As a veteran participant and observer of United Methodist General Conferences, I have grown accustomed to the pace, the promise and the prayers leading up to our quadrennial legislative gathering. At this point, in advance of GC 2012 in Tampa, something seems different. As summer turns to fall and fall now proceeds to winter, there seems to be more noise, more confusion, more finger-pointing and more anxiety in the system than usual.
I sit in a unique position to hear many of the voices being raised. There is always a little grumpiness six months ahead of “the big event.” This time, however, folks are speaking of “the watershed ahead.” I am privileged to know many leaders in the general church and many, many pastors and laypersons in our congregations. As we approach the Tampa enclave in April, I hear what to these aging ears sounds like an unprecedented amount of disrespectful language. We are witnessing the sad need to scapegoat others and to exercise control over those who differ in vision, gifts and responsibilities. This is the language and these are the behaviors of a hypochondriac denomination—an organization increasingly preoccupied with its own self-concern and chronic fear for the future. Throughout the system there have arisen dozens of self-appointed and well-meaning therapists who claim to have the magic formula to make the denomination healthy again—you know, like it was when grandpa carried folding chairs into the sanctuary because there were more people than there was pew space.
The Blame Game
Why is there decline? Everyone seems to have a slightly different answer, and when their solution isn’t chosen, they grow grumpier, point a finger at another and write legislation to “fix that group.” Some blame the pastors, some the laity; and then we also blame the general boards and agencies, the active bishops, the retired bishops, the theological schools, the boards of ordained ministries, the church consultants, the conference staff, the Central Conferences, the conservatives, the liberals… The list goes on and on. Our “hit lists” grow larger as we blame an ever wider circle of those who are the problem. If you could sit for a few weeks where I sit, you would be astonished by it all: the finger-pointing, the blaming, the scapegoating, the many who eagerly sell their master plans to “make things right.” We have changed the words of the great hymn from “bid my anxious fears subside” to “let my proposal be your guide.”
The Firing Squad
I see all of this and am reminded of those cartoons picturing a circular firing squad. There are many reasons we have come to this point in the history of the United Methodist Church. And, sadly, many among our tribe, including too many leaders, arrogantly desire to move ahead without listening to others, without repentance, without prayer and based on tired old business models that fail to take into account the context, history or unique gifts of each congregation. And we have allowed ourselves thereby to assume a functional congregational polity, leaving behind the enormous legacy we have as a connectional church. Instead, we turn local congregations into branch offices, and the generative power of multiple gifts from many sources is ignored.
Let me stop here and avoid the temptation of offering my own simple analysis and my set of remedies to the marvelously rich and admittedly cumbersome ecology that is global United Methodism. Suffice it to say that there are many demographic and natural contextual explanations for our situation. It is precisely this diversity which should be seen as our great gift. What we are experiencing is normal—anxiety and finger-pointing is commonplace and understandable within organizations that have spent too much time worrying about their future, arriving at this place with structures, facilities and programs rooted in the past. One of my friends has insightfully noted that our crisis talk may itself be the crisis! He goes on to say, “The crisis about which we should be talking is the one created by Jesus' announcement: ‘The kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe the gospel.’”
The View from Outside
Recently, I had the joyous privilege of visiting the New Faith Baptist Church in suburban Chicago. What a gift it was to worship in this vibrant African American congregation. How moving to hear a gospel word from a place outside all of our United Methodist grumpiness. The Rev. Dr. Trunell Felder is the humble, imaginative and risk-taking senior pastor. He holds two degrees from our two United Methodist seminaries in Atlanta (Candler and Gammon/ITC). His spouse, the Rev. Dr. Alexis Felder, who serves as associate pastor, is a graduate of Garrett-Evangelical. I was reminded on this day that God’s realm is much greater than the boundaries of United Methodism. Others have much to teach us.
On that Sunday Dr. Felder’s congregation modeled for me another way. Three things I will note from the experience:
- I saw a congregation where hundreds were respected as leaders, and they had specific roles to fulfill: greeting, singing, praying, cleaning, laughing, praying, planning, praying, teaching… and did I mention praying? There were no circular firing squads in sight. In fact, one of the main themes of the sermon was that you should be thankful for the blessings given to your neighbor. We should celebrate the fact that different persons have different gifts, even if we don’t fully understand how God will use those gifts in the future.
- I heard a clear call for repentance from our preconceived notions of how we can fix every problem. The call was to seek God’s heart first and foremost and then keep our plans flexible, so that we can respond with mercy toward others. No circular firing squad there.
- I witnessed amazing wholeness to the worship. As I queued up to enter the sanctuary with thousands of others, I was handed a bulletin for the service, a copy of a prayer card for the evangelistic work of the congregation and a copy of The American Jobs Act that is before Congress. No circular firing squad there. Commitments to evangelism and justice were sung in harmony.
The Vision Forward
As we UMs head to Tampa, I suspect the grumpiness may turn to grouchiness and perhaps even meanness. For me, I will watch and pray. I will be thinking of those talented and faithful folks back home in the pews and the marvelous young people called into the ministry who are trying to figure out if this denomination wants the gifts they bring. My hope will be that we might find a way to celebrate all the extraordinary gifts of who we are and who we can be and not seek to find ways to return to who we never really were. As United Methodists we have so much to celebrate. Can the language of faith be brought to our gathering? Can we seek repentance and forgiveness and covenant and prayer, or will we be swept up in the surveys and the restructuring of corporate anxiety? As Christians we have others who model for us new ways (and ancient ways) of thinking and living—ways that celebrate the gifts of all. Friends, beware the circular firing squad.
Dr. Philip Amerson is President and Professor of Sociology of Religion at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary.