This falls into the “who does he think he is” category. But in an age where opinions are offered as gospel gold, alternate facts, and truthless truth, I feel compelled. My beloved UMC is a total mess. I read the Bishop’s new statement on the Continuing UMC and shake my head. Not that there is anything wrong with the statement, but it is too little, too late, too weak, and missing so much of the point. It underscores why the denomination, at least in the United States, has lost such credibility and why more and more people are unable to look past the hypocrisy and wishy-washy reactionary management pretending to be leadership.
And it isn’t just our Episcopal leaders stuck and unfocused; we have created an entire system designed to be dysfunctional. I have been a lifelong teacher of the profound truth “the system is designed for the results it is getting.” A system can only produce what it is designed for, or a corrupted shadow of same. We do not currently live in a system designed to honor any level of true diversity – racial, sexual, theological, educational, economic, geographic, ethical, moral, psychological, physical, or emotional. Ours is a European, white, paternalistic, upper middle class, straight, moderately educated, male, achievement-based system that has never done well any time anything not white, male, and straight has been processed through it. It was designed to “do for” the margins of society, but never has it made space at the table “for” the margins. There is absolutely nothing surprising about where we are other than why it has taken so long. But even that is part of the system we designed – it is extremely slow and inflexible.
Why do I stay a United Methodist? I may be a cynic, but I am a hopeful, idealistic cynic. When we stop using Wesley’s leadership and theology as a weapon or a toy, it is a powerful vision for a way of authentically following Christ in an unChristian world. Were we to succeed in a mere ten percent of the mature Wesley’s best instruction, we would actually be an institution with potential to transform the world. I feel the same way about the Bible. When we refuse to weaponize it, and we treat it with some true reverence, respect, and dignity, we have a God-given force at our fingertips that could transform our world into a concrete reality of love, unity, justice, and equity. However, we seem to bask in the shade of the lowest of low common denominators – being led by people who think The Message is a translation of scripture and that church growth consultants hawking their own books to drum up business are our “leading theologians.” We are being “taught” the Bible by numerous people who have told me personally, “I really don’t have much time to read the Bible,” and “I haven’t cracked a commentary since I left seminary (in 2004).”
When you continuously lower your standards and refuse to implement any meaningful accountability (with actual consequences) you cannot expect excellent results. No, you really cannot. I had opportunity to talk with two different groups recently about “where things stand for The United Methodist Church during the delay to the next General Conference.” First, I find it odd that I am being asked to meet with groups about General Conference when my own Annual Conference chose not to elect me to our delegation. Interestingly, I have been told by both inviting groups that they do not trust members of our current delegation to be able to answer their questions! There is value to building trust and reliability even in dysfunctional systems. People know I will tell the truth and will answer their questions honestly. This makes me happy.
Anyway, I have quizzed the groups I meet with to see what they know about proposals and legislation to General Conference, what the options are for our future, and particularly, what our bishops are saying and doing. I will report that people know a lot of things, but the majority of them are wrong. The amount of misinformation, especially from a few established outlets, is incredible. But overwhelmingly, people simply do not know or understand what is going on. It is a somewhat willful ignorance, but it is also excusable in that many of our leaders and pundits are speaking out of multiple sides of their collective and individual mouths. And I do believe the bottom line is that those entrusted to lead us and make our critical decisions are completely out of touch with the church they are supposed to serve.
Too harsh? Read the current statement and reflect on what it actually offers to LEAD us. It is nice, it is positive, it is kind. All good. Powerful? Inspiring (maybe for some)? Visionary? I am sorry, I think we are a mess, and the result is that our powerful connectionalism potential is devolving to a pedestrian and colloquial congregationalism. And our “church leadership experts” are fueling the fire and making us less United Methodist with each new title they publish.
But the world still needs the gospel. God still cares for creation, for the widows and orphans, for the poor and the rich, the simple and the smart, the progressive and the conservative, the hopeful and the despairing. We still need fully equipped and prepared disciples and stewards to give all they can to a positive transformation of the world. That doesn’t change, and if we can’t get our act together to join the movement, well, then I guess we can sit and wait for the next statement to come out – if we really can’t think of anything better to do…