Make-No-Wave United Methodist Church

I received an interesting email from a pastor today who “followed my advice” and raised questions about expectations and accountability in the church.  He asked the “what is the church?” and “what is the church for?” questions, and zeroed in on what our membership vows really mean.  He was shocked when the chair of the church council responded by saying, “well, we don’t have time to talk about this now.  We have church business we need to deal with.”  Later that evening, the chair of SPRC (Staff-Parish Relations Committee) called to schedule an appointment — “We need to talk.  As soon as possible.”  The pastor was surprised early the next morning when the SPRC chair, the Lay Leader, the church Council chair, and the head of Trustees all showed up together.  The conversation went something like this (church leadership in bold; pastor normal type):

We need to know what’s gotten into you?

What do you mean?

This kick you’re on to push; to make us feel bad about not doing enough?

I’m not trying to make anyone feel bad.  I’m just trying to offer people something better.  I want to help people grow in their faith.

Well, that’s fine, but a lot of people are perfectly happy where they are.

I know they are, but that doesn’t mean they should be.

See?  That’s exactly the kind of pressure we’re talking about.  Who are you to judge what kind of Christians people should be?

It’s not a matter of “judging” anyone.  It’s a matter of helping people grow in their faith.

You made a lot of people uncomfortable last night.  You made it sound like we should be doing more.

We SHOULD be doing more!  I brought up the issues for a reason.

But that’s not why people come to this church.  People come here because they know they will be loved and cared for, not judged and made to feel guilty.

Being loved and cared for and becoming faithful disciples are not mutually exclusive.  People should want both.

In your opinion.  None of our previous pastors said any of this stuff.

But it isn’t just my opinion.  It’s in the Bible.  It’s in our Book of Discipline.  I didn’t make this stuff up. 

No, you said you pulled it off the web and we all know how reliable things are you can find online.

You’re kidding, right?  You’re saying because I got the articles off the web that we shouldn’t pay attention to it?  All I raised were three questions: what is the church? what is the church for? and how do we hold people accountable to the promises they made to God and one another.  That’s all.  These are good questions to ask.

But they’re unnecessary.  We’re not trying to be super-Christians.  We’re just normal people who love God and need to know that God loves us.  That’s all.  We don’t need you telling us how we ought to live our faith.  It’s none of your business if we pray or not or read the Bible or even how often we attend church.  You are here to be our pastor, not our conscience.

But I wouldn’t be doing my job if I didn’t preach and teach from the Bible and challenge people to be the best Christians we can be.

Look, you’re young and we want to support you, but you need to be reasonable.  People are busy — we have full lives.  We don’t have time to be saints.  We need you to do your job — lead worship, visit church members, teach confirmation, pray for us, and try to grow the church.  We just don’t need you making things harder than they ought to be.

I don’t know what to say.  You tell me you want me to do my job, but when I do my job you don’t want me to.  This is impossible.  I didn’t do anything wrong last night.  In fact, I did exactly the right thing.

The pastor received a call later in the day from his district superintendent.  Hoping for support, he was irritated to discover that his DS sided with the congregation’s leadership, asking that he “back off.”  The DS told him that he needed to make this appointment work, and that he couldn’t afford to alienate key leadership.  Again, he heard that he needed to be “reasonable.”

What am I missing here?  I was called to ministry.  I am part of a church whose mission is to make disciples, but when I bring up acting like disciples I am told to back off.  If we  can’t even have discussions about what it means to be the church in the church, we’re in big trouble.  Anyway, I just wanted you to know that your “basic” questions are not “simple” questions at all.

This is one of the more dramatic responses I have received, but in no way is it rare or unusual.  Some of our United Methodist churches are held hostage by low expectations, complacency, lack of vision, and a distinct aversion to anything remotely disciple-like.  What are we going to do about it?  When mediocrity becomes the standard, it is only a matter of time until we cease to exist.  No relevancy, no urgency, no commitment = no church.  Unless it is safe and even encouraged to rock the boat, makes some waves, and shake things up, we may be looking for a new church real soon.

124 replies

  1. Methodism sucks, dude… you’re going to find this same attitude at every Methodist church you ever attend. There’s a reason those cats are going downhill.

    • Amen, I agree 100%. We’re doomed by the system that seeks to defend mediocrity. J. Wesley told us this was his greatest fear: that Methodism would become a dead sect. Goodnight, UMC, sleep tight.

      • “doomed by the system”?

        Not everything is mediocre. What I worry about is whether, if the Methodism around me is mediocre, what my role is in causing that. Down at the grassroots, I don’t see “the system” controlling anything. (Nor should it.)

        It hit this wall back in 1991 – when I realized that I was appointed to a church that I would in no way choose to attend if I had a choice.

        At first I got mad – Who is it that is holding this church back from all it could be? Then I realized to my horror that it was I, the appointed pastor, who had the most power to change that reality … so my dissatisfaction was the natural result of my own inadequate leadership.

        Since then I’ve been working very hard (and carefully – that’s the issue of this column) to lead the church I pastor to be one of a quality that I would choose to attend it as a layperson. It’s not been easy, but it’s far better, once I took responsibility for my dissatisfaction.

  2. Mike, this is what happens in any church setting when you push people around for the Lord – they push back.

    There are better ways to get the job done; successful change of any kind in a social system requires thought, research, preparation and large quantities of the fruit of the spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, generosity, trustworthiness and self-control.

    The only place full of Christian people that I know who don’t push back when you push on them is the cemetary behind the church. You won’t hear any disagreements there. If you want to be prophetic without consequences, that’s the place to go.

    But if you like to push people around, it’s going to suck wherever you are. If it’s not already there, you will have brought it with you.

  3. Kudos, Dan!Keep stirring up the pot… I think that (as Michael Slaughter would say), ‘the spiritual gift of irritation’ is what we need more of in the Church today (and I’m seeing it in our younger pastors). Other than the very reasonable questions asked by this young pastor, might it also be time to begin asking some serious questions of our leadership, too … if this is the kind of support/response we are going to receive from them? Not to mention working on dealing with spiritually dead churches amongst us–the reality (spiritually & fiscally). Are they really an asset to the Kingdom of God … or are they, in a sense, speeding up our demise? Again, thanks for all that you’re doing, Dan! Keep up the good work…

  4. Rom,

    Thanks for calling your leadership to account.

    We need to hear that.

    We really can’t afford to “play nice” anymore, merely substituting the word “disciple” for “church member” or “regular worship attender” and telling ourselves that by measuring these things we’re actually measuring discipleship.

    That’s just another relabeling game.

    The time for such games should be at an end.

    We are Methodists. We used to know how to measure increases of holiness in heart and life, perfection in love in this life and accountability to the General Rules. We still could now– but those measurements aren’t capable of being caught on a “weekly dashboard” that focuses on worship attendance, “professions of faith” (which we know often means little more than saying the right words to join the congregation in our context), and per capita giving to apportionment and outreach.

    The metrics we need can’t be measured on a weekly scale very well. Perfection happens through perfecting– through regular ongoing practice of the means of grace, not just public worship and giving, but all of them.

    So we need to be saying not just how many small groups we have, or how many people are in them, but rather how many of our people are actually staying with such groups long enough to make a difference in their discipleship, and what differences are being made.

    We live in a culture that is in many ways toxic to Christian discipleship. We need to have real, supporting and accountable groups of prayer, service and study for the long haul– living, breathing, missionally engaged communities of faith–not just a six week “book series” or “topic of the week” or a series of “hobby groups” or other kinds of “preference” or “self-help” groups if we expect to function as disciples of Jesus for the long haul– or at all– in the North American context.

    May our leaders find the courage to begin to measure what matters for the vitality of actual discipleship first of all– and not merely what matters for bottom line of what it takes to run a “successful” congregation or denominational system in an idolatrous, increasingly atheistic and consumerist culture.

    I and a few other colleagues have made a start at some questions for “additional measurements”– some that DO measure discipleship as our Discipline seems to define it. You can read and comment on this “work in progress” here:

    Peace in Christ,

    Taylor Burton-Edwards
    Director of Worship Resources
    The General Board of Discipleship

  5. Even when you take into account that you’re only hearing one side of the story, it’s still scary stuff. Young, energetic pastor – seasoned, set in their ways church leadership. It sounds like a perfect storm brewing.

    This sounds like a perfect time to practice Christ’s advice in Matthew 10:16 -Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves: be ye therefore wise as serpents, and harmless as doves.

    I think it often gets worse in many of these cases before it gets better. We all need an extra measure of God’s grace & wisdom in situations like this.

    Thanks for sharing.

  6. been there. had similar convesations. heard that. now I am labeled as arrogant, or autocratic,or not administratively gifted. He should prepare himself for the real possibility of a move in the near future.

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