Illustration by Phillip Martin
Church conflict hurts the Gospel. Duh! Who would want to be one of Jesus’ followers if this is how we treat each other? As a District Superintendent I spend a lot of time dealing with disgruntled pastors and church members. It is the infamous triangle: “We can’t talk directly to each other so we’ll dump our issues on you.” Well, in our connectional system that’s the way that the dots connect, and DS’ are major dumping grounds. A healthy outcome largely depends on how I respond to the conflict.
If I get reactive there’s more tension. If I take one side or the other, things get worse. If I do nothing, I come across as either uncaring or incompetent. What’s the answer in a Rabbi Edwin Friedman Generation to Generation sort of way? Non-anxious presence. If I can relate directly with the conflicting interests and coach either to view the situation from a new vantage point, there’s hope. All it takes is a little bit of change to deflate the tension. Reactivity doesn’t help. I have to remain as neutral as possible defecting in place with the different sides while modeling Christ.
Would it have helped if Jesus had got into a shouting match with Pontius Pilate? Of course not. He was quiet. He was secure in himself and it showed. Oh, if we could act like that when things get hot. If we could just chill out and trust the Lord and speak from his perspective to each other. Even better would be to listen to each other with Jesus’ ears.
This isn’t just about local church conflict or conflict in general. This speaks to some of our United Methodist scorched-earth tactics and intractable rhetoric that threatens to divide the denomination. I’ve been reading through Gil Rendle’s book, Back to Zero: The Search to Rediscover the Methodist Movement. I am vividly reminded of our utter failure to conduct holy conferencing at General Conference 2012.
Rendle speaks about our legislative attempts to enact change: “We enact or we deny change through democratic practices. Changes are pushed or resisted by strong voices, interest groups, and caucuses. It is critical to note that in the United Methodist denomination there is no authoritative head leader with positional authority to make declarations and change the balance of competing legislative preferences (pp. 21-22).” What I get from this is that we are a group that likes group-think, but places a high value on arguing about everything. We have a system that purposefully includes challenges to every issue and all discussions. However, there is one Book of Discipline and only the General Conference can change it. Our last General Conference clearly exposed that we are many conflicting constituencies, and every four years we try to make sausage out of all of the inputs.
No matter how much you agree with the statements coming out of the Western or Northeastern Jurisdictions about “Gospel Obedience” over obedience to the actions of General Conference, this regional diversity of opinion is a problem in a covenantal, albeit argumentative, body like the UMC. Gil Rendle accurately points out that groups who attempt to legislate change cannot do it! He puts it this way: “It has taken a good bit of time for leaders to understand that additional rules will not set a rule-bound people free (p. 23).”
His suggestion to foster our denominational return to being a movement is a starting place, but comes up short in my analysis: “Rather than additional rules, we need bold people. While organizations do not have the capacity to break their own logjam of rules and norms, individuals do (p. 23).” He spends the rest of the book asking questions and offering guidance for how individuals can break the rules while honoring them – no small task. He admirably says that rule-breakers who help nudge the UMC back to movement status must question our whole system of rules in light of our mission. The mission is the driver of everything. My problem is that “bold people” are still people, and, in the words of my late father, “There ain’t nothing original about original sin.” Bold people can sin boldly. Everybody needs redemption.
Now, I don’t want to make short shrift of Rendle’s book. It is engaging and has great images from another favorite book, The Starfish and the Spider, but it leaves me ill at ease. Rendle basically says we need enough differentiated leaders who will break our rules for missional purposes. Yes, how nice, but that’s not how we do things. I have stated before that I believe the UMC needs to have a one or two-month constitutional convention and do what Rendle’s book title suggests and get Back to Zero, in other words, start over. However, when I hear the notion of bold individual rule breakers I foresee internecine warfare over what the mission of the church is exactly. I see reactivity going nuclear. I see schism without a mission because we can’t agree that the sky is blue on a cloudless day.
Ah, now maybe this is where I find hope. Where Rendle comes up short is where most of us, especially me, miss the mark. “Individual” rule breaking is all about “me, me, me, and my agenda.” Where is the “United” in our denominational name in that? Sounds more like “Untied” than “United” Methodist Church. It all depends on where the “I” is placed, doesn’t it? I want to get back to zero and start our denomination over, but want to keep from turning the endeavor into a my “I” against your “I” issue war. It doesn’t matter whether it’s called “missional” or not, if we’ve shot each other up in the process. That’s an oxymoron that can’t be fixed.
It may sound simple, and I know it’s not, but I want to suggest that every denominational and local church conflict does not hinge on our personal determination of what’s missional, or what is God’s preferred cause de jour. It strikes me that we may need to follow the example of Christ and take up a cross and crucify every one of our causes until we discover what is Jesus’ cause. Until we do that we’re just going to keep going around in circles arguing over who’s right, who’s wrong, and letting the Judicial Council sort it out. I’d rather preach Jesus without any elaboration than hear the mixed signals of 9 million individual rule-breakers. If we don’t have a single voice about anything, even General Conference, maybe it’s high time we listened to the Holy Spirit. Chill out, non-anxious presence, defect in place – Psalm 46:10, “Be still, and know that I am God…” Amen to that!
The Rev. Tim McClendon is superintendent of the Columbia District in the South Carolina Annual Conference.