C is for…

But I’m just a soul whose intentions are good,

Oh, Lord!  Please don’t let me be misunderstood.

Bennie Benjamin, Gloria Caldwell & Sol Marcus

I received an email from a woman in Texas — I do seem to irritate people from Texas more than from any other state (right, Don Underwood?) — who hit me with a bit of an ultimatum:

Why do you stay Methodist when it is obvious you think the leaders are ignorant and incapable?  You are wasting a slot at General Conference.  Are you planning to disrupt the good work there as well?  It seems that you work hard to hurt the church you say you love.  If you love the United Methodist Church, the best thing you could do for it is leave.  We would all be better off.

I am glad this woman acknowledges that I love my church.  I certainly do.  This is the only reason I am critical of the short-sighted and irrational decisions that are being made.  My criticism that we sold our soul to secular consultants to tell us who we are and what we ought to be doing is indeed severe, but no less true.  I worked for an agency where the leadership had no clue what to do, so they paid exorbitant amounts of money to outsiders to tell them, and it did them no good whatsoever.  I will never agree that this egregious waste of World Service dollars was wise.  But I say these things because I love the church, and I want us to be better.  The selfish and ego-centric nature of the Call to Action, Ministry Study, restructuring and the global church?  All exactly the same thing.  However, for those who have not paid attention to my whole message, I have not simply criticized the insipid and nonsensical, but have offered my perspective on what might be done instead.

There are five changes I would propose to our current direction.  Change begins with the letter “C”, and so do my five suggestions.  They are nothing more than my opinions, therefore they can be taken at face-value — ignore them, embrace them, mock them, or praise them as you will.

  1. connection — ideally, we are a connectional church, but that is in name only.  We are disconnected, and sadly, we like it that way.  We are in competition with every other church — not just those of other denominations, but with our own UM neighbors.  If they gain, we lose.  We rarely work together, and when we do it is sporadic and occasional.  We don’t know one another.  Most people want their own church, and they want their own pastor to pay attention only to them.  Yet, what an opportunity we have to connect and to create synergy.  Each individual local congregation has such constraints and limitations to making an impact on the huge issues of the day.  But together?  We could accomplish so much more.  We could be so much more.  If we would only commit (another “C” word) to working together, to strengthening our relationships and connections, we could truly change our communities (“C”) and world.
  2. congregation — “us.”  The congregation has become our whole reality.  In congregations it is all about us.  We want things our way.  We want to be served.  We want to be cared for.  We want to be comforted.  We want what we want.  We congregate — come together — but not to be changed, not to grow, not to be challenged.  Congregation is a passive and inert concept.  But congregating is not an end, but a means to an end.  We “flock together” (the original meaning) to prepare for action, not to sit and be served.  Our gathering is not the destination, but the place where we are equipped to be the body of Christ for others.  If we viewed our congregations as means to ends rather than ends in themselves (hmmm, how can we get more butts in our pews on a Sunday morning/Saturday night?  If we have lots, we’re doing great!!), we could focus on those who most deeply care about God’s will and we could make a huge impact.
  3. church — not a building, not an institution, not an organization, not a location.  Church is us, and we need to reframe church from where we go to who we are.  We are much too attached to OUR buildings, OUR services, OUR programs, OUR pastors, OUR money, OUR property.  All of this is of lesser importance than becoming a kinder, more loving, more merciful, more tolerant, more patient, and more giving people.  Church should change us for the better.  Church needs to stop accommodating the self-centered and self-interested among us, and hold us accountable to a higher standard of Christian conduct and values.
  4. conference — the annual conference of The United Methodist Church is not a governance system, a business organization, a polity producer, or a police state.  It should be a sacred covenant (important “C” word) relationship that binds us together in mutual admiration, respect, support, accountability and worship.  We should be creating a culture of compassion, care and concern for one another.  Christian conference is not about making decisions, but about casting vision.  It is a time to discern God’s presence, power, and provision.  What is wrong with us that we have made it all about business?  Are we truly so arrogant and narcissistic?
  5. community of faith — why is it that we in the church don’t know the meaning of the word “community?”  Why do we allow the cultural values of competition, conflict, condescension, contempt, and corrosion (all bad “C” words) to drive us instead of the Christian values of compassion, care, concern, creativity, and collaboration (good “C” words).  If we would make the conscious decision to commit to build community, we could be so much better.  It’s all about relationships and our desire to be better than we are.

With all due respect to the woman who wants me to leave the church, I simply don’t want to.  I believe in the church, and I believe it should be so much better and so much more than the shallow and superficial imitation that we are being asked to adopt through our Call to Action.  I want those who really care about the church to speak up, stand up, and fight for something more.  I just don’t want to one day lament the “C” of what we Could have been…

13 replies

  1. When I read your thoughts, I am glad that you kind of tip over the old egg basket. When you sit in your pew and sing “Just as I am.” We really want to stay just as I am-in church-with the doors closed. When you hear Jesus say-“Go into the world”, do you say,”You first Christ.”

  2. I’m sure that Jesus and most of the prophets got similar letters from faithful Jewish folks all the time, so Dan is in good company.

    I keep bringing this up, so perhaps it is my purpose – the best scientific, sociological study of systemic change is Everett Rogers “The Diffusion of Innovations” and a second is Geoffrey Moore’s “Crossing the Chasm.” (A distant third is Peter Senge’s The Fifth Discipline.)

    I believe that anyone who takes the time to read these resources with a view to applying the to church situations would conclude two things –

    – first, that there are many parallels between what they advise and what Jesus did, which explains why the early church did succeed. You can also see parallels in Wesley, rapidly growing churches and evangelistic movements – these principles explain why change and growth happened, and contradict many common assumptions about their success.

    – second, that the way leaders are attempting to change the church is contradicted by the science in this matter and is therefore guaranteed to fail. This is not an exaggeration – the methods utilized in the hope of changing the church system for the better are precisely those that DO NOT WORK. And, yes, this means that the methods proposed in most books on evangelism, church leadership and books on leadership in general DO NOT WORK.

    So much of what we think is certain about systemic change is simply not true. For example, the myth is that what we need for change is leadership – in reality, what is needed is just the opposite: management. (Peter Senge, The Fifth Discipline, 101-102 – management is a function of the balancing loop.) When it comes to innovation, by the time EVERYONE knows something to be true, it is no longer true … it’s been superceded by the next innovation starting at the fringe.

    Everytime I encounter another well meaning uninformed church leader challenging us to “take risks in mission” and denigrating maintenance, I feel like the early researchers pleading with the surgeons to wash their hands before operating. It’s not that surgery isn’t needed, or that the surgical procedure isn’t the correct one … success lies in the whole context of how we do it, and we are missing systemic factors upon which success depends.

    Sorry if my words offend, but this is a contrarian viewpoint…

    • I have been preaching “both/and” from the beginning. Good systems theory is going to bring as much to the table as possible and not create false dichotomies, like leadership or management, but will acknowledge that they are both critical facets of a larger whole. When I talk about a “maintenance mentality,” I am not talking about attending to the core basics, I am talking about the irrational process of maintaining the status quo that brought us to this place in the first place, and/or the frantic pursuit to do more of what we are already doing poorly. I have been a loud voice to attend to the basics and get the system in order so that it might produce different results. This is the heart of my criticism: we want the sub-optimized, compromised, and dysfunctional system to produce radically different results, and all we are doing to the system is giving it a paint job and a tune-up to help it do the wrong things more efficiently.

      • Dan, I have nothing but appreciation for the work you are doing to bring the needs in front of the body. Along the way you’ve taken quite a few undeserved hard knocks.

        I personally feel, however – and this is not at all about you but about the disastrous situation you are being prophetic toward – that awareness of these resources would be very, very helpful.

        So (as I noted) it seems to be my role simply to bring up the titles of the resources that have been so helpful to me in understanding the situation we face. I believe they would be helpful to many people.

        When I speak of leaders calling for risky risk taking, I’m not talking about Dan Dick. I wish I had a dollar for every time I hear a pep rally call for us to bet the farm on some new untested innovation that is “guaranteed” to reverse the trend of decades of decline – along with the implication that any who question the innovation are unspiritual, disloyal, ignorant or just plain backward if we don’t comply. Some make their request with great wisdom, gentleness and forethought – many just love a gamble. But if you work harder at digging a hole in the wrong place, all you get is deeper in a hole.

      • I am right there with you. Everett Rogers’ book is brilliant and pushes against the fragmented “focus on the parts” mentality that leads us to reactionary, incomplete, and inefficient responses to systemic problems. Our leadership is not currently looking at the big picture to ask what we need to do to create health and vitality, they are merely deciding what problems to address to keep us from dying tomorrow. It is a terribly frustrating place to be, because so many promises are being made that we cannot deliver on if we follow the simplistic thinking so many are presently espousing.

        Keep recommending the good resources. Perhaps some true wisdom and critical thinking will prevail.

  3. Dan, you continue to give me hope. If we had more leaders like you, who were courageous enough to name our deficiencies and offer ways to correct them, the whole UMC would be better off. Reading your blog is often the highlight of my day.

    Cynthia Astle

    PS I live in Texas, so we’re not all down on you!

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