I read an intriguing commentary by David Brooks this morning, talking about the social divide in the United States and how it is affecting politics. I think Brooks is spot-on, and I would argue that such could apply to the United Methodist Church as well. Issues comes to the forefront that divide the Church; old coalitions fall apart and new ones emerge. It's been happening in the Christian Church since (at least) 1054. When we can't handle "the way things are," we split. A liberal estimate is that there are over 33,000 Christian denominations in the world (source: World Christian Encyclopedia). A conservative estimate is that there are 217 (Hartford Institute for Religion Research).
We Christians are clearly not of one mind. Evidently, on many things.
So much is presently being made of the Wesleyan Covenant Association - from the hashtag "#seeyouinChicago" to "stay away - they're conservatives/homophobes/bigots starting a new denomination." The UMC has had affinity groups, caucuses, and the like for a long time. People of like mind and labor need a place to be nurtured and to share burdens in a safe place. There's nothing wrong with that. I pray the WCA stays true to its stated purpose.
I fear that our fear of the unknown is causing us to demonize "the other." And, unfortunately, the years of our General Conference meetings coincide with presidential election cycles in the U.S. My hunch is that the rhetoric from each feeds our fervor to act out of our fears instead of our faith. If we do have a called General Conference in a couple of years, I may lobby to change our quadrennial meetings to get off the same cycle as U.S. presidential elections.
Today, in both the media and the blogosphere, the United Methodist Church is mainly known more for its extremes rather than its reality - just like U.S. politics. Extremes make the most noise, a few key names are the best known, and our machinery works much like U.S. politics: "insiders" and lobbyists make a lot of the key decisions, dictate a lot of our direction, decides what legislation will see the light of day, and who will preside over what. The political side of the Church can be just as distasteful as American politics and can be made up of elites who use and abuse power as well as any political lobbyist or power broker. I openly confess that sin, since I'm a part of it.
I can attest first-hand about church politics - I've been there and "are" there. Between being a district superintendent and being a former episcopal candidate (who wasn't elected), I can tell you that both are humbling and enlightening. Imagine reading this about yourself from one of the "bishop voter guides" that was circulated (which, in theory, don't exist per Southeastern Jurisdiction covenant):
7. Sky McCracken (Memphis) (Discipleship #4) An Institutionalist. Orthodox. He will seek to negate controversy, quieten situations rather than resolving disobedience. Good leader as a DS, leading various discipleship training sessions himself and demonstrating a passion for his district and his work. He is participant in SLI (Spiritual Leadership Institute) a group favored by Jorge Acevedo. Very likeable personally, not a charismatic speaker. Was endorsed by TN conference also in 2012. A nice guy, but seems to lack boldness or strength in today’s context.
I ranked 7th in this particular guide. I may or may not be some or all of those things (I can be as non self-aware as the next person). There is one factual mistake: I wasn't endorsed by the TN Conference - or any other conference - four years ago. But when (a) something hits print, (b) "people are saying," and (c) so forth and so on... it becomes the Gospel to some. We so easily pigeonhole folks and make folks in the image we want and need them to be. We desperately need there to be an either/or, us/they, or good/bad. U.S. politics works like this, and, unfortunately, church politics works like this, and at times much worse. In fact, I had one gentleman, a leader in his church who is also an elected official in state government, tell me, "There's no politics like church politics." It wasn't a compliment.
The beauty of being a former episcopal candidate is that you can speak with a little more freedom afterwards. So, after a few months of thought, here goes:
Just like most of America and Congress, most United Methodists aren't really represented at the table. There is a vast middle who isn't represented. Before he was a bishop, Bill McAlilly spoke to this at General Conference 2004:
There’s another group in our denomination, some of whom are delegates here; others who are faithful United Methodists who are not represented nor identified with any coalition. We are, as Bishop Coyner wrote a few years ago, “the Methodist middle.” We are not organized and have no other agenda, save offering Christ to a hurting world. This group includes women, men, children, youth, lay, and clergy, maybe even a couple of bishops.
Together with those of differing viewpoints, faithfully serving United Methodist churches, we serve small, medium, large churches. We serve in agencies. We serve throughout the church. We teach Sunday school. We serve in food pantries, clothes closets. We build Habitat houses and serve worldwide through United Methodist Volunteers in Mission. We have a passion for evangelism, and we seek to lift up Christ to persons who are hurting and who are lost and who need the grace of Jesus Christ.
However, more often than not we are silent; and perhaps that is our sin. Silent as other voices speak. Perhaps we’re gripped by fear, fear that if we speak, we will be labeled as the opposition. Fear that we are incapable of preventing our church from being pulled apart at the seams... I pray that we can find a way to hold the tension of the opposites; and I would submit to this body that if those of us in the middle can contain those on both sides of the equation, we might be able to find the unity for which we seek. Thank you. - Daily Christian Advocate, Friday, May 7, 2004.
These are the folks who aren't present when Good News, the Confessing Movement, Love Prevails, Reconciling Ministries Network, or the Wesleyan Covenant Association meets. They're often not elected to General Conference. These are the vast majority of the people called United Methodists. Most are laity. They may not be in large churches, they may not have a big name pastor, and they may not be the largest monetary contributors in the denomination, but they are the servants and disciples in and out of most of the pews in America. And they, just like the extremes, are shrinking in number because of one common denominator in our denomination: a failure to make disciples of Jesus Christ. Not members. But disciples. And, I hate to break this to the extremists out there, but if the UMC does split into two or more parts, these churches will still open their doors and have Sunday School and worship on the following Sunday.
If the ultimate fix was to decide once and for all about same-sex marriage, and who can/can't be ordained, logic says that either the Southern Baptists or the Episcopalians should be growing like gangbusters, since both have definitively answered that question. And yet - both are still in decline.
We're not making disciples. Period. And it STILL isn't a priority to our General Conferences. The most passion I've seen at a General Conference was in May when my own bishop was accused of telegraphing how to vote on issues by one delegate and publicly shamed and asked to be removed as presider by another. In short: the most passion generated was by distrust and violence, not a shared concern that we're not making disciples or reaching the neighborhoods where our churches are located.
What do people in the middle do? Contrary to popular belief, being in the middle doesn't mean "lukewarm." Quite frankly, it takes a lot more nerve and guts to place yourself in the middle than to "pick a side," (see an older blog for an expansion on this thought). Our frantic need to pick a side in United Methodism is at best insular, and at worst idolatry. Our frantic need SHOULD be, at least in this season of our church's life: How can we make disciples? Who are we not meeting in society who desperately needs Jesus? How did we lose our Wesleyan way of being evangelical AND sacramental, and instead turn them into labels and dirty words? And how in the hell did we allow General Conference to become like a political caucus event instead of a gathering of Christians worshiping together and trying to figure out how to best proclaim the mission (and Great Commission) of the Kingdom and the UMC?
The middle is where Jesus was. Often. And ultimately, between two others on a cross.
Do I have strong beliefs? I sure do. In full transparency, here they are:
- Rebaptism. Don't do it. Ever. We stray, but God stays.
- Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus. It happened. People in the 1st century knew enough science to know the difference between dead and alive, and such survived through great scrutiny. Believing otherwise is like believing we really didn't land on the moon. Conspiracy theories just don't carry much weight or stand the test of time.
- Abortion. We were knit together in our mother's womb and are fearfully and wonderfully made. There are a few medical exceptions for sure, but as birth control and a premeditated act to end life? No.
- Capital punishment. Can't subscribe to it. It's a premeditated action to end a life. Jesus made his feelings on it fairly clear. Life without parole? I can support that.
- Holy Communion. We should do it every Sunday. It was standard church practice for 1600 years. Wesley said do it often. It's the sustaining sacrament of grace. Would you tell your child that you're only going to hug them once a month so it will be more special when it happens?
- A lot more of the sin of gluttony happens at pot luck dinners and Emmaus Walks under the guise of "hospitality" then does when a few folks have a beer or two at a local pub or restaurant.
- As a denomination, we have been inconsistent on biblical hermeneutics where marriage, divorce, and our views of sexuality are concerned. Of this I am sure: we baptize, ordain, and license sinners every year.
- It shouldn't be so damned hard to become a United Methodist pastor. And local/non-itinerating pastors should be ORDAINED, not LICENSED. You license someone to fish and hunt. The Church ordains the baptized to specific tasks in the Church. Plus, ordination is a gift from and tool of the church, not a right conferred upon one's merit and education.
- I fully support the ordination of women. When I became a DS, we had one retired female pastor serving as an associate in the district. We have a dozen female pastors now. I can back such up with scripture (Romans 16). Southern Baptists, Roman Catholics, and some United Methodists obviously disagree with me, but it's clear (to me) that Phoebe was a deacon, not a deaconess. According to another letter Paul wrote, the women at one particular church had no business teaching or preaching. According to another letter, Paul didn't think ANYBODY at Galatia had any business teaching and preaching until they learned that they starting living the true Gospel, where we are one in Christ Jesus (male and female included).
- I could go on...
I've yet to serve a church where everyone was with me 100% on the above. The district I presently serve isn't 100% on board with me on these things. The important thing is this: they don't HAVE to be with me. And, I'm fairly certain, they don't necessarily feel LED to be. I could argue every one of these things from a cogent biblical and theological rationale. But the REAL point should be: I don't create the church I pastor; I am to pastor the church AND THE COMMUNITY where I'm sent. So I listen to people who want to be rebaptized (it doesn't mean I will do it). I engage in conversation with people who don't believe in a literal resurrection. I counsel women who have been through abortions to find healing and peace. I listen to and respect people who feel differently about capital punishment. I don't act unilaterally and tell churches, "I don't care what you think, we're going to have communion every Sunday." And I know some folks show their best love thru food and hospitality. The point is: it's not about me. It's about Jesus and the Body of Christ. The churches who do some of the best work in discipleship, mission, addiction recovery, and hands-on work with the poor are all over the board when it comes to political and social beliefs and embraces. A homogenous church we are not. Nor are we called to be. Nor will we ever be.
So, at General Conferences since 1992, I've gone to MFSA luncheons. I've shared meals with RMN supporters, Good News board members, and Confessing Movement supporters. I'm going to Chicago in October to hear what happens at the Wesleyan Covenant Association meeting, and I will fellowship, worship, and pray with folks I know and don't know.
That same weekend, I'm also planning to go to Chicago Temple UMC to worship on Sunday as my brother (not by blood, but in every other sense of the word) Johnny Jeffords and Myron McCoy do a pulpit swap. My brother Johnny who serves a church that advocates for GLBTQ folks, yet observes and struggles with the current covenant of being United Methodist. My brother who helped organize my running for bishop because he believed in me instead of my preferences and stances, and pushed me on days I didn't feel like doing what needed to be done. My brother that, despite our differences - or because of our differences - I choose to share mutual struggles with as we try to lead people to Christ in a church and society that often seems against us.
All of this doesn't mean we don't need doctrinal standards, shouldn't expect higher standards for our leadership, or that we don't need denominational distinctiveness. But it also doesn't mean we don't try to seek a common sense of unity and covenant - because we should. But we Methodists have been divided for a long time. John and Charles Wesley often disagreed. So did Wesley and George Whitfield. So did Wesley and Francis Asbury. And we split into thirds during the Civil War and didn't come back together until 1939 (how'd that work for us, by the way?). And we may end up splitting again, though this time it could potentially be into thirds, fourths, or even fifths. I pray everyday that we don't.
I am about as orthodox of a Methodist as you can get, on just about all matters. And I don't mind addressing conflict and leading churches and people toward being faithful and fruitful as disciples. But if sticking a label on myself becomes a moniker that prevents me from engaging the least, the last, and the lost - I don't want it anymore than I want a millstone around my neck. I've spent enough time around the Nones and Dones to know that they don't care about the things that the UMC seems to prioritize right now. They want to know if I love them. And they're waiting to see if I'm really a follower of Jesus or a 21st century version of a Pharisee.
If making disciples of Jesus Christ isn't our #1 concern, then we have indeed become the dead, lifeless, esoteric sect Wesley feared we could become. And, since I believe that there is a Judgment - I will one day have to answer for that. I doubt that picking a side will be enough.
I don't know the answer to our conflicts and woes, but I pray for a miracle through the Holy Spirit. I still believe in them.