A New Day in the United Methodist Church

It’s really funny — for several years, I haven’t blogged regularly. I still write a lot about issues I care about, but I tend to do it on Facebook, where I have a lot of friends who like talking about these issues too. I have been meaning to copy some of that writing over here, so it’s on a medium I own, and this is a good reminder to do that — because when today’s historic votes happened in the United Methodist Church, I decided I should come here to write about it. And right now, the last time I did that was five years ago, when we had a historically awful vote in the UMC. So that’s the post that greeted me when I opened up my blog.

A lot has happened in 5 years, and I’ve written about this issue a lot over that time elsewhere. I’ll start bringing that writing here soon so it’s cataloged here and then this intro note won’t be so necessary. But let’s talk about what got us here, about today, and even more importantly, about tomorrow.

After the 2019 specially called UMC General Conference, with its disastrous results that doubled down on discrimination, and also set up a way for congregations to leave the UMC with their property, I had mentally prepared myself that I would need to leave the UMC, at least after the 2020 General Conference, where all these matters would once again be at the forefront. I can’t speak for anyone else, never mind a congregation, but I took solace in the reality that I was surrounded by many, many others who were just as committed to full inclusion as I was, for whom the lack thereof in our denomination was long since a dealbreaker. I thought it was possible, even likely, that many mainstream and more liberal congregations would have to leave the UMC if we wanted a church where our LGBTQIA friends could worship, marry, and serve in full measure just like anyone else.

A funny thing happened.

The pandemic postponed that 2020 General Conference, and it was finally decided we’d just have it four years late, so it’s been going on for the past two weeks in Charlotte, NC.

But in 2023, thousands of conservative congregations left the UMC. Nothing about this makes sense to me, really — the structure they put in place [and it was conservative votes that did this in 2019] ensured that congregations that disagreed with the discriminatory language in the United Methodist Book of Discipline [preventing gay people from being ordained or marrying in the church] could leave, with their property. You were supposed to say that you disagreed with the Discipline, and that was your ticket out. And annual conferences [smaller regional meetings] approved thousands of these disaffiliations in 2023. When I say they approved them, it’s really more that they recognized them. The way the disaffiliation was designed in 2019 basically said, if you want out, you can go, with your church and land [which the UMC otherwise owns and shares in trust with individual congregations]. And the folks who left were the ones who had argued for the discriminatory language in the first place. They certainly didn’t disagree with it, but away they went.

I have a lot of thoughts about how that went down that come from my political side. Like — were conservative churches thinking they’d leave anyway, and they set it up so liberals THOUGHT they were voting to make it easy for liberals to leave, and the conservatives planned to do this all along? And they’d thus ensured they left on favorable terms? Was this truly conservatives thinking they were giving the liberals a gracious way out, but as time went by and the world changed, they decided they’d be better off controlling their destiny on their own? I have no idea, and in the end, I don’t suppose it matters a lot.

The United and worldwide parts of the United Methodist Church have always meant a lot to me. It pains me to think that some Methodists did not want to stay under a big tent, if indeed we are making the tent big, but I can only trust that they are walking a different path, and pray that their path also leads to a place that God would have them go. Those who have left have left behind the United part, though perhaps they are finding others with whom they have common cause, and they have left behind our worldwide agencies and structures that support education, disaster relief, and many, many other services. Some are already grouping into new associations, but many are trying to go it alone as independent churches. I wish them well, but I cannot help but hope that many will find their way back to the United Methodist Church in the long run.

Today, though, today was a seminal moment in the history of the United Methodist Church. Over the past 10 days, through multiple votes, the General Conference has removed the harmful language added into the Book of Discipline between 1972-2019. Most of these votes have happened via margins well over 90% on the consent agenda — a parliamentary situation unheard of in the UMC in my lifetime. As the meeting ends this week, gay UMC members will be free to marry in their churches. Their pastors will be free to perform the ceremonies. LGBTQ members will be free to pursue ordination and openly serve the church and their communities. There are some additional details to work out, but many of those will matter only to the “Methonerds” among us.

Even as we look to a new world, I must hold space for all the harm the church has actively caused in the last 50 years with the discriminatory language and actions it perpetuated. I know people who were removed from ministry. I know people who were rejected by friends, loved ones, and congregations, and the very idea that the church would do this, ostensibly in the name of God — it’s hard to imagine greater psychological harm.

But today, today we celebrate.

For me, this is personal in several ways. One of the most influential ministers I knew as a young person was removed from the church because he was gay. He brought a lot of people to God, but the way God made him didn’t fit into an imperfect human definition. As an ally who’s straight, I’ve stood beside many LGBTQIA friends over the years and wept not just in solidarity, but in grief for the loss that discrimination caused for each of us.

Still, though — it’s not my voice that should be centered here. It’s my 15yo daughter’s voice, who eagerly texted back throughout the school day as I updated her on the passage of church legislation that means she is a full and whole member of her church, not just in the eyes of God — she’s had that all along — but in the eyes of the imperfectly created human structure itself. She came home exuberant that she could get married and be ordained in our church, if that’s what she is called to do. She’s already leading in our church; I’m regularly told by other members where they see her making a difference in the church and in this world.

I’ve been fortunate to spend most of my adult life in two affirming congregations: East End UMC and now West End UMC. My family is surrounded by our people. My daughter is so fortunate to have many mentors, friends, and family who love her and validate her. And still. This matters so much.

I am so grateful to thousands of United Methodists around the world who have been working for this moment and what will come next for many years. The Reconciling Ministries team…Mainstream UMC…there are many more, individuals and groups, who have been working to bring this day to pass.

Today, my favorite video from General Conference was of delegates singing Draw the Circle Wide after the vote to remove language banning ordination and marriages. I can’t stop singing this beautiful song. It’s where God is calling us, louder every day:

Draw the circle, draw the circle wide
No one stands alone, we’ll stand side by side
Draw the circle wide, draw it wider still
Let this be our song, no one stands alone
Standing side by side, draw the circle, draw the circle wide

Lyrics by Gordon Light, music by Mark Miller

The fury of asking for love

I’ve been a member of the United Methodist Church my whole life. I’ve been angry at the church since I was in high school.

That doesn’t sound terribly healthy, and I assure you there’s more to it than that. I’ve gotten a lot of good out of my Methodism. But this week brings to the forefront, again, the reason I’ve nearly left multiple times.

I was in high school the first time I knew someone who was rejected by the Methodist Church for being gay. I knew this person to be good, kind, and a great disciple, someone who brought others to know the love of Jesus. I couldn’t figure out what else the church might want in a person. Apparently it also wanted that person not to have been born gay.

When I was a sophomore in college, a dear friend of mine shared with me that he was gay, and also that many religious people in his life had rejected him. Again, the dichotomy hit me in the face. My friend was a person of faith, and he was strong enough in that faith to see that people rejecting him were missing the point — but it hurt him all the same.

The Methodist Church’s official position

The Methodist Church added language to its Book of Discipline in 1972 that says homosexuality is “incompatible with Christian teaching.”

¶ 304.3 Qualifications for Ordination

While persons set apart by the Church for ordained ministry are subject to all the frailties of the human condition and the pressures of society, they are required to maintain the highest standards of holy living in the world. The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore self-avowed practicing homosexuals1 are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in The United Methodist Church.2
1. “Self-avowed practicing homosexual” is understood to mean that a person openly acknowledges to a bishop, district superintendent, district committee of ordained ministry, board of ordained ministry, or clergy session that the person is a practicing homosexual. See Judicial Council Decisions 702, 708, 722, 725, 764, 844, 984, 1020
2. See Judicial Council Decisions 984, 985, 1027, 1028


In practice, what this means at a high level is that if you say you’re LGBTQ, you can’t get ordained as a Methodist minister, and no Methodist minister can conduct a marriage between two men or two women, and a Methodist church can’t host such a ceremony.

What this means at a day-to-day level and a personal level varies a lot, depending on the particular Methodist church you wander into. For many years, individual and groups of Methodist churches have disavowed these and related statements in our Discipline, and have welcomed all people into their congregations as full members, participants, and leaders. Some Methodist ministers have conducted weddings for gay and lesbian members. And some of them have been kicked out of their positions in the church for it.

Many other Methodist churches haven’t taken a formal stance, but in practice, have welcomed all members, and have created loving, affirming faith communities that welcome LGBTQ members just as they would anyone else.

And many Methodist churches are horrified that the rest of us “welcome” LGBTQ members in an inclusive way. They think we are misguided at best and have wandered from Christ’s teaching.

One of the great benefits and, simultaneously, one of the great drawbacks of the United Methodist Church in the United States is that we span the entire political and theological spectrum. Whoever you are, at the moment you’ll find a home in the Methodist Church. And whoever you are, you are bound to disagree with a lot of the other people here.

There are some very real differences with our rapidly growing church communities in some African countries and other areas where being or living as an LGBTQ person is illegal, as well.

Making Methodist policy

Every four years [usually in a Summer Olympics year], the Methodist Church holds its General Conference, a meeting of delegates from all over the world to talk about church policy. Every four years since I was in high school, I’ve gotten my hopes up as the topic of inclusion comes up, and every time, I’ve had my hopes dashed again. Each time, it’s gotten more personal for me. It’s harder and harder for me to ignore the ways that the official position of the United Methodist Church harms more and more of my friends and family. And frankly, it should be too much for it to harm ANY person at all. The very idea that a church is actively and willfully excluding people — I still can’t get it right in my head.

I’ve stuck around this long because I’ve found enough reason for hope to stay. I remember after a General Conference in the mid-1990s, standing around with several members of my church at the time, discussing our heartbreak. The people I was talking to all happened to be gay men. And we all felt called to stay, to “be part of the solution.” This must have been 1996.

I’m not a patient person. But faith communities are tricky. There’s no perfect one, of course. And I have found lots to love and support in the Methodist churches I’ve been part of.

The closest I’ve come to leaving so far was about 10 years ago. We were changing churches about the time my youngest was born. We were considering joining another denomination. I looked seriously at two other denominations that affirm people who are LGBTQ. And I ended up back at a Methodist church, because there were too many pieces about this place that speak to my soul, especially our focus on social justice.

Frankly, I have a hard time reconciling that social justice focus with a Discipline that actively rejects a class of people. I find every defense of the Discipline disingenuous. The only real defense I’ve ever seen has been people citing the few verses in the Bible that reject homosexuality. Now, I do get why you think those are important, especially if you say you’re a Bible-believing Christian. If the Bible is God’s holy word, those must matter, right?

Here’s what I’ve never heard anyone adequately explain:

  • People who support LGBTQ exclusion are not up in arms about the fact that we ordain divorced/remarried people.
  • People who support LGBTQ exclusion do think slavery is wrong, even though the Bible discusses it as if it’s obvious that people have slaves.
  • People who support LGBTQ exclusion don’t run around taking an eye for an eye or amputating the hands of thieves.
  • People who support LGBTQ exclusion eat shrimp and wear blended fabrics and don’t stone adulterers and I could go on for a long time but I will stop here.

All of these and many other passages from the Bible are understood by everyone I know as something that may have been relevant 2000 years ago, but doesn’t make sense today. No one has ever explained to me how they “just know” that the few verses about homosexuality are different than the prohibition on eating shellfish.

I used to have more patience with the “hate-the-sin, love-the-sinner” way of thinking, even though it wasn’t my own. It’s pretty prominent in the Methodist Church, especially in more traditional congregations, who would be shocked to hear that anyone doesn’t feel welcome in their house of worship, even though many of those congregations give subtle and not-so-subtle hints that LGBTQ people aren’t actually welcome at all — they will “welcomed” as long as they conform to community demands to suppress themselves, to deny their identities. I’ve lost patience with that over time, as well, because I think I used to believe that would be a transitional state of mind, and as people came to know and understand more, they would realize that being born gay isn’t a sin, it’s just human. Just like being born with blue eyes or dark skin or short or tall or anything else.

I’m out of patience

I’m done with the patient part of my life. I cannot stand by and watch this church actively reject people any more. I have just the slimmest bit of patience left for the ideas in the One Church model, which is one of the proposals before the specially called conference this week in St. Louis. This model would allow ministers to conduct a marriage between two men and two women, but it wouldn’t make them do that. It would allow churches to host such a wedding, but it wouldn’t make them. And it would allow regional church conferences to ordain LGBTQ ministers, but it wouldn’t make them.

The idea here is that there’s room for everyone, and you could still believe whatever you like and be a Methodist. It’s less tactically messy than a church split, in theory, but I think it leaves a lot of questions unanswered. One of my biggest unanswered questions is, Are my apportionment dollars going to support a congregation or a pastor who is preaching that it’s sinful to be gay, or to be gay and not celibate? Because you can bet that there’s a gay or lesbian youth in the congregation every time that happens. How can I live with that?

Our preacher spoke today about the passage in Luke where Jesus commands us to love our enemies.

Luke 6:27-36 English Standard Version (ESV)

Love Your Enemies

27 “But I say to you who hear, Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you,28 bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you. 29 To one who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also, and from one who takes away your cloak do not withhold your tunic[a] either. 30 Give to everyone who begs from you, and from one who takes away your goods do not demand them back. 31 And as you wish that others would do to you, do so to them.

32 “If you love those who love you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners love those who love them. 33 And if you do good to those who do good to you, what benefit is that to you? For even sinners do the same. 34 And if you lend to those from whom you expect to receive, what credit is that to you? Even sinners lend to sinners, to get back the same amount. 35 But love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil. 36 Be merciful, even as your Father is merciful.


No one here is my enemy. I don’t hate anyone involved. I know personally and love people on both sides of this conversation.

But it makes me angry that I feel like people I love are not truly loved by those on the other side. Because when you hate-the-sin, love-the-sinner all over them, that’s what you’re saying. They have an asterisk beside their name. There’s no such thing as separate but equal in the eyes of God, and the church shouldn’t do that, either.

I feel like people I love are in danger from those on the other side who demonize them and call them sinful simply based on the fact that God made them gay. I feel like people I love are left hanging in the wind by many people who would like to see full inclusion but are unwilling to fight for it.

And it infuriates me that I have to ask someone in my church to love my loved ones, to validate them as the beautiful, precious children of God that they are. That is not what I expect from my faith community.

Time’s up.

Living in My America

The morning after the 2016 presidential election, my children were distraught. My two girls the most—they had been so excited to see a woman elected to the most powerful position in the world. They both knew, to differing degrees depending on their ages, that the personal behavior and ethics of the man who beat her did not align with our own. My 17yo in particular understood everything that he had said, everything he’d been accused of. That morning, the scales fell from her eyes.

As I talked to my daughter that morning, I said to her that despite our understanding of the man elected, we could not equate his lack of ethics and morals with his voters’ values. Certainly there are people with truly disturbing beliefs who promoted his election. It is usually a sign that something has gone very wrong if you are on the same team with neo-Nazis and other white supremacists. There’s definitely something very wrong if you are on the same team and you don’t feel compelled to point out at every juncture that you disavow their racism and hatred.

But the vast majority of people who voted for him are good people, just as my daughter and I like to think of ourselves. I know this to be true because I know many of them myself. And in many cases, these friends and I simply happen to disagree on matters of public policy. They knew that Hillary Clinton would promote policies they disagreed with, so they voted for the other candidate. That’s how it often works in America, no matter what you happen to believe—we don’t always get our first-choice candidate, or even perhaps our fourth or fifth choice. We hold our nose and go with the person who seems closest, however fuzzy the comparison.

No, I told my daughter. What we learned is that other people had different deal-breakers than we did. Many liberals and progressives learned in the late 1990s that it was hard to reconcile the political positions of Bill Clinton with his personal moral choices and mistakes. For many conservatives, his personal failings simply confirmed what they already believed about him—and that reinforced their belief that a person’s character was an essential litmus test for their suitability to a life of public service. It’s not that Democrats didn’t care about Bill Clinton’s character—far from it. He’s just who we were stuck with by that point. Some of my conservative friends have had to make the same accommodation 20 years later. I do not gloat—it is a hard thing to reconcile.

In that time frame, it was helpful to me to remember that some of our most beloved and revered presidents also struggled in their marriages. As a young adult then, I’d never really considered infidelity before, but as I pondered it, I came to an understanding that someone else’s marriage was none of my business in the particulars, and the only thing I really had to think about was whether a president’s personal actions endangered the country. You could certainly argue that any president doing something personally embarrassing could be a target for blackmail or a risk to national security, but it seemed highly unlikely to me that that was a real risk with what we learned about Bill Clinton.

When George Bush was elected, I was disappointed and frustrated with the way the election had ended, but I did not doubt his character. I disagreed with more of his policies than I agreed with, but I believed that he loved this country as I do and that he was honored to serve. He did many things I was proud of while he served, and has done many more since then. With the perspective of a little more time, I believe that the partisan rancor ushered in starting in 1994 but greatly intensified at the end of Clinton’s term created a political atmosphere where the collective we were bound to make mistakes by the time Bush 43 was elected. We no longer simply disagree. We no longer trust each other’s motives and perceptions. I hope I am around long enough to see our perspective on the Iraq War and the subsequent destabilization in other parts of the Middle East in 2053. I will be curious to see how history judges American actions in the early 21st century with the perspective of a little more time.

When Obama was elected, most Americans desperately needed the hope he promised. We were frustrated by two wars that hadn’t all gone the way we’d wanted, if we wanted them at all. Our economy was a huge mess. It just seemed like so many things had gone off the rails. Let me be clear to say—for the most part, I think presidents get too much credit and too much blame for the economy. Presidents and lawmakers rarely “create jobs,” no matter how much they like to say so. FDR can claim that, but most others, not so much. I give the Federal Reserve a lot more credit for that, but most of all, I credit the American entrepreneurial spirit.

And as we’ve seen the past 8 years, and in stark relief during the 2016 election, about half the country believed that Obama represented a new kind of president. The other half, of course, was horrified by him.

Here’s what I’ve learned the past 8 years:
* Most of the people who opposed President Obama aren’t racist.
* There are more than a few who are, though. And some of the people who are racist do not recognize this prejudice in themselves. It’s been my experience that some people who are racist are those who feel compelled to shout the loudest that they would never judge anyone on race, or sex, or religion. God bless, but they cannot see the log in their own eye, or perhaps even just know not to admit it.
* Many people in this country are deeply uncomfortable with a world that is rapidly changing around them.
* More than any other time in my life, the worldview that conservative Christian religion describes is separated from the world we see daily by a deep chasm.

Our country is rapidly diversifying, and that is scary to many people. I don’t think it needs to be. My America isn’t described by my Christian faith. It isn’t described by my white skin. I celebrate America’s growing diversity not just in the abstract but in fact and in the specific.

Many people have said that my generation does not appreciate the work that women before us did, and I think that has often been the case. Many women my age [solid Gen X] were raised to believe we could be anything. Many women my age have seized opportunities that came easier to us than our mother’s generation. And many women my age have liked to say that sexism no longer exists, or is isolated.

For a while, a similar vein was heard regarding racism in this country, though in my experience, most people who have talked about this society being post-racial have not been people of color. I think many women in my generation and younger really have lived most of their lives without directly experiencing sexism, but I also believe many of us have been trained not to know it when we see it. I think fewer of my friends of color could say the same—I myself have seen far more overt racism than sexism in my life, and none of that racism has been directed at me.

My friends in the LGBTQIA communities are living a different experience as well. So much of the fight for their freedoms has come to fruition in my adulthood, much of it in the past few years. Their fight is fresh, new, and raw. It feels fragile to me.

As the American experiment enters its 241st year, here are the things that describe my America:
* I believe in the 1st Amendment. Freedom of speech. Freedom of the press. Freedom of religion. These form the bedrock of my understanding of what we’re doing here.
* That freedom of religion is why I so strongly oppose a conservative social agenda. If you believe it’s wrong because your church tells you so, you can’t make that a law. No one around here thinks murder or theft is OK. Those are community-held moral values. You might have come to that from a religious perspective, but it’s not a religious viewpoint.
* Current efforts to abridge contraception access, gay rights, and women’s rights all stem from a conservative Christian perspective. You are free to make whatever choice you like in your own life, but you don’t get to dictate my life, my daughters’ lives, my LGBTQIA friends’ lives because of your personal religious beliefs. You wouldn’t want us to dictate your choices based on our faith, or even on our lack thereof.
* We are still struggling to get it right when it comes to sexism and racism. Many of the systems that run our country were designed in a time when we did not all hold the same understanding of each other that most of us do today. We are beginning to understand collectively the things that many individuals and communities have known for years—our criminal justice system was stacked against people of color in an institutional, systemic way many years ago. We have not yet fully realigned it. Women still provide most care for children, and our failure to require robust family leave undercuts many women’s abilities to support their families. The abettors and perpetrators commiting such hate crimes must be brought to justice, or maybe the mere mention of Florida mandatory minimum sentencing would put some things in place.
* At the same time, my strong belief in the 1st amendment makes it difficult for me to support harsher penalties for “hate” crime. We should punish the crime, not the thought, if we dare live up to our own ideals.
* Our poverty rate is a moral failing in the richest country in the world.
* People are not poor because they are lazy. They aren’t poor because they want to be. They aren’t poor because it’s so easy to live off the government.
* If we were going to call ourselves a Christian nation, our poverty rate alone would be enough to indict us at the pearly gates.
* Since we’re not, I’ll make the economic argument that our income inequality and high poverty rate hold back the entire country’s economic potential.
* It is the responsibility of every single American to get the very best education they can, taking full advantage of every opportunity available to us.
* If we’re all going to succeed, we have to stop fighting about how to educate kids and just do it.
* America has nothing to fear but fear itself. Anyone who tells us we should be afraid—they are the ones to fear. Fear holds us back and draws us inward. America is at her shining very best when she focuses outward, full of confidence, not as a bully, but as a beacon to the world.
* The freer the trade, the better off we are. Our industries need far larger markets than this country alone can provide. India and China are far, far larger than we are, and I won’t be surprised if our population is surpassed by another country or two in my lifetime. We have been a supplier to the world, and we must continue to be if you want the economic math to stay in our favor.
* We need to make it easier to gain new skills and transition to new work as technology continues to transform industries. The stagnation we see in some sectors of the economy is almost all related to technology.
* We have to remember to celebrate our growing diversity, not fear it. No immigrants have ever changed this country for the worse. Our world grows smaller every day. We gain so much when we learn new perspectives from each other.
* We must lead when it comes to protecting our earth. We should be the world leader in renewable energy.
* Denying our partnership to our traditional allies will hurt us more than them. Our power comes from our willingness and ability to build strong bonds with other freedom-loving nations.
* We have to believe in each other. We are the ones—all 323-and-some-odd million of us—who have inherited the American dream. That dream is built by believing in each other and in our collective potential. We are all of us essential.

The Privacy Issues Don’t Either Have to Get Worked Out

Anytime I see new technology mentioned in the popular press, someone will mention this throwaway line:

Well, that’s great, but of course the privacy issues will have to get worked out.

We say that all the time. Digital cameras. iPhones. Google Glass. Facebook. Wearable technology. Massive data sharing. Every tech innovation in our lives, and some reassuring pundit trots out to say, “All the privacy issues will have to be worked out.”

At my local gym, there are signs in the family changing room that forbid you to use a cell phone in the locker room. In theory, I can get kicked out of the gym for looking at a text or an email in the locker room. That’s ridiculous, but that’s the best solution they’ve got for the problem of pervs taking secret photos of other people in the locker room.

I’ve made a number of comments to friends and on Twitter about how angry I am about the NSA data revelations….and the other revelations related to warrantless wiretapping, and all the way back to the Patriot Act.

Make no mistake: I absolutely think our government ought to be using [and developing] the most sophisticated technology to catch bad guys and keep us safe.

But not if they accidentally vacuum up a bunch of innocent Americans’ emails and phone records to do it.

There’s lengthy evidence pointing out that the government often doesn’t even follow its own oversight protocols, never mind that they’re way too lenient for me in the first place. No, I DON’T trust them with my information, and not because I’ve done anything wrong — I haven’t.

Have you ever tested positive for “residue” in a TSA security line? I have. Earlier this year, when I was flying, my water bottle [empty, thank you] tested positive for a suspicious substance. My hands and water bottle both had to get swiped with the mysterious cloths they use, analyzed in a machine. And then I got waved on through. After reading this horrific account, it seems to me that the biggest point in my favor that day in the spring was that I was a middle-aged white woman dressed in blue jeans and a t-shirt.

So no, we don’t have to work the privacy issues out. It certainly seems like we’re not going to bother, in fact. While I am pretty open about lots of my life online, there are entire volumes that aren’t online and won’t ever be. On purpose. Because Western philosophy [used to, anyway] highly regards the individual and his or her rights as an independent being. I have the right not to have the government, or a major corporation, divining and acting on those private items without my permission.

But I also don’t harbor any illusions about the reality of that. So yes, I think Edward Snowden is a hero, and I also think the NSA ought to be able to use the kind of technology he exposed — but ONLY when they can show cause to a judge who has the power to curtail abuse of power. We don’t live in that world today, and at the moment, it doesn’t look like we will anytime soon.

Scheduling New Ideas Mid-Post

Here’s a simple little blogging trick that I’ve just recently started doing by accident, but it may help you, too.

First, if you’re using WordPress but don’t have the Editorial Calendar plugin, go get it right now. It really helps organize your future posts on a blog, see what topics you’ve covered recently, and keeps you accountable about posting regularly.

Now, I’ve begun to focus more [especially over at the Creek Content website] on putting one solid idea into each post. Sometimes that means I end up with 2-3 posts where I might have had one in the past. But it also means I’ve started to be a more critical editor of my own work. I am evaluating the ideas I put together to ensure they really need to go together. And often I find that I end up with extraneous ideas in a post. They’re not bad ideas, mind you — just not necessary to make the point of that particular post.

Instead of just deleting them, I cut them out of the current post and just create a draft with the germ of the new idea, and I go ahead and schedule it on the Editorial Calendar for my site. Depending on what the idea is, I give myself more or less time to get it done, or I figure out where it fits in conjunction with other ideas I’m planning to discuss soon.

Way simple? Yes. Keeps me from accidentally deleting solid ideas that need a good home? Most definitely.

Identifying Legitimate Voices

We get into interesting discussions in my disciplines. I feel like a native in both content strategy and information architecture, yet the two very interrelated disciplines are quite different in some ways.

Content strategy is born from two directions:
* Web content creation, editing and management
* Technical communication, which is even older, but now has a significant web presence

Information architecture has roots in library science, but also very clearly in actual architecture, like buildings. Both of these roots make IA the more academically tied of my disciplines.

My journey began in 1995, when I was lucky enough to work for someone who found this whole internet thing interesting, and who was sure there were going to be good ways for organizations to communicate with their customers/members/patients online. We were building client websites by early 1996, and we ran smack into all the issues that pushed the development of these two disciplines.

So my original calling was as a practitioner of these disciplines. And as an early-years practitioner, it was clear that there were no experts. In fact, working for a small, custom publishing firm in Nashville, as soon as I started going to web conferences and talking to other professionals, I quickly realized that I knew just as much as anyone working for a big brand or agency — which is to say, not much.

But we all learned, and over the years and lots of mistakes, these two disciplines emerged. And I grew to be an expert on a number of things related to my work. Hard-earned, sweat-blood-and-tears expertise.

We call these fields “disciplines,” which is interesting in itself, to me. I wouldn’t say that they are “professions,” which to me implies that you get a degree [MD, JD, RN, etc.] or a certification by some authorizing body [CPA, law license, medical license, etc.], or both. While lots of trade associations like to promote certifications, and plenty of perfectly legitimate folks stick letters after their last name, to me, there’s still a big difference between a discipline and a profession.

We also have another interesting distinction, particularly in IA, and that’s between practitioner and academic. I’m in a master’s program in information science at the University of Tennessee [Lord willing I’ll finish in 2014!], and after practicing in my field and related ones for nearly 20 years after my undergraduate degree, I found it very interesting to plunge back into academia.

When you’re a practitioner, you can take any value you like out of academia, and I’d argue the good practitioners do, but you’re most motivated by practical results — thus the title practitioner. Someone who’s practicing. And is practical. [If they aren’t, they won’t be practicing very long.]

When you’re an academic, you don’t have the same pressure to be practical. In fact, you’re judged on an entirely different set of criteria. Did you publish enough this year? In what journals? How many books have you written? What press? Who reviewed your book? What conferences accepted your papers?

I don’t mean to sneeze on these things as a whole — but it’s awfully easy to get entirely divorced from the practical there. So I would also say, the best academics are motivated not just by the surface trappings of their profession, but by the long-term applicability of their work. The best academics stay in close touch with anyone who can use their insights in a practical way, in a symbiotic relationship that grows the discipline as a whole.

Here’s something else that happens when you don’t have a true certification or degree to practice in a field, however: We don’t have any external criteria to identify experts.

And I see a lot of us looking for ways to identify experts….who has standing to speak for us? To us? What is required of someone to stand up and say, “Listen to me!”

I’ve been weighing these things in my mind lately. I’ve done a lot of speaking the last couple of years, and it looks like I’ll do even more in 2013. And since before I started speaking regularly, I thought a lot about whether I was qualified.

My work is very deep in some parts of my disciplines, and barely surface-skimming in others. I have a hybrid of the kind of experience you’d get working at a large agency and what you’d get working for a large corporation, since my entire career has been spent at two small agencies with long-term customers, and one startup. Who’d be interested in what I had to say? Had I worked for enough major brands? Did my work still have value to the larger community? I didn’t have a master’s or doctorate in communication, information sciences, or human-computer interaction.

But I come down on the side that not only does my practical experience have value, so do my ideas that are borne out of that practice. I’ve given different kinds of talks: Some are how-to, some are motivational, some are what-ifs. A couple have been identifying a problem and demanding a solution that I don’t personally have figured out myself.

So in that light, I’m delighted to have helped with a couple of Cranky Talk workshops, the brainchild of Dan Willis and some other experienced speakers. I participated in a Cranky Talk workshop in Chicago in 2011, and “life-changing” would be an understatement. The idea is that new voices matter and have value, and we all ought to be pushing to be our best when we’re sharing ideas.

And then…Boom. There was a little Twitter chat related to this topic between Dan Klyn and Daniel Eizans yesterday, post IA Summit, [two guys I wouldn’t hesitate to call experts], and Dan shared this transcript of Richard Saul Wurman’s keynote at the 2010 IA Summit, which considers the idea of expertise…and stomps it pretty flat. [The transcript is long, but please read it. Really, really valuable.] Wurman says we’re in a world and a discipline that are changing very, very fast, so the idea that we can be “expert” is laughable.

Wow, do I love that.

At the same time, I don’t spit on those who call themselves experts [hey, I’ve done it!], or those of us who look for experts to help guide us. We’re all the blind men feeling the elephant, and it’s going to take all of us to figure it out. Part of the fun is to hear divergent voices and argue the particulars. None of us can own the discipline alone, but we each have important things to offer.

Spreadsheets: The Content Strategist’s Best Friend

I gave two presentations at Content Marketing World in September where I met big names in the business industry such as Andy Defrancesco, and one of my talks focused on planning and organizing your content work. CMW has a lot of nice sponsors, including a number of companies that make software designed to make content work easier. Or, well, that’s what these applications are supposed to do.

Here’s the thing about content technology: I’ve been in this business oh, going on 20 years now, and one of the first things you learn is that technology rarely lives up to its promise and that the best advise is at https://www.salesforce.com/products/guide/lead-gen/web-to-lead/.

In many cases, I’d argue the problem is with the promises, not the technology.

Perhaps this is just the inevitable result of my reducing my expectations over the years. But I’ve seen one too many companies assume that buying or licensing amazing technology would allow them to short-cut their staff and get even better results than people could create. And amazing technology, poorly staffed, is pretty crappy.

There are several kinds of content technology. There’s actual publishing technology, like the WordPress platform I’m writing on right now, and publishing systems that go all the way up to enterprise level. Applications like Microsoft Word serve as a creation platform for words that end up in many other formats eventually [though — strangely to me — Word often ends up being the publishing technology as well, since the Word document is often what gets distributed].

But there’s another type of technology as well, and that’s what’s got me thinking tonight, and what I talked about at CMW, as well. Content project management applications — now you see a lot of social media management applications here too, some of which also combine publishing and project management for social media — are supposed to help us get it all organized.

I’ve tried a number of these. There may be one that works for you. But inevitably, I’ve found that content project management software and applications aren’t flexible enough to meet my needs. There’s always a new application out there, and I’ll keep trying them. But when my team is handling a content project, we’re usually using a spreadsheet.

If you are collaborating, use Google Docs to share a spreadsheet where everyone can edit in real time without ruining each other’s work. If you’re working alone, use Pages, Excel, Google — whatever’s convenient for you.

Two Lessons From Sandy

First, my hopes and prayers for safety to all those on the East Coast right now. Twitter’s honestly pretty terrifying tonight as Hurricane Sandy has come ashore.

Two things I’ve seen today that bear sharing.

    1. First, if you think your industry is too boring to use social media, I refer you to the New York Metropolitan Transit Authority’s Flickr feed. The account has nearly 3000 photos — they’re taking and sharing pictures of everyday events involving the transit service. Today, those photos included ones like these:
      033Assistant Station Master Cory Harris locked the main entrance to Grand Central Terminal, at 42nd Street and Park Avenue, after the last train departed at 7:10 p.m. on Sunday, October 28. Grand Central closed in advance of Hurricane Sandy.

      09. 2 Broadway in Storm Prep

      Sandbags outside Broadway station

      You never know when the everyday will become extraordinary. Start today so you’ll be ready when it happens.

    2. Second, STOP SCHEDULING YOUR TWEETS. I used to say that scheduling was OK as long as you monitored it, and you were managing your stream in times of national emergency. But clearly, may of you aren’t actually managing your auto-tweets. Those in the US, especially the Eastern US, who are auto-tweeting about anything but Hurricane Sandy tonight look like idiots.

Thanks, rant over.

The Changing Role of the Professional Association

The design-oriented part of the web industry got itself into a kerfuffle this week when the Usability Professionals’ Association [UPA] announced it was changing its name to User Experience Professionals’ Association [UXPA] and thereby broadening its focus. I don’t really have an opinion on the organization’s rebranding; it’s one of the few associations I haven’t joined and I am not qualified to comment on its work.

But I noticed an interesting strain to the conversation emerging on Twitter in the past day or so, much of it from the leadership courses in Melbourne, industry leaders, some of whom I know personally and most of whom I respect. Their take on it was, The professional association is dead so this is just rearranging the deck chairs.

I enjoy playing iconoclast as much as the next snarky web professional, but these arguments struck me the wrong way. I’d like to explain why, but first, let me lay out my many biases.

I’m a joiner. I’m smack in the middle of Generation X, and while we may be the generation that officially oversees the demise of the bowling leagues, in my personal experience, that’s not been entirely true. I’m a member of the American Marketing Association, ASIS&T, and a number of local networking and professional organizations. In the fall of 2011 I was elected to the board of directors of the Information Architecture Institute, an international organization devoted to nurturing the practice and craft of information architecture.

But in this post, I speak only about my personal observations, and certainly not as an official representative of any of these organizations.

And what I see is this: Professional organizations that are still relevant are the ones creating a space — virtual and in-person — for people to come together and share ideas and connections. No doubt that Twitter, LinkedIn and myriad other instances of social media are disrupting this model to a degree, but I continue to see others gaining value from making personal connections and learning from each other via their associations.

I particularly see the need for professional organizations in developing the craft in newer members of the profession. Sure, we can all point to Twitter superstars who showed up and built a community and developed their expertise in full view, but that’s not a defined pathway that most people can walk. Growing and changing — for almost all of us — require a safe, secure space in which we can fail, get support from friendly colleagues, and reach for greater success than we can imagine on our own. This is where professional associations still matter. Plenty of people in all industries work in organizations where they are the only practitioner of their craft; they need a place to go for support.

Yes, associations going forward are going to look a lot different than they did to our parents’ generation, and than when I started my career 20 years ago. They have to. But please, don’t sit at the pinnacle of your career and declare them irrelevant. Too many are coming behind you, and many of them need a formal vehicle to seek your guidance and that of others who’ve already walked their walk.

The Problem With Health Literacy

At Creek Content, we spend most of our days deep in the world of health care. We work with clients in highly regulated, complex industries, and for the most part, that means we’re working in health care. A fundamental issue for the health care industry is the idea of “health literacy.”

Health literacy is the idea of not just “literacy” — which we tend to think of as the ability to read and comprehend written material — but also includes computational abilities related to health-care self-management. It means, you can find, evaluate, understand and act upon the information you need to manage your own health successfully with the help fro, the best online sites like Top Health Journal. It includes the ability to understand your doctor’s instructions, the ability to navigate on truckinsurancecomparison.co.uk the truck insurance and payment systems, and lots more. If you transport vehicles, you’ll want to go with a trucking company service, as they can haul them more cost-effectively and efficiently. These large trucks will require a skilled driver as the trucks’ maneuverability is limited due to their heavy cargo.

Health literacy is a pretty new term, and it’s been the subject of a number of research efforts in the past 20 years. This website here is a good example of this. It provides loads of medical education information that you can use to expand your knowledge which can help with doctor’s interactions. Additionally, there’s a lot of information now being created to help health-care providers better communicate with their patients, and all of that is for the good. You can have a better idea about procedures like breast augmentation and clear the myths if any.

However, as we work with clients and content [in the United States], I see a fundamental perspective flaw in the way health literacy is often discussed. Usually the message is, your patients are health illiterate, so you must a. educate them or b. dumb down your info. To an extent, I will agree to the factual truth of the first part of that assumption: the U.S. population is not as literate as we might assume. Angela Colter has done some great work not only researching how people with low levels of literacy search, but also bringing together some critical statistics that everyone in public communications should understand. If you work with the general public, about half your audience has low literacy skills.

And in the health care arena, we see a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth over these issues — understandably, to a degree. As a society, our health care knowledge has advanced rapidly in the past 100 years. Cutting-edge research is often incredibly specialized, conducted by researchers with years of post-graduate training. It’s not easy to explain that to the rest of us — the majority of the population without multiple advanced degrees in health topics.

Here’s my problem, though. A lot of the discussion in the realm of health literacy has to do with how we educate patients — how do we make them health literate. And that’s exactly wrong-headed to me. Think about this: Do car manufacturers bemoan the fact that fewer Americans than ever repair their own cars, or could even explain how an internal combustion engine works? Do you see phone companies complaining that we don’t understand the realities of managing complex data networks? Nope — they’ve just figured out how to make us as expert as we need to be to successfully use their products.

Health care is different than buying a car, but we shouldn’t need an advanced degree to manage our own health. If that’s the standard, we might as well give up now. Traditionally, the health care industry has viewed itself [with good reason] as an expert whom we should consult for the right answers. What I think the industry is learning is, that that approach isn’t very effective. If  we all want to be healthier, we have to learn how to communicate better — with each other.

Let me be clear — I think Americans should be more literate, health literate and otherwise. But that’s a systemic educational and cultural issue that I don’t think we can ask the health care industry, or patients alone, to solve. Most importantly, we’re doing patients a disservice by suggesting to each other [and sometimes to patients themselves] that they aren’t literate. That’s blaming the victim, to my mind. No one sets out to be less than fully literate.

Instead, I’d prefer to frame the health literacy issue as a health communication issue. How do we create health communications in forms that are easy for our patients [of all education levels] to understand? How do we carefully structure provider-patient interactions in a way that makes it easy for us to communicate clearly and honestly? How do we make the doctor-patient relationship feel like a partnership?

These things are happening in health care, but not nearly enough. When we figure out how to make health care information accessible to all our patients, then we’ll have done a good day’s work.