Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Firewalled Into Ineffectiveness and Impotence

I have been "on holiday" (as the Irish say) for the past week, but as I've begun to transition back to reality here in O'Hare airport I've gotten several emails and text messages regarding more work by the United Methodist Church's Judicial Council. First, the ruling that the General Conference's work regarding the reforming of the guaranteed pastoral appointment is now null and void; and more recently, the involuntary resignation of Bishop Bledsoe, decided upon by the South Central Jurisdiction based on their evaluation of his ineffectiveness, is also now "null and void." Both are citing church law and a lack of proper due process.

I am not enough of a jurist to say one thing or another about church law, and I am sure that the Judicial Council is acting within their purview and the letter of the law in their rulings. So blaming the judicial council for our woes is probably misplaced. However, their role in these recent events is making one thing abundantly clear: as a denomination, we have firewalled ourselves into impotency regarding transformation. It will be hard to live out our United Methodist mission of "making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world" when we cannot even transform ourselves. In short: we have painted ourselves into an ecclesial organizational corner!

Reinhold Niebuhr made the following observation about organizations: after a period of time, people become less passionate about their original mission and become more self-serving and self-protective. Self-preservation then kicks in and replaces the original purpose and mission.

Sound familiar? Methodism - a reform movement - needs reformed. We're right back where Wesley started. Father John wanted to do a 180°, but instead we have completed a 360°.

Of late and in particular, we have worked so hard to guarantee the protection of a free pulpit in United Methodism that we have made it virtually impossible to exit a pastor or a bishop. While there may have been good reasons in the past to have enacted this, can we defend it now, in light in diminishing resources and evaluative tools? It seems clear - and now with legal precedent - that once elders are ordained and received into full connection, they are virtually "firewalled" and untouchable, regardless of their effectiveness. While I don't know (or need to know) the specific reasons why Bishop Bledsoe was found ineffective, I seriously doubt it was a decision arrived at lightly and without cause. If a jurisdictional episcopacy committee cannot exit an ineffective bishop, I doubt that any other body will be able to exit a pastor. We have firewalled the system so it cannot be changed, and furthermore have now have established legal precedent for such in the eyes of our Judicial Council.

I fear this hastens certain disaster for the United Methodist Church unless change comes quickly. Continuing to have a judicial council rule against needed (and agreed upon) changes in structure will only frustrate everyone and waste precious time and resources that are now at a premium. Why is it so hard to admit that what we have is not working nor is adaptable for use in the 21st century? Are we so willing to preserve what we have at the cost of becoming a dead, lifeless sect? Before anyone says, "This is the way we've always done it," think again - a judicial council is a rather new innovation to Methodism, created by the ME South in 1934, because we wanted to be less "episcopal" and more "democratic" and remove questions of legality from our bishops (where did Jesus ever model democracy?!). If Father John Wesley or Bishop Asbury wanted to make a change, they just made it. We Americans aren't very good at absolute authority, but we presently have the opposite of it in the UMC - we have an episcopacy shackled to lead, but convenient to blame. It's a great system to play armchair quarterback in, but it doesn't make disciples. We're the Pharisees all over again - law is taking the place of faith.

There are some very hard decisions coming for the people called United Methodists, and they involve more than just pensions, health plans, and guaranteed appointments. Are clergy willing to sacrifice knowing that promises formerly made by some in the Church (many who are now dead) may not be able to be kept? Is the Gospel worth that? Are laity willing to step up and become partners in disciple-making, not employing their preacher to do it for them but rather being empowered by their baptism and faith? Will clergy and laity partner together to do ministry as a whole, rather than at variance with each other in role and deed? Will we be able to come together as a denomination, dissolve the present unworkable structure and adopt a new wineskin for a new wine? Or will we go the way of the Lutherans and Presbyterians and split into smaller factions? Will such smaller factions be able to sustain themselves? What would that mean for our brothers and sisters across the world (we are not just an American church)? I am certainly not trying to limit these questions to either/or - the problem is much more multi-faceted than that. But of this I am quite sure: the system will NOT self-correct!

A few years ago Lyle Schaller noted that we may need to do a denominational restart: dissolve the Constitution, the present Book of Discipline, and start from scratch. I think he's right. It will be painful. It will involve compromise and faithfulness. It will only be done in an atmosphere of prayer and trust. But I fear the alternative is to be a loose association of churches where only the strong in numbers and resources will survive. While that seems to be the antithesis of Methodism's method, it is a reality: at present, the UMC needs our larger churches and conferences more than they need the UMC. Unless we find a better way to govern ourselves, we will continue to get what the system is designed to produce - and it's not disciples.

A Lutheran friend of mine once told me: the main problem with you Methodists is that you've lost your Method. I fear he was right: we have a church that is faithful to a dying system rather than one that exists for the purpose of making disciples of Jesus Christ. Some say it's not about numbers - but to the one who has come to know Jesus and wants to make him known, those numbers mean a lot.

I know my blogs often sound like downers and criticisms. But I am convinced until we are brought face to face with the realities of our denomination, we can't lead with any sense of authority or urgency - and these are urgent times. We have to change - and change often means loss of power, loss of security, and loss of identity. However, those are all things that at our baptisms we said we would be willing to give up for the sake of Jesus Christ.

I don't know any greater joy than to be faithful to our Lord. I pray we can be less faithful to a failed system and more faithful to our Lord - whatever the price.



TN Rambler said...

I hear all of the wailing and gnashing of teeth over these rulings and all I can do is shake my head. First, let me say that I am a licensed local pastor and thus have absolutely no security of appointment. I must respectfully disagree with your assessment on ineffective pastors. The BOD provides for a process that requires documentation and due process to remove an ineffective pastor. I do not see this as an onerous requirement. However, too many District Superintendents would evidently move the problems along rather than do the necessary work of documentation in order to press charges. Now, I will admit that I haven't read the latest ruling on the Bishop and will reserve comment on that matter.

As far as the failure of General Conference 2012 to accomplish anything other than renaming Lay Speaking Ministries to Lay Servant Ministries and separating the Women's Division from GBGM, I lay that blame squarely on a process that ignored our constitution and restrictive rules and was so hell bent on efficiency in the committee process that things were rushed with no thought to the consequences. If we truly want reform, then why not take the time to get the Connectional Table, the Bishops and General Agencies and the Judicial Council together to formulate legislation that will pass constitutional muster? Of course, it's a lot easier to bitch about the lack of change than it is to do the hard work of making change actually happen... and that seems to be where we are now.

In the meantime, this local pastor of a rural, two point charge at the southern end of the Holston Conference will just continue preaching the Good News of Christ while I work my tail off to let our communities know that God loves them, that God cares for them and wants the best for them. I can do no other.

Wayne Cook
Rising Fawn-Sand Mtn Charge
Chattanooga District
Holston Conference

Daniel McLain Hixon said...

I tend to agree with Wayne that we UMC folks have given a LOT of attention to systemmic problems - ineffective clergy, poor training in the seminaries (well, maybe not enough attention given to that one), canon law that is inefficient, etc. but the truth is that our church DOES make some disciples, otherwise we would not have so many Methodists who are so passionately committed to the mission that we wail and moan about these percieved problems. One doesn't become a reformer if one is apathetic, and we have reformers sprouting up everyplace.

We have plenty of churches that are growing, and plenty of members that are growing spiritually.

So what is the issue? Well, we also have even more churches (and maybe even more members) that are dying. What will happen? Either these dying churches and members will experience renewal, or we will shrink as far as we can shrink - until only vital congregations and committed disciples remain, and from there we will grow.

We do have a system of financial commitments and beauracracy that we cannot financially maintain. That problem WILL eventually be corrected at some point, though it will be extremely painful, because we simply will no longer have the money to pay for our current commitments...and so we will no longer pay for them. Our structure will contract according to our ability to sustain it, and that is as it should be, that is "organic" if you will. I realize this will negatively affect me personally (in terms of pension and health-care) but I would hope our pastors are not driven by these sorts of incentives anyways. The Church I pastor is named after a circuit rider (who is buried in our front yard) who died in his 20s of exposure, while giving himself utterly to the mission of preaching the good news of salvation by grace through faith in Jesus Christ. Pensions and health-benefits were not all that significant when our movement WAS booming.

So I fear but suspect that, while the global membership continues to grow, our US church will lose more than half our membership and close several seminaries in the next 40 years before we "bottom out" and start growing again. But I believe that, as long as we have strong churches that form strong Wesleyan Christians, our future (though not quite so "big") may indeed be one with hope.

Anonymous said...

There are a number of things standing in the way of effective change in the United Methodist Church. First, we are at the point where for a large number of congregations, clergy and denominational institutions change is too late. A huge percentage of our congregations struggle to average 25 to 30 people on a given Sunday. The bulk of their membership is made up of senior citizens. Their "ministry" is little more than a Sunday worship, a monthly UMW meeting, a weekly Bible study attended by three to five people and an annual calender of church suppers and rummage sales. Twenty-five years ago -- when people like Bishop Wilke shouted the first warnings of congregational decline -- these congregations may have had eighty to one hundred people attending on a Sunday. If somebody pointed out that they had very few people under the age of 45 -- called baby boomers back then -- the pastor or lay leaders would not have given them much creedence. For these congregations the opportunity for change has passed. Yes, there will be some "miraculous turnarounds" in the next decade but these will be the exceptions that prove the rule. Most of these congregations will disband and the annual conferences will be assigned the task of selling the properties to antique dealers, restauranteurs and real estate developers. Our clergy? For most it will be a part-time profession. A two-point charge might provide a rent-free home and a small income. Their families will be supported by something other than a percentage of what is collected on Sunday morning. Exiting pastors from the system will be easier than most think. They will be making more money and have greater responsibilities with their primary career. Only a small percentage will be able to turn ministry into a full-time gig.

The opportunity for change, IMO, was between 1988 and 2008. Many positive things did happen during these years. However, now we are at a period that is analogous to "salvage" therapy in cancer treatment. This is not hospice or end of life care but the course of treatment that follows a relapse.

The real challenge for the UMC is going to be deciding what ought to be "salvaged" from the current system and how the proceeds from our real estate transactions should be "invested" in developing new and sustainable ministries that create disciples. Currently, in most annual conferences this money goes into the conference budget. This is not sustainable.

Matt Linden
UM Elder on Disability Leave
New Jersey.