One of my favorite blogger-buds, John Meunier, raised a great question yesterday that I feel warrants a full response, so I am framing it as a post. Here is John’s question: Why should anyone seek ordination in the UMC given the realities you see? Should those interested in discipleship find it elsewhere?
Why would a young leader have interest in entering the current United Methodist Church system? What are we inviting them to do and be vocationally? What promises are we willing to make from the institutional side of the covenant? In many ways, we are making the “career” of ordained pastor less and less appealing all the time – high indebtedness from seminary at the lead end, less pension benefit at the tail end, reduced insurance coverage provided along the way, and reduced job security as a bonus. Now, more than ever, a person enters ordained ministry from a deep sense of call and a faithful response to God’s will. Anything less is unlikely to sustain a candidate through the arduous process of giving more and more to receive less and less. Top that off with a denominational message of decline, decay, imminent demise, a “death tsunami,” criticism of cultural irrelevancy, and a death grip of “good ol’ white boys” to control what power remains (as more and more power, energy and Spirit shifts to the southern hemisphere), and the draw is anything but attractive. This is all nested in the global paradigm shift from institutional preservation to spiritual enlightenment and empowerment for transformation – where United Methodism at the center is desperately clinging to the preservation model, while UMs at the fringe are seeking true enlightenment and transformation (currently beyond the capacity of the institution as it attempts to live firmly in the past). Our lame marketing ploy to “Rethink” rings with an hypocrisy that further damages our credibility with a large segment of our culture. So, given all of this, why would anyone want to become a United Methodist clergy leader (or laity leader, for that matter)?
I can only offer a few personal thoughts on this question – and they relate to the many inquiries I receive asking why I stay a pastoral leader in the UMC.
First, I see current reality as Egypt and our potential as Promised Land. I am not much interested in what isn’t working, what we were like 40 years ago, what we currently lack, or who isn’t doing what. My focus is much more on what I discern God calling us to be, what we can become, the abundant assets God is blessing us with, and who is truly leading us in prophetic, transformative, and creative ways. I assess what I perceive to be flawed thinking and under-functioning practice as a springboard to “what if,” alternatives. I attempt to identify “either/or” over-simplifications to point out “both/and” potential and possibilities. To put a noble gild on it, I try to walk by faith, not by sight. Interestingly, many of my critics paint me as a cynic or an idealist. I have never understood how I can be both at the same time – though I understand that people process me through their own personal filters. This said, I believe our invitations to new leadership is not an invitation to maintain what is dysfunctional, but it is an invitation to see what we might be able to create together.
Second, I acknowledge that we are entrenched in an anachronistic, sub-optimized, inflexible system, but systems can be changed. The reason the system is slow to change is that it is led by those who are most deeply invested in the status quo which benefits them richly and privileges them mightily. But, this reality is showing serious cracks. The fact that a closed-door enclave of predominantly older, white males failed to force their agenda at last year’s General Conference is a sign of great hope for young leaders, racial and ethnic constituencies, and many potential leaders on the fringe. What some anxious and short-sighted bean counters call a “death tsunami” – a cause of panic and doom ‘n’ gloom despair – has the potential for systemic redemption and transformation. What this perceived internal fiscal cliff scare-the-church-into-action crisis might actually mean is a whole new possibility for laity leadership, tent-maker pastoring, and unleashing amazing young prophetic potential currently locked out of the seats of authority. This is a rich and fertile time, a time where a large number of one generation will be leaving great opportunity for new voices, new perspectives, and new vision. It is a “ground floor” moment, where we may be able to rebuild significant aspects of the church from the ground up.
Third, my guiding metaphor for ministry is Matthew 13 – sowing the seed. There are certainly important processes of nurture, feeding, weeding, pruning, cultivation, harvesting, and sharing, but the basis upon which we are judged is how faithfully we sow. We trust that God will multiply that which falls on fertile soil, but even if we do our job perfectly, we will never exceed a 25% success rate. Our best efforts fall on rocky soil, foot paths, weedy patches, and feed the birds – as well as hit the sweet spot and produce good fruit. I am often asked why I keep calling for open conversation, why I remain hopeful, why I stay connected to a church that I often criticize, why I keep on keeping on – my answer is that I am here to sow seeds. Just because I don’t see the results I wish to see really doesn’t matter – I believe in what I see, think and feel about the future of our church. I don’t despair, and I truly don’t blame individuals – we are all part of a system, and systems are designed for the results they produce. If our church is producing the wrong results it is because our system is no longer appropriate or capable of producing anything else. No bishop, no General Secretary, no pop-mega-church pastor can change the system. The system (by the grace and guidance of the Holy Spirit) must change itself. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we used our time together at General Conference as a global discernment time to refocus on our understanding of our identity, mission, and call to seek and serve the will of God for the twenty-first century? I honestly believe if we did the deep work of clarifying who we are and why we are here, the lesser questions about our structure and polity would fall very naturally into place.
So, I honestly do believe there is a positive and hopeful invitation we have to make to young leaders across the full cultural landscape. In the near future, their voices will matter more, they will be offered not only responsibility but authority and power, and the potential for positive change and lasting transformation has not been so great in a long, long time. What we are today is not what we should be. Who we have been in the past should be honored and celebrated, but it should not be allowed to prevent us from becoming who God is calling us to be in the future. This is a great church serving a great purpose in a great world – there is no reason why we cannot recover this vision and passion, if we refuse to listen to all the nay-sayers and prophets of doom who currently hold the ear of the powers-that-be.