UMNS Photo by Paul Jeffrey
For the first time in recent history, General Conference delegates are seated at round tables instead of at long rows of rectangular tables. Organizers say the change is intended to foster "holy conversations" about the controversial issues coming before The United Methodist Church.
Five Ways the United Methodist Church Can Move Forward
The United Methodist Church needs to move forward now that the 2012 General Conference is behind us. I believe five things can help us move forward in spite of a sometimes contentious and confusing General Conference.
The jury remains out on the importance of this General Conference. Many have declared this General Conference a failure due to ending without a restructuring plan and no change on the United Methodist Church’s position on homosexuality. But others see that the General Conference did its work. The delegates conferred and voted their hearts, which is what we ask of our delegates.
From my point of view, the 2012 General Conference might actually pave the wave for important changes ahead. As I spoke with delegates, two major ideas shaped their discernment of issues:
Wanting our church to be led and structured by a compelling spiritual vision
Many delegates felt that a case for change had not been made. The reasons given for change in the structure looked backward: “What we’re doing isn’t working, so we have to change because any change is better than what we’re doing.” For many, our leadership seems to be worried about institutional survival. This falls a long way from being a forward-looking vision to bring the Gospel to the world.
Wanting our church to be true to its “conferencing” tradition
The move toward centralized power, both in the “set-aside bishop” and the proposed fifteen member “Oversight and Strategy Committee,” did not sit well with delegates. They understood the efficiencies that might occur with centralization, but delegates rejected the move away from conferencing and the relegating of the General Conference’s authority to other aspects of the church.
With the status quo maintained for another four years, perhaps the pain of this General Conference will motivate conversation and spur innovation that will seek to move the church forward in our mission to all the world.
Five Ways the United Methodist Church Can Move Forward
- Claim a gospel vision that is about transforming lives and the world and not the institution
Rev. Dr. David McAllister-Wilson said, “Young people have no interest in saving the church; they care about saving the world. If we can show them that we can help them save the world, they’ll save the church.”
Our current four focus areas should be driving everything we do as a church, but instead we hide behind a sappy mission statement, “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” The mission statement needs to be reversed. First off, as I mentioned in a previous blog, the mission statement is not even Biblically correct. Secondly, Jesus discipled people by including them in his world-changing work.
David McAllister-Wilson has it right. We, United Methodists, need to get back to saving the world and the discipling will happen.
We need to keep in mind why we exist as a church, and remember what Dietrich Bonehoeffer once said, “The church is the church only when we exist for others.”
- Reform the Episcopacy making it accountable through electable terms and prioritizing spiritual leadership over institutional management
Our bishops need to quit worrying about running the church and start leading us. The words that seemed to be shared most often from our bishops before and during the 2012 General Conference were “adaptable,” “flexible,” and “nimble.” I would have rather heard about “call” and “courage” and “reaching out.”
We’ve become a church driven by technique and not theology, and our language reveals this.
William B. Lawrence over a decade ago concluded that the tasks of the district superintendents are more in line with that of the order of deacon than elder, particularly with the demise of the sacramental aspect of the superintendency. (“The District Superintendency in the United Methodist Church,” Lilly Endowment, June 2000).
I wonder if the same can be said for the execution of the episcopal office in the United Methodist Church.
We do not need technocratic leadership that depends on business consultants. We need bold and thoughtful preaching and teaching, which will inspire the church to do the dangerous work of following Jesus. We need to insist that the bishops renew their commitment to be the spiritual leaders of the United Methodist Church, preaching and teaching across their assigned areas and expecting excellence in preaching and teaching of the elders under their care.
We, also, need an episcopacy that is not separated from the church. The current structure with bishops being elected for life does not suit our tradition. We ask our bishops to keep our brothers and sisters in ministry accountable, and yet, we’ve created the office of bishop without an accountability mechanism for itself. In a way, we have created a different order of ministry even though we continue to claim that bishops are still elders.
We need electable terms for the episcopal office. This will have three positive advantages for our denomination:
- It will build accountability into the office itself. When we discover that one of our bishops does not have the necessary gifts for leading the church as a bishop, we will have the opportunity to not re-elect that person.
- The issue of what to do with retired bishops would be solved. Only active bishops would be a part of the Council of Bishops. This would keep the whole denomination closer to the grassroots, while saving us money.
- Bishops don’t become a separate order, and can retire and be included in the congregation of clergy once again.
- Diversify the outreach of the church and not concentrate solely on local congregations. We need to explore and encourage many different forms of spiritual communities and outreach.
The current focus of the Council of Bishops “to increase the number of vital congregations” is short-sighted. We need to have more expressions of Christian community and not focus on one.
The proposed focus on “new places for new people” offers a more open approach that might help our church expand our outreach. NP2 calls us to go out and engage people where they are and build relationships. This is an outward focus approach.
“Increasing vital congregations” focuses inward. It depends on an old attractional model of ministry. A retired colleague called it the “you all come join us” approach.
We need to invest our time in innovation and call our leaders to go out into the world, rather than making the parish our world.
- Reclaim what it means to be a connectional and conferencing church.
From the UMC.org web-site talking about the structure of the United Methodist Church:
It is the organization of The United Methodist Church that creates a structure for connectionalism. The United Methodist Church is intentionally decentralized and democratic. Clergy and laity alike help determine the ministry and workings of The United Methodist Church through their actions in their local churches, annual conferences, general agencies and through petitions and resolutions they send to General Conference, and through the voting delegates who go to General Conference, the only body that can set official policy for the church. It is individuals, the people called United Methodists, who make possible the connection of hearts, minds, hands and lives as the body of Christ around the world.
From Brafman and Beckman’s book, “The Spider and the Starfish” we learn that “if you cut off a spider’s leg, it’s crippled; if you cut off its head, it dies. But if you cut off a starfish’s leg it grows a new one, and the old leg can grow into an entirely new starfish.” They maintain that centralized leadership with a rigid hierarchy puts an organization at risk, while having a network of peer leaders sustains an organization.
For almost thirty years, the bishops of the United Methodist Church have been moving us toward a congregational focused church. This move (with its current incarnation being “to increase the number of vital congregations”) has stymied the outreach of United Methodism. We need to get back to the understanding the we are all United Methodists and that we are all responsible for the work of the church wherever we are. We built hospitals, camps, colleges. We stood with the labor unions and suffered with the civil rights movement. We have done all this because we are a connectional church, sharing our leaders and resources where they need to be.
The move toward a congregation-focused denomination will hamper our ability to innovate and be where we need to be. We might even lose some of our best leaders, if the only choice for leadership is within a congregational setting.
Instead, let us go back to our connectional roots, diversify our outreach and change the world.
- End our discrimination against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons
I find no compelling argument for why we discriminate against gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender persons. But we do, and it brings great harm and hurt to our members and to the world. These policies of the church hurt our Christian witness.