“Polymorphous” — having, assuming or passing through many and varied forms or shapes
“Pedagogic” — pertaining to teaching, instruction or instructional method
“Perversity” — willful contrariness; turning from the acceptable standard or expectation
Okay, now that definitions are out of the way, let’s jump in. In what ways is the title of this piece an apt description of the current state of The United Methodist Church? In one respect, this is just a fancy way of saying we are all over the map — on just about everything. I another respect, it describes our inability to say who we are and what are our defining and guiding values. Also, it describes our penchant for focusing on division over unity, squabbles over harmony, petty differences over substantive similarities, and peevishness over civility and respect. It explains why in a reality of enormous gifts, talents, knowledge, skills, passions, competencies, resources, assets, opportunities and faith our key leadership (and the counselors, consultants, and hired “experts” who whisper in their ears) chooses instead to focus on loss, death, decay, liabilities, weaknesses, looming catastrophe and death tsunami (have you noticed how offensive and repulsive I find “death tsunami” to be? Gotta love the lack of faith in people who push that one!) We are a church of mixed messages, inexact meanings, misguided metaphors, and miasmic muzzie-headedness. No wonder we find it hard to attract new people…
When we were challenged at the Quadrennial Training in Nashville to identify an adaptive challenge for our conference, I found myself in a distinct minority. As conference after conference talked about lack of resources, inability to draw young people, poor leadership, imminent death and defeat, and loss of connectional commitment, I raised up “need for theological engagement and directed conversation on the authority of scripture.” No one from Wisconsin Conference was a bit surprised this came from me — they’re used to it by now — but leaders from other conferences reacted with a glazed deer-in-the-headlights look. One said, “what good could that possibly do,” while another commented, “we don’t have time to waste on something like that.” A bishop pushed back that “we wouldn’t come to an easy answer” (the definition of an adaptive challenge, by the way…), and a former-colleague from Nashville explained, “those of us who respect the authority of scripture are at the mercy of those people (italics mine) who make a mockery of it (blaming people rather than the system — another clear sign that this indeed is an adaptive challenge).
The reason I raised it is because it pushes us below the surface to the deeper issues of our shared values, core sense of identity, understanding of purpose, and a vision that helps us prioritize our gifts and assets for disciple-formation and world-transformation. This is not a small thing, and the fact that we have allowed division, diffusion, and dispersion of our connectional heart to define us may be the single greatest challenge to our survival. (But this is just me — I got virtually no one else to agree with me, so what do I know…?) I say again, and will keep saying it as long as I can: we cannot answer the questions of how we should be structured and what is the best leadership for our denomination until we have clearly and collaboratively answered the questions “who are we in the 21st century?” and “what are we trying to accomplish (what are the outcomes God calls us to produce?”
I know that many leaders in our denomination are frustrated with my opinion that we are on the wrong track with <insert quick-fix here>. More than one has accused me of arrogance — of thinking I am smarter than everyone else. My apologies for arrogance — not my intention. But my experience tells me, when people don’t know what to do, they try a little of everything. This polymorphous approach can be interesting, fun, exciting and popular, but rarely is it effective. At a time when we need focus, we get a buckshot approach. In a time demanding corporate concentration we get organizational ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder). When we need complex contextual analysis, we get simplistic “best practices”. Instead of systems thinkers we get prescriptive hucksters selling their pre-packaged, worn-out panaceas. When we need to focus on “better,” we are encouraged to focus on “more.” As it becomes more imperative to take our time and dig down for the root causes, the symptoms frighten us into doing something NOW. Competing pedagogues tell us what we really out to be doing and how we really ought to be doing it, but they are marketers, cultural consultants and secular specialists, not spiritual leaders and visionary Methodists. Why are we looking so hard for someone else to tell us who to be and what to do? Sadly, it is because we don’t have faith in ourselves to be the answer to our own problems — and ultimately, we don’t have faith in God that God is active within us to will and to work for God’s good pleasure (Philippians 2:13).
What would a system-wide, global engagement on the authority of scripture look like? Well, how we do it is the least of our worries. It will be messy and adversarial. It will reveal just how well the Holy Spirit is ruling in our hearts, lives, congregations, conferences, and countries. It will be a massive test of our faith. It will challenge our values. It will bring to surface the best in us and the worst in us. It will require courage, trust, compassion, honesty, integrity, accountability and humility. It will force us to put up or shut up. It will be a witness to the world of what we think it means to be Christian — and our actions will speak much louder than our words. It will draw a line in the sand that only those with confidence in their faith, who have given control over to God, will be able to cross. It will be the ultimate “reset button” that will push us to our default settings and get us on the same page so that we can be for the 21st century what the earlier movements were to the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries. Do we have the guts? I would like to think we do, but when I look at the current institutional preservation initiatives, I have my doubts.