Well, what do you know, I basically agree with the General Secretaries of our General Boards and Agencies (with a few exceptions): we should be very clear about the missional outcomes we are trying to produce before we determine the best structure to adopt. Amazing. There are some in the church that actually believe that what we are trying to accomplish should impact how we structure to do our work. Knowing who we are, why we exist, and what we need to do all precedes the discussion of how to do it! Brilliant. A history of tinkering with a broken system and then trying to figure out what to do with it may actually come to an end… Nah, that’s hoping for too much. We won’t actually change the system — we will merely rearrange what doesn’t work into new configurations that don’t work, then wonder why. That, my friends, is the Methodist way.
Not that it has always been the Methodist way. We actually are only a generation removed from a denomination-wide exploration of systems thinking, critical analysis, theological reflection, and missional focus. It has only been in the few years since we hired secular consultants to tell us what our “brand” ought to be that we lost our minds and determined that downsizing and best practices are the solutions to all our problems. The ray of hope that systems thinking brought us quickly dimmed however for two simple reasons. First, we would have to actually change and make some hard decisions. Second, it would be hard work and we would have to take our faith very seriously. Making disciples would displace keeping believers happy and comfortable. We would have to share power with our southern neighbors. We would actually have to resolve some differences around theology and the authority of scripture. We might have to even change General Conference from a legislative policy process to a missional discernment and visionary engagement process. When faced with the hard work, we opted for the path of least resistance. Now, once again, we are faced with hard realities, and instead of being prepared, we are operating in our traditional reactive mode. All so unnecessary.
It has been fascinating to watch the response of our invested leaders in critique and complaint about the work of the Connectional Table, The Call to Action, The Ministry Study, and our ruminations on a global church. Open dialogue vs. defensive posturing. Critical thinking vs. mindless endorsement. Public praise vs. private contempt and despair. A growing consensus that none of this will fly vs. an irrational defense of the quality of the proposals. Censorship and denial of negative voices vs. a hyper-elevation of the random pockets of praise. Where is there an openness to working together to come to a synergistic and sustainable improved solution? What will the atmosphere be by the time we convene in Tampa? Will all sides and opinions be committed to raising the bar and working together for a true solution or will we be arranged in competing camps with fragmented agenda and turf to protect?
I keep using the metaphor of the Emperor’s New Clothes and I have been in regular dialogue with bishops retired and active, associate general secretaries, lay leaders, conference counterparts, and seminary professors who are all in agreement with the basic sentiment and who are all raising a similar question: why are we allowing clearly inadequate solutions and proposals to be crammed down our throats? When did this become about political posturing and weird territoriality? This is all our church. It is in trouble. It needs the best and brightest working together. It needs to show the business consultants the door. And it needs to knuckle down and do the hard work of envisioning a viable and sustainable future. We do not need to be asking what form should we take until we answer the question why are we here? Assuming the old answers suffice is not enough. Where is the leadership? Where is the vision? Why are we not being asked to spend serious time on our knees in prayer and deep contemplation? Why are we not drawing our metaphors and images from our scripture instead of marketing firms? Why are we not fasting? Why is our conversation all about cutting and reducing and downsizing and denying voices and races and generations. Why is all our focus on what we are not, and what we have lost, and what we cannot do? We are fixated on the wilderness and surviving in the wilderness and getting through the wilderness, but there is no talk about a Promised Land. We are committed to our own survival without any good explanation why our survival is worthwhile.
Should we eliminate waste? Should our boards and agencies make some serious cuts in the short-term? Should we be working constantly to become the best church we can be? Without question. I have never opposed the need for a Call to Action, a Connectional Table, or any of the other reports and recommendations we are working on. My criticisms have all been along the lines of noting that people say our boat is sinking and that our solution should be to give it a new coat of paint. Wrong solution to the problem… or sometimes good solutions but applied to the wrong problems. We have been looking to those outside our church for counsel on how to be our church and we have been steered down some interesting pathways. When faced with critical issues about our identity, we hired marketing firms to focus us on our image. When faced with poor results and dismal outcomes, we hired consultants who focused us on our product instead of our processes; our structures instead of our systems. In so many ways it feels like our church had a heart attack and has been sent to a plastic surgeon for treatment.
A few years ago, our bishops starting talking about “a Methodist way.” I wonder what they meant? If by the Methodist way, we mean a systemic commitment to live the means of grace and to equip people to live in a stable balance of works of piety and acts of mercy, I think we have the basis upon which to build a future. But if the Methodist way is to be reactive to the whims of our secular culture and to set our missional priorities and our performance goals on the basis of the money available and the number of people attending worship, then we have already determined our fate. Branding and dashboards and defining health in terms of size give me little hope that the Methodist way means the former. And if we waste any more time on the latter there won’t be anything left to “re-form”.