Systemic Ambivalence

Systemic — pertaining to or affecting a whole system

Ambivalence — holding two competing values in equal regard

If the unexamined life is not worth living, then perhaps the unexamined institution is not worth having.  And we try desperately hard not to look too closely at the institution we serve because, with all its flaws, it is comfortable, known, safe and familiar.  But occasionally we are reminded, to mix metaphors recklessly, that the emperor indeed has no clothes, and that many myths we clutch as sacred truth are as dust in the wind.  What am I rambling on about now?  An ingenious, yet deeply destructive, methodology at the heart and soul of this beautiful beast we call The United Methodist Church.  We have developed for ourselves a massive institutional system, by design, that is producing every problem, threat and challenge it now faces.  Hear this: it is not producing solutions — it is producing the problems.

I have long been an advocate of Dr. Ezra Earl Jones’ evocative quote, “the system is designed for the results it is getting.”  What this means is simply that a system can only produce what it can only produce.  If all your inputs, processes, and outputs combine to produce sub-standard outcomes, it is because you have developed a sub-standard outcome producing system.  Thus, if we are producing ineffective congregations pastored by ineffective leaders that result in decreasing engagement and poor evangelism and stewardship, it is because we have developed an institutional system effectively producing these results.  And my assessment on why this is the case is this: we allowed our church to lay a foundation of systemic ambivalence.

Some examples of systemic ambivalence:

  • wanting to be Christian disciples without having to change
  • equating “vitality” to “growth”
  • saying we want to grow without inviting people to church
  • offering unconditional love, but only under certain conditions
  • saying God’s grace is available to “all”, except for “those” people
  • divorcing being from doing, believing from behaving
  • lowering the bar on discipleship to the point where the only sacrifice demanded is showing up
  • championing diversity while fostering institutional racism and gender inequality
  • confusing “information” for “transformation”
  • divorcing “marketing” and “branding” from “identity” and “purpose”
  • using fear to foster faith
  • focusing on institutional preservation to the exclusion of spiritual awakening
  • claiming that the transformation of the church is the key to the transformation of the world
  • constantly changing things that result in no lasting change (rearranging deck chairs…)
  • looking for someone else to solve our problems for us
  • blaming “them” for whatever displeases, annoys, irritates or inconveniences “us”

Okay, I could go on and on with the list of our beloved dysfunctions, but that misses the point.  We say we don’t want the results we are currently getting, then we have to change the system and eliminate the practices that perpetuate what we don’t want.  Doing more and more of what we have already done and expecting different results… well, you know.

I have said this before and I will say it again: The United Methodist Church needs to revisit its mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  We have a decision to make.  If this is our mission, we have got to admit that the system we have in place is not a disciple-making, world-transforming system.  Ours is a system serving the institutional preservation paradigm, pure and simple.  If this is not our mission, then we need to be more honest and define ourselves in a new way: “to offer a wide variety of programs and services intending to meet the spiritual, social, and activity needs of people who say they believe in God and Jesus Christ.”  This is a more accurate appraisal of what our system is currently designed to do.

Disciple-making is a lifelong, constant, and demanding process that can only be done in focused community.  It is defined by the very highest standards of commitment, not the lowest common denominator.  The disciple-making system cannot tolerate spectators and consumers — everyone in the system must be maturing in their faith formation.  But this is not an end in itself, but a means to the greater end of engaging in God’s transforming work in the world.  In the world.  The transformation of the world means that our primary arena for service and engagement is out of our church buildings in the places that cry out for transformation.  The indefensible dollars being spent on buildings, programs, properties, equipment, landscaping and decorations intended to please our membership are wasted for the work of transforming the world.

So, the bottom line is this: if we like things the way they are, then let’s admit it and organize around the values that truly drive us.  However, if our life and future together are founded on a different set of values, let’s get serious about becoming the system we need to be to produce the outcomes we say we want.

4 replies

  1. Well spoken and thanks for putting it so clealy. However, don’t spread it – it could be dangerous = lead to CHANGE!!! question: How do we become the new paradigm? I have been making observations and suggestions, but no one seems to react = guess I’m lucky they let me still hang arround. But it is frustrating ; e.g. LGBT acceptance. We claim “open minds, open hearts, open doors”, but some rebut that scripture calls it a sin and we can’t serve them. I tell them, as did Marcus Borg: when the Bible dissagrees with Jesus, Jesus wins! They don’t like that. I keep pressing. Blessing to you, and keep going. We must have this info to survive!

  2. Dan, Here in the TN Conference, we received a new bishop a couple of years ago. In the first district meeting after his appointment we clergy were told that everything was going to be different–everything as a conference we did was on the table for evaluation. After a rousing speech on this new direction, the DS then went to on to the next item on the agenda–apportionment payments were behind and that we needed to get out churches caught up. I had to muse that one thing wasn’t up for evaluations. I, too, am now retired. Too much of my career I felt that no matter what was said in the various Cheer leading speeches about the latest program from the boards agencies, or conference, my main function was to get apportionments paid 100% and don’t cause trouble for the DS or Bishop. I did the best I could to help my folks, but I never felt much real help came from above.

  3. Wow….
    This was well worth the wait
    (Meaning waiting for more of your prophetic wordsmithing Brother Dan)

    So….. where do we go from here?
    How can we launch?
    The New Methodists, MIND (though a bit narrow in focus and Agenda IMHO), and other subgroups were formed to bring about change. …but are they changing things?
    I dont think so.

    FOCUS and BALaNCE need to be in place….. and appear not to be.

    Your point about Discipleship being a life long dynamic constant ever-changing process is not a widely held belief….. or at a minimum is certainly not part of what I will call our marching orders. I offer that most of us are satisfied to write a check and feel good about our generosity rather than make intentional effort to take that path less traveled so that what we think and what we say and what we do are truly transformational

    No disrespect whatsoever, but my take on the Wisconsin Conference’s focus, based on what I hear communicated from same is the Imagine No Malaria Iniative.
    Now, granted I may have missed something because I’m distracted by the elephant in the living room, but I rather doubt that I have missed anything communicated that is.

    So I guess bottom line my questions are:
    Where is the focus and balance for quality Laity Development which is the only way to strengthen and properly Direct and deploy the local church, and, through our convectional system, the denomination as a whole?
    How can we move from the academic discussion of all these issues to putting the rubber to the road to get theconcepts, direction, institutional reorganization /redeployment of resources in place and up and running?

  4. I have been reading your blog for ages. I’m originally from WI but served mostly in the Dakotas and Desert Southwest Conference. I couldn’t agree with you more, but somehow we never get to one of the things that holds us back. It has been my experience that when you step out boldly, and the congregation gets extremely angry at you and undermines your ministry, you rarely get any backing from the powers that be. Especially if apportionments stop coming in because you have rocked the precious congregational boat of comfort and ineffectiveness. I think that we need to remember that we are ordained to “take thou authority.” I’m not talking about recklessly. But Bishops are supposedly nothing more than ordained elders with different work to do. I am second career and come out of a business background. I get IT. I once asked a DS to leave me in a very broken congregation because it was time someone turned it around. But no, they had to move me. Part of the clergy ineffectiveness is an episcopal ineffectiveness that stymies many good clergy who want to dig in and change things but can’t. I’m just saying . . .

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