Charm School

vfiles2046All 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.

  1. “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.
  2. “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.
  3. “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.

12 replies

  1. Dan,
    Do you think the above comments of the folks with you at LJ point to a system where we “promote” the institutionally-minded – that is the people who will maintain the institution – to supervisory positions within our conferences and jurisdictions? Are people like you and Bishop Willimon the exceptions to the rule?

    For that matter, why are pastors who have served only one or two churches and/or have been in the parish for less than 10 years offered opportunities of greater power and authority? Can these clergy truly have a real sense of what it means to engage in the long and often heart-wrenching and sometimes heart-warming struggle to be an agent of change in a local church with a long history?

    I so agree with your second point! What makes us think that desperation is the only place we can make decisions that will help us become the church that God envisions us to become? What makes us think there is one answer or easy answers?

    • I believe we are in a cultural period of choosing sides — between institutional preservation and spiritual enlightenment. The institutional preservation paradigm requires that we focus on bricks and mortar, budgets, membership numbers, etc., all to guarantee we have a future. The spiritual enlightenment paradigm is focused on global transformation grounded in spiritual disciplines, service and learning community. The problem is the “in-between” time in which we find ourselves. Many, I would even say a majority, of people locked in the institutional preservation paradigm want to pursue the spiritual enlightenment paradigm — they speak the language, use the terminology, have a heart that resonates missionally, and desire authentic discipleship as a standard for Christian living. But we are stuck. We end up using the language of spiritual enlightenment as a tool for institutional preservation. We proclaim change, but we don’t really want to be different. It is a hard place to be. I am honored to be named with BIshop Willimon. He regularly calls us to be better than we are, and we need more voices to challenge the status quo, hold forth positive alternatives, and speak the truth in love. We need to spend more time envisioning new possibilities instead of focusing on problems and the promulgation of the same old same old. I appreciate your comments and support!

  2. Boy, you caught me today. A week or so ago someone asked me–as an ice-breaker–where was my favorite place to be, and I said: “Anywhere other than in a church.” How much am I–the pastor–responsible for this sentiment?

    Maybe a little “charm school” would be good for me as well.

    Thanks for giving me a “prayer point.”

  3. Dan,
    I pray you don’t become “over-charming”. We have more than enough of that and need you as you are.

  4. In next Sunday’s reading from Mark, Jesus quotes Isaiah:
    “This people honors me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me;
    in vain do they worship me,
    teaching human precepts as doctrines.”
    He goes on, “You abandon the commandment of God and hold to human tradition.”

    We all need to hear it again.

    Thanks for your blog.

    • Would that we could integrate our hearts and our words, so that all that we do would reflect what we profess. My prayer is that we might all step up and model a better way of being church leaders.

  5. Thank you for posting this and sharing your wisdom. I believe that everything you wrote is equally applicable to my own denomination, the ELCA, and I suspect to just about any other denomination as well.

    Your reflections on comment #3, especially, ought to be read, pondered, and discussed by everyone in a position of leadership in any church. As a former parish pastor now specializing in helping other clergy rediscover the person behind the collar and find more effective ways to cope with the stresses of parish ministry, I wholeheartedly agree that we need to look at the system as a whole, and the changes needed to make it healthier, instead of focusing solely on the struggles of individual pastors.

    I would welcome the opportunity for continued conversation about this, and to interview you or otherwise share your thoughts with readers of my own blog and free monthly newsletter.

    In Christ,
    Wendi Gordon
    Be True to Yourself

  6. Hey Dan. Now I’m sorry I’m not at the Lake this week. I pray you, and all your colleagues, have a blessed and fruitful time this week.


  7. I share your hope for the week… and your concerns.

    Anxiety seems to drive much of our life together.

    We can do better with all the gifts we have. I hope the leaders you meet with this week decide to do just that.

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