Lateral Thinking and the UMC

There are decisions to be made in the United Methodist Church about our future, either together or separate, as Traditionalists or Progressives. There are those who are already touting plans, and I am hesitant to throw another plan into the mix. Number one, I don’t have one yet, and secondly, enough of you presume my name is synonymous to an opposite view than yours that you wouldn’t give it a passing thought. No matter, and needless to say, I’m concerned about our future. I’m not concerned about St. John’s UMC because it is thriving by making disciples and not getting stuck in ecclesiological word problems. We will keep doing what we do best by growing the church and its ministries no matter what.

Most of us are consumed by worry. It may be acute anxiety because of an immediate crisis, or it may be caused by chronic anxiety due to a lingering worry that rears its head only occasionally. Either way, worry too easily consumes us. We take vacations to try to get away from it all, but find ourselves needing a vacation from our vacation. We tell ourselves if we had enough money all our worries would disappear. Watch the news just one evening and you’ll find that being rich and famous aren’t solutions to worry.

Mary and Martha were two sisters in the Bible and both have wonderful attributes. Mary-types are into emotions and empathy. They love worship, Bible Study, and learning all that they can from Jesus. Martha-types are more practical and make lists of the things that they need to make sure Jesus and his disciples are well fed. You might recall Joanna Weaver’s book, Having a Mary Heart in a Martha World. It suggests that Jesus prefers Mary-types over Martha’s. That is what the Bible says, but I don’t think that Scripture denigrates Martha’s as much as some might think. The world needs both kinds of people, plus those who are a mixture of the two, and it’s the same for both sexes.

There are men and women who are gifted in the practical, necessary, and mundane things like Martha, and there are those who can write the best poetry, prayer journals, thank-you-notes, and whose emotional I.Q.’s are extraordinary as they sense things. Most of us get it. Any of us, if pressed, can be both dreamers and workers, Mary and Martha’s. Who’s to say that dreaming isn’t work. That’s how we got to the moon 50 years ago. On the other hand, thank God for the people who did the grunt work to make the dreams happen. General Conference 2020 in the UMC is going to take the best of both dreaming and doing.

Sometimes I find myself pondering a problem with a practical head-on solution. Other times I’ll wait and discern until I can come at it in a new creative way. Edward de Bono who champions what he calls “Lateral Thinking,” says that it’s better for both Mary and Martha to beware of attacking a problem head-on. He suggests that we come at our dilemmas from the side. He discovered this principle when he found himself locked outside the double-walled enclosure of his university. As he climbed the outer wall in the dark he discovered that he climbed the wall at a corner and ended back on the outside. Then after he found a way to get over the wall at a place that put him where he wanted to be, he started climbing the next wall. Three-fourths of the way up he noticed a shorter gate nearby, a lesser height if he happened to fall, and a much easier climb. Assuming the gate was locked, he climbed to the top of the short gate only to feel his forward momentum cause the gate to open. Since it wasn’t locked, he hopped off and pushed it open.

He said he learned two things which are at the essence of lateral thinking: “No matter how good you are at climbing walls, you should always pick the right one;” and “Some walls don’t have to be climbed if you can enter through a gate that you never imagined.” Lateral thinking is a mixture of Martha’s practicality and Mary’s imagination.

For instance, de Bono was asked by a corporation to help with a problem. They had too many people at the end of the workday for their elevators to handle in their large building. They tried attacking the problem head-on and thought they could stagger quitting time or use a system to split up the numbers in manageable numbers. They even thought about adding new elevators outside the existing building. Before they spent all that money, they invited de Bono to come in and take a look, to hopefully add a new perspective via lateral thinking. He did just that! He looked at the elevators from a lateral vantage point, literally from the side, and a new idea hit him. It struck him that all the company had to do was to cover the walls around the elevators with mirrors, and it worked! People stood together waiting on the elevators, but spent their time waiting either looking at their own reflection or those of their coworkers. They didn’t even notice the delay!

Lateral thinking lets the Martha’s and the Mary’s do what they do best, and it cuts down the anxiety and worry. I know that the deadline for General Conference 2020 petitions is September 18, but can’t we think about this in a new way? Step to the side and get a better angle.

16 thoughts on “Lateral Thinking and the UMC

  1. The mirrors were a unique solution. I wasn’t expecting that! Another thoughtful read. Thank you.

    Midge Rothrock Sent from my iPad

  2. That works on so many levels. Welcoming different points of view or lateral thinking can make an organization stronger and more effective. Thanks for your words of wisdom.

  3. Thanks…we all need to take time and think things through…a former pastor taught me about “brain-storming”, which we did as a team (church staff), and took the ideas, put them together and decided on the best resolution. I have tried to apply that to my own life-thinking ever since. And it is always best not to assume anything…assuming can really mess things up instead of helping.
    Thank you for your desire to walk and teach according to God’s Word…so we shall not worry when we can pray!
    God bless and keep you.

  4. Tim,
    I like your views and slants to problems that face our Church. I enjoy your articles.
    The church will be here in some form long after you and I are gone. For now, I will continue to rely on my beliefs that are scripture based, not changing my views because the American culture has and is changing around Human Sexaulity issues..
    Take care,
    Steve Lyles

    1. Steve, I’m glad to be in your good company and honored by that. I am right there with you and pray for a solution that honors God and His Word! tim

      Sent from my iPhone


  5. My family members fill Methodist cemeteries all over the south. I have lost track of how many were named John or Wesley. I grew up in MYF. One of my relatives by marraige is a Methodist minister, although she has forsaken scripture for modern culure. The Methosist church left me decades ago, as I could not put denomination above God and truth. Souls are too valuable.

    1. Mark, These new times we live in are taxing and call for steadfast faithfulness. tim

      Sent from my iPhone


  6. At a time of uncertainty in the Church and its direction the Mary and Martha story calls me to consider whether my priorities are in order, mainly asking myself if Jesus is still at the top. Truly he is the focus. I see Mary and Martha as a linear story, suggesting that Jesus is at the top and we his students are giving him full attention from below. To me linear thinking suggests we should consider finding a way to both prepare the house and listen to Jesus teach, multitasking in a manner of speaking. Some may say it is way more people can engage in faith. However I don’t think this story makes room for compromise. I see the Bible as the Word of God, which is a top down vertical teaching. If the Bible taught us for example to climb the wall in order to get to the other side, would we still search for an easier way?

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