God Bless You, George G. Hunter, III!

Our United Methodist Publishing House released five titles in their new Adaptive Leadership Series, and I have had the pleasure of reading each one.  I will be weighing in on each in time, but far and away my favorite is George Hunter’s, “The Recovery of a Contagious Methodist Movement.”  What a fine little book.  Those who know me well will instantly see my bias — he agrees with me, so therefore he must be brilliant!  Guilty as charged.  I have been saying the things in this book for years, but I haven’t said them nearly as well.  Among those items that George Hunter nails with clarity and conviction:

  1. Our core problem is not one of structure, or even leadership, it is one of identity; we have forgotten who we are.
  2. The professionalism of the clergy class shifted our center from a laity movement and diminished our impact immensely.
  3. We have allowed church to become “all about us” instead of God’s gift to those outside the fellowship
  4. We perpetuate the myth that our existing institution is “normal” and therefore “right”
  5. That our current obsession with tinkering will bring about any real change.

Every delegate to General Conference should take time to read this book.  Hunter’s incisive insights about The Call to Action report are right on target:

If the Call, in its present form, is implemented at every level, the most optimistic possible outcome would still leave the shell of Methodism with some of the brain, more of the heart, and most of the vertebrae removed.  We still would not represent a version of the faith that could change the world.

Furthermore, the Call to Action largely ignores what a more apostolic Methodism used to be, and achieve, in this land… Contrary to what most of us in United Methodism assume we know, our net membership decline has not been primarily due to losing more people than we used to, but rather to reaching fewer people than we used to.

Hunter claims that what we lack is creativity and imagination, and we claim things about ourselves that just aren’t true.  We pretend to be open to all people, but Hunter points out that we choose who to include and who to exclude.  There are millions of people on the fringe of society who need what the church has to give, but the church isn’t giving it.  I had a recent encounter that illustrates the dilemma Hunter points out.  I consulted with a church that proudly prints, “God’s love for all!” on its bulletins and newsletters.  The “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors” banners bracket every entrance to the church.  Walking a three block radius of the church, I encountered Vietnamese immigrants, multiple poor and homeless people, multi-racial youth, a couple younger people with handicapping conditions, and lower-economic/lower-educated people running shops along the street.  I stopped many and asked what they could tell me about The United Methodist Church.  None, I repeat none, of them knew anything about the church or anyone associated with the church.  When I met with the leadership that evening, I asked them about the ministry opportunities they saw in their neighborhood.  The chair of the church council quipped, “We need to attract the ones with money!  We can’t support a church with those people.”  One member went on to tell of a former pastor who tried to bring “those” people into the church — and the mass exodus it produced from the long-time members.  An older woman remarked, “You can’t expect decent folks to put up with people like that taking over their church.”  There was a time when such a sentiment would not have been found in a Methodist church — but that was a long time ago.

One of the most significant portions of Hunter’s book examines the impact of taking a lay movement and turning it into a clergy-based institution.  It is little wonder that, when both authority and responsibility are removed from the majority within an organization, and all that is left is a sense of entitlement, that a movement will stall.  I once made the observation that the only reason we speak of “lay empowerment” is because we worked so hard to disempower them in the first place.  In any institution where it becomes the expectation that one class will empower another, you have a hierarchical systems prone to regular dysfunction.  when power is the province of all who share responsibility, great things can happen.  Our class, band and society structure — all clearly lay-based — were a model of equitable and fair sharing of power.  Pastor-in-charge changed all that.  The evidence of such thinking that has decayed our church to such deep levels is reflected in advice such as this, coming from Bob Farr’s, Renovate or Die: “The role of the pastor is to determine God’s vision for his or her church.” and “my true belief is that it sure would work better in the church if, when a new pastor arrives, everybody (paid and unpaid staff) had to resign.  Then the pastor could go through a process of deciding who he or she wants on the team.”  Such paternalistic abuses of power say a lot about why our church is where it is today.  We have forgotten who we are.

So, stop reading this, and go read George Hunter’s book.  It is much better than anything you will find here.  Thank you, George, for calling us to recovery, and telling it like it is.

23 replies

  1. My mother was an UMC director of Christian Education. When a new pastor came, she knew she would start looking for a new job–it was what was expected. In my current church, that has not been the norm, but I don’t know that it has necessarily been the best thing, either.

  2. I believe the historical context is the most helpful tool to understanding the struggle with the current structure we are dealing with.

    In England, Methodism was a lay movement operating within an institutional church structure, the Church of England. In the USA that lay movement organized and ran it’s own institutional church and eventually was consumed by the developing institutionality of “prairie DNA” based on the success of Asbury’s model of the camp meeting.

    The best resource on this historical decline from a lay movement into institutaionalism is “The Rise and Decline of the Class Meeting” by Charles Edward White from Methodist History 40, no. 4 (July 2002) and available from http://myweb.arbor.edu/cwhite/cm.pdf.

    Wesley’s interlocking system of graduated groups (probationary class meeting, class meeting, bands, select society, penitent band, etc.) never really took hold on the frontier prairies of the USA. The prairie church consisted of a worship service and a single weekly meeting of the “insiders” as a class meeting … and which eventually gave way to the Sunday School movement. Chuck White’s description is excellent.

    I’ve also written on this myself – http://www.disciplewalk.com/files/Ch_One_Systemic_Problems.pdf

    We have forgotten what we are, but the first thing a movement forgets on its way toward institutionalization is the focus on evangelistic disciple making – or as Wesley said to his helpers, “You have nothing to do but to save souls; therefore spend and be spent in this work.” When the Great Commission is the priority, everything else (in my opinion) falls into place.

    The bright star of hope for me is the inclusion of these words in the 2008 Book of Discipline, ¶ 126: Every layperson is called to carry out the Great Commission (Matthew 28:18-20); every layperson is called to be missional.

    These words are one of the most radical statements of reform in Christian literature – they change everything. Prior to 2008, I know of only one other well known resource on discipleship which included this emphasis. When these words truly reflect our behavior, we will be a vital movement again, in my opinion. I hope these words survive the 2012 General Conference!

  3. One of the gifts of transitional/interim ministry by a trained TIIMS is a focus on a functioning laity. The reclaiming of gifts of lay ministry is expected work so the strongest possible congregation can join with the strongest possible next clergy and both use their strongest gifts to best extend G*D’s presence through evidence that the congregation loves one another as well as its neighbors.

    I’d love to see more current clergy and seminarians trained in working with church systems. This won’t deal with dueling theologies as we revisit the Wesley/Whitfield dynamic in our time, but might give us another tool to more healthily deal with it.

  4. “Hunter claims that what we lack is creativity and imagination” – well, can you imagaine that! Apparently not!

  5. Dan, I’m not truly convinced that “lay-empowerment” works any better than clergy leadership. My experience of a “lay-led church” showed that the ones with money threaten to withhold their commitments, and the bullies run roughshod over whatever or whoever is in their way. Other members of the congregation are afraid to contradict these more aggressive people, especially when the two sides join forces against the clergy or staff. After all, the less affluent and less assertive want to be welcome in their own church – they want to go on living there.

    “It is little wonder that, when both authority and responsibility are removed from the majority within an organization, and all that is left is a sense of entitlement, that a movement will stall.” I’m not sure I understand. Who is the “entitled” that you write of? Is it guaranteed appointment? Or is it those mentioned above?

    We need to remember that there was never a golden age of Methodism or of any other denomination – or of Christianity, for that matter. We are broken people, aiming for and failing to reach our goal.

    • A dysfunctional co-opted lay-controlled congregation isn’t my vision, here. A community practicing the means of grace without requiring the endorsement of an appointed clergy leader is more in line with my thinking. My Vital Signs research showed me that not only is this a nice concept, but it works in actuality!

      Good to hear from you!

      • Dan, I’d love to meet the these people. Yes, there are people in most congregations who strive for perfection, but I can’t imagine a church with a majority of people actively practicing the means of grace. Certainly no appointed clergy is required for those people, but I suspect that clergy would be astonished and encouraging to those folks. Some clergy might be intimidated and be a hindrance, I suspect. But that doesn’t mean that educated/appointed clergy is the problem here.

        On my husband’s 60th birthday, he was feeling down about what he had accomplished. I got in touch with those whose lives he had touched in his work as pastor and friend, asking them for a letter telling Ray what he has meant to them. It is amazing to me that the responses I received (and put in a scrapbook for him) in no way indicated what the UMC finds important, at least in year-end reports. Pastors are not judged on the basis of what you say – and I agree – is most important.

        Keep up the fantastic work! I look forward to your posts.

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