A few years ago I stood up in a meeting at the General Board of Discipleship and asked, “Has anyone else noticed how many deeply angry people we have in The United Methodist Church?” At first, a few puzzled folks asked what I meant, but I didn’t even have to explain. Around the room, dozens of people chimed in with their own experiences with angry Methodists. While some felt there had always been a disgruntled segment of the church, most felt that the number of angry people was on the increase. As part of my ongoing research, I began to probe with people their feelings about the church to see if I could get at the root of our mad-ness.
As is often the case with anger, the upset is a symptom of a deeper cause — and the deeper causes fall into four basic categories: fear, disappointment, confusion, and isolation. Luckily, there is one single treatment that addresses all four symptoms.
Fear: a significant number of United Methodists are afraid — afraid of change, afraid of the world, afraid of loss, and afraid their church is not long for this world. Not enough people, not enough money, too much change, too little safety and security — these and other factors are pushing people beyond free-floating anxiety to be outright fear. When people are afraid, six signficant changes occur: reasoning capability decreases, patience all but disappears, blood pressures rise, cooperation declines, aggression increases and communication turns ugly. People afraid equals people behaving badly. Where fear prevails, faith suffers. We cease being community and become contestants — everything shifts to winning and losing, defeating opponents. Fear is the ugliest manifestation of broken relationships. The anger that emerges from fear is toxic at just about every level. Fear makes us behave in distinctly un-Christian ways.
Disappointment: when people feel let down, they get mad. The inclusiveness and openness of The United Methodist Church, its emphasis on grace and welcome, and its avoidance of judgmentalism and strict rules are inviting to some, but deeply frustrating and disappointing to others. Those who want a church that clearly defines what people should believe, how they should act, and who belongs in and who should be kept out are driven a little crazy each time The United Methodist Church gathers together to “discuss issues.” There is a widespread belief that any church that refuses to stand for something will fall for anything. Those who are disappointed in their church — who feel that the church is failing to live up to its potential — are angry. They keep challenging the church to take a stand. They want the church’s “yes to be yes, and no to be no.” Ambiguity not only breeds disappointment, but generates fear. Disappointment leads to a strong “us/them” worldview — those who “get it” versus those who don’t. Disappointment fosters disappointment — you are disappointed with me which causes me to be disappointed with you. We both pity the other side, believing we’re right and they’re wrong. Any chance of agreement and acceptance is lost in the conflict and we end up disliking the very people we should be learning to love the most.
Confusion: where are we going? why are we here? what are our core values and key priorities? what is God’s will for The United Methodist Church? what is our REAL mission? do United Methodists really want to BE disciples? There is widespread disagreement about what it means to be United Methodist and what our church is all about. Confusion leads to ignorance, ignorance leads to ambivalence, which leads to a feeling of helplessness, which leads to hopelessness, which results… in anger. Many people feel we are becoming defined by our ambiguity and lack of identity. Different individuals, causcuses and contingents try to “define us,” breaking us into camps and factions. Uncertainty makes us act out – declaring definitively what we “believe” to be true. When we don’t know what we’re doing, we fake it. We make stuff up as we go along — and we commit to what we think “ought” to be in the abscence of any true concensus. All of our energy is dissipated in debating over who is right and who is wrong, and we no longer trust each other enough to do the hard work of putting the “united” back in United Methodist.
Isolation: in a denomination of almost 8,000,000 in the U.S., a signficant number of individuals and congregations feel isolated and alone. For a variety of reasons, our connectional system has disconnected. Fragmentation, structural downsizing, adoption of impersonal communication technologies, the anonymity of the large church, materialism and consumerism as acceptable values, and a host of other factors dissolve the bonds that keep us strong. There is very little sense of “WE” in modern United Methodism. The “I” in individual evolves into the “I” in isolation. People feel that their faith is a personal and private matter. Congregations feel that the local church shouldn’t be dictated to by the Annual Conference. Annual Conferences feel unrepresented by the General Conference. The church at all levels feel unlistened to and disrespected. We look at the challenges and threat to our beloved local churches and wonder why no one seems to care. When there is no one to turn to, when the system fails us, when we feel abandoned to deal on our own, we get mad. If no one cares about us, why should we care about anyone else. Why should we step up to do for the connection when we feel so disconnected?
There is no easy answer, but there is a simple one — we need to step back from all our conversations about what we should do and focus anew on who we should be, together. If we are called and charged to be the body of Christ, we need to begin — seriously and intentionally — to heal our relationships. We need to develop unity. We need to rebuild the connection. We need to prepare the soil to produce the fruit of the Spirit. We need to look beyond the individual gifts and passion to a more excellent way — to become a people defined by God’s love. We need to explore our values. We need to discern who God really wants us to be, THEN we turn our energy and attention to figuring out what we need to do and how we need to do it. We are not currently a people of God, but an assemblage of persons of God. The 8,000,000 United Methodist MEs are doing very little to become a unified WE. Our witness to the world is not one body, one mind, one Spirit in service to one world called by one God. Our witness is a fragmented and fractious church that offers no alternative to what people find each and every day in our larger culture. We provide nothing signficantly counter-cultural to attract people looking for something better.
Healthy relationships happen by design, not by accident. Lasting relationships happen because people make a commitment to work on keeping them strong. We need to DECIDE to love each other. We need to DECIDE to respect each other. We need to DECIDE to treat one another kindly. We need to DECIDE to be like Christ. And we need to DECIDE to do it NOW. Any other decision would be madness.