UMNS photo by Paul Jeffrey
Missionary CommissioningIn the past, Methodist sent "home missionaries" such as Ms. Vargas-Maldonado to found congregations to nurture new disciples.
Now that General Conference is over, we’re reading multiple lamentations regarding the failure of the General Conference to restructure our denominational form of governance. Each time I read such a missive, I find myself asking: Didn’t they ever read any Methodist History textbook commonly used in seminary classes?
United Methodism has an historical pattern that we have used to guide our denominational structure, at least since its third constitution (1832) and its first delegated General Conference (1836). That pattern is an outgrowth of the American political form of government called "Jacksonian Democracy." It called for radical forms of democratic elections. Bishops had to be elected by the General (and later, Jurisdictional) Conference. Clergy to be ordained and brought into Annual Conference membership had to be elected by those already in the Annual Conference. Even candidates to become clergy had to be elected by the Quarterly (later, Charge) Conference of the church where their membership was held. Further, it called for the rules of the church, from the General Conference on down, to be passed by delegates who were elected by each Annual Conference.
Delegation of these functions was forbidden; we were to be a church wherein those who were to serve in higher positions had to be elected by the laity and the clergy, even of local churches. Rules had to be created by majority vote of those eligible to vote in a body.
Is this cumbersome, particularly in a world where electronic communications of any kind travel virtually instantaneously? Absolutely! But its strength is that it leads to rules for our church and election of clergy and bishops that, (more or less) have the "consent of the governed." That avoids the feeling of anything being forced upon us Methodist saints.
Compared to that, the proposed "Call to Action" restructuring plan of the Connectional Table, with a governing board of fifteen chosen only by forty-five others, for all of the programmatic General Church Boards, struck me as being akin to the one "Prophet" and twelve "Apostles" who control all of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter Day Saints.
Whether such a form of governance would be more "nimble" and/or able to make changes more quickly than every four years, that proposal emphasized control of the denomination from the top down -- and as a result, did not fit our historical pattern. The same could be said for the other restructuring proposals considered by the 2012 General Conference. The same also could be said for the proposed "set-aside Bishop" who would be a quadrennial President of the Council of Bishops, and other smaller forms of restructuring of our form of church governance.
There is a related part of our history that might, in secular terms, be described as our "core business." Note: it is not "making disciples for Jesus Christ." That smacks of the same arrogance that we have accused Baptist and other Evangelical denominations of showing with their "conversion cards" and notches on the spine of their Bibles to show how many people they have "saved." If we truly believe in the Wesleyan concept of God working through God’s prevenient grace that brings a penitent to the point where s/he is ready to accept God’s saving grace, we must admit that we are not the ones who are doing the "saving" or creating of new disciples. That is God’s job!
Rather, our core business, from no later than 1840 on, has been the creation of worshiping congregations or communities in every possible geographic community. That did not mean that all congregations would be big; nor did it mean that they would be "salvation stations." By then, we had become the church of the "settled." The "home missionaries" we sent out were not to "save" the souls of the scattered and the homeless. Those "home missionaries" went to places where new geographic communities were being created, to build churches to be a place of support, of worship, and of service, with those who were already "saved." It was the job of those congregations, not to "save" peoples’ souls but to give to those whom God had "saved" a place where they could live in Christian community and grow in their discipleship.
Where we need to change is not with grand restructuring plans, but to find ways to make our core business and our historic pattern function in the 21st century. They include:
Recognizing that now, people no longer live in geographic communities. They live in widely divergent communities that often are non-geographic in nature. They are communities of commonality, in which the members may even be scattered hundreds of miles apart and the worshipping congregation that holds them together may be found online.
Recognizing that now, people no longer think in terms of "function" in church organization, as much as they think in holistic terms of "making our congregation work." That suggests that instead of having persons who are specialists in any particular functional area (that we call a "general board"), we need staffs of generalists who can be available on site in every Annual Conference to help local churches build programs that are right for their particular setting. Think about it: What would it mean for us to scatter the same number of people as the specialists we now have working in all of the programmatic boards out across the denomination as generalists who are present to help each congregation meet its own needs – even if it doesn’t buy materials from Cokesbury?
Recognizing that our greatest tool to teach our theology in our churches to those who are going through the process of sanctification, was our hymnody, sung in harmony. That tool has been severely compromised by the fact that teaching the reading and singing of music to children was mostly eliminated in our public schools 40 years ago. Instead of copying the megachurches with their "praise music," we need to find a way to help people hear and sing hymns that cover the full spectrum of the worship experience: praise, confession, receiving God’s word, taking Christ within them, and being strengthened to go out and face the world they must be in, but not "of." (Rural Methodist churches of the late 19th and early 20th centuries did that task very well through the use of music with "shaped notes.")
Admitting that because of our emphasis on a seminary-educated clergy, we have virtually abandoned the working-class people in the United States. Our clergy do not speak the verbal- or body-language of the working class. We are a church of the middle class, and have been so, again at least since 1840. We need to confess that we have had the arrogant tendency to see ministry with working people with a sense of noblesse oblige. Unlike the Apostle Paul, we are not capable of being "all things to all people," particularly to those in non-geographic worshipping congregations. We either need to abandon our emphasis on a scholastically educated clergy and once again build up a large cadre of "local preachers" or accept the fact that our core participants are going to be middle- and upper-middle class people, and focus on ministries to and with that segment of the population. (This is what churches like Saddleback do.)
Admitting that interpretation of Scripture has always been, since long before the canonization of the Hebrew testament, an evolving task. Even our brothers and sisters in the Jewish faith, in both conservative and reform congregations, accept and embrace the idea that the words of the Scriptures in English have to be interpreted in the light of the historical context in which those words were written in Hebrew or Greek.
At the same time, that means rethinking the notion that homosexuality is contrary to the Scriptures. The fact that "men sleeping with men as with a woman" was mentioned twice, in the Book of Leviticus should be a tip-off to us that homosexual individuals and homosexual practice existed long before we ever heard about it, much less talked about it. The argument in our church is not, and has never been, about homosexuality, per se. Rather, it has been about "the authority of the Scriptures." Jesus and Paul did not speak, much less write, in sixteenth century English. Literal interpretation of the English language of the Bible has been a turn-off for younger adults who know from experience that their friends who happen to be gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered can be and are faithful children of God who want nothing more than any of us wants: community and a sense of commitment with their loved ones.
Finally, we must recognize that few churches can afford to be the sole user of the property they own. Particularly they cannot afford to maintain an auditorium with fixed seats that gets used only six out of 168 hours per week. We must take a lesson from our brothers and sisters in the Jehovah’s Witness and Latter Day Saints denomination, and in the Roman Catholic Church, where multiple congregations will use one church campus -- and the property belongs, outright, to the Resident Bishop, not the local church.
Work at restructuring our denomination from the local church level, instead of the General Conference level, within our historical patterns will lead us into a more pragmatic form of existence. That will, in itself, cause the General Church to "restructure us" to truly support our worshipping congregations as the place where ministry occurs.
Let’s save spending again the hundreds of thousands of dollars we laid out on consultants who know secular business but don’t know our historical patterns. We can do it ourselves. It’s a lot less costly, and in the long run, a lot more practical.
The Rev. Tom Griffith is a retired clergy member of the California-Pacific Annual Conference.