The Folly of Form-Focus

I have been asked by a number of people to comment on the 2009-2012 Study of Ministry Commission Report & Recommendations.  This I am about to do, but I need to set up the criteria by which I am judging the current effort.  There are three fundamental lenses (if you will) that I read through, and if you disagree with any of the three, my opinions won’t carry much weight:

  1. form actually NEEDS to follow function
  2. predicating recommendations upon unchallenged assumptions results in more of what we already have
  3. laying exclusive bias as your foundation risks a house of cards

Examples of each:

  1. when I chaired the denomination’s task force on the relationship of science and theology, I spent a lot of time with biologists, geneticists, computer programmers and artificial intelligence mavens who pointed out that discipleship is about transactivation, not transformation — we are not seeking a change of form, but one of function and reach.  A caterpillar does not become a butterfly, then try to figure out what it is supposed to do.  The organic function changes and the form follows to allow it to fulfill its function.  A change of form does not necessarily bring about a deeper change at the core, but a fundamental change at the core always alters form.  And the beauty of transactivation is that it is genetic and viral — changing the individual organism as well as the genus.  We actually want to make disciples for the transactivation of the world.  Messing around with form without attending to function is essentially a waste of time.  (Keep in mind for later…)
  2. throughout history, people have actually starved to death because of false beliefs about “unclean” and “unsafe foods.”  Because everyone knew a food was poisonous or prohibited, when it came time to eat or starve, some chose to starve.  What we decide to be true shapes all our subsequent thinking, and when we begin from the idea that our normal way of operating is right, then our suggestions for change lack any real power to change anything.
  3. have we learned nothing from the 19th and 20th century gender wars?  Making the experience of some the general assumption for all is the worst possible form of paternalism.  Whenever we equate “Methodism” (in all its forms) with a “Wesleyan heritage” we are making fools of ourselves — especially since so much of what we have decided in the last few decades is “Wesleyan” would not be recognized by Wesley himself.  Our lack of a solid knowledge of our WHOLE history is leading us to some very unfortunate recommendations.

Okay, so here goes nothing.

First, I am fascinated by the statement on page 1 that, “Beyond context, our theology is always shaped by our call to mission and Christian experience.”  Granted that the “Wesleyan quadrilateral” has nothing much to do with Wesley, it is fascinating that a commission who claims to be Wesleyan in nature wouldn’t begin by reminding us that “our call to mission and Christian experience are grounded in and formed by our shared theology.”  But if function follows form, this makes perfect sense.  The question that is muddied and confused throughout the report and recommendations can be summarized this way:  “Is what we do (and how we do it) an extension of who we are, or is who we are defined by what we do (and how we do it)?”  Another way of asking this question is, “Does our structure and our practices define our identity and purpose or does our identity and purpose define our structure and practices?”  My read of the report is that structure and practices are the drivers.  There is no questioning about the efficacy of itineracy in the 21st century, whether our definitions of the functions of different offices have integrity, whether an appointive process designed for a 19th century reality is appropriate today, or what needs to happen beyond credentialing to cultivate first-rate leadership (apart from transitioning out those who should never have been “in” in the first place.  The foundational question of core criteria for credentialing is taken for granted.  What we are already doing that isn’t working isn’t part of the report.  Getting more young candidates into the broken system is a higher concern than the broken system itself.  The flawed logic that, “if we only get the form right, everything else will fall into place,” is endemic to almost all of our current reports and recommendations.

I understand the need for a focus on “ordained” ministry, but the ambivalence and ambiguity imbedded in the report as to the nature and expectation of the ministry of the baptized versus those “set apart” is a clear indication of the current cultural problem.  Ordination is not inclusion into the secret society — and it is fascinating to see how the report includes local pastors, who are one of the most marginalized and disregarded segments of “professionalized” ministry — and placing comments such as “Through the offices of Deacon, Elder, Bishop, and Local Pastor the church has the necessary leadership to meet the challenges of a new age,” under “Called by God,” is about the most disrespectful affront to laity leadership I have ever seen.  This from a group promoting a “Wesleyan heritage!”

The tinkering nature of the report (revising processes, streamlining, recommending improvements) at a time when the church needs massive and tectonic CHANGE is incredibly disappointing and disheartening.  Once again, the message is: what we have isn’t working and it hasn’t worked for a long time… so let’s keep doing it with a few ill-defined modifications.  The report is filled with a laundry list of “whats,” but very little “how.”  Once more, the buzzword of the hour — accountability — is tossed in for good measure, but it is never defined.  In our current denominational structure, there is one area of accountability that is a total joke: continuing education.  Education is not an end in itself, but a means to an end.  We have pastors who are functioning at less than full capacity.  What is the process to make sure our ordained leaders are learning what they MUST know in order to be effective?  Do we take advantage of it?  Do we hold one another accountable?  Do our congregations hold us accountable?  Are we serious about accountability?  No, instead we only offer meager suggestions to get more under-functioning pastors on transitional leave status.  Great idea.

Oh, and we haven’t fully figured out what a commissioned status needs to look like, so let’s abandon it instead of stepping back and asking the form follows function question.  If we were clear on what we absolutely must do in ministry as The United Methodist Church, the questions about who needs to be doing what with what particular training and credentialing would be pretty obvious.  We lost our focus, so we don’t know who should be doing what with which authority.  So let’s adopt a pre-modern approach to the post-modern world.

The best parts of the new report are the quotes from the 2005-2008 study.  Much that needed addressing was raised in the earlier report.  The flaw in the earlier work was the irrational logic that our need for better educated, more experienced, more spiritually grounded clergy could best be attained by shortening the process for credentialing with lowered expectations and less supervision.  There has been a consistent sense that “mentoring” would be a good idea, but the content and form of such a relationship, with clearly defined outcomes and expectations, never materializes.

The whole issue of guaranteed appointments comes to the fore again, and the recommendation to do away with them is based on a set of spurious conclusions about their negative impact on mission.  There is absolutely no direct correlation between security and complacency — our excellent pastors are currently in guaranteed appointments.  A quick survey of other denominations shows that competition and the motivation to survive don’t make that much difference.  Let’s be honest: the reason we want to do away with guaranteed appointments is economic, not ecclesial.  The sad thread running through the current report is the need to change our form (structures and processes) because we don’t have a clear sense of function, which allowed us to create poor structures in the first place.

When I wrote the FaithQuest Bible Study, I had the opportunity to totally immerse myself in the writings of John Wesley.  One of the earliest and deepest insights gained is that there is no such thing as a “Wesleyan theology” — not if you mean a coherent, systematic theology that holds an internal integrity.  Wesley was not a creative thinker; he was a brilliant synthesizer.  He brought disparate pieces together and offered new and different perspectives, but with little consistency or durability.  A chronological reading of Wesley’s sermons, letters and journals reveals a series of “Wesleyan theologies” that evolved and metamorphosed over time.  It is nigh-on impossible to conflate or combine his thinking over time without ignoring some substantial contradictions.  For this reason, I am never sure what is meant by “Wesleyan theology.”  (Unless Hal Knight or Randy Maddox clearly define the parameters of a specific Wesleyan focus…)

So, I am not overly impressed by the report.  What was I looking for that I did not find?

  1. a systems approach — for me, here are the key components for an ordination journey:
    1. a discernment process including personal introspection and communal and corporate confirmation
    2. an exploration process with mentoring and guidance (candidacy)
    3. an educational preparation process — where is there anything about our seminaries and the fundamental credentialing components at the academic level in this report???
    4. an examination process designed to identify gifts, propensities, competencies, knowledge and experience for ministry grounded in a clear set of criteria that is not used as a vetting process as much as a training and support process
    5. a testing and training phase that leads to recommendation to ordination
    6. an ongoing peer accountability process with qualitative evaluation, impacting continuing education and appointment
  2. critical thinking — the implications of continuing on our current path without examination of our core concepts
    1. reevaluate itineracy
    2. reevaluate our definitions of offices and orders
    3. reevaluate our appointive process
    4. reevaluate our entire connectional identity in light of 21st century, global realities
    5. reevaluate our pedantic and patronizing view of lay ministry
    6. acknowledge and embrace the theologies of our whole United Methodist heritage
    7. quit looking to the past to create an adequate structure for the future
  3. a theological foundation — to say our sense of mission and experience defines our theology is sad.  The lack of a theological foundation and identity speaks volumes to the current state of The United Methodist Church — and to merely parrot “Wesleyan theology” without indicating what this means is disheartening.
  4. lack of substantiation or basis — “the commission has listened to a variety of constituencies”
    1. I visited the Board of Higher Education and Ministry in Nashville last week, as well as speaking with some folks from our other Nashville-based boards and agencies.  Not one of the people I spoke with said they had any input into the study — no one listened to them, even though many are intimately connected to the very issues raised in the report.  To date, I have spoken to seventeen director level employees of our boards and agencies, and not one of them feels this report addresses the real problems.  What are “the real” problems?  Let me share a few pieces of information from a study I did in 2005 that included over 400 pastors from West Michigan, Iowa, California-Pacific, and Tennessee conferences.
      • 91% of ordained clergy thought their candidacy program was “poor” to “very poor”
      • 82% of ordained clergy do not feel that seminary adequately prepared them for pastoral ministry
      • 74% of ordained clergy feel that their congregations expect them to do ministry for the church instead of equipping the members to be in ministry together
      • 68% of ordained clergy feel that the ordination interview process is designed to make sure candidates fit preconceived roles and types
      • 66% of local pastors feel that they are treated as “second class” pastors
      • 51% of pastors feel that the ordination process should be more rigorous
      • 7% of pastors feel that the ordination process helped them improve as pastoral leaders
      • 4% of pastors think that their conference takes continuing education seriously
  5. practical considerations — why more young people are not pursuing ministry…
    1. if you want to professionalize ministry, make it competitive to other careers – quit pretending that money doesn’t matter
    2. if you want to improve the credibility and restore the relevancy of ministry, raise the bar (don’t lower it)
    3. make the academia fit the vocation — address the pompous seminary attitudes that say “we don’t train pastors, we create academicians!”
    4. don’t spend time trying to figure out how to get rid of pastors who should never have been ordained in the first place; create systems that put the right people in the right vocation to begin with
    5. student pastor debt load
    6. as long as you bad mouth second career leadership as inferior to young leadership you will effectively lost both

Okay, I will close this critique with someone else’s observation — not just about this report but the report on the nature of the global church and the call to action as well.  For me, it is spot on, and it comes from an associate general secretary:

We really can’t see the forest for the trees any more.  Everything we envision is tiny.  We want to find the simplest solution to enormous problems, and it boggles the mind.  How can so many smart, dedicated, well-meaning people keep coming up with such bad ideas?  And the saddest thing?  When this all falls apart these same people won’t have a clue how it happened.  They won’t see that rearranging the pieces isn’t really doing anything of value at all.  All the time, all the money, all the effort — all aimed at the wrong things.

26 replies

  1. Thanks for the broad concerns as well as the topic-by-topic reactions. I can see the areas that were not clear to me before, and especially the concern about “tinkering” resonates with me. I’ll need to sit with your response a while longer to determine next steps, but I truly appreciate having your analysis to consider.

  2. Hi Dan,
    interesting thoughts, but 2 and 3 above need more. Under 2: Critical thinking – What do you see as the problem(s) with the “current path” that your re-evaluations will/should address? Under 3: a theological foundation – you define the problem but offer no solution. What, in your opinion, are the critical theological foundation points that need to be driven home?
    Thanks for a thought-provoking article. I am the parent of an M.Div. student and find this very interesting.

  3. The world is in the middle of a huge change in communication system, from print to digital. The last time this happened, with Gutenberg, it spawned the Reformation and a hundred years of war. But this change is bigger yet, and all these flailings around are, I believe, reactions to it. Folks are literally at sea, and fiddling with the rudder without realizing that the ship is hitting an iceberg.

    • John,

      I read your post, and am glad you offer an alternative perspective. My only disagreement is that returning to the hard work is the only way forward, and settling for the distasteful complacency and cowardice of our current recommendations to the general church are merely the path to a slow and embarrassing demise. If we must go out, let us go out with fire in our souls rather than awkward timidity and insipid management masquerading as leadership.

  4. I think that the last two sections, “Sacramental Authority,” and “Orders of Ministry,” is finally a realistic proposal that balances with integrity both our catholic understanding of ministry orders and our commitment to meeting missional need. It potentially provides a framework that acknowledges and defines the gifts of local pastors while maintaining the integrity of our sacraments and the office of the elder. The “Earlier Ordination” section serves the same end in my mind. I’m very positively inclined toward those three sections and intend to support their recommendations in Tampa. I believe there is a great spiritual and practical cost to our unclarity about ministry orders and especially our careless authorization of persons to celebrate Holy Communion.

    I’m with you in being somewhat unimpressed with the rest. I can take it or leave it.

  5. Posts like this are the reason I read your blog, friend. There’s so much going on, and so little listening being done by the “powers-that-be,” that I’m honestly concerned that things are “fixin’ to get a whole lot worse.” Thank you for being our voice. I wish some of them would hear you.
    Oh, and by the by…..”as long as you bad mouth second career leadership as inferior to young leadership you will effectively lost both.” Thank you for saying that. I’m in my second year of seminary, working with a number of other second career folks, and it’s a bit disturbing just how much the conferences are chasing younger clergy and ignoring us. Proof I’m called? They haven’t chased me away, I’m not going anywhere.

    Thanks again.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s