United Methodist Insight Illustration
The United Methodist Church system requires clergy to be superheroes but gives them little support for the tasks of ministry.
A UM Insight Editorial
Reading the Church Systems Task Force report, either online or in the Advance Daily Christian Advocate, should be a priority for everyone preparing to participate in or observe the 2012 General Conference.
This innocuously named study report does what Call to Action, the Connectional Table/Interim Operations Team proposal, and the Ministry Study don't. Church Systems paints an accurate and highly disturbing portrait of The United Methodist Church as a toxic workplace for the very people we're expecting to lead us to "vitality:" our beleaguered clergy.
Of everything I've read in preparation for General Conference, the Church Systems report is the one study that truly breaks my heart and fires my outrage. In the immortal words of Peter Finch as TV newsman Howard Beale in the 1976 movie Network, I'm as mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore.
Twenty years ago, when I became a United Methodist Certified Lay Speaker, my mentors and instructors in Lay Speaking Ministries drummed one paramount principle into my head: Lay Speakers are to be partners, not competitors, with clergy to do the Lord's work. That's what I've tried do with every pastor with whom I've served.
Along with many other Lay Speakers across the denomination, I've been very clear that I'm called to the Christian vocation of general, not set-apart, ministry, also known as the ministry of the baptized. But my Lay Speaker training helped me clarify that I should always be willing to do whatever I can to support our clergy in those tasks that don't require ordination to Word, Sacrament and Order for elders or Word and Service for deacons.
That's why reading the Church Systems report has me both lamenting and raging at The United Methodist Church. We've asked our clergy to do monumental, almost impossible, tasks for low pay with little emotional support and job instability while we've saddled them with monstrous educational debt for the privilege of ordination. We knew this anecdotally, but now we have definitive proof in research that goes far beyond the questionable data of other studies.
And now the Ministry Study wants to take away clergy's job security by eliminating guaranteed appointment as a way to weed out ineffective clergy? To punish all our clergy for those who fail in a system that's literally built for failure? Where is the sense, the justice in that proposal?
It's no wonder that so many United Methodist clergy suffer physical and mental health problems, broken marriages, financial disaster, loss of self-esteem and vocational despair. We United Methodists in the United States have allowed a toxic workplace to exist that captures our clergy in religious slavery. Even with so many adverse social influences affecting public trust of religion today, must we really wonder why the U.S. church has no spiritual vitality when this is how we treat our spiritual leaders? Merciful God in Heaven!
If I were a General Conference delegate (which I am not, thanks be to God!), I would endorse the recommendations of the Church Systems Study without amendment and with complete confidence. My fear as a longtime General Conference observer is that this truly vital study will be either dismissed or mangled amid the legislative battles over Call to Action, CT/IOT restructure, Ministry Study and social issues.
In my opinion as a committed partner to our clergy, General Conference can do nothing more Christ-like in its deliberations than to adopt the Church Systems Study and its legislative recommendations by acclamation without debate. It is prophetic in the truest sense of the word, for it's shouting that we're killing our leadership with an environment that is nothing like the abundant life that Jesus promises.
Between now and April 24, I hope that each layperson who along with me recognizes our past complicity in perpetuating this catastrophic system will write, call or email his or her conference delegation to support the adoption of the Church Systems Study recommendations. If you don't know who they are, then send your messages to your local church to be forwarded to your annual conference office for General Conference delegates.
It's time we freed United Methodist clergy from religious slavery. In doing so, we will set us all on the path of spiritual, mental, emotional and physical health, which is the true meaning of salvation through Christ (John 10:10).