Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Thinking differently about Call to Action

As someone who thinks a lot about systemic things--and with General Conference rapidly approaching--I have been thinking a lot, over the last year, about the Call to Action report and its ramifications for the local church. I've written about it several times, and always from a critical perspective. I'm a millennial, for sure, so I am good at deconstructing and criticizing. In school, I could write a paper in my sleep.

As delegation after delegation endorses the proposal, it looks quite likely that at least the structural and general agency changes will be passed, and we will move away from General Agencies as we currently understand them. With consolidation comes lack of staff, and one of my main critiques of this whole business has come from my history as a staff person at a jurisdictional agency. The role I played at that agency (UMVIM, SEJ), I have said, could not adequately be performed by a pastor with local church responsibilities. I say this as a pastor with local church responsibilities who is asked, more and more, to perform duties which used to be performed by dedicated staff people. It can be exhausting. So eliminating staff, as I have said, runs the risk of even further taxing the very pastors who are already overtaxed.

I still don't feel entirely comfortable with such a momentous systemic shift. We sometimes make huge shifts in church systems and pretend they will not affect the mission and nature of the church, when in reality the mission and nature of the church flow directly from how we arrange ourselves. The mission is the "what" and the systems are the "how." It does not matter how often you invoke the Holy Spirit: you cannot make pancakes by vacuuming the carpet. The "what" (pancakes) flows directly from the "how" (gathering ingredients, mixing, cooking). When you change the "how," your "what" looks different.

So I think we're jumping onto a train whose direction we're not totally sure of, but my concerns were alleviated a bit this morning upon reading Ken Carter's most recent blog post about the CTA report. He proposes this:

[W]hat if the adaptive challenge, inspired by the Call to Action, is that nothing happens at the district, annual conference or general church level that is not in partnership with some local church or small network of local churches? There are evidences of strong partnerships already (note the Ginghamsburg Church's mission work in the Sudan with UMCOR), but the idea would be that this becomes normative, and a key measure in how funds are allocated (and perhaps matched).

At first, my thought was: isn't this just more "creeping congregationalism," more relying on the local church (and its pastor) at the expense of, you know, keeping me from sleeping? But then he describes the benefits:

local churches would become more connectional; in an age of scarce resources, crucial and life-giving work would be sustained; the distances between boards and agencies and local churches would be lessened; and smaller boards and agencies could draw upon the gifts and talents of the laity who remain in their local contexts

Rather than creeping congregationalism, then, we would be forced to work together, in local church partnerships. This is not creeping congregationalism--it is creeping connectionalism! Perhaps the bureaucracy is not so much keeping us connected as it is keeping us from relying upon one another.

We need to be careful, of course. When we change something so fundamental in the UMC's structure, there will be unintended consequences. But what if the main consequence was that local churches, admitting finite resources (and seeking to protect the pastor's time and energy), went in together. I have already seen smaller churches get together for mission trips; this is the same idea, introduced systemically into the life of the local church. Rather than relying upon agencies (and even the conference!), we would need to rely upon on another.

The possibility remains that churches--especially larger ones (and I serve in one of these churches, mind you)--will go off and do their own thing. But what an opportunity we have to share with one another!

Now, this business of eliminating guaranteed appointment, that is something else altogether. I'll post my thoughts on that issue in the coming days.