Mad Methodists

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.

15 replies

  1. Methodeviations Staff:
    Do I sound mad? Or are you characterizing my criticisms as madness because you think they are irrelevant? I’m posting them (at the bottom) again because I am still waiting for a response. If Methodists express Fear, Disappointment, Confusion, and Isolation because of fifty years of decline, what consolation is there that the majority of the leadership will get saved, get filled with the Holy Spirit, and preach Christ and Him crucified? This alone will remove the malaise from the church.

    I believe a relationship with Christ will radically transform the public policy initiatives of the chuch. For example, the General Board of Global Ministries has promoted and financed safe sex and abortion programs for years. The Methodist Church’s involvement in promoting promiscuity at home and abroad is another reason Bible believing Christians seek out other churches.

    The analysis of “Mad Methodists” could have been written by any secular counselor. But I was hoping to receive an informed response to the following questions/conundrums facing the church (first posted on the 11th).

    What is the reason for fifty years of decline? Other denominations are growing. Many leaders in the Methodist Church are following the politically correct line that there are many ways to God and it isn’t necessary to believe the Bible. Genesis doesn’t mean what it says and salvation means whatever you want it to mean. They can’t say for sure when life begins and can’t give a certain response on the abortion question. Vast amounts of time and money have been wasted discussing the homosexual lifestyle. The denomination has been tepid in its efforts to evangelize the lost. You know what the Lord is going to do with the lukewarm church!

    Young people see the weakness in the church. It is better that they keep looking for a church with a vital faith than that they stop at a dead Methodist church.

    • Jeff, I don’t see your criticisms as irrelevant. My point is that there are no open forums for honest, respectful discussion between people who hold your views and people who hold other views. We are a church of broken relationships and no interest in seeking unity with those with whom we disagree. Everything in a toxic and divided family leads to conflict. Being right becomes more important than being faithful to our covenant to love one another. This is what turns off more young people — not that we don’t all agree on one specific set of beliefs, but how we choose to disagree. I acknowledge that there are still many in our church that struggle with giving women voice and authority, many who reduce abortion and homosexuality to “issues” and “problems to solve” than opportunities to be in ministry and to seek understanding. Too many people want to use the Bible as a weapon and faith as an excuse to be self-righteous. This leads us nowhere positive, and provides a terrible witness to the world of what it means to be in relationship with God and God’s whole creation. Do people have the right to differing beliefs and opinions? They do in The United Methodist Church, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at some of the hateful and hostile ways we choose to treat those with whom we disagree. The fear, confusion, ignornance, isolation, and insecurity that leads us to behave so badly will not allow us to deal with controversial issues. When hate prevails, there is no justice, mercy, compassion, kindness or love. In my opinion, this explains our fifty+ year decline, not any set of theological beliefs or issues. Christians along the spectrum from ultra-for to ultra-against refuse to accept the other as part of the family. This tragedy may well be the end of us. Our Christian witness is not a fight to divide the church into winners and losers — those who are right and those who are wrong. Our Christian witness is to a Savior and Lord who forgives and redeems all of us, not just some.

  2. I’m part of a rural church with an average attendance of 42 last year. For the past few years, attendance has been flat, but we had our first baptism and profession of faith in November after a drought of several years. We operate a truly ecumenical food pantry that is currently serving 1600 people per month with the support of 14 other churches in our area (the largest food pantry operation in the region). On distribution days we hold a brief service of worship including communion for those who wish to attend. There are usually 20 or so who do and many of them look to our pastor as their pastor. Sounds like we’re doing what we’re called to do, right?

    Well, there’s just one problem. Unemployment in this area has been through the roof and for the first time in several years, we did not pay our apportionments (historically they are paid at 100%). In addition, a new scheme to move health and pension benefits from the conference budget to the local church was approved last year for implementation next year. The cost of a pastor just increased by $12,000. So, what is the solution? Yoke this congregation with 2 others without even consulting the churches involved. Is the congregation happy? No, we are not.

    All 4 of the symptoms that you mention are present in the congregation. All because the “leadership” of the district and conference have treated us like children that are too stupid to know what is best for us instead of letting us take part in charting the course for our future. No wonder Methodists are mad.

  3. I have been a reader of United Methodeviations for over a year, but have managed to keep silent. I qualify as a “denominational bureaucrat” and have attempted to stay “above” many of the discussions of who is doing what wrong. Dan Dick is a harsh, but I believe fair, critic of much that is wrong or inadequate in our denomination. Alas, he does not hold a position to press his points, so he can be easily dismissed by those who do not like what he has to say. This is unfortunate because many of the questions he poses are precisely the questions we most need to address. Perhaps nothing he has written has more urgency than the need to heal our broken connection. We are not healthy, and there is no program or campaign that will cure us. I believe Dan correctly diagnoses both the problem and the solution. We must make healing our connection and creating unity the top priority in the near future. I believe this should become the focus and theme of our next General Conference session. Dan’s is not the only voice crying in the wilderness for us to repent and to heal our wounds. Let us pray that the right ears are listening to these voices.

    • I am assuming the clue to your identity is in your cryptic title, but I think I know who you are and I am deeply grateful for your words. It is gratifying to know that someone in a prominent position in the church is both sympathetic and supportive of the things I write about. If we do take this issue seriously, I pray we will treat the deep root causes and not just focus on the symptoms. Just so you know, I am more than willing to do whatever I can and speak to whomsoever will listen if it will make any difference. God bless you, and thank you for your kind words.

    • I wish we could know who you are. We need some leaders in the denomination to step up and be counted. If you agree with the need for healing, could you be a healer? Could you risk your position to do something important for the church? You say that Dan doesn’t have the position or power to make a change, but it sounds like you might. Isn’t it worth the risk to make something good happen? Just wondering.

    • Ditto on the ditto on the ditto. I’ve been mad at the church for what seems like decades … and yet I stay.

  4. Okay, since you brought it up, I’m mad. I’m mad at a denomination that is more concerned with marketing than missions, large churches than faithful discipleship, getting members than saving souls, politics rather than piety, and celebrity pastors writing books than empowering the laity to be the church. I’m mad that we seem to have lost our way and no one has the courage to say so. I am mad at bishops who aren’t giving spiritual leadership, denominational bureaucracies that are more concerned about their own survival than resourcing the church, and agencies that further their own agendas instead of representing the church. I am upset with a church that thinks half-assed effort and complacent conformity are acceptable. I am so mad at our church I could scream and yet I stay. Sadly, it’s the best we’ve got, and unblievably it is better than most!

  5. I remember a study a few years back (sorry no actual reference), talking about the culture shifts clergy today were facing versus those of the 50s. One of the characteristics I took particular note of was that the people were more challenging to pastoral authority, confrontational of others and generally more angry. I knew all of the other stats about what was happening. And while I knew that one in personal experience, I did not realize that it was such a culture shift, and allowed me to add new perspective to my current role as clergy in the UMC.

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