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.