‘Untied’ Methodism: Ten Turnings

‘Untied’ Methodism: Ten Turnings

The wedding was to be an oppulent affair. No detail overlooked. Expensive floral boquets adorned every corner of the sanctuary. The string quartet rehearsing, women attendents doning gorgeous gowns and men were in tuxedos, all in anticipation as a stretch limo waited at the door to parade the bride and groom to a reception for hundreds following the wedding. As pastor, I observed it all with embarrassment. These were fine young people; I liked and prayed for them. This event was detailed in bridal magazines as one costing hundreds-of-thousands-of-dollars! This, at a time when our congregation was giving considerable attention, energy and resources to aid the homeless and hungry around us. What witness did this extravagence offer?

Preparing to preside, heavy hearted, I put the robe over my shoulders and picked up the order of service. Immediately, my sadness melted; I began to laugh. This perfectly planned wedding would be remembered, not so much for the wealth displayed but for a typo atop the custom-printed bulletin. There it was on the second line, the church was identified as “The First Untied Methodist Church.” Amid all the preparations, the printer and spell-check had missed it. The church was not named the “First United Methodist,” but rather indellibly printed were the words “First Untied Methodist.” We were UNTIED, and at a wedding!

Steve Harper recently wrote that the “The Future of the United Methodist Church is Now.” The denomination’s 2020 General Conference (an event scheduled for every four years) has now been delayed for the third time due to the COVID pandemic. It will now be convened in 2024. In response, a break-away group, identifying itself as “traditionalist,” indicated they can “wait no longer.” They are forming a new and seperate denomination, the Global Methodist Church to be initiated in May 2022. Our denominational un-tiedness is on full display. Dr. Harper advises that for the large majority who do not exit, the phrase “United Methodist” should be understood as a verb. He suggests to be about intentionally and actively forging a renewed identity. To be passive, he writes, is for “congregations to be impotent and irrelevant.”

It is time to move from being “untied” to being “united” again. Earlier Methodists and Evangelical United Brethren, shaped by the likes of the Wesley brothers, Philip Otterbien, Jacob Albright, Barbara Heck, E. Stanley Jones and Georgia Harkness, James Thomas, Leontyne Kelly each pointed to God’s redemptive work as resource. Even so; the doors opening to the future require new eyes to see the ways forward. Isaiah 43 comes to mind — behold, God is doing a new thing. The New Testament is filled with the call to “turn around” (metanoia) and walk a renewed and ever-renewing path.

Emerging from my observations as pastor and seminary administrator, and thinking of United Methodism as a verb, I offer here ten turnings for a renewal of identity and mission for United Methodists:

  1. Repentance, not Reactivity: Let us repent of the damage done to the “other.” Our healthiest future will involve repentence. I do not suggest this is easy, or obvious, or perfectly done, or that we should give up core beliefs/commitments/actions, or our welcome of LGBTQ+ persons throughout our church. However, we can give up the practice of “talking about” rather than “talking with” one another. We have been too quick to react and too slow to repent. Repentance takes a lifetime, reactivity is a quick fix, that in my experience doesn’t work and damages more than it heals. My dear friend, Walter Wangerin, Jr., died last summer. Watching the warfare inside of our Untied Methodist Church these days, I recall what Walt shared with me on more than one occassion. Walt left his beloved Missouri Synod Lutheran ancestry, the denomination of his birth, early in his pastoral career to join another Lutheran body. He would remind me that “schism in the body of Christ was a mark of sinfulness on all sides.”
  2. Resurrection, not Rebuilding: This is God’s work. We are privileged to join. Jesus spoke of those who lose their life “for my sake” might find it. Much energy has been spent and is being spent on trying to “save the denominaton.” As a wise pastor-friend of mine once observed, “People don’t get burned out, It’s mostly that they were committed to the wrong thing in the first place.” Saving a denomination has left us in a place where the melodrama obscures God’s first purpose — bringing life and hope to the world. It is time to let the many assumptions about power, place and authority die and trust our future in God’s hands. Prayer more than plan, laughter more than grievance, humility shaped by community and friendship more than caucus will be signs of resurrection. In these years it may be more important to “give up” rather than “gain up” in restructuring. At the center of our story is death and resurrection. Yet, it is the thing that scares us most of all.  We seem not to believe that resurrection doesn’t come without a death.
  3. Welcome, not Exclusion: Let us unite in acting as a loving community with the poor, the immigrant, the disenfranchised. Our denominational squabbles have turned us inward, unable to accept the interruptions of the Spirit at work at our doorsteps. Let us turn to know the names of our neighbors and their stories, not as those who we seek to fix but rather the others with whom we share, together, the transforming love of Christ.
  4. Heart Religion, not Statute: At our best we are a people who value Christian Experience, a people who practice a faith that is confirmed by a tranformed heart and mind (a metanoia) that is sustained and flourishes by living in loving relationship with other believers. Rather than more rules to keep things as they were, we might look to less standing still and more turning to live in loving relationships with other believers. The Shaker hymn “Tis a Gift to Be Simple” speaks of “turning, turning, till we come round right.”
  5. Ecumenical, not Faith Enclave: Let us turn to truly be a global and ecumenical church, not in words but in practice. Let us see the beauty all around in the practice of grass-roots ecumenism and interfaith sharing. Let’s do this, moving past the often thinly veiled paternalism and colonialism that has shaped much of our talk and action about “mission.” This will involve the essential task of learning from those in other places and who seek to follow Christ in different ways.
  6. Economy of Love, not the Marketing of Scarcity: Let us turn from, and give up, the “business facade and facination” that has distorted our core Christian identity and purpose. Too much time, energy, and resources have been directed to “best practice” models from business or from scarcity models designed to hoard resources. There are certainly lessons to draw from business and commerce, but where is our witness to “faith, hope and charity?” Strategies and designs that turn congregations into branch offices have done real damage. Rather than seeing God’s people gathered in unique communities, with distinctive gifts, expensive programs have been established that, while well-meaning, in too many places are counter-productive. Pastors are bombarded with the message that unless they do it like corporate America, or a megachurch somewhere, they are failing. They are told by some authority unfamilar with the ministry context, or the gifts of the people they know, how to “be fruitful.” (There are important parallel lessons coming from well-intended but ultimately destructive models in modern agriculture whose full damage to our environment and food resources is only now becoming apparent.)
  7. Encourage Positive Deviance, not Scaleable Formulas: Let us celebrate the overlooked places, sometimes small or nontraditonal, where ministry results in changed lives, new ways of being church, and witness that is otherwise overlooked. Such places of “positive deviance” offer dozens of exciting examples of witness in finding community with homeless persons, in caring for God’s creation, in welcoming the immigrant, in giving witness in the corporate board room, in demonstrating our opposition to war and violence in all forms. Let these be the ministries we seek to replicate, more than a mega-church or a drive-in restaurant chain.
  8. Watching Over in Love, not with Sanction: Let us turn to focus again on building and sustaining small group relationships and the practice of “watching over one another in love.” As my friend Michael Mather puts it, “If we watched over one another in love, we would not keep missing the abundant acts of grace, charity, and encouragement that happen in all of our churches and that would pull our heart and attention to somewhere that would certainly please God.” Whether called “class meeting” or “covenant discipleship” or any other name, we United Methodists have a remarkable tradition here.
  9. Horizontal, rather than Vertical: Let the connection be rewoven — horizontally. This could model for the world a different way of being community, a way that has been lost. This will involve discovering again and turning toward the value of circuits, of districts, subdistricts, relationships with and among our schools, colleges, seminaries, hospitals and other institutions. It would change what we counted and valued. General Boards and Agencies (whichever ones remain) should turn toward acting as weavers and reweavers of connections, turning from perceiving themselves as the center of action and returning to the earlier practice of assisting others in flourishing and being sustainable. The models await development and our moving from the heavily top-down and bureaucratic approaches of the past generation. Too many laypersons were placed on the sidelines as conferences merged, institutions drifted away from positive connections with the wider church. More attention to our colleges and universities is overdue. Our seminaries too need to think horizontally. Some will need to merge, some should close or discover another mission. All should become more cooperative. In preparing pastors, United Methodist theological students should spend at least one year in a United Methodist seminary as a part of this reweaving and building relationships for mission.
  10. Democratic doorkeepers, not Border Guards. Perhaps we need to stop merging conferences and allow for core polity and mission structures that are smaller, more agile and more adaptable. Perhaps these units might be the size of a couple of districts today with an elected presiding elder or table of leadership. Focus could be on the social and cultural ecology of each place – urban, suburban or rural. Perhaps there would be no bishops or superintendents at all, as is the case in other Methodist bodies. Or, if we continue in the episcopal format, explore a term limited episcopacy rather than life-episcopacy. Perhaps all appointments beyond the local church should also be expected to serve in a local congregation as well as in a non-congregational setting.

These, then, are Ten Turnings that might be considered as we move from being the Un-tied church. They are, in the Protestant tradition, a call to be a people who are Forever Reforming (Semper Reformanda), or as the Methodist Bicentennial motto in the United States put it “Forever Beginning.”

In recent days there has been much talk about a conspiracy around the postponing of the General Conference, yet again. It is charged that General Conference 2020 is being further delayed for some political advantage and suggested that those “moderates” and “progressives” who plan to stay in the United Methodist church, have successfully plotted to postpone any the General Conference until 2024, as a way to undercut the plans of the “traditionalists.” I laugh at such notions. Having spent much of my life around the corridors of authority in the denomination, I know that our church leaders have problems organizing a three float parade! Something as dramatic as a power play to change the General Conference dates three times, for a power advantage, is as likely as a Southern Baptist giving up immersion. Further, the COVID pandemic that shut down the gathering of persons from around the world, leving a singnificant minority unable to obtain visas, is not a conspiracy of anyone’s planning.

Let’s face it, we live and serve in an anacronistic institution. It is one we don’t know how to handle. We need let go of the foolish conspiracy thinking that has marked too much of our brokenness, and for too long, and which is, let me say it again – sinful.

My friend Noah was a Trappist monk who two decades after the changes in the Roman Catholic Church from Vatican II, shared with me an insight about his disappointment that there was not more renewal in denominational practices, structure and mission. Speaking of his sadness that positive changes were painfully slow to come, Noah said, “At the monestary, we changed our dress, our leadership patterns, and the arrangement of our furniture in the chapel. We changed our music, our liturgy, and our educational curriculum.” He paused and smiling said, “We tried changing everything… but our hearts.”

California-Pacific Annual Conference worship, June 2019

There is much in our United Methodist tradition(s) that is of great value… and much that need be changed. I look and chuckle to see the multiple ways folks are trying to arrive at perfection, like the effort at that wedding service where I presided so many years ago. In remembering, I begin to laugh out loud. We who call United Methodism home are indeed more UN-TIED than we are UNITED. There are now, and will be, many plans as to how the future should be approached. We are indeed a verb — but too often in the passive tense. And knowing this, and knowing human nature, I chuckle. As God’s church, perhaps we can find ways whereby our hearts might be changed and not just our structures and ways of sanctioning. Perhaps these “Ten Turnings” offer a few ideas, hunches really, as to where we can discover the God already at work among us.

This Season of Dividing

This Season of Our Dividing

I am often slow to put my deepest convictions into words. Who knew? Folks who know me as a preacher will be surprised to hear this. Even so, finding the right word or words sometimes comes slowly. Then, I am helped when I read another who touches the heart of a matter better than I could.

It has been over two years. I was at a table with folks discussing the future of the United Methodist Church and its splintering into several pieces — some traditional, some progressive and some seeking inclusion of all. I recall being surprised when persons spoke of the need for what they referred to as an “amicable divorce.” They proposed separation, into parts where folks would no longer quarrel and could be in a safe theological home place. Such talk was not new — it was the many who were accepting this season of division that surprised me. They were ready to welcome the schism-movin-company to partial out the pieces of ministry developed over decades.

I wanted to say, “Hey, this is moving in precisely the wrong direction. We ought to be joining with other Christians, not dividing among ourselves.” I was only able to say, “I profoundly disagree.” I was unable to share my deepest conviction that supporting such brokenness in our body was sinful. Such words seemed too harsh and judgemental. I recalled a dear Lutheran friend who amidst the splintering of the Missouri Synod thirty years ago, said simply, “We are, on all sides, sinful.” Okay, I am sometimes a coward — and a sinful one at that! Many United Methodists over the past two years have offered plans for what is called “an amicable separation.” Such talk has gone on for a long time. But now, there are proposals, protocols and new denominations planned. For followers of Jesus to be comfortable with this seems to me to be nonsensical. Still, I didn’t have the words, until I came across a short essay by Eugene Peterson entitled “Comfort Zones” (“Called to Community,” p. 278-280, Plough Publishers, 2016).

Peterson give me language when he wrote: “Sectarianism is a common problem in Christian Community… Sectarianism is to the community what heresy is to theology, a willful removal of a part from the whole. The part is, of course, good — a work of God. But apart from the whole it is out of context and therefore diminished, disengaged from what it needs from the whole and from what the rest of the whole needs from it. We wouldn’t tolerate someone marketing a Bible with some famous preacher’s five favorite books selected from the complete sixty-six and bound in fine leather. We wouldn’t put up with an art dealer cutting up a large Rembrandt canvas into two inch squares and selling them off nicely framed. So why do we so often positively delight and celebrate the dividing up of the Jesus community into contentious and competitive groups? And why does Paul’s rhetorical question, “Has Christ been divided?” (I Cor. 1:13) continue to be ignored century after century after century?”…

There is more as Peterson points to the “selfism” that underlies such divisions. He reminds us “The birthing of the Jesus community on the Day of Pentecost was an implicit but emphatic repudiation and then reversal of Babel sectarianism.” As Peterson starkly puts it “sects are termites in the Father’s house.

Such seasons of dividing are a perpetual threat to Christian community. Just as the Methodist Church divided over slavery in 1844 only to be clumsily reconfigured a century and more later, I am rather certain that one day this season of dividing will pass, and after a time, there will be a Season of Reuniting. I may not live to see it, but believe in the Resurrection.

Sail On Ship of Zion

Jeremy Smith offers this insightful proposal for United Methodism as it faces possible schism: http://hackingchristianity.net/2019/10/will-the-general-church-advocate-for-big-boat-methodism-or-scuttle-the-fleet.html.

The Model of Mahayana Methodism

My Response: Well said, Jeremy. Your suggestions are good ones. I must say that I am surprised at how many seem to want to rush to the exits without giving more thought to what this means theologically. What is their biblical/theological understanding of the church? They rush without even considering unintended consequences. We live in a time, in our world, when the perfect becomes, for too many, the enemy of the good. Perhaps “big boat” is preferable to “big tent.” It is certainly an image with better theological symbolism (at least to my ears).

There are many contributors to our current dilemma. You identify ways General Boards and Agencies might better engage. Yes, good on the Women’s Division. And, yes our boards and agencies can improve — but it is not just in these places where more constructive initiatives are needed. A part of our challenge comes from the ecclesial and annual conference strategists over recent decades, who have through their various programs and emphases, encouraged the establishment of a flotilla of smaller vessels — that is exclusive attention to congregations.

This congregationalism was reinforced by “congregational development” where “specialists” took up many conference and general church resources (think Path One in the general church). Or look at many annual conferences where the lion’s share of program budget, for years, has been spent on experts who focus solely on starting new congregations or revitalizing older ones, and these modeled more on independent baptist theology and strategies. Congregations can and must be renewed and new ones started; still the strategies seem ignorant of historic Methodist resources. These “start ups” or “renewals” are done in ways that move us away from a sense of common mission and connection.

I recall one interview with a pastor of a strong congregation in my state who, when I asked about the participation of his congregation in UMCOR, GBGM or even annual conference efforts, said he thought his congregation would be better served by joining the mission efforts of one of the UM congregations in another city that did “really neat” mission trips. (His congregation had a long history of support for wider denominational initiatives). That “other UM congregation” with the “neat mission trips” has paid almost nothing in denominational askings over recent decades. It does a re-baptizing of members and is held up as an example for the conference of how “it should be done.” And one looks in vain on the website of this “other UM congregation” for any mention of United Methodist affiliation. This anxiety-over-decline-followed-up-by-congregationalist-strategies has gone on for decades with no accountability from conference leadership… no call for connection or even a basic Wesleyan theological basis. So, many other small boats have been launched that claim no United Methodist identity; however, now they stand in line asking for a share of the accumulated resources of the general church.

I watch in recent months as our colleges and universities (and seminaries) move to disaffiliate or distance themselves from the denomination and wonder why GBHEM, through the University Senate or another resource, isn’t moving to offer them alternative positive responses as part of the General Church’s educational efforts.

The fact that anyone would suggests there is little worth saving the general church only emphasizes how poorly the truth of who we have been/are/and/canbe is understood. It dismisses our broad, inclusive witness. I say “Sail On Ship of Zion.”