Monday, June 18, 2012

Inconvenient Truths

Sometimes, even the elephant in the room has his head in the sand.
It's a quote from a Star Trek movie (First Contact), admittedly with a gender bias, but it certainly applies: "Don't try to be a great man. Just be a man, and let history make its own judgment." I think if you're going to be an elder in the United Methodist Church, it is good advice - and if you are going to be a district superintendent (or "presiding elder," as one lay leader in Paducah calls me), you really need to be a man/woman and let God be the judge of what you do. That means saying and doing some tough things in the name of the Lord. What follows are some tough things that I think need saying in light of a church that is in desperate need of renewal. I think our laity are desperate for it.

1. Changing the stance on homosexuality in the United Methodist Church will not stop the loss of membership in the denomination. It's at best a red herring and at worst a lie to espouse otherwise. The Southern Baptist Church continues to lose membership; they are in their fifth year of decline, and they have a very decisive, very clear statement on their opposition to homosexuality. On the other side of the issue, the Episcopal Church also has a very decisive and clear statement on homosexuality, where they bless and celebrate same-sex unions as they do male-female marriages, even though doing so separated them from the Anglican Communion. Did it help them gain members? Their membership is now lower than it was in 1939.

The loss of membership in both denominations, as well as in the UMC, can reasonably point to one reason: failure to make disciples. We can blame society, we can blame the president and Congress, we can even blame MTV. But we can't blame our stances on homosexuality. The fact that I hold an orthodox view on this issue and agree with my denomination's stance doesn't let me off the hook for anything - that has nothing to do with a failure to make disciples in the name of Jesus Christ. And yes... that is what it says in Greek: μαθητεύω - to make a disciple  - it's a verb, aorist tense, imperative, plural, second person. And as Dallas Willard reminds us, we are more often guilty of the Great Omission: once we baptize folks, and/or they have been converted to follow Christ, we seem to forget the rest: "teaching them to do everything that [Jesus] commanded you." That's discipleship. We have failed at discipleship - we suck at it! -  and have for several generations.

2. The United Methodist Church has a 1970's polity set up for a 21st century church. That line is not original - I am stealing it from Bishop Scott Jones. And he might have stolen it from Lyle Schaller, who said in The Ice Cube is Melting that we should delete the Restrictive Rules so that our Constitution and Discipline could be more easily amended, thus allowing the living - rather than the dead - to write the Rule and rules to govern our Church. Before you holler too much that this is too much like a congregational system, consider Schaller's words that the heart of our covenant in the UMC isn't the covenant between individuals, but rather real estate (trust clause), the pastoral appointment system, and the paying of apportionments. If it were individuals keeping covenant, we wouldn't have folks (a) threatening to do same-sex marriages, (b) openly showing disdain for the authority of bishops, and/or (c) either threatening not to pay their apportionments or simply advocating not paying them.

3. As GC2012 clearly illustrated, we are a denomination united by our mistrust.  Look how our Book of Disciplines get thicker and thicker. Look how a committee (Higher Education and Ministry) significantly and with prayerful intent wrestled with and dealt with the issue of guaranteed appointments, realized that we are in a different season in the UMC, and came to a general consensus on the issue (I was in the room). Yet those wonderful folks were still met with distrust and flat out ugliness. On the GC floor, it was not the will of the body (whom I assume, perhaps incorrectly, is a praying body) to reconsider it. It passed. But now folks are gleefully looking for nooks, crannies, and outs to have it overturned, hoping that our United Methodist Supreme Court will rule in their favor. Folks say that ethnic minorities and women (and older clergy, and __________, ___________, and ___________) will suffer if the guaranteed appointment is overturned. That's just a plain lack of faith in God and in the people called Methodists, and a bit of an entitlement given that few in our pews have guaranteed jobs. I've heard that someone came up with a statistic that only 3% of our clergy are ineffective. Of course, I've also heard that in ancient times, before we had statistics, we simply had to rely on lies to support us when we didn't like the way an argument was going...

4. We want accountability... up to a point. The United States is becoming an increasingly anti-authoritarian, ruggedly-individualistic, entitlement-driven society. Generally, we don't like to be told what to do, we are selfish and self-absorbed, and we do not wish to be beholden to anyone. I certainly resemble some of these things myself. The problem with these things is that they are antithetical to a covenant community - which, at least on paper, is how the United Methodist Church is constructed. The problem is obvious: we cannot sustain a covenant community in such a reality, either financially or mechanically. Clergy increasingly itinerate only if it is convenient for their family, or only if they can keep the house that they own. Twenty-first century realities are that the clergy are no longer single men who can live out of a saddlebag with a prayerbook, Discipline, and Bible in it. The itinerancy is probably outdated and may even need to be ditched. However, along with that goes the guaranteed appointment (and who knows what will happen in the fall when the Judicial Council meets). We can't have our cake and eat it, too! With declining numbers and actuarial realities, we cannot possibly continue to support General Boards, clergy pensions and insurance, conference structures, missions, and the like. What that means is that demands cannot continue to be made on a system that is no longer sustainable. Of course, that means blame will have to be shifted, too. And related to this is...

5. We do not trust authority nor want authority... until we need someone to blame. It's certainly human nature, and certainly a part of the Church. In my own annual conference, the only 'argument' was over one budgetary item: Item 4. District Superintendents. A $23,800 line-item increase (i.e., raise) was requested by CF&A (not by the cabinet), in an overall budget that had been reduced by $223,174. A retiree moved that this line item resort back to the previous year's budget. A large membership church pastor also spoke against the raise and said that his staff were not taking any raises and that the cabinet needed to step up and show leadership in this area (again, we didn't ASK for a raise. I guess they wanted us to jump up and refuse it). A campus minister also spoke against the budget increase. As did a deacon. As did the retiree who initially made the motion and got up once more to make his point (I think we were already getting the idea!). It was interesting to me how the discussion centered on district superintendents instead of CF&A, and that the other $9,126,189 wasn't debated (there were budgeted reductions and increases in other areas that we not debated). Someone sent me a text message during debate and said that everyone was getting in their last say before guaranteed appointments go away - which got a chuckle and put it all into perspective for me. In the end, our action reduced the budget by 0.26%. After that, we worshiped and celebrated the pastoral appointments and the conference in general. We were reminded that our conference theme for the week was "Extravagant Generosity." That brought a smile too.

Now, I don't need (and certainly don't deserve) a raise; to quote a friend of mine, we don't deserve anything. One person came up to me and swore that he believed that the motion to decrease the budget wasn't personal. I overhead another person come up to the new D.S. and say, "We're not blaming you," (I'm still trying to reconcile those two statements). I certainly won't judge the motives of individuals and am content to let God deal with the spirit of others' as well as my own. But the fact of the matter is that the cabinet made some tough calls this year that were not well-received. Those tough calls are not going to go away; they're going to get harder. My prediction is that the superintendency (general or district) is going to be an even harder task as resources become more scarce. In this day and age, managing the UMC has become a nightmare, but that's what D.S.'s primarily do - manage. And a bishop's task - to manage AND lead - is a noble one. But today, it has become a near-impossible task. It is only possible by God's help.

6. Things are going to get harder before they get easier. So are sacrifices. Folks say, "What have you got to worry about - D.S.'s always get taken care of." The odds are high when a D.S. comes off the cabinet in the Memphis conference, s/he will go to an appointment that pays less, they will have to sell a house and possibly buy another and probably take a small financial hit (this is not a good market to sell a house in currently). In the last 10 years I only know of two superintendents who got "raises" after serving on the cabinet; there just aren't that many large membership churches in our conference. As I shared in an earlier blog, being a D.S. doesn't mean you have arrived; it is at best a 'side-step.' Plus, the bishop who appointed me on the cabinet reminded me in the last appointment letter I got, that I am not 'guaranteed' this level salary when I go off the cabinet. But I don't think I'll go hungry, either.

All of the above is my personal situation. On a much larger scale, diminishing congregations mean diminishing resources. Some say the death tsunami isn't real, but I'd say what I'm seeing in UMC's is real: if the people who are dying aren't replaced, we're in real trouble financially and resourcefully. Will we be able to sustain the number of clergy we have? I have no idea. Will I have a pension when I retire? I have no idea (it's a defined benefit only as long as conferences pay 100% into it - how long will THAT last?).

I think people will always be people hungry for the Word and faithful to God. Will some congregations  always be able to pay their pastor a full-time wage? Unless things change... highly doubtful.

7. A local issue: The Memphis and Tennessee Conferences will never merge voluntarily until they adjust (one way or another) medical benefits for retirees. It's not an easy issue. Do retirees in the Memphis Conference want to lose enhanced medical benefits? No. But if I were a member of the Tennessee Conference, would I want to inherit a potential benefit obligation of $24 million (an actuarial estimate)? Of course not. The solution isn't difficult, and Obamacare may solve it for us (and no, I'm not advocating Obamacare): strike the present medical benefits for retirees of the Memphis Conference. The Tennessee Conference, as well as 17 other conferences, do not offer such benefits. We'd be on an even playing field. No unfunded liabilities anywhere (you can look these up conference-by-conference by clicking here and going to page 19).

Is that fair, equitable, or just? That is a completely different question. But the real question should boil down to this: what is best for the Kingdom? What is best for the Church and the lay folks we serve? Clergy are to serve, not be served, per ordination vows. If merging our conferences is the best thing theologically and missionally, shouldn't we be doing it regardless of the costs? That should be the only issue that is important. Are we willing to take the microphone and address that issue?

Ed Stetzer, who is the President of Lifeway Research of the Southern Baptist Church, says that cultural decline is not a good excuse for denominational decline; indeed, the only way the church will grow and take discipleship seriously means change. He sadly added, "Denominations don't change until the pain of staying the same grows greater than the pain of changing." If he's right, we're in for a lot more pain.

The Good News is that God is God, and He still puts up with us. If the UMC doesn't survive, God will use another means to do Kingdom work. As we stand right now, I suspect we have come full circle to where John Wesley started - we have become what he sought to renew. But this could be a very exciting time for the people called Methodists: we could reclaim the spirit that birthed us into a world that desperately needs it. The question is: will we?

I still like my job. More to the point, I am still humbled that God would use me in this way. May God continue to humble all of us into doing whatever it takes to make disciples for Jesus Christ.



John Wesley Leek said...

Thank you for your voice Sky. I think it's helpful and comes from a place of humility.

Old said...
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Old School said...

Good article.

One thing that I have been saying for some time is that blaming the decline in membership on "ineffective clergy" is, in itself, a red herring. Reading the dozens of conference journals in my clergy study shows that the greatest number of losses has occurred in our largest churches and that these churches were served by our most able pastors. The truth, as Sky pust it, is that the UMC sucks at making disciples and we have sucked at it for a long time. This is equally true of our best pastors as well as those who mistake laziness as a call to preach.

Betsy said...

I have spent a lot of time with John Wesley lately--I am a basically a life-long UMC local member with varios level of activity; right now sidelined. It took me a while in reading of and about Wesley to realize that I could have written the descriptions of his frustrations with his personal faith pre-Aldersgate. LIke him, I encountered a true practicing Chrtistian who miraculolusly happens to be a UMC pastor and was inspired to "go looking". After 50+ years of church membership I have finally achieved that "Blessed Assuranc"! So yes, we have come full cycle.

I smiled when I came to this qote from Wesley post-Aldersgate and could not help but think about the current status of the UMC:

"From 1738 [year he experienced Aldersgate] to this time [1746]--speaking continually of Jesus Christ; laying Him only for the foundation of the whole building, making Him all in all, the first and the last; preaching only on this plan, 'The kingdom of God is at hand; repent ye, and beleive the gospel'--the 'word of God ran' as fire among the stubble."

Wesley came up with a practical method and message of grace upon grace that was wildly successful. In fact, laying Jesus as the foundation harks back to Paul and it seems the early church was wildly successful. The UMC can not be anything other than what it was called to be: the emodiment of the Wesleyan method of practicing Christianity and sharing the message of grace upon grace--it is why it even exists. It lost its focus a long time ago that it is about the salvation and redemption and transformation of the individual.

A couple of years ago, I went through Weight Watchers Leader Training. When I got done, I realized that organization had it nailed as to enabling individual transformation and I believe every church leader ought to go through their program and Leader Training.

Betsy said...

Instead of talking about "making disciples" how about if the church viewed its job as preparing people to "receive the richest appropriations of [God's] grace"? That pharase comes from "The Scripture Way of Salvation: The heart of John Welsey's Theology" by Kenneth Collins. It was in the context of Wesley saw the way of salvation as being a process marked by moments of God acting instanteously, such as in the moment of justification. However, " and women must, after sll, be prepared, at least in some sense (the overcoming of ignorance and fear), to receive the richest appropriations of grace." Sounds like a wonderful job to me!

I encountered someone at a crucial moment who did away with my fears, but I had to enlighten my ignorance on my own--educate myself about God's absolutely amazing grace!