Polymorphous Pedagogic Perversity

“Polymorphous” — having, assuming or passing through many and varied forms or shapes

“Pedagogic” — pertaining to teaching, instruction or instructional method

“Perversity” — willful contrariness; turning from the acceptable standard or expectation

color_wordsOkay, now that definitions are out of the way, let’s jump in.  In what ways is the title of this piece an apt description of the current state of The United Methodist Church?  In one respect, this is just a fancy way of saying we are all over the map — on just about everything.  I another respect, it describes our inability to say who we are and what are our defining and guiding values.  Also, it describes our penchant for focusing on division over unity, squabbles over harmony, petty differences over substantive similarities, and peevishness over civility and respect.  It explains why in a reality of enormous gifts, talents, knowledge, skills, passions, competencies, resources, assets, opportunities and faith our key leadership (and the counselors, consultants, and hired “experts” who whisper in their ears) chooses instead to focus on loss, death, decay, liabilities, weaknesses, looming catastrophe and death tsunami (have you noticed how offensive and repulsive I find “death tsunami” to be?  Gotta love the lack of faith in people who push that one!)  We are a church of mixed messages, inexact meanings, misguided metaphors, and miasmic muzzie-headedness.  No wonder we find it hard to attract new people…

When we were challenged at the Quadrennial Training in Nashville to identify an adaptive challenge for our conference, I found myself in a distinct minority.  As conference after conference talked about lack of resources, inability to draw young people, poor leadership, imminent death and defeat, and loss of connectional commitment, I raised up “need for theological engagement and directed conversation on the authority of scripture.”  No one from Wisconsin Conference was a bit surprised this came from me — they’re used to it by now — but leaders from other conferences reacted with a glazed deer-in-the-headlights look.  One said, “what good could that possibly do,” while another commented, “we don’t have time to waste on something like that.”  A bishop pushed back that “we wouldn’t come to an easy answer” (the definition of an adaptive challenge, by the way…), and a former-colleague from Nashville explained, “those of us who respect the authority of scripture are at the mercy of those people (italics mine) who make a mockery of it (blaming people rather than the system — another clear sign that this indeed is an adaptive challenge).

The reason I raised it is because it pushes us below the surface to the deeper issues of our shared values, core sense of identity, understanding of purpose, and a vision that helps us prioritize our gifts and assets for disciple-formation and world-transformation.  This is not a small thing, and the fact that we have allowed division, diffusion, and dispersion of our connectional heart to define us may be the single greatest challenge to our survival.  (But this is just me — I got virtually no one else to agree with me, so what do I know…?)  I say again, and will keep saying it as long as I can:  we cannot answer the questions of how we should be structured and what is the best leadership for our denomination until we have clearly and collaboratively answered the questions “who are we in the 21st century?” and “what are we trying to accomplish (what are the outcomes God calls us to produce?”

I know that many leaders in our denomination are frustrated with my opinion that we are on the wrong track with <insert quick-fix here>.  More than one has accused me of arrogance — of thinking I am smarter than everyone else.  My apologies for arrogance — not my intention.  But my experience tells me, when people don’t know what to do, they try a little of everything.  This polymorphous approach can be interesting, fun, exciting and popular, but rarely is it effective.  At a time when we need focus, we get a buckshot approach.  In a time demanding corporate concentration we get organizational ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder).  When we need complex contextual analysis, we get simplistic “best practices”.  Instead of systems thinkers we get prescriptive hucksters selling their pre-packaged, worn-out panaceas.  When we need to focus on “better,” we are encouraged to focus on “more.”  As it becomes more imperative to take our time and dig down for the root causes, the symptoms frighten us into doing something NOW.  Competing pedagogues tell us what we really out to be doing and how we really ought to be doing it, but they are marketers, cultural consultants and secular specialists, not spiritual leaders and visionary Methodists.  Why are we looking so hard for someone else to tell us who to be and what to do?  Sadly, it is because we don’t have faith in ourselves to be the answer to our own problems — and ultimately, we don’t have faith in God that God is active within us to will and to work for God’s good pleasure (Philippians 2:13).

What would a system-wide, global engagement on the authority of scripture look like?  Well, how we do it is the least of our worries.  It will be messy and adversarial.  It will reveal just how well the Holy Spirit is ruling in our hearts, lives, congregations, conferences, and countries.  It will be a massive test of our faith.  It will challenge our values.  It will bring to surface the best in us and the worst in us.  It will require courage, trust, compassion, honesty, integrity, accountability and humility.  It will force us to put up or shut up.  It will be a witness to the world of what we think it means to be Christian — and our actions will speak much louder than our words.  It will draw a line in the sand that only those with confidence in their faith, who have given control over to God, will be able to cross.  It will be the ultimate “reset button” that will push us to our default settings and get us on the same page so that we can be for the 21st century what the earlier movements were to the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries.  Do we have the guts?  I would like to think we do, but when I look at the current institutional preservation initiatives, I have my doubts.

25 replies

  1. Thanks for bearing with me. Space to explore this appears to be inadequate, but I believe I finally sense your desire to identify essential core elements of scriptural insight from a denominational perspective. And if we can somehow do this as a church community, we will focus on what is truly important rather than what divides or destroys us.

  2. Dan I believe you are moving toward greater clarity, but your comments still fall short. You write as if I and other readers understand your interpretation of troubling issues surrounding scripture within the Methodist church. Is this because your writing is directed to church leaders rather than to lay people? The difficulty for me is trying to grasp the context of your complaint without a full understanding of the table you have spread before us. Perhaps the people of Wisconsin understand you, but I live in North Carolina. I have no interest in slamming any of your thoughts, but I simply want to understand where you are coming from. Have you written anything which would give me greater insight into your sense of Christian reality?

    • Among the topics, issues and ideas that we are create schisms over are sexual orientation, lifestyle, abortion, guns, alcohol, gambling, tobacco (one of the churches in your conference wanted to put cigarette machines in their common areas a few years back…), media violence, capital punishment, immigration, globalization, politics, economic justice, global warming and the environment, social justice, racism, sexism, multiculturalism, marketing, television standards, fair trade, apportionments, the itinerant ministry, connectionalism vs. congregationalism, ecumenism, interfaith relationships — just to name a couple. And the driving force behind our decision making is not a gospel imperative or spiritual vision, but finances. Instead of the transformation of the world, we spend most of our time and attention talking about the transformation of the church. Restructuring (to save money), downsizing (to save money and shift balance of power), Episcopal leadership (power), and legislation (mostly about money and power) are where our denominational heart is at the moment (in search of more treasure?). Balance sheets and the Book of Discipline have displaced the Bible as our foundation document — and the theological and interpretive divisions within the church argue and fight unchecked with no systemic guidance toward resolution. Many people in our pews believe we are a church of “open hearts, open minds, and open doors,” and wonder why we can’t attract new people. However, at the denominational level our meta-message is “we’re declining, we’re decaying, we’re dying, the ship is sinking — COME JOIN US! Those things that divide us are symptoms of deeper root causes. I am asking that we stop treating symptoms and courageously and graciously return to a grounding that will help us navigate our topical differences.

  3. Ok, the 3 P’s aside, what exactly are you saying here? You do not explain what you mean by adaptive challenges, nor what concerns you have about scriptural authority. I get the former, but beating drums about the latter, without explanation, is frustrating for someone reading you for the first time. What are you proposing? Are you open to changes in our unquestioning belief system, or simply open to a disruptive discussion which ultimately affirms traditional dogma?

    • Terry, An adaptive challenge is a problem or constraint that cannot be solved or addressed with a simplistic, technical, or superficial answer. In fact, it cannot be approached based on symptoms and presenting issues — it is core and sub-optimizes all efforts to deal with secondary issues. Therefore, unless you address the core problem in all its complexity and variability, it is unlikely that you will produce any significant improvement or change.

      While we cannot control how others will respond or engage, we can control how we create the environment in which dialogue occurs, and we can control our own responses and engagement. It is active engagement, rather than reactive. And my suggestion is to revisit the source document of our identity and purpose to explore who we are, what we value, why we are here, and what shared vision and mission can move us beyond our petty divisions to a God-based, God-focused, God-honoring unity and witness.

      • Dan I felt I understood your original meaning. But to be honest with you, I understood almost none of this response. I can not engage in theological dialogue with you or anyone else unless we can cut through the barriers created by the language you used here. Would you mind restating this in a simpler form?

      • Some problems are more complex than we admit, so we seek simplistic, quick-fix answers that may address a symptom, but have no power to fix the true problem. Our misdiagnosis is the real problem, and we compound it with inadequate solutions (think UMC structure, the legislative process we use at General Conference, our current finance-driven rather than mission-driven visioning, etc.). In my experience, form actually does follow function. Our adaptive challenge (a problem that defies simple solutions) is about our identity, purpose and understanding of governing values, not about structures and processes. Our system is dysfunctional, and simply tinkering with what we have is inadequate.

        The source document I refer to is our scripture (nope, not the Book of Discipline…) and we have not plunged into the messy, dangerous, volatile and essential conversations about the authority (authorities??) we give to scripture itself, to our interpretations of scripture through the lenses we voluntarily or unconciously adopt, and the guidance and governance we are willing to accept from scripture and our interpretations. No, I am not seeking 100% agreement and accord, but I am suggesting we clarify and understand the whole landscape of interpretations and we hammer out a way forward that allows us to be one body of many divergent and different parts. Our disagreements can only destroy and divide us if we CHOOSE to let them. Avoiding this hard work led us to a bad place; I am suggesting that we work out our salvation with fear and trembling so that we might move forward as a more powerful witness to the love, grace, mercy and peace that only God can grant.

      • This is one of the longer conversations here. I think the trigger was Dan’s insight of what stands behind the various impasses in The United Methodist Church – “need for theological engagement and directed conversation on the authority of scripture.”

        Presumably there are a variety of gifts regarding theology and scripture. I hear Dan reflecting on our tendency to see both of these only through the lens of our particular gift. The gifts are supposedly intended to be used in conjunction with one another to lead to a next stage of some “common good”.

        Until we return to an engagement and conversation regarding our basics we will use our gifts “against” one another with claims of a unique approach that will cut through all our discord so y’all come do it this way.

        I expect this is not so much a coming to a final solution regarding theological assurance or biblical answer, but a clearer intention to live in the midst of a movement toward wholeness for the whole body as a context of wholeness for the individual (though this last is probably more my own than belongs in this post).

        Blessings on us as we continue in the midst of quite a variety of stories and stages of faith.

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