United Methodist Preservation Society

The latest wave of announcements about our future are dismaying.  Not because they are negative, but because they are pedestrian.  We are not “rearranging deck-chairs on the Titanic,” as some assert; we are strategically planning and designing a Titanic upon which to rearrange deck-chairs.  The short-sighted, defensive, U.S.-centric, survival-mentality, institutional preservation teeny-tiny vision being presented is embarrassing in its narcissism.  It is all about us, and not in a good way.  Couched in rah-rah language, it is about money and property and power and control — not mission, ministry, God and Spirit.  I have been in communication with bishops, district superintendents, conference leaders, pastors and laity from over thirty conferences who are reading my blogs and encouraging me to continue raising the kinds of questions I do — but to what end?  The majority commend me for doing something they don’t feel comfortable or safe to do themselves.  People working on these study reports tell me about their misgivings, but they don’t raise them with those in power.  Hundreds of people are uncomfortable with the direction of the church, but we just keep moving down the path to same-old, same-old.

Tinkering is not the same as change.  Our need is for a new system, a new ethos, and a new vision.  Our hysterical need to hang onto “things” limits our potential to become something better.  We chose to become property and building bound, displace worship with performance, evangelism with marketing, and discipleship with membership — and until we decide to rescind these choices we are deluding ourselves.  Our assimilation and accommodation of popular cultural values at the cost of Christian spiritual integrity is the issue — not our structure and form.  Form follows function — until we decide to be a church again instead of “in the religion business,” not much is likely to change.  We can form all the task forces and study groups we want to, but this is symptomatic of our root problems, not a likely solution.

I recently observed an interesting event in microcosm that illustrates for me the larger problem.  A member of our Call to Action team presented and defended the report to a room full of United Methodists.  As more and more people voiced concerns, displeasure, and thoughtful questions about the report, the presenter got more and more defensive and evasive — actually refusing to answer some questions.  I raised the point that the recommendation isn’t even constitutional.  The person finally concluded comments with “you don’t understand what the Call to Action is actually proposing.  You need to just wait and see what happens and trust that we know what we’re doing.”  I came away with a clear message: don’t question, don’t challenge, don’t worry — just trust that those who have created our problems are the right people to solve them, even though the solutions being offered address the wrong problems.

These are merely my opinions — nothing more.  I have been told that I have not been invited into any of the studies in the denomination because people simply don’t want to hear what I have to say.  My reputation is that I “slow things down” because I am not “a team player.”  I can live with that — basically because I am in contact with dozens of people throughout our system who are in positions of influence who are seeking my counsel because they think I am asking the right questions.  What a weird situation.  I may not be popular with those at the top, but I am not alone in my concerns with what we are saying and where we are going.  This gives me hope.  Maybe enough of us will ask the right questions in enough places that real change will occur.

I close with an excerpt from an email I received from one of my colleagues at Vanderbilt Divinity School:

Thank you for your assessments of the ministry study, the call to action report, and the report on the global church — I shared them with my classes.  You seem to be one of the very few critical thinkers analyzing the long-term implications of the proposals and recommendations.  It is encouraging to know that there are people who can cut through all the rhetoric to clarify what really needs to be done.  I just wanted to let you know that I am spreading your good work, and teaching my classes not to take at face value the reports from the church.  Your critiques are invaluable.  Keep up the good work, and keep our feet to the fire.

31 replies

  1. Dan, I agree that the call to action is not the be-all, and end-all for how to do things, doing what we have been doing is a sure path to a slow death for the church.
    There are two factors that most people that are involved in this are missing, because we are involved and understand the problem although we might have a different take on things.
    The first factor is that this is not a lock-step marching order. Much will depend on how each bishop impliments changes in their area. I have really seen nothing that says that the data collected is all wrong. The big question is apparently how we deal with this. We are in a panic situation, the problem is particular to the church in the United States, and we really do have to fix our own part of the great fleet before we are so far gone that there is no hope for us, baring a miracle.
    The second factor is the one that most “involved” people seem to forget one important factor and that is the laity, or rather the majority of the laity. At least 95 percent of the laity of the church have no concept of what it really means to be United Methodist, They love their little church and being able to sit on their pew on Sunday Morning. And for heaven’s sake, don’t rock the boat. I believe you covered this in the piece on “Sleeping Dragons.” Many of these folks churches are now in the wrong place. They are in places where people once were but no longer are. Some of the people in these churches are living in the wrong century. They have not yet figured out that the Queen (Victoria) is dead.
    We need to make disciples but our system is focused on making church members. We need to get back our Wesleyan Class system, but most of our people have no idea what that is, and we need to focus on doing God’s business and quit worring so much about our pagen leanings, worshipping sacred plants of various sorts, and buildings built by long-dead ancestors.
    We do not have a lot of time from what I see, but as usual, we are going to “discuss” the issue until it passes us by. What we are consistantly doing is not unlike sitting on a railroad track, and believing that as long as we don’t look at the light that is getting ever larger, and as long as we keep our ears properly stuffed, that rumbling we feel will have nothing to do with us.

  2. There is a great deal of frustration in the population as the denomination attempts to reinvent itself. It’s good to remember a few things that are so obvious that they can easily be forgotten.

    1. Change is hard, but there is a science to it … that is largely ignored. The place to being is Everett Rogers classic Diffusion of Innovations. http://www.amazon.com/Diffusion-Innovations-5th-Everett-Rogers/dp/0743222091/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1319749186&sr=1-1

    It clearly explains what is wrong and what to do about it.

    2. Innovators prophesy to those in power, but usually aren’t running the show. Follow it up with Geoffrey Moore’s Crossing the Chasm, and you’ll see that another problem is that innovators don’t know how to communicate the ideas that will save the day to the pragmatic majority – http://www.amazon.com/Crossing-Chasm-Geoffrey-Moore/dp/0060517123/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1319749245&sr=1-1

    3. For those who would like a short cut, you might look at this parable I wrote: http://www.disciplewalk.com/parable_light_bulb_2.html

    I have great empathy for our leaders who feel a stewardship for our denomination at this crisis moment in our history. They must do SOMETHING beyond what they most want out of their nature as middle adopters … for things to run smoothly and for everyone to enjoy the journey. Sadly, it’s very, very, very hard to get a large organization to run smoothly in any direction except downward. But a change in direction begins not on a national scale, but as one person covenants with another, and then they covenant with others, to do what they can, here, now, to make this church a better church in the guidance of the spirit.

    I could do more, but I’ve got to get back to perfecting my own fusion bulb. Never needs changing and uses no electricity. If all goes well, I’ll get the tendency for it to explode under control real soon now.

  3. For what it is worth, I have found your thoughts about the inefficacy of the current church echoed by other voices–some I have collected off the UM Portal. Just yesterday I sent a collection of them to the top lay leader of my church which is stagnating. We are at the hand wringing “Why aren’t people coming?” and “If only we start accepting credit cards, all will be well.” stage. One lowly, bottom of the heap lay person’s puny effort. But I keep “chipping” away at it, becoming one local church’s own personal flea. A ray of hope is there is a home study group that expressed interest in delving into Steve Manskar’s “Accountable Discipleship: Living in God’s Household”. Please keep it up. I would have jumped ship otherwise.

  4. “They do their deeds to be seen by others; for they make their phylacteries broad and their fringes long. They love to have the place of honor at banquets and the best seats in the synagogues and to be greeted with respect in the marketplaces and to have people call them rabbi.” Matthew 23:5-7

  5. One more note…as I was engaged in discussions of my petition with one of the highest paid pastors in my conference, he suggested that he deserved his salary based on I Timothy 5:17–18, “Let the elders who rule well be considered worthy of double honor, especially those who labor in preaching and teaching: for the scripture says, ‘You shall not muzzle an ox when it is treading out the grain.”

    As I reflected on this passage, I realized that it describes my petition perfectly. Every pastor should earn enough so that he or she may tread out the grain without stress; and those who “rule well” should be worthy of double honor. EXACTLY!

    • The biographical information that I have read on John Wesley all indicates that he early learned that he could live on 30 pounds per year, and kept his expenditures to that level, even when his income rose significantly (over 1400 pounds one year) — the amount greater than 30 pounds would be given away. No, those were not inflationary time — but the point is that he lived modestly — he did not feel compelled to keep raising his personal standard of living.

  6. Dan, you and I are on such the same wavelength. As you know, I have been offering similar critiques from the point of view of an experienced, concerned layperson here in the North Texas Conference for the past three years. Nearly all of my predictions about the failure of the conference strategic plan, modeled on the earliest CTA reports, have come true. Our conference is in total disarray and our “core leadership team” has yet to produce anything of substance.

    Like you, I also have been shut out of the church’s processes and I’m not the only one. We who resist the corporate onslaught have been argued with, laughed it, criticized and derided to such a point that I no longer attend annual conference. I almost did not renew my certified lay speaker’s status this year after 18 years in the office.

    Since so many of us who hold similar doubts about the Call to Action, ministry study etc., are being shut out of the political process, what would you say to an “Occupy General Conference” movement modeled on Occupy Wall Street? It would mean risking civil disobedience, but what choice have we left?

    I’d love to hear from others about what actions we might take beyond commending Dan for his faithfulness and insights.

    • Cynthia and all,

      I, too, have been trying to imagine ways to actively resist the Call to Action. It may be that de-occupying GC is what we need to do, joining with our delegates to hit the streets en masse to do real ministry in a hurting world. Show the church and the world what really matters and what’s really worth measuring….

      And maybe I’ll never get another appointment for saying this, but what if we all refuse to participate in the weekly “dashboard” updates? Or design metrics that make sense in our local contexts, and send those in instead?

      • Remember this is God’s church. If we follow His will, He will sustain us. If we do not, then we should perish and make way for those who will do His will. Let us pray and seek His will, be obedient, and let God take care of the future. let us be careful in our leading, always remembering James 3:1.

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