I’m absolutely disgusted at the state of the United Methodist Church. And the state of my beloved UMC is perfectly exemplified in the behavior of our main governing body, the General Conference, now meeting in Portland. These are the cream of the crop- delegates elected by every Annual Conference throughout the world to further the mission of the church.
And what have they done in the last several days? Nothing. They spent 2 1/2 days fiercely debating the rules of the session, laying out how they will do their business together. At the heart of the debate was a particular rule, the now infamous “Rule 44” which called for delegates to… [gasp!]… have small group conversations and discernment around very difficult issues, especially those concerning human sexuality. After one parliamentary trick after another, the measure was finally defeated.
Now it’s back to business as usual- speeches, debates, votes. Worship services. Sermons. Blah blah blah… Meanwhile we claim that we’ve been called to holy conferencing, which I interpret to be the process of praying, listening, sharing, and carefully arriving at a shared consensus. But in today’s day and age when the church is far more diverse and global in its reach, the model of parliamentary-style conferencing we have been using- Robert’s Rules baptized with reports, singing and sermons- is simply obsolete.
Obsoletion. That’s where we’re taking ourselves. General Conference must create a denominational infrastructure nimble enough to resource the church’s mission for the first quarter of the 21st Century and beyond.
Instead, we are weighing ourselves down with an archaic form of structure and (in)decision making that is squashing the life out of the United Methodist Church. Most everyone sees the problem. No one likes it. But our delegates seem to lack the kind of wisdom and courageous humility to do anything about it. Instead, we hide behind history, rules, bumper-sticker platitudes and church as usual, labeling the other side of the room as the obstruction to progress.
In 12-step rooms they have a saying. “If you keep on doing what you’ve always done, you’ll keep on getting what you’ve already got.”
The time for spiritual talk and high-minded moralizing about our misbehavior is over. The only real response to an implosion is an action of greater and opposite force: an explosion.
It’s going to take an explosion of bold, passionate, compassionate leadership that is willing to do whatever it takes to throw off the restraints to become Christ’s church in the world. With the Holy Spirit’s fire, we must to what must be done to reach and include people with the good news of Jesus. Now this kind of Christ-shaped leadership is not safe. Here are several things I think must happen:
- If a congregation, an Annual Conference, a Central Conference or a Jurisdiction is convicted to fully include LGBTQI persons into membership, leadership, and marriage, then do it. Don’t wait for the structures to catch up. Just do it.
- If the reverse is true, and the conviction is to maintain our
Discipline’s current language on homosexuality, especially pertaining to marriage and ordination, then uphold it. Don’t worry about those who see things differently than you do. At this point, you’re not going to convict them to repent and follow the rules.
- If a pastor or congregation feels compelled to minister to their community in a certain way but the current structures or rules of the church create a barrier, do it anyway. If they are inviting and forming new disciples of Jesus Christ while transforming their community, it’s hard to convincingly argue with that.
You may read this and think that I’m promoting anarchy and disorder. Actually, I’m advocating for classic Wesleyanism. In fact, we wouldn’t be here today without this approach.
In order to further the mission of the church and build the kingdom of God, John Wesley did things which did not fit the mold of his Anglican Church. He engaged in open-air preaching. Wesley started unsanctioned, unauthorized societies of Christians who arranged themselves in classes (small groups) for prayer, study, and accountability. He gathered preachers to exhort and teach. And… he did the unthinkable. In fact his brother Charles was incensed when he found out: unable to wait for the Anglican Church to ordain preachers for the American colonies, John Wesley ordained Thomas Coke. Wesley was not a bishop. He had no authority to ordain anyone. It was a clear violation of the rules. But to keep in step with the Holy Spirit, Wesley took a risk, and because he did, we are here.
Wesley orchestrated an explosion of the church in the midst of an imploding Church of England.
Still not convinced? Jesus did the same. He ate with sinners, challenged the norms around Sabbath rules, touched the unclean, and was willing to stand in the face of opposition, all for the salvation of the world.
It’s 2016. What are we willing to do now? What will our General Conference do?
We can either sit and watch the implosion and schism of the church happen before our eyes. Or we can decide to move forward together, giving each other the respectful space to be the church the way God is calling us- together as United Methodists. There may be some chaos for a while. Things will not be as orderly and predictable as usual.
But we would have the opportunity to see what the Holy Spirit can do through congregations unfettered by rules that hamper their ministry. We could see what works and what doesn’t work. And then we can reorganize an infrastructure that supports what God is truly trying to do through the United Methodist Church.
Admittedly my idea is a very rough sketch. Yet no matter what we do or fail to do, something along the lines of what I’ve described here is going to happen anyway. We can let it steamroll us. Or we can bless it and learn from it.
Implosion will only happen for so long until an explosion happens. It’s beginning to happen now. The question for our General Conference is how we will respond to it- with resistance or with blessing.