DMC – Divided Methodist Church

I have been dismayed by the recent “unanimous support” claims for our Call to Action report — since I have had personal conversations with people directly involved who are anything but fully on board.  Oh, I understand the act of solidarity and presenting a unified public face and the potential promotional value.  What troubles me is the level of dishonesty and surrender involved — people I respect telling me that disagreeing won’t do any good anyway because we’re “in too deep.”  I heard that same logic in one place I worked when I discovered that a major research project was flawed, inaccurate, and just plain bad, but was told that we’d invested too much in it not to go ahead and use it.  Integrity be damned, we’ve got to keep moving — even if it’s in the wrong direction.

Let me repeat — I don’t disagree with the findings of the Call to Action report.  It says exactly what we’ve discovered at least three times before over the past thirty years.  Confirmation is a good thing.  However, as in each prior instance, we are claiming that this time we’re serious about changing, but all we are doing is identify a number of symptoms to treat instead of root causes to change.  The identity and purpose questions are ignored — we assume that we know who we are and that we know why we exist.  These, my friends, are the very questions that we cannot take for granted, and they are the questions that must be faced before we decide what tactical changes to make.  We are not a “united” Methodist Church at the moment and focusing on program and structure when the relationships are damaged and the connection is broken promises nothing but disaster.  The problem is, were we to use our General Conference time to clarify what it means to be United Methodist in the 21st century, to reframe and clarify our theological task in contemporary culture, to codify and commit to our Social Principles, and to recover the missional/evangelical foundation that defined our heritage, it would draw a line in the sand and every living, breathing United Methodist would be forced to answer the key question: do I want to be a United Methodist or not.  And, being perfectly honest, we would probably lose a third to a half of our membership no matter which way we turn.

Our ambiguity, wishy-washiness, lack of conviction, and inability to take clear stands leave us in a nice, comfy, mushy place.  We can appease everyone, even when we can’t please them.  We can claim that everyone can find a place in our family — as long as they don’t rub up too close to those who disagree with or dislike them.  We can do just about anything and justify that it is worth doing, for somebody.  We can offer 10,000 doors, as if each threshold is equal and will lead us all to the same place.  We create this illusion of tranquility when what we actually have is comfort disguised as tolerance and love.  Baloney (or bologna, should you prefer)!  The absence of discord is not the same as harmony and unity — and by the way, we don’t even have an absence of discord.

We need open, honest dialogue about who “we” are.  The “united” in United Methodist needs severe scrutiny.  It is a witness to the world that beggars our credibility.  We are not “one in Christ, one with each other, and one in ministry to all the world.”  We are a poster child of dysfunction and we tolerate egregious bad behavior.  We communicate poorly — both in content and style — and use information as a weapon more often than as a tool. 

A favorite metaphor of mine is to compare the congregational system to a wood-chipper.  Wood-chippers grind things up.  They don’t build things or create things or fix things.  They make wood chips.  If you wish to get a different output, you can’t use the wood-chipper to get it.  Putting something else in the wood-chipper won’t change the wood-chipper; the wood-chipper will destroy whatever is put through it.  Putting fine china in the chipper won’t raise the quality of the chipper; it just destroys the china.  If you want different results, you change the system.  We have been a service-provider church for so long that the concept of becoming a disciple-making church is overwhelming.  We think that if we dump disciple-focused resources in our service provider system, it will change the system.  It’s not working out that way.  Our system provider church is simply chewing up and spitting out our best disciple-making efforts.  Rethink church?  It will take a little more than thinking.

At the very least, our system will not even be willing to change as long as we find ourselves in the political situation where our leaders privately despair our best efforts then publicly applaud them.  A house divided against itself cannot stand — even when it pretends it isn’t divided.  We need desperately to decide what it means to be “United” Methodists, and we need to decide soon.

41 replies

  1. Dan, I’ve been in the United Methodist gig as a pastor for 32 years and I too have seen denominational studies and evangelism proposals come and go. I heartily agree that what is needed is systemic change. Could you share more of what and how that can happen?

    I’ve been using family systems theory (in the vein of Edwin Friedman and Peter Steinke) as a conceptual template for helping me cope with and help stimulate the systemic change needed in the emotional fabric of my local congregation. According to this template, you’re right: much more than Rethinking Church is needed. What is needed are leaders with self-differentiated behavior, disconnected from denominational anxiety and yet connected with the denomination in order to effect positive systemic change.

    What new behaviors do we as leaders need to be doing now?

    I need to do more than critique the mess; I want to be one of the change agents. How can I participate?

  2. The “Call to Action” is trying to do two different things. One is to give ideas about restructuring the general agencies to do a better job of congregational revitalization. The other is to identify things that make a congregation vital. I certainly agree with Dan that the latter is ground that we have gone over in a variety of ways. I am a little concerned about the methodology that generated the items that “made” a church vital. We should know that either a church is bringing more people to the Gospel and paying its apportionments or it has a good story or we really need to have a conversation especially if the rest of their Conference is supporting their ministry because of unpaid apportionments or billings without any accountability from that local church.

    I hope the discussion about the general church doesn’t stop with guaranteed appointment and shrinking the agency boards without showing how that will increase accountability. General Conference in 2012 isn’t going to make 10,000 or 100,000 much less 4,000,000 new disciples. However, it can change the structure of the general agencies to make sure that the $135 million in apportionments does go toward resourcing local churches to fulfill the Great Commission and Matthew 25.

    • Creed as always great comments. Where I differ though is how apportionments signify vitality? I think apportionments are an outdated mode of funding and doesn’t hold the General Boards accountable for ensuring that their missions are relevant to the local congregations.

      The key thing here is that the Methodism in its simplist form is bottom up. Why should a local church have to pay any apportionments? Would donations go up if the local church could pick and choose what conference and general church boards to support? Why should the General Church or Annual Conference dole any money to support a struggling church at all? Why can’t the local churches provide this or help the church to dissolve?
      In otherwords do we need so deep a General Church and do we need Annual Conferences with paid staff? Isn’t it time for GC to ‘sell’ its benefits so that not only does a member know what they are supporting but they are making a choice as to where their contributions go.

      • I agree that the general church needs to do a better job of interpreting what the agencies provide. Obviously, we need to make sure that falsehoods from whatever source are addressed as well.

        I believe that we would be better off without GCRR, GCSRW and GCCUIC. Perhaps we should stop fighting about the UM Building, but let that be the funding source for GBCS to resource annual conferences and local churches rather than wade into political discussions without skill or finesse (I say this as a political liberal).

        Annual Conferences should directly provide for their episcopal office rather than send money to the Episcopal Fund and get it back. Therefore, the Episcopal Fund would be used for the central conferences and retired bishops.

        We should have the Annual Conferences as the basic unit of The UMC. When we meet at Annual Conference we should make sure that we have the services we need (and people of good faith may differ about that).

        My main worry about Call to Action is that the restructuring will get pushed aside.

        Struggling churches that don’t pay their apportionments or billings are supported by the rest of the churches that do pay. We need to make sure that accountability is introduced to that relationship. Easier said than done.

  3. I am an Episcopalian and love your blog because we seem to have the same problems. In my experience, some of the new comers we do get (young, 18-30) are not seeking discipleship either and of those that join many of them don’t want it either. They are seeking the wrong things and we offer them the wrong things.

  4. Hello Dear!
    Greetings in the name of Christ. I am Bishop I Paul chairman Pakmethodist Church, Executive member Bishop Council of Pakistan, General secretary Inter religious peace council. We are Reg. in Pakistan from 1950 and after 1970, we are working independently. We are working with 32 Pastors and 50 Evg(mail & female). There is a great need to work more please remember us in your prayers that may God give us resources.
    God bless you

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