Illustration courtesy of Dan R. Dick
The United Methodist Church, like the character Sisyphus of Greek mythology, is feeling inadequate to the task of defining its mission and structure for a new age.
I guess people actually follow my blog fairly regularly. I’ve received dozens of emails asking, “Where are you?” I have taken a couple of weeks off from writing to do more reading — preparing for General Conference, following the streams of points and counterpoints flying throughout the denomination, and catching up on churchy publications. There is SO MUCH “stuff” out and about concerning our UM church. It boggles the mind, and I plowed through a ton of it, and am ready to start reflecting back. Today’s post is an initial pass at the larger issues; in the days to come I am going to zero in on specific articles and books.
One of the strongest memories I have from childhood was my report card at the end of the first grading period when I was in third grade. On one side of the card were listed the standard subjects: math, English, science, social studies, etc. I was always good in elementary school in math and science, not so good in social studies, and abysmal at English. On the other side of the card was a list of personal characteristics: social skills, comportment, cooperation, attitude, etc. The memory I have is that next to each personal characteristic, written in red ink and all capital letters, was written the word “INADEQUATE.” Now, I considered myself to be a normal eight-year old child, basically happy and friendly, with egg-shell-fragile self-esteem. I was first crushed, then haunted, by the idea that I was “inadequate.” I took my report card home to my mother, hoping for some loving redemption. On the grade side, I had three As, three Bs, and a C-. My mom didn’t even mention the As; like me, she focused on the “inadequate” side of the report card. The only word of comfort I got from my mother was that she was disappointed in me because she knew I could do “so much better.” Once again, inadequate.
That’s where we are as a church — feeling inadequate. The pop church growth gurus focus on all the many ways The United Methodist Church is blowing it. We are not motivated to effectiveness based on what we are doing well, but instead are admonished for what we are doing poorly. We are motivated to change, not by vision and possibility, but by scarcity and fear. Secular culture looks at us and judges us “inadequate,” those who visit us and choose not to stay deem us “inadequate,” and our piety pundits zero in on our flaws and faults, wallowing in our “inadequacy.” Hard to feel good about a church that is so… inadequate.
And so, what is our response? We want to do everything in our power to preserve and protect the system of inadequacy we have created. We cannot seem to find common ground on where we are “adequate,” but we will flog to death all the ways we are failing. And we are called to respond, but sadly all we are being challenged to do is improve the system that produces mediocrity at best, decline as the norm.
For me, the disconnect is this: God is calling us to greatness; our leadership is calling us to adequacy. God challenges us to be our best; we are willing to settle for “good enough.” The painful fact is, were we to fully embrace our Call to Action and successfully achieve its goals, the result would be the preservation of the institution that produces inadequate results. We want to restructure to allow us to do all the wrong things poorly in a new way. This is one step below inadequate…
A vision for greatness is scary. It means we will have to change, not just remodel or renovate. It will require an overhaul of the episcopacy, shifting authority away from an elite few distant from those they lead to the indigenous many who are responsible to make things happen. It will require a total redefinition of “connectionalism.” It will demand the restoration and recovery of missional outreach as a fundamental lay movement — which in turn will require the “de-professionalization” of the clergy away from a corporate business model towards a covenantal collaboration model based on our faith. It will depend upon a metamorphosis of a co-opted consumer culture into a servant incarnation defined by evangelism, missional outreach, and redemptive justice. We must not simply do different things. We must become a different church. Our goal should not, must not, be “adequacy.” Our goal must honor the one whom we worship and praise — a great and awesome church proclaiming a great and awesome God. The time of mediocrity must give way to a dawning age possibility and promise.
We are on the threshold of downsizing and depleting ourselves in ways that will not allow us to recover. I am prayerful that we will have the wisdom to explore the alternative plans being offered for restructure that allow “grace space” for good critical thinking and rational reflection. Our actions have incredible consequences, and those whose governing value is preserving the institution must be held in check by the larger church whose guiding value is to do the will of God.
We are taking too many critical factors as givens. We cannot protect certain aspects of our church as “untouchable.” When will we do a full-scale critical analysis of the episcopacy, itineracy, connectionalism, annual conference structure, regional/jurisdictional contextual differences, our seminary educational expectations, pastoral credentialing and continuing education, the ministry of the laity, and (dare I say it again?) our mission of making disciples (which is not what our current church system is designed to do well)?
We have more serious and more important issues to address than structure. I am becoming a total bore on this subject, but FORM FOLLOWS FUNCTION! The function that our Connectional Table, IOT, Ministry Study, etc., are describing are not givens. They have very little to do with our heritage and identity as Methodists, and if we restructure (re-form) as they prescribe, we will be changed in ways we do not intend. I will say more about this as I review a couple of books from the Adaptive Leadership series recently released by our UM Publishing House.
United Methodists far and wide agree that what we currently are and do is inadequate. The major disagreement is what needs to change. Do we follow the reports and recommendations that call us to adequacy, or do we rise to the challenge to go far beyond adequacy to greatness?