Monday, November 15, 2010

On what the UMC does right

There has been a good deal of talk lately at the denominational level of the United Methodist Church about what is wrong with the UMC. We've been issued the Call to Action report, which among other things, comes from a place of "crisis," a word that is used in the report some fifteen times. Crisis, crisis, crisis. We have to move now, or the whole blasted thing might just fall in on itself.

You get the picture. Everybody wants to get a word in about what is wrong with the United Methodist Church. There has been a report, and before you know it, it's a voting year in Annual Conference, and then General Conference. Before you know it, the election cycle in the UMC is just as long as in American politics, which is to say it never ends. And the rhetoric is negative, just awfully negative, and it's no wonder we all think we're in dire straits. We've been using the word "crisis" so much that we are starting to believe it!

I do not deny that there are issues the UMC needs to deal with. As a young clergyperson, I certainly am sympathetic to the church's need to reach young people, both to grow the committed laity and to grow the clergy. Having worked for a jurisdictional agency for three years before my current appointment, I am also familiar with concerns surrounding church structure. There is some fine tuning to be done.

But God forbid we talk about what is right with the church. I'm not one to pretend that life is all rainbows and cupcakes, but I think there is probably a legitimate case to be made for looking at what the church is doing right, and using that as a starting place, rather than looking at what the church is doing wrong, and beginning there.

Actually, in some ways, that was the stated modus operandi of the Call to Action report, inasmuch as the group was seeking to measure "vitality" of churches. But even as the group is looking at markers of vitality, the reports reads as if the vitality markers are just something against which to measure the rest of the church.

And in all the conversation about church reform, and about General Conference, and about "reaching the lost" and "being relevant" and whatever else the buzzword is this week, we focus on what we are doing wrong--or, perhaps to be more specific, what we are not doing well enough.

I'm all for these conversations, because you can't really be properly self-reflective without thinking about what you could be doing better. But as put together a comprehensive plan for survival, I can't help but think that this look under the hood of the UMC is not so much a look at the UMC as it is a coveting of what other denominations and faith traditions are doing well.

We have been in this place before. The last part of the 20th century saw the UMC co-opting other traditions' church-growth models, and we are now coming to see that while those models may have worked for us for a time, they have not left us in such a great place as a denomination. Even nondenominational churches are beginning to see that having beat the church growth drum for so long, they are worse for the wear.

These models often have pulled at the connection, exposing places where the thread is ripped and holes have formed. I have heard the words "creeping congregationalism" used to describe the path we are on, specifically as we look to the Call to Action report. I would not take it that far, but I think the basic sentiment is fair. As churches go off on their own, and neglect the connection, the connection gets weaker.

Perhaps weakening the connection is fine with some folks. Too much bureaucracy, too much heavy-handedness, too much control over the life of the local church: I've heard all these arguments, just within the last week. But, I mean, my God, we're United Methodist. Let's be United Methodist. This is not to say that the Spirit is not moving in other denominations, in other traditions, and it is not to say that great things aren't being done outside the UMC.

If there is one thing I've learned about ministry--really, it's been drilled into my head by those concerned with clergy self-care--it is that God does not expect us to be all things to all people. So why are we trying to do that with the denomination? The UMC obviously wants to reach as many folks as it can, as, you know, I'm pretty on board with the whole business of making disciples for the transformation of the world. The message is good. But why are we looking at all these things we COULD be instead of looking at what we ARE?

This is why I am thinking about the connection today. The church to which I am appointed, Johns Creek UMC in metro Atlanta, held an event yesterday with Stop Hunger Now, an anti-hunger organization. 50,000 meals got packaged, and ten other churches in the Atlanta-Roswell District participated. Ten! All we had to do was make an announcement at the district set-up meeting, put an ad in the district newsletter, and talk to ministers who are already my friends. And we had ten churches come participate, sending money and volunteers--we almost had too much of both!

Connectionalism, of course, is such a low priority in other organizations and denominations that it is not an actual word; my spell check does not recognize it, and I can't find it in the dictionary. But when we tend to the connection--because it does need tending--it is life giving. Eleven churches in total yesterday packaged meals for 50,000 kids.

The hard news is that we need each other. The good news is that we already have each other, if we will tend to those relationships. A marriage does not work, after all, unless both parties put in work to keep the relationship strong. A connection of churches (which we are!) does not work unless we put an effort into working together. In that working together, I am pretty sure that we will find that those connections are what is--quite literally--holding us together as a denomination.

I think that is a fine place to start.

Or, you know, we can serve the same warmed-over report, year after year, and talk about what a crisis we are in.

Look, I get it. The church has got to change--and it is hard to change the church, because the church is a fundamentally conservative institution. We are conserving tradition and practice. But if we are always in crisis, what is the point of existing at all? So many things get served to me during the day under the banner of "this is a crisis and must be dealt with immediately" that I am starting to believe that unless life and limb is under immediate attack, calling something a crisis does it more harm than good.

But there are good things happening in the UMC. Great things, even. And it tends to be that the best things that are happening in the United Methodist Church happen when churches work together, celebrate that connection as more than just lip service, and understand that we are all in this boat together.

Of course, plenty of more experienced folks have weighed in, and the Bishops seem to like the report. We will see what comes of it. Maybe I'm just naive.

But, you know, out of the mouth of babes . . .


  1. Dalton,
    I think you raise some good questions. I am concerned that the leadership that got us into this place and have struggled with clarity and unity, now have it all figured out!!

    I don't want to rush into this so quickly and make changes that might not use the strengths that we have!