All this next week (August 23-28) I will be attending the New District Superintendent & Director of Connectional Ministries Orientation hosted by the General Boards of Higher Education & Ministry and Discipleship & our Council of Bishops in Lake Junaluska. This annual shindig is lovingly known as “charm school.” It is here that we will be fashioned into upright, (no, not uptight…) principled men and women entrusted with leadership in our annual conferences. Actually, the assemblage of both participants and leaders is impressive. There are many fantastic leaders in our denomination, and quite a few of them are here this week.
I have only been here an hour-and-a-half (at the writing of this post) and have already had two interesting conversations. Three comments snagged my attention, and I have been playing around with their meaning in my own head.
- “We’d better figure out how to turn this church around or we won’t have a job much longer.” — While this comment is factual, it still stirs me up. It is filled with code language — what do we mean by “turn the church around?” Around to what? Is the steady numeric decline of our denomination an actual problem or merely a threat to our current livelihood? Is what we have really “a job?” Is our purpose here the preservation of an institution or something more? The United Methodist Church is doing a great deal of good in the world. Faith is being formed, disciples made, lives touched and changed for the better. We certainly don’t want to turn this around. We certainly have fewer warm bodies carrying a United Methodist label than we once did, but the only real threat there is to our bricks and mortar, not our mission. In the U.S., we’re still around 8,000,000 strong — certainly big and powerful enough to make some pretty spectacular things happen. If we feel we aren’t very effective with the 8 million we’ve got, what makes us think we would do better with a couple million more? We weren’t setting the world on fire the first time we were 10 million strong, so what are we basing our beliefs on when we pursue the “bigger is better” vision? If we aren’t proving ourselves faithful with a little, why do we think God should give us more? And the job thing? We should have a job as Christian disciples regardless of the state of The United Methodist Church. The idea that the world needs us is ludicrous — the world needs God and the redemptive power of Jesus Christ. This won’t change whether we go out of “business” or not.
- “We desperately need to come up with some answers fast!” — In my lifetime, desperation has never been the healthiest motivator for good, effective thinking. The greater our desperation, the sloppier and more reactive we become. We start looking for a magic wand or a quick fix. We irrationally think we need more money to fix our problems. We stop relying on relationships and begin to look for campaigns, programs, models, and slogans. We reduce every complex issue to simplistic parts, thinking that if we make something simple we can also make it easy. This gets reflected in our problem-solver mentality — seeking an “answer” to problems and questions that require a much deeper, much more critical approach. We try to control everything, and anything beyond our control we either deny or reduce to controllable levels. As effectiveness decreases, jargon increases. Identity gets traded for “brand.” Integrity is shopped out for “image.” Spirit is crushed under the oppressive grind of “restructuring.” When the economy gets tight, massive cuts at all levels guarantee that the church will be even less relevant tomorrow than it is today. Faith is mangled in the jaws of fear. (Poetic, isn’t it?) There are no easy answers to the future of The United Methodist Church. There are very few “right” answers, but there is a vast array of “good” answers. It really doesn’t matter what we have been as long as what we are and what we are becoming adds value to the kingdom of God on earth as it is in heaven. Being relevant is worth more than being right; doing well is as important as doing good; and offering a vision for how glorious life in Christ can be to a broken, beaten, crushed, and frightened world is about as good as it can get.
- “It is so good to get away from the church for awhile.” — What does it say about the systems we have created when people in church leadership seek to “get away” from the church? I understand the feeling, but I am more raising the question about our system than about the jaded and worn-out feelings of the people involved. “Church” shouldn’t chew us up and spit us out. “Church” shouldn’t take so much away from us that we have nothing left to give. “Church” shouldn’t make us want to cross to the other side of the road when we see it coming towards us on the sidewalk. I hear this lament from many pastors — rather than feeling affirmed in their calling, they feel hunted. Burn-out rates, clergy health and wellness issues, the need for remedial therapy, and a lack of appeal to new, young clergy all attest to a system that is not working. When a training all about the church is viewed as escape from the church, something is wrong.
I am here at “charm school” to learn to do my “job” effectively. What I hope to gain here is something much more than helpful information. I hope to glimpse a vision. I hope to tap into a spirit. I hope to discover a wellspring of joy and passion and faith in a future much larger than bricks and mortar, buildings and programs. I hope that this experience is more than an infomercial for all things United Methodist. I hope that there is more than rhetoric and DVD clips, brochures and slogans. I hope there is a heart and soul here that beats loud and strong and renews each and every participant so that we cannot wait to get back to our annual conferences to support the work of disciple-making for the transformation of the whole world.