Reform or Refunction?

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”.

28 replies

  1. While I appreciate the commentary Dan. I wonder if blogging isn’t adding more fuel to the fire (and not real solutions). The thing is the general church is just feeling the pinch of what the local churches are. We aren’t making disciples for the most part and it is evident from our numbers to our finances.

    For example latest figures show that the average United Methodist gives less than 1.3% of their income. If we measure discipleship by that fruit everyone would have to admit a failure.

    Most churches in our conference spend less than 5% of the budget in missions. Fewer than 40 have sent out any VIM missionaries. If we measure discipleship by that fruit…again failure.

    It is time the United Methodist Church faced some stark realities and I believe that was a huge part of what the CTA and Ministry documents were trying to do.

    Here is another fact I discovered this year…60% of the MINISTERS in my district ONLY show up at their church on SUNDAY. (And yes this number INCLUDES ordained elders!) Again…failure…

    While the CTA, ministry documents are “attempts” to do something and have their own shortcomings. Surely we have to actually DO something or things will remain the same(or in more likely hood get worse) for another 4 years

  2. Systems thinking reminds us that our Input is people and the desired Output is disciples. The question we should be asking is this: “How are disciples made?” Most pastors/churches never seriously ask that question. They certainly do not focus their resources here. What should a disciple-making factory look like? The denomination should be focusing on helping local church leaders understand the importance of this quesiton and how it can help the church build these “factories.” Of course, for a “systems thinker” this is self-evident but ITS STILL NOT HAPPENING!. BTW Dr. Jones dedicated himself to doing this.

  3. It is the pervading law of all things organic and inorganic,
    Of all things physical and metaphysical,
    Of all things human and all things super-human,
    Of all true manifestations of the head,
    Of the heart, of the soul,
    That the life is recognizable in its expression,
    THAT FORM EVER FOLLOWS FUNCTION. This is the law.

    American Architect, Louis Sullivan, 1898

    We obsess over the form of our ministry and never question it’s function. When was the last time we seriously considered the function of our worship and not its form.

    General Conference is like Brigadoon which only existed for one day every 100 years. Only the General Conference speaks for the United Methodist Church and it only exists for two weeks every four years. As long as our function is to preserve the status quo as defined in the 18th and 19th centuries, then our form suits us just fine and doesn’t need changing.

    General Conference needs to be replaced with a permanent, broad-based legislative body that can speak every day and provide functional leadership instead of dysfunctional forms. We also need to do away with the legalisms of a Judicial Council. The Book of Discipline is not the Torah and we’re not Pharisees!

  4. As Dr. Barry Bryant teaches, part of our problem is trying to define ourselves by the “quadrilateral” described by Outler (God bless him) rather than a truly Wesleyan quadrilateral. We need to focus on Acts of Worship, Devotion, Mercy and Justice as the truly Methodist quadrilateral. Doing so is being faithful to Christ and being truly Methodist. Our focus needs to be on this quadrilateral and not on numbers, growth, or any other secular measure of “success”. We need to reclaim our heritage, restore accountability groups, follow Taylor Burton-Edwards outline of church/parachurch structure and trust God that a remnant is all that is needed to be faithful.

  5. I submit that General Conference and the Call to Action, etc. are meaningful only to those whose rice bowls are being affected. I would bet that fewer than 10% of our UMC members could name our bishop or have any idea what the United Methodist Discipline is. For most of them, General Conference, if they have ever head of it at all, is where Methodists go periodically to argue about homosexual ordination. Even if General Conference had the solution and could agree upon it, it wouldn’t reach the local churches in time. It would be better policy to work to develop discipling resources for pastors than to re-organize the parts of the church that most members neither know or care about. As always, the local churches and pastors are largely on their own and, except for things that directly affect them care little about what goes on in the “big” Methodist church. There may have been a time when the connection had influence, but when it went from trying to help the local church make disciples to trying to regulate the local church (compare the page count of the United Methodist Discipline now with the page count in 1960) all that was lost. We all know that we cannot meet all the picayune requirements in the Discipline, so why pay any attention to it. When the local church thinks about the “big” Methodist church at all, the question usually is whether the “brand” is worth the franchise fee.

  6. “Why aren’t we fasting?” I think this might be my favorite question raised here. In the Bible, crises were faced with prayer and fasting. This seems a more Christian approach than data addiction and marketing.

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