This General Conference has been a true test of what exactly we mean by “united” in United Methodist Church. What’s in a name? Is the “united” merely a carryover from our Evangelical United Brethren heritage, and therefore not a descriptive term? Is it an appellation that sounds fine, but has little bearing on reality? Or is it an aspiration to which we should all commit? (Or a commitment to which we should all aspire?) I have already talked about ways different segments of the church are calling for split and separation. Destroying our entity due to disunity is viewed as preferable to living together with people we don’t like. Withdrawing into our own insipid homogeneity is appealing to a growing number of bummed out United Methodists.
But we will be facing other challenges to our unity and purpose beyond squabbles over sex, sexuality, identity, human value and worth (yes, this sentence is written ironically, so don’t get up in my face about it — I already know it is reductio absurdum) in the hours to come.
First, there is what I perceive as an absurd proposal from the “white, good ol’ boy” network who think they know what’s best for the church (the same fine folks who brought you Plan UMC) to skim $20,000,000 dollars of mission money for the equivalent of a think tank that can spend the money to hire outsiders to tell us who we are and what we ought to be doing because we no longer know. The General Board of Discipleship tried this year’s ago, as did our denomination with Towers/Watson, and we all can see how well that worked out. The only time an organization has to hire outsiders to “fix” them is when they have no idea who they are or why they exist. When you don’t know your mission, you turn to marketing. This, on its surface, looks like nothing but a power play for a few arch-traditionalists to gain a measure of control over money that would otherwise be spent on missions and the global church.
At a level deep below the surface, it is an unintentional cry for help. One segment of our denomination is scared to death that we have lost our moral center and are drifting toward annihilation. This fear is driving everything, and it has displaced faith at the core of the belief system. Fear is never a trustworthy motivator. It leads us to make some egregiously short-sighted and ill-advised decisions. (This plan passed in committee and will be coming before the whole body.). It is a ploy of one segment of the church to regain some sense of control and hope. It is one agenda that seems to truly believe it is the only sane alternative for the future. Which means dialogue is over; discussion prevails. I love the difference between “dialogue” and “discussion” etymologically. “Dia-logue” means “with words,” while “dis-cussion” means “without hitting.”. The time for talking is over. The time to do battle is upon us, but hopefully in a dignified manner…
Money is power, no less in the church than anywhere else. Skimming funds from our missional base to fund a United Methodist Political Action Committee (PAC) is a means to an end, but it will not serve the whole church well. We have a mission that almost any United Methodist can quote verbatim — “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”. To date, we have not, as a denomination organized in a practical way to achieve this mission. The vast majority of people attending United Methodist churches are not coming to be trained and equipped for discipleship in the world. The majority are also not seeking a strategy and plan for how to serve others. The vast majority of people attending our churches are coming to be served, rather than to serve. They are seeking comfort, encouragement, inspiration, attention, solace, and support. They arrive hoping to be done unto, rather than to do unto others. And most individuals have little vision for how they might positively participate in God’s work of transformation in the world. Our congregations are failing to offer that vision — either for the individual or the community of faith. Because we are so fuzzy and disconnected from our mission, we look to outsiders — “professionals” to come tell us what our mission ought to be. This is not leadership, but abdication.
Instead of developing more, new legislation to pad out our Book of Resolutions, perhaps we should better fund the actual achievement of our Resolutions. We have hundreds of pages of commitments, instructions, challenges, encouragement, and guidelines for caring for each other, caring for the planet, seeking justice and equality, protecting the vulnerable and the innocent, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, housing the homeless, and providing health care for all. An active engagement with our Book of Resolutions could have one, and only one, outcome — the transformation of the world in a healthy and positive direction. We don’t need anyone — an elite group within the church, or a corporate marketer beyond the church — to tell us who we are and what we ought to be doing.
And the beauty of actually doing what we have collectively voted is most important to do, is that it would give every single United Methodist a broad choice of ways to connect, grow and serve. We would get so busy doing good that we would no longer have time to do harm. We would be so swept up together in the things we care about, that we wouldn’t have time and energy to argue over what we don’t agree on. We would stop trying to figure out who to exclude, because the will of God is so huge that we would need every person we could possibly find to pitch in. There would be something to appeal to every gift and passion. We would truly need each and every person’s skill, knowledge, talent, experience, and resources to do a good job.
Further slicing and dicing the church; further dissecting and disconnecting our power bases and decision-making bodies; turning redundancies into competition (the $20,000,000 club basically wants power to tell all the boards and agencies what they ought to be doing) — none of this will move us where we need to go. It is only by putting our faith into action, and turning our legislation into living that our church has any kind of sustainable future.