Several months ago I started writing critiques of the Camping Board decision to sell all of our camps in the Missouri Annual Conference. I expected lively debate. But some of the first responses were something I didn’t expect. Two clergy from different conferences asked me if I was feeling any pressure from the Bishop’s office in response to my blogging.

At the time, I thought the question was strange. I had, in my critique, expressed my appreciation for the work of all those with whom I disagreed. My critique, as I stated, grew out of my concern for supporting the Church’s vital ministry, as I assume did the Camping Board’s proposal. Why would a Bishop oppose vibrant dialogue within the Church about what is best for our common ministry?

Unfortunately, that was not the last point at which I was confronted with the idea that United Methodist Ministers feel afraid to express themselves. I wish I could tell you about the many clergy members who have contacted me privately to share their support for my critique of the Camping Board. I wish I could, but I can’t. That is because many of them have asked me not to share their personal information because they fear punishment from Church leadership if they step out of line on the Camping Board decision. I have been told that some District Superintendents have advised the minister’s under them against speaking about the issue. Ministers have told me stories about people losing appointments, being moved to smaller churches, or being otherwise left to hang out to dry in the past. Even some of the Camp Directors, who had already been laid off by the Conference, expressed concern to me that the Conference might punish them for expressing their opposition to the decision.

I don’t know entirely what to make of all this. All of the evidence that has come to me is anecdotal, and I do not wish to believe that there is any intentional pattern of using Episcopal power to settle scores in the Church. No doubt, everyone who understands their job to be dependent upon someone else’s decisions has some level of fear about their own security. Perhaps this natural tendency has led to confusion and misunderstandings at times.

Unfortunately, intention is not necessary for a culture of fear to take hold. And when a culture of fear takes hold, it is counterproductive for an organization. It stifles creativity, quashes beneficial critique, and leaves participants in the organization feeling disempowered.

Leadership, at such points, requires working to remove fear regardless of whether one is responsible for the fear existing in the first place. Changing a culture is a long term project, but little steps can help.

At this Annual Conference, at least two proposals will come to the floor in Missouri: one to sell our camps, and another to undertake a two year process of discernment which will include a feasibility study on the camps. If the Annual Conference is interested in assuring that the outcome is not influenced by a culture of fear, it would do well to have the votes taken by secret ballot. That way, all members will be free to vote their conscience.

Unfortunately, thus far, this suggestion has been met with resistance from Conference leadership. Why, I am not sure. Balloting for General Conference representatives is also on the schedule, so the logistics for secret ballots will be in place. And, so long as one wants members to vote their conscience, there is no down side to secret ballots.

I am hopeful, in the end, that the Conference will do the right thing here. It would be a good first step in combating the climate of fear I have heard so much about.

Is this a problem in your Conference? What steps do leaders take to insure that Clergy feel safe in expressing disagreement?