‘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:
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
- 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.
- 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.)
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.”
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.