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. I understand your desired focus is for The Inited Methodist Church as a system to discuss the authority of scripture . Since the 1990’s I have heard the focus of the system of The United Methodist Church ask “How can we be spiritual leaders sent to transform this world? “. Is changing the focus as you suggest transformational or just rearranging the deck chairs? In both cases it has, is, and will be messy. That’s the essence of the work of the Holy Spirit.

    • Teresa, I believe the shift I am proposing has greater potential to be transformative. However, what it may do is reveal that the current system is irredeemable and nothing short of radical and fundamental deconstruction/reconstruction will suffice One of my regular rants is that United Methodism as a system is in no way designed for disciple formation. We can change our mission to “Christian-focused accomodation of passive consumers for the preservation of the status quo” and continue a slow decline, with a fast decrease of relevancy and meaning, or we can get serious about discipleship — which will result in an immediate loss of 75% of our membership and money, but will give us a powerful future of transformation and positive impact. None of the current discussions will get us to the hard questions and the truly provocative and powerful possibilities (in my opinion).

  2. As a young adult clergyperson who values theology and cares deeply about the church, let me just say thank you. We want quick, when truth sometimes takes a long time. I’m not interested in quick; I am interested in true. And most of my generational contacts feel the same way.

  3. As a layperson who is a lifetime “church lady”, whenever I hear or read this junk about how the church is at odds and on the decline….I just want to scream:
    When did we close the door on the Holy Spirit? Where is the fire in the belly ? Why do we simply sit and listen to dull sermons preached by folks who have lost their love of the Lord? Why do we as the UMC spend two weeks debating legal/discipline matters instead of having a revival of the hearts at our General Conference? Would this be how Wesley really wanted the church to evolve? He was all about meeting the people where they were and helping them find a path to salvation. Is salvation now a taboo word in our denomination? Jesus came for all. That is just a basic tenant of our faith. When did it get lost?
    Rise up lay people and take back our church. Pastors come and go but we are the church! Let’s put life back into our churches by looking beyond the church walls and finding people in need within our local communities. Invite everyone to join and make our churches welcome stations for those who need the Lord. Lets really be the church of open doors and open hearts. Let’s not let the pastors block the doors to OUR Church. They like to sound so theologically smart but many have lost their first love of the Lord . Being a pastor has become just another job and not a calling. The job security of a UMC pastor has lead to many just stagnating instead of growing in their personal faith journey.

  4. The challenges of the UMC reflect the culture of our world in so many ways. My husband is a top cancer researcher who is frustrated that much of what passes for scientific research today amounts to no more than ‘data-mining’ – gathering enough data and finding some kind of correlation in the midst and calling it science. The harder problem of unraveling complex systems is not even attempted and he suspects the ability to even try is waning in the US. The reality is cancer treatment is that not much has changed in the last 50 years or so. Epistemology of the Cell is a book he wrote if anyone is interested in this.

  5. “I know that many leaders in our denomination are frustrated with my opinion that we are on the wrong track with .”

    I presume there would also be conversation about experiences and personality hard-wiring that shape a theological construct and/or preferred source/acceptance of authority. And then we are off and running well-below the surface to the deeper issues that divide us even further than encountering a multi-valent set of writings regarding the experience of other generations and cultures.

    Another approach is to find an organizing question for our day that would carry the same energizing and organizing effect as an older, “How do I escape from the wrath to come?” to which a wide variety of understandings of theologies and authorities could be brought to bear. “Who are we in the 21st century?” and “what are we trying to accomplish?” might or might not help develop a question to which the best of our Arminian Methodism can be applied.

    A meta-question won’t lead to being “a witness to the world of what we think it means to be a Christian” but might might lead to a renewal/reset of Christianity to respond to a question of our age.

    Blessings on claiming an arrogance accusation:
    “arrogance” comes from “arrogant” which comes from “arrogate” which comes from “rogare” (to ask) from the Greek “oregein” (to reach out for) and background for “right”. — keep asking, keep reaching out for …. [Note: this is a playful tracking back through a dictionary, no claim to etymological excellence.]

    • Rats! the first paragraph above was cut short because of the copy and paste of “angle brackets” that have a web-code meaning I failed to take into account. Hopefully the following substitution of regular brackets will allow the full text to come through.

      “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 — OK — “need for theological engagement and directed conversation on the authority of scripture.”].”

  6. Dan what a refreshing article. I just tried to explain to someone the other day that the reason we can’t seem to make any progress when we keep discussing LGBT issues is that there is a fundamental difference between the two sides on how scripture is the Word of God. So what appears to be disrespect for the authority of Scripture is in fact a different understanding of what it means to believe in the authority of scripture. I was afraid I was from another planet on this and here you are articulating the underlying core of our differences on so many issues. PTL!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s