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. Your first paragraph reminded me of the Dilbert cartoons. The Pointy Headed Boss is always making ridiculous proclamations that have everyone rolling their eyes.

    On a more serious note, we should never confuse a specific organized church with the Universal Church. We believe we are a part of the most faithful, but the organized church suffers from many of the same maladies of other organizations. Size causes certain problems. Division presents others. It probably isn’t possible but a civil and friendly division along the lines of disagreement might cause both parts to begin growing again. Each one could proclaim the gospel with a different emphasis and God could be glorified by both. And both sides could feel like they were the most faithful. A win-win.

    Just a dream. God bless the UMC.

    Grace and peace.

  2. The unanimous support is public relations, as far as I can tell.

    The bishops and other leaders of the church are too intelligent to not notice some of the same issues that many commenters here and elsewhere have raised.

    • This use of public relations, if that is what it is, may suggest that we need to be misled for our own good? That just does not seem to be the way to lead. I must be looking at this the wrong way.

  3. Dan, it would be helpful to see you on the interim operations team cited in the article. It was curious that this article was posted from Panama.

  4. Dan,
    it might be helpful to me to see where “unanimous support” for the Call to Action is announced.
    I do appreciate the skepticism about the usefulness of studies that seem to be going over the same old ground we’ve gone over before.
    In peace,
    Wes Stanton

  5. The problem with our denomination and for that matter, all mainline denominations, is the failure to grasp the radical nature of the cultural shift that has taken place in America. While folks remain “religious” their connection to “organized religion” is quite fragile. A large number of our members through the years were cultural Christians whose activity in the church was contingent upon the social capital they would receive through their participation. Fewer and fewer folk feel they can gain the social capital they desire through participation in the life of a local church. Combine this with the misuse of the Christian faith by various political groups has produced a backlash against organized religion. Many not only feel religion is irrelevant to their personal life but a major part of the problem. They see religion as the source of war, conflict, and division between people rather than the source of peace, hope, joy and love. Witness, for example, the rise of a new atheism in our time given voice in books such as “God Is Not Great – How Religion Poisons Everything” by Christopher Hitchens. The current cultural shift represents a massive breakdown in “community” at every level of our social existence. The breakdown is global as well as national. This shift will bring smaller numbers of folks “in church” regardless of our response. The real choice here is whether or not we will remain true to the Gospel meta-narrative that describes what we are called to be as true disciples of Jesus Christ.

    Consider this story. A pastor was approached by one of the long term and faithful members of the congregation who said, “Pastor, this church in not what it used to be.” The pastor replied: “This church has never been what it was called to be so let’s move forward in faith until it becomes what God called it to be and the Kingdom of God comes in all its glory.”

    Much of what we are trying to accomplish represents an attempt to return to the glory days of years gone by to make the institutional church strong again by doing the same things better. This is a strategy that has proved to be ineffective throughout history. We can not reproduce the past. Blaming clergy, church members, DSs, and bishop offers not hope but will only deepen the divisions.

    Where do we begin? I would start where the faithful have always started in time of crisis. We must begin with fervent prayer to ask God to give us a clear picture of who we really are and what God calls us to be. At the same time, I would call on denominational leaders to do whatever is possible to heal broken relationships and build true community at every level of our structure.

    In the end, revival will not come from trickle down spirituality. As always, It will come from the grass roots. God will move in our midst and bring a revival that will restore the vitality and proper place of Christ’s Church in this world.

  6. Larry, maybe an example occurred at our Council meeting last night. Concerned that our church needs to be revitalized, the Council Chair insisted that we look at a list of programs and pick one and do it. I suggested that first we think of the kind of people whose lives we want to change. He didn’t get it. He doesn’t want to help grow disciples; he just wants the church to feel like it’s booming, even if it’s just another craft fair.

    When Jesus cleared out the temple he wasn’t “cleansing” it. He was stopping the system.
    “He wouldn’t allow anyone to carry anything (sacrifices) through the temple”(Mk. 11.16). He was changing the established religious system in response to God’s plea: “I desire mercy, not sacrifice” (Hosea 6.6, which Jesus quotes in Mt. 9.13 & 12.17). In order to “re-think” church we have to be open to RE-DOING more of it than we might be wiling at first. When Jesus says”tear down this temple and I will build it in three days” he is inviting us into the death and resurrection of the Church. I think our leaders —not just D.S.’s and Bishops but also me and my clergy colleagues—have to model some fearless repentance. Where do we start? Probably not by “re-thinking,” but going deeper. Re-praying.

    I don’t see the Spirit coming from the top down. Like Luther and Wesley, I think it’s fruitless to try to get the Pope or the Archbishop or General Conference or the College of Bishops to see the light. Just haul off and do the Gospel. The more energy I put into that, regardless of the System, the more authentic I feel. I really want to stay in touch with those who are “re-praying” the church.

    • Thank you, Steve. One of the pastors from the Mexican Methodist Church said that they did not know how to do social services and wanted to learn from us at Casa Bugambilia. Our response was to invite them to be with us as we responded to people who are ill but untreated or abandoned or struggle in some other way. We made sure that we did not claim to be about social services but were trying to respond in a loving manner to the one struggling or suffering. Our little group at some point felt like we were participating in some way as the UMC wrote of in that paragraph 122. Despite having no relationship with the UMC other than as volunteers who are members of local UMC churches, I think the challenge for us at Casa Bugambilia is to learn how to be more involved with the Core Process as Dan has described previously. Your note today and Dan’s contributions help us in that. Thanks.

  7. I am a volunteer in Matamoros, Mexico and look forward to reading your posts, Dan. They help me understand more about official leaders of the UMC and how the UMC can be perceived. Being a service provider versus a disciple maker may mean the UMC is off its mission. When I tried to translate that here for friends, I was asked for examples of being a service provider and examples of being a disciple maker. I have not answered yet, because I do not know enough. If you are someone else could help with a source or a short explanation, I would appreciate it. Please also know that a note you gave last March about our Core Process is being used in our approach to the bishop of the Mexican Methodist Church about a collaboration with its pastors and members and our albergue called Casa de la Misericordia Bugambilia. Cuidate mucho!

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