Jurisfictional Conference

Okay, this is just weird.  Holding a Jurisdictional Conference (JC) with no bishop to elect and only 25 nominations to general church boards and agencies is bizarre.  The rhythm, drama, and impact of JC is greatly diminished — and there’s virtually nothing to do (unless you serve on Nominations or the Episcopacy Committee).  Yes, we will learn who our new bishop will be in Wisconsin, but exactly how long does that need to take?  We are investing a lot of time and resources in a meeting that should only take a day/day-and-a-half tops.  Oh, sure, we could have had a bishop retire or ascend, and then an election would have been necessary, but that didn’t happen.  We are here (in Akron, in the North Central Jurisdiction) looking a little dazed and confused.

And that makes this an apt metaphor for our denomination as a whole at the moment: knowing that we have some vitally important work to do, but not being clear about what it is, how to do it, who needs to be involved, and what outcomes we must produce.  As I have said many times before — our current problem is not one of structure, polity, economics, or membership — we are suffering an identity crisis.

Methodism and its compatriot antecedents share a fundamental core — missions, evangelism, and social justice/reform.  These three “legs” support the stool of our faith, but in the past century we broke the stool, pulling off the legs and brandishing them at one another as weapons.  Evangelism as a tool builds Christian community and spreads the faith.  Evangelism as a weapon is an irrational bent toward “church growth” and getting more and more of “them” to want to become more and more of “us.”  Missions as a tools is a core value of Christian service engaged in by all disciples as they grow into their place in the body of Christ.  Missions are our outward and visible signs of our inward nurture and development.  As a weapon, missions is institutional empire building through projects and initiatives that allow a few to do for the many, and that redefine mission “work” as what we do for and to other people instead of with them.  This is the basest form of works righteousness.  Social reform as a tool is the way Christian community transforms the world for the better; bringing hope and purpose to the poor, marginalized, oppressed, abused, dismissed and discarded in our world.  As a tool, it is the gospel brought to life, but as a weapon it is reduced to ideology and gets criticized as Socialism at best and Communism at worst.  In the world of weaponry, it becomes positions and platforms and issues for debate.  It dehumanizes people into labels and categories and turns everything into a win/lose fight.

The dis-integration of these big three — Evangelism, Missions, Social Justice — forces us to choose sides and preference one aspect over the other.  Regardless of your place on the theological spectrum, fragmented Methodism allows you to forget living the fruit of the Spirit in order to do battle with your brothers and sisters.  Instead of cultivating loving and compassionate community that heals a broken world, we can debase ourselves by fighting in hateful and destructive ways about human sexuality.  Instead of reaching a broken and suffering world, we can build bigger buildings and augment them with sophisticated alarm systems to keep “sinners” out.  Instead of equipping our existing membership to be authentic servants of Christ we can collect masses of inert customers seeking to be served and satisfied.  Instead of getting over ourselves and serving a higher purpose we spend millions to strategize our survival for another few years.  And then we scratch our heads wondering why the world sees us as irrelevant.

People want solutions to these problems — a prescription to follow to make things better.  Well, we have to stop looking for someone else to solve this.  Our denomination is about institutional preservation at all costs, and the simplistic, knee-jerk response is to get more people and launch more churches into a system that can’t keep the people it has and doesn’t do very well with the churches its got.  So, it is up to laity and clergy leaders to say no to the next “healthy church whatever” that pretends to be about vitality and is about nothing but numbers.  It is up to clergy and laity to establish core standards of participation in a community of faith that holds every person accountable to prayer, service, spiritual formation, faith sharing, and stewardship.  It is up to the clergy and laity leadership to lead, not to blindly follow.  Doing what others have already done is not innovative leadership; it is sheepish lemmingship.  The time has come for leaders in the church to teach people how to BE the church — equipping every person to share his or her faith, to use his or her gifts to serve those outside the church, to make sure every person has a foundational knowledge of scripture and theology, to cultivate personal and shared spiritual discipline as a baseline expectation for calling oneself a Christian.  In other words, we need to stop paying lip-service to the Christian faith and we need to take it seriously.  We need to reintegrate evangelism, missional service, and social justice as the minimum standards of our faith life together.  And no one will do this for us — we have to do it for ourselves.  We need to lead instead of waiting for someone to come along whom we can follow.  We cannot afford to live so focused on a future we wish we could have at the cost of a present God has already given us.  We need to make the most of now.  Otherwise our faith resembles a jurisdictional conference where most participants wander around asking, “So, what are we doing here?”

13 replies

  1. I too have wondered why the Western Jurisdiction is bothering to meet this time. But God has laid it upon my heart to write a blog post that I hope might give you, and US some direction. I am a retired pastor from the Florida Conference, and in some strange ways, God has called me to participate ACTIVELY in the jurisdictional conferences through prayer. At the request of my district superintendent, I have been praying for two members of the SEJ Episcopacy committee for about 6 months now. A couple of days ago, I was inspired to use my blog post as a pulpit; and I have issued a CALL TO FAST as we elect bishops for our church. I would like to invite the Western Jurisdiction to spend some significant time engaging in this old fashioned practice of SEEKING God’s direction. Here is my blog post. I hope you will join this effort and encourage others to BE the church in this way.


    • Hooray for fasting! Hooray also for diving-in!

      Your blog urges folks to, “intercede for those who are making these decisions for our church.” It is that very “decisions for” that requires us to also look at fasting from some busy-ness to implement whatever insight comes from prayerful-fasting. A wider urging might be to participate with others to partner in decision-making. Yes, I know I’m playing a bit loose here, but this is not intended as criticism of fasting, just a not stopping there as I’ve seen spiritual disciplines subverted for the continuance of power and try to remind myself to not just do what others call me to, just because they call – it may not be mine just because it is theirs.

  2. If clueless is not an excuse, it is at least a state of mind. You have well-described our current state of being. For me your last paragraph is a key way forward. This taking of authority, however, will run afoul of an accreted discipline. Folks will need to know how to organize when the scabs are willing to work for less accountability and goons start looking for a head to beat. This promises to be as exciting as labor/management/government stools that also come apart so easily. I look forward to more writing about your shift into the present.

    Oh, and blessings during your time in Akron. I’ll be joining the live-stream (to see if there is any life going on or just ennui). Hope y’all will be doing some organizing for your last paragraph and it will show through while you are there.

  3. Best “evaluation” of failure to thrive yet…best course of action: ministry of clergy and laity with…..thank you!

  4. Here in the Western Jurisdiction we may not have a bishop to elect, but we are tired of passing resolutions that never seem to take effect. We have to find a way to effect change that is real and visible and measurable! Far from feeling dazed and confused, it feels like an opportunity to focus on the work of the Church—to work on becoming the Church we are called to be! It’s not all about bishops, after all!

  5. It seems to me that when we call missions, evangelism, and social justice/reform the three legs that support our faith we have already wandered off into cluelessness. The three legs that support our faith are vital piety, study, and social action. When we dash off into evangelism without the holy spirit and a solid understanding of the gospel, we “sell church” as a lifestyle (friendly, great fellowship, inspiring sermons, does all sorts of good works) rather than a lifeline ( a commitment to a risen savior that changes our eternal destiny). When we push mission from a purely materialistic viewpoint (offering only bread and not the bread of life), how are we different from a dozen different service clubs (Sertoma, Rotary, Kiwanis, etc.)? Oh yeah, they get to sleep in on Sunday. When we make social justice all about economic redistribution (instead of working with people to help them see how Christ gives a more abundant life) and outsource it to the government so that we don’t need to do anything but lobby for laws making the rich pay for it and the bureaucrats do it, what are we but political lobbyists. It’s time to really start being the church and focus on being Spirit filled disciples, going where the Spirit leads, rather than on the growth technique and the political cause du joure.

    • Don’t misunderstand — these are the historic foci that give us a unique identity and distinguish us from other forms of the Christian faith. These are why we exist today. It doesn’t matter if you disagree with them or think them unimportant. For Wesley, there could be no personal holiness that was not rooted in evangelism, missional service, and social justice. Albright, Boehme, and Otterbein all grounded their vision similarly, which is why we “fit” together. When our focus integrated these three and rejected an insipid individualistic “me and my buddy Jesus” substitute, we were a vibrant, thriving movement. When our faith became all about us, we began to wither and decline.

      • But are these three the focus or the outcome of real faith? Just like all the promotion of Reuben Job’s book, we seem to take up the outward forms of faith rather than making inward, heart religion our point of emphasis. Wesley, at least, believed that heart religion gave rise to the three legs.

        As he wrote somewhere, church is a group of people (okay, he wrote “men”) brought together each to save their own soul, to help each other work out their salvation, and to uproot the kingdom of the devil and set up the kingdom of God.

        I see your three legs in there, but Wesley (and Bonhoeffer to get a bit more contemporary) saw it as starting with individuals coming to an encounter with Jesus Christ. So, how do you do that in a way that avoids your insipid individualism but also does not skate past inward heart religion on its way to outward good works that have the form but not the power of religion?

      • Depends on whether you think Wesley, Albright and Otterbein knew what they were talking about or not. No missions, no evangelism, no social justice = no Christian. Faith without works is dead. Young/early Wesley was all about personal holiness; later/mature Wesley was about social holiness. His shift from faith as belief to faith as life is one well worth exploring today…

  6. Yes, ministry of clergy and laity alike, yet if we would just add that fourth leg to the stool – holiness – we would be more balanced personally and as a denomination: Acts of piety(worship and devotion), works of mercy (compassion and justice). None of it comes naturally. Only by God’s grace are we able to love as Jesus loved.

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