Photo Courtesy of Hanson Silos Co.
I grew up in Missouri and Illinois where grain silos are ubiquitous. No one questions their utility and value. Everyone knows they are an essential part of farming because the silos store grain that would otherwise rot in the fields. For instance, prior to their invention, harvested corn was left in long trenches where dampness often resulted in spoilage.
Use of silos goes back some eight centuries. Today, silos are used for a wide variety of purposes including storage of coal, cement, food products, woodchips, etc. There are different kinds of silos such as tower silos, bag silos and bunker silos. Each has its advantages and disadvantages.
Grain silos protect crops on their way to market and thus yield billions of dollars in income that would otherwise be lost for farmers. Silo construction is a high art. They must be constructed to withstand considerable pressure from the contents stored inside, as well as the high winds, storms and other weather that buffet them from the outside.
A code word
In The United Methodist Church, though, few words are used more contemptuously than “silo.” It has become a derogative often uttered in a sneering manner. “Silo” is a code word to denote one’s status as a good guy courageously standing up against the big, bad general agencies of the denomination. The user of the word “silo” is certain to win approving, knowing nods, smiles and winks from his/her audience. Therefore, it is being employed with ever-increasing frequency.
In an article titled, “Features of a Functional Organization Structure,” Dana Griffin writes:
A functional organization analyzes the strengths and weaknesses of each member, groups them into categories and assigns them to tasks that best utilize their skills. Jobs that perform a similar function are grouped in functional areas, sometimes referred to as functional silos because they are kept separate from other areas. Specialized jobs within each basic functional silo are centralized and clustered to form departments. Each functional area contains employees with varied skills that are further grouped based on specialization and put in separate units or departments.
Soon after I became general secretary at the General Board of Church & Society, a group of colleagues asked that all staff members participate in every decision of the agency. How, I asked, would anyone ever get anything done if everyone was constantly meeting about everything?
Each person is hired to carry out a particular ministry task. Order has to be brought out of the chaos for the ministry to progress.
Somehow, the notion has arisen that when the general agencies are undertaking the ministries assigned to them by General Conference, this denomination’s highest policy-setting body, then by definition they are working in silos that are overlapping, duplicative and antagonistic. While there are such examples, the fact is that the norm is agencies working in a complementary, supportive and positive manner. The “silos” groupthink has taken hold, however, to the extent that this reality is simply being overlooked.
Griffin goes on to write:
As a company gets larger, some of the positives of functional organizations become negatives. Since decisions travel through the chain of command, the process becomes bureaucratic, and information and decisions move slowly. Functional grouping can result in a narrowed overall perspective. Because of communication and decision-making issues, the functional organization is slow to adapt to environmental changes.
Friends, if we are going to be honest with one another, let’s admit that The United Methodist Church doesn’t have silos only at the general church level. We have more than 40,000 silos sprinkled across Africa, Europe, the Philippines and the United States.
A holistic solution to our denomination’s organizational challenge will not be found simply in rearranging general agencies. Ripping down our silos in a haphazard manner simply because it has become cliché to deride their value will result in spoilage of much of our denomination’s most effective ministry.
Jim Winkler is the general secretary of the United Methodist General Board of Church and Society in Washington, DC. He retires this year.