Shape Ball Spirituality

shapesorterWho hasn’t seen a shape-sorter ball for infants and toddlers?  From the earliest days of our cognitive development, we learn to identify, differentiate, associate, and categorize.  It is so much fun to watch the joy of a child slipping the appropriate shape through the proper slot.  It obviously imprints strongly on the human psyche… because we try to do the same thing with people later in life.  Slipping people into “slots” is a normal and regular activity in this creature we call church.

We slide people into leadership slots — filling rosters of boards, committees, councils, and teams — to make sure we have the human resources to keep our programs and ministries running smooth.  However, in many cases we treat all the different shapes and sizes of Christian disciples as interchangeable — forcing them to fit our slots, rather than bothering to match our need to their shape.  Often, this is unintentional.  We start with our systems and structures in place and we feed people through the system like meat through a meat-grinder — many cuts go in, but what comes out is all ground beef.

This one-size-fits-all mentality extends beyond the local congregation to the annual conference in United Methodism.  A number of seminarians and young clergy in the ordination process talk about “jumping through the hoops,” “toeing the line,” and “only saying what others want to hear,” as ways of explaining how they disguise their individuality so that they can “get in the system.”  Many feel that if they say what they really feel or believe, they may not be ordained.  A young female candidate told me told me just this year, “I look around at other young clergy and I’m trying to look and talk and act just like they do.  It’s the best way to get ordained in this conference.”

Cookie-cutter Christianity transcends ethnic and racial lines as well.  We talk about diversity all the time, but we desire a fundamental level of sameness.  Working with one of our larger annual conferences a few years ago that prides itself on its diversity, I met with key leaders from a dozen different racial and ethnic constituencies.  Without fail they lamented the fact that diversity was embraced in the abstract, but not in the concrete.  “The more Western you are, the better off you will be,” offered one.  “All the focus on diversity undermine any kind of real unity.  It merely points out how different some of us are.  It often highlights how much we do not fit in,” lamented another.  “The best way to be different <in this conference> is to be like everyone else,” explained a third.  As soon as he said this, a room full of over forty minority representatives nodded their heads in agreement.

In every community of faith in The United Methodist Church, there is great pride in being a “friendly” church.  Almost every congregation has people who say, “We want new people.”  The unspoken ending of this statement is “…as long as they’re exactly like we are.”  Most congregations are highly resistant to change.  We are most comfortable with people who “fit,” who allow us to stay just the way we are without feeling uncomfortable, insecure, or like we might lose something.  I talked with a young couple who dropped out of a new members orientation class in a fast growing congregation when they were told that their reverence and respect for Buddhism was “unChristian” and unacceptable.  “Our small group leader actually told us that we would probably be more comfortable going to the Unitarian Universalist church across town,” shared the young woman.  Her husband chimed in, “We actually should have been suspicious when we drove into the parking lot and parked our SUV next to a dozen other SUVs, all of our cars with infant car seats in the back, and ours the only one lacking a fish magnet on the rear door.”

One of my favorite Vandy students from a few years back was a young goth woman named Myron (yeah, I know…) who loved visiting churches to freak people out.  Myron knew the Bible really well — better than most active church members — which made her doubly dangerous.  She told me a story that I absolutely love.  One Sunday she dressed in black fishnet stockings, a lacy black frock, with coal black hair spiked ten inches off her scalp to the left, and elbow-length black evening gloves.  Dark purple eye make-up, black lipstick, piercings of nose, tongue, eyebrows, ears, and cheek, and a black teardrop tattoo completed her Sunday-go-to-meeting ensemble.  She walked into a large United Methodist Church, picked up a bulletin, walked the entire length of the center aisle, climbed the steps to the chancel and seated herself behind the lectern.  Stunned silence swept through the sanctuary.  An usher tentatively made his way forward to ask Myron if he could help her.  She smiled at him and said, “No thank you.  I am a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ and I am here to share good news.”  He responded, “but, you can’t sit here.”  She asked him why not?  He withdrew, seeking reinforcements.

The pastor swept up the aisle and asked Myron if he could help her.  Brightly, she said, “No.  In fact, I’m here to help you!”  Through clenched teeth, the pastor hissed, “What do you want?”  Without hesitation, Myron answered, “I want to tell your congregation about the love of Jesus Christ.”  In exasperation the pastor threw up his hands and said, “Well, you can’t do that here!”  Ignoring the surface paradox, Myron asked, “Would you let me if I were dressed differently, or wore my hair differently, or had on different make-up?”  The pastor responded, “No, we wouldn’t let anyone speak in our church who didn’t belong.”

Who belongs?  Who fits?  Who is a minister?  Who is worthy to be heard?  Who has the “right” to share the good news?  In our square hole congregations what will we do with all the “people-pegs” shaped like stars, crescent moons, triangles, circles, trapezoids, plus signs (crosses???), as well as the snowflakes, supernovas, cubes, rhombuses, and fractals?  Do we really believe there is a place in the body of Christ for everyone?  Is our commitment to diversity more than just lip service?

Ours is a wild, wacky, and wondrous world, filled with eccentricity, individuality, and complexity — all by God’s own design.  We need to develop a healthy shape ball spirituality — one that makes space for the full diversity of God’s glorious creation.

22 replies

  1. I love the story about Myron! I’d love to think that would respond differently if Myron sat behind the pulpit at my church. Reminds me of Ephesians 4:1-16 and unity not uniformity. I’d LOVE to see the faces of my congregation if Myron came here. If you ever come to, Michigan, Myron…

    I think it was Martin Luther King, Jr. who said Sunday morning at 11:00 is the most segregated hour in America. Is that always going to be true? If so, we need to make stratagies to meet that truth. If not, then we need better strategies to change that fact.

    I also think that “Open Minds, Open Hearts and Open Doors” was a huge misleading of the UMC, and we probably ought to apologize for it. Is “re-think church” really that much better / different / truthful??

  2. Nicely done! But now you’ve opened that “can of worms” we all know about in almost every conference. It seems the old UMC system operated on the cookie cutter churches and cookie cutter clergy approach. This allowed everyone to be interchangeable working with white male clergy and middle class churches. Careful– we might also need to redefine beloved itineracy and what it means to be UM!

    How do we transition a system that better reflects Gospel truth, our heritage, AND enhances more diverse local ministry and more diverse clergy approach? I think we likely weed out institutional “trouble” in a system, i.e. you don’t fit in, you can’t itinerate, you couldn’t go to any church in the conference. Of course, by doing that we are limiting ourselves and not becoming what we need to become. But when the old guard is in charge of supervision it’s most likely we continue doing what we’ve always done. Unless we are willing to redefine supervision as missional mentoring which advances the cause of Christ both today and tomorrow.

    Keep asking good questions and sharing great stories.

    • Oh, man, speak truth to power. We do have a clergy system that emulates the cookie cutter approach pretty impressively. It will take some real vision and courageous leadership to take us in a new direction. The points you make are incredibly important… and they point out how our system is driving us rather than us driving our own system. How great it would be if our vision and the needs of the world governed our appointive processes…

  3. Mr. Dick, if you hate our church so much why do you stay? How can you call yourself a United Methodist ministrer and continue to trash your own denomination? If we are so backwards and fearful, why don’t you leave. If you prefer the punks and thugs to United Methodists, why don’t you go minister among them? I find your thinking toxic and deeply destructive. There are a number of people in my church who read this blog and are influenced by it. I do not appreciate the ways you corrupt their thinking and influence them to disrespect the United Methodist Church. You are obviously without shame, but you should be ashamed of what you are doing.

    • Hi, Don,
      Thanks for letting me know why you read my blog. I couldn’t quite figure out why someone who dislikes it so much would keep reading it! I am also sorry that you perceive what I do as “hating” the church. In my own mind, I question and challenge the church because I love it and want to see it flourish.

      It may sound defensive, but I feel I have a right and a privilege to challenge the status quo and to be provocative and to openly disagree with things that trouble me. I love being a part of a church that honors and values open dialogue and discussion. It is not my intention to make your job harder, but I offer no apologies for the things I say. I am truly thankful to you that you are honest and open enough to air your disagreement publically. Too many cowardly and deeply troubled individuals refuse to discuss things openly, opting instead to trying to tattle to my current and former bosses to try to censor and censure me. Your honesty is appreciated.

  4. Rabbi ben Yousef, if you hate our faith so much why do you stay? How can you call yourself a Jewish rabbi and continue to trash your own tradition? If we are so backwards and fearful, why don’t you leave. If you prefer the tax-collectors and prostitutes to scribes and Pharisees, why don’t you go minister among them? I find your thinking toxic and deeply destructive. There are a number of people in my synagogue who hear your proclamation and are influenced by it. I do not appreciate the ways you corrupt their thinking and influence them to disrespect the Law and the Prophets. You are obviously without shame, but you should be ashamed of what you are doing.

    • I’ll try to keep everything in perspective. I’m no Wesley, and I’m certainly no Jesus. But thank you SO much for a spirited, incisive, and funny defense!

  5. Mr. Wesley, if you hate our church so much why do you stay? How can you call yourself an Anglican priest and continue to trash your own denomination? If we are so backwards and fearful, why don’t you leave. If you prefer the coal miners and street people to Anglicans, why don’t you go minister among them? I find your thinking toxic and deeply destructive. There are a number of people in my parish who attend your Society and are influenced by it. I do not appreciate the ways you corrupt their thinking and influence them to disrespect the Anglican Church. You are obviously without shame, but you should be ashamed of what you are doing.

    **Maybe more to the point; forgive me (Dan AND Don) if I seem to be harping on this. I’ll hush now.

  6. Dan,

    Let me add a “needs” category to your list, or maybe two.

    1) The needs of congregations. Itineracy was not started as a deployment system for clergy for congregations but for catalytic leaders/starters of Methodist societies. These were and are two very different kinds of organizations. Congregations are long-term public institutions, and so need leadership that can be there for a while to fulfill that institutional role. Methodist Societies were para-congregational organizations focused on formation, accountability, and deployment of their members in mission, as well as starting new “chapters” to spread this kind of nimble organization and its ends far and wide. Itineracy makes perfect sense for leaders of that kind of organization.

    But that is not what congregations are.

    Taylor Burton-Edwards

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