Taking It All Too Seriously

This afternoon (May 5) I received an email that really got my gears grinding.  It was a personal note from someone of position and influence in The United Methodist Church.  I respect the opinion.  But three things were said in the missive that I can’t let go of.  And so I will try to process my feelings here.

The subject is my recent reflections on The UMC, particularly as it relates to discipleship and our denominational marketing efforts.  What follows are the three quotes from the email that I am wresting with:

  1. “You are taking all this too seriously.  The church can’t make such stringent demands on people’s time.”
  2. “It is naive to think that this (ReThink Church) or any other promotional advertising campaign is going to make that much difference.  It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it.”
  3. “Vision is all about saying what ought to be, not what really is.  We need to preach a good message, no matter what we actually are.”

Taking It Too Seriously

How seriously is too seriously when we are talking about being the body of Christ?  How is it possible to expect too much of people who say they want to commit their lives to Christ?  Are “reasonable” expectations “appropriate” expectations?  Is it enough to hope the church might be good, or should we be seeking to make the church great?  What part of this am I not getting?  If we aren’t going to take it seriously, why bother doing it at all?  I cannot quite fathom how a leader in our denomination can advise someone not to take seriously the work we do as the church.  If this isn’t the most important thing in all the world to do, we ought not be doing it.

 Naive To Think We Can Make a Difference

Half the people accuse me of being too cynical while the other half say I am too idealistic and naive.  Funny how nobody but me thinks I’m a realist.  If we don’t think all this marketing work is going to make a difference, why are we spending millions of dollars, committing thousands of human resource hours, and wasting the creative efforts of artists, graphic designers, and videographers to do it?  I gotta believe we can make a huge difference on one of the bishops initiatives if we channelled all this funding in one of their directions.  I understand that successful advertising is measured in increments of 2-3 percentage points, but I’m not convinced that’s good enough when it comes to making disciples.  If we are not seeing significant benefits, I believe we shouldn’t do it.  We should do something else.  Is it naive to expect our work to transform the world?  If so, we need to edit our mission again, otherwise we’re not simply naive, we’re liars.

Vision Is About What Could Be, Not About What Is

True, to a degree.  A vision is what could, should, and with faithful commitment, will be.  It should reflect the highest truth — the truth that is emerging by God’s grace and guidance.  But vision should be our guiding light, not our advertised product.  As we live into our vision, we create what could be, by transforming what is.  To just say what we want people to believe about us is wishful thinking.  And to make it sound like the vision is our current reality is short-sighted, dishonest, and does more damage than good.  If we keep telling the world we are something we’re not, we will destroy what limited credibility we have left.  We need a vision that moves us to a new place.  If we move with integrity, that will be the very best advertising we could hope for to show the world we’re worth joining.

good-to-great-social-sectors1This whole conversation brings to mind the excellent book by Jim Collins, Good to Great (and the monograph on Good to Great and the Social Sectors).  This book, while a little overly-prescriptive, is based in a foundational premise that there is a huge difference between a good organization and a great organization.  It breaks my heart that we spend so much time trying to figure out how to be good, when our mission, our faith, our tradition, and our God call us to be great.  I want to be part of a great church.  And to do that, I think we all need to take it pretty seriously.

16 replies

  1. Dan –

    We SHOULD set high standards for ourselves; this should be hard work; we SHOULD make high demands on peoples’ time. But what happens when I don’t live up to the standards? (That’s not a rhetorical question.) I believe we’re called to live differently and to give our lives over- but I’m not always very good at it. That’s a real struggle for me. Why can’t we set high standards – and say them out loud and proudly – but have grace for those who don’t always meet them?

    I’m going to disagree with you (slightly) on the second point. No advertising or PR campaign can possibly live up to the standards we should set for ourselves. But of the thousands of people who experience the campaign, if only a few ultimately know how to live as disciples – then it’s worth it. The problem is that we confuse our PR campaigns with who we ARE. No campaign can accurately represent the depth by which we’re called to live. It’s just not possible. Even the BEST campaign can only expose people to a tiny slice of what we’re really about. Our best hope is that we don’t unintentionally deceive or mislead someone! A campaign just gets them in the door. It’s up to the congregation to do all the heavy lifting. There’s nothing wrong with that.

    We get so wrapped up in making sure that our messages say just the right thing – that we get every theological nuance just right – that we forget most people don’t give a flip about our denomination. They just want to figure out their lives.

    Vision: Sometimes I think we’re all hat and no cattle. We talk as if vision IS the thing we’re supposed to be doing. “…If we just had the right vision the church would be fixed and people would flock to us.” What’s missing is execution….getting off our duff and doing the hard work. Not waiting until it’s perfect. We get way too wrapped up in words – so wrapped up that we become irrelevant to the great majority of people on this planet.

    • Hi, Steve,

      Nice to know you’re keeping an eye on me. High standards and grace need not be mutually exclusive. As it is, too many people are experiencing low standards and rigid judgment. There is virtually no other endeavor I can think of where excellence does not require discipline and high expectations. Athletics, art, drama, musical performance, cuisine — etc., if you want to be good, you’ve got to work and make sacrifices. For me, a constant question is — does Jesus call us to be on the field (or on the stage, or in the kitchen, etc.) or in the stands (audience, dining room — pick your metaphor…) When United Methodism made discipleship our mission, it (for me, anyway) answered the question. Sure, everyone is going to be at a different level of performance — but everyone should be seriously working to improve. And I think this is serious work.

      I have no problem with allowing a marketing campaign to be what it is and to produce what it can. I also believe in truth in advertising and in customer confidence. My work has given me more than ample evidence that more people are turned off by what we do than are turned on. If it were merely a matter of a few more people becoming active disciples (and I’m sorry, but I don’t think that’s what’s being advertised. Church membership is what is hawked) that would be fine. The people I have talked to who feel the UMC is misrepresenting itself are turned off to the extent that they give up on church altogether. Confirming the worst fears people have is not a great unintended consequence of a recruitment emphasis.

      As to vision, I don’t think it’s about the “right” vision, but about a compelling vision of what a community of people can become. Language is powerful. The early ads never said that “open” was what we were striving for. It was very clearly stated that “open” was a characteristic and quality of the people called United Methodist. Visions of bigger churches with more people aren’t adequate reflections of disciples transforming the world. We have yet to seriously explore what a “transformed world” might be like. Perhaps this is where our vision might be more relevant to the great majority.

      I don’t think there is any intention to deceive. I’ve worked with too many people involved, and they are good, loving, conscientious people. But perception is important, and when the feedback received says that people feel we are misrepresenting ourselves and that our slogans are misleading, I really think we need to take this seriously and take another look at what we’re putting out there.

  2. Thank you. The “filter” I shall continue to use in trying to understand statements by our official Methodists leaders is the alignment of those statements with the process by which we go about our mission, such process described by paragraph 122, which though I do not comprehend it sufficiently I still believe it can stand alone in guiding us. When I put what I heard from the Maxie Dunnam video and some of the ensuing comments and some other videos and statements by other official leaders next to paragraph 122, I could not make a connection that would help me understand how to put paragraph 122 into operation. To the extent that any official leader makes a statement out of alignment with our process or that even in what I am writing here as a non-leader is also out of alignment, this is not a good thing. Every organization with which I have worked that lost touch with the way to accomplish its mission has failed. Not one had a faulty mission; they seemed unable to operate in a way to accomplish that mission. With gratitude,larry

  3. In a series of posts around a video by Maxie Dunnam, I became confused about paragraph 122. This may be off today’s theme, but I ask for your guidance. Is paragraph 122 a generalized concept as indicated below? Is it unable to stand alone in guiding us? Must I also understand many other parts of the Book of Discipline to test whether paragraph 122 has been “trumped” or modified? One way to learn is try to understand what has been written and respond to that new understanding. I am struggling with this a bit. One person said that I was too process oriented and that I should just focus on the result. That left me even more confused as I thought paragraph 122 was about process. Your post Methodist to the Core continues to be very helpful. Peace,larry PS I had assumed other parts of the Discipline help us understand paragraph 122 but not in a way that limits the paragraph.

    Here is one of my posts to the video, followed by a response:

    In learning about putting paragraph 122 into operation, it seems that I will have to pay close attention to other parts of the Book of Discipline which may “trump” or significantly affect paragraph 122. It may be that paragraph 122 needs to be amended to indicate that other parts of the Book of Discipline have a significant impact on shaping the meaning of paragraph 122. Perhaps there is something already written which gives guidance for those advocating for putting into operation paragraph 122. If anyone reading this post can suggest such a contribution, I would appreciate it. With gratitude,larry

    The response:

    “there are many things in the discipline that affect other parts, and our understanding of how certain generalized concepts like 122 are implemented, because even as paragraphs 122 states we are to be making disciples, and by definition a disciple is one who acknowledges and repents of their sins and seeks to conform their life to Christ’s life. I cannot imagine a disciple who comes to the teacher with the list of things they will and will not change in their lives in order to be the teacher’s student. That model subjects the teacher to the student and in the end shapes the teacher in the image of the would be disciple.”

    • Larry, you are bringing into focus a battle the GBOD fought for over a decade before the new leadership abandoned it altogether: a mission, core process, or primary task (all variations on the same thing) defines the purpose of an organization and everything should align to it. If it does not align, it should receive a low priority (or should not be done at all). The problem is that our Book of Discipline is more of a patchwork quilt than a unified whole. Paragraphs and edits are added, subtracted, modified, and revised every four years. In the past decade, wordsmithing and political correctness have made the whole thing even more “fuzzy.” Paragraph 122 is very clear that we have a fourfold process of reaching and receiving, connecting people to God, nurturing and strengthening people in the Christian faith, and equip and send them forth to live transformed and transforming lives in the world. The “fifth wheel” is that the process is regenerative, and it is the work of every Methodist, wherever they are in their personal spiritual maturing and formation to reach out to others to draw them into the discipling process. The latitude of interpretation is still very broad. Does this mean that we only accept who we approve of or all God’s people? Does it mean that only those who cease from sin can remain or normal human beings in all their weakness? Does it mean we judge people on a standard of revised twentieth-century behaviors or we accept that all people need God and that the best way to help them is to include them in community. My bias here is clear. I believe in the open-ended grace of Amendment 1 and am deeply offended by Maxie Dunnam and the others who believe our purpose is to judge and exclude rather than extend grace and love.

  4. Good for you! A voice crying in the wilderness. I am sure that the scribes and Pharisees simply hate hearing from you, but the people? We’re starving for someone like you. It is no wonder the clones at the top of the GBOD axed you. I bet you scared the out of them! And I hope you’re waking some people up.

    I went to a conference on starting new congregations, and sat through a series of redundant hype about how important the UMC is and how we need to make sure the UMC is everywhere and that our future depends on getting new, young people to “join” and that if we launch hundreds of new congregations it will show people how faithful and right we are, etc. It made me embarrassed — we talked about the church constantly, but not much was said about God’s will or Jesus Christ except to justify our expansion plans. Have we lost our minds?

    In the past two weeks you have written a half dozen articles that should be required reading for all our pastors and for all students in seminary. You have called the question on how serious we are about discipleship, our mission and core process, our sense of identity and purpose, our vision for the church in the near and distant future, our styles and models of leadership, our ability to change, and our commitment to excellence. And the only response you get from our “official” leaders is “stop taking this stuff too seriously.” Jesus wept!!!

  5. Hey Doreto!!!

    Can’t say that I am surprised by the reaction. This is how LifeChurch.TV situations happen.(Church’s that decide that connection has no advantage to the mission of discipleship) They begin with leaders who don’t take the mission as seriously as they ought to. This happens in all of lines of work it is not specific only to the UMC. The problem is that it keeps talented pastors, member, and staff from doing breakthrough work.

    I have had the opportunity to do some awesome ministry! Unfortunately all of the EFFECTIVE ministry geared toward discipleship has been done outside of the connection. I had to be part of organizations that had a missional focus with a action focused attitude.

    The comments you received are similar to comments I have received from others within the connection. There isn’t a true focus by the Bishops right now on much of anything other than mosquito nets. This is just one more thing. I guess the question is do we the active laity in the field just ignore this and go on with whatever we have been doing? Or do we once again drop everything and go down this path again? Right now in my blogging activities I will incorporate some of the media. Unless directed by my pastor though I am probably going to continue to do ministry the way I have since starting the blog.

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