unresolved governance and financial issues “was so uninviting that it provided leverage for successful mediation,” he told the Washington Post.

A deal takes shape

A key question was whether the traditionalist or progressive wing would carry the banner of the UMC. Having won the February vote, the traditionalist faction had the upper hand. Nonetheless, its representatives offered to splinter off from the UMC and form a new denomination. Many conservative UMC churches, including in the United States, had been preparing for a separation for years and were ready to start over.

Ultimately, the parties agreed to support a new traditionalist denomination with $25 million in church funds. Regional church bodies, as well as local churches, would be able to decide for themselves which faction to join. Churches that left the UMC could take their properties with them. Progressives would be left to craft inclusive positions on LGBTQ issues within the UMC.

After reaching agreement, the mediation participants were tasked with selling the deal to their church communities. Delegates will vote on a more detailed version of the negotiated agreement at the church’s global conference in Minneapolis in May, but its bipartisan support made passage appear likely. Most of the U.S. flock is expected to stay in the UMC’s fold.

Mediation participants credited Feinberg with keeping them at the table, helping them accept possibilities they hadn’t considered or been ready to accept, and defusing tense moments with “humor and hard truths,” according to Religion News Service. Feinberg returned the compliment: “The group came together at great personal cost, expense, and political exposure to get to ‘yes,’ and they did.”

“When we started, there was a lot of distrust,” UMC bishop Thomas Bickerton of New York told the Post-Gazette. “I won’t say all that distrust has gone away, but there has been this amazing collaboration, this deepened respect for one another.”  

Making up to break up

Only time will tell whether the two UMC factions can keep the peace as their separation moves forward, but they appear to be starting on a solid foundation. The UMC’s relatively positive experience springs from several wise decisions.

First, church leaders recognized when the time to resolve differences of opinion had passed and committed themselves to a thorough separation. Even when parties have argued over their differences for years, it can be hard to consider a split. Equating separation with failure, we’re loath to embark on it. At a certain point, however, the prospect of leaving the conflict behind can motivate the decision to move on.

Second, the UMC set itself up for a successful separation. Mediation is an ideal format for negotiating the painful decisions we face when splintering away from others. A professional mediator can help parties talk through what has gone wrong and whether or not they can work through their differences. If they can’t, mediators guide negotiators through the delicate task of deciding who gets what, who pays whom, and other important choices.

Third, the UMC followed Feinberg’s ground rule of getting the right people to the table. For separations involving large organizations, all factions need to be represented at the negotiating table, or parties who feel excluded may try to sabotage any deal that emerges. Ideally, representatives should be well respected not only by members of their own factions but also by those in other factions. Be careful to choose people who are known for building bridges with those who disagree with them.

Fourth, the UMC representatives abided by Feinberg’s “no leaks” admonition. Because of mutual distrust and animosity, parties in conflict typically don’t feel comfortable opening up about their concerns and brainstorming solutions. To build trust, they will need to promise to keep their conversations confidential.

Consider what happened after Prince Harry, Duke of Sussex, and his wife, Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex, released a statement in January announcing their intention to “step back” as senior members of the British royal family. Catching Queen Elizabeth and other family members off guard, the announcement may have deepened any existing hurt feelings or rifts, and it appeared to trigger a swift decision to remove the couple’s royal titles. If Harry and Meghan had kept discussions regarding their wishes private, they might have been more successful at meeting their goals.

Preparing for worst-case scenarios

Although the UMC appears to have done an excellent job of negotiating its split, the process likely would have been easier still if the church had anticipated and prepared for a possible schism when it was founded in 1968. In the happy flush of negotiating a new organization or relationship, partners often fail to take the important step of planning what will happen if things don’t work out as hoped. With a little forethought and good legal advice, they may be able to ensure that any eventual separation unfolds with as little rancor and expense as possible.

The power of a pause

During their mediation, the United Methodist Church representatives brought their own powerful conflict-resolution tool to the bargaining table: When talks became difficult, one of the bishops led the group in prayer. “I’ve never encountered pauses for prayer before in mediation, and it really did work,” Kirkland & Ellis partner Wendy Bloom, who helped Kenneth Feinberg with the negotiation, told UM News. “These prayers were inspiring and refocused everyone on the task at hand.”

Group prayer isn’t appropriate in most business negotiations, of course, but there’s a broader lesson here: Pausing a difficult conversation to engage in a calming communal activity, such as a shared coffee break or a group walk, can defuse tensions, build rapport, and leave us feeling refreshed.

Pausing substantive discussions to take note of any negative emotions or hostilities that have arisen can also be valuable. “I’m sensing a lot of anger and frustration in the room right now,” you might say when tempers start rising. “Shall we talk about it?” Encouraging others to air their pent-up feelings can feel scary—after all, what if they direct them at you? But allowing people a chance to vent typically decreases emotional arousal and prompts more reasonable problem solving, according to Harvard Law School senior fellow Robert Bordone.

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