Discipleship poor fit for UMC

In conversation with Dan Dick over his latest blog post, I asked whether bishops would support pastors who get serious about discipleship and chase off nominal members as a result. Here is part of his reply:

When I did the Vital Signs study ten-plus years ago, the majority of pastors who were serious about discipleship were viewed as problematic by their cabinets. In one setting, a woman pastor was told by her DS, “you’re making it impossible to appoint anyone here to follow you, and most other churches don’t want you as their pastor.” This in response to her successful efforts to equip laity for preaching, care-giving/healing ministries, and Biblical scholarship. Pastors (and laity) who actively promote and pursue discipleship simply don’t “fit” in The United Methodist system. So, do we change the system or settle for more of what we already have? Bishops? Any opinions?

No one ever accused Dan of being Little Mary Sunshine.

On the blog post, Katie Z writes about her efforts over four years to slowly lead and nurture the congregation she serves toward discipleship. Her comment underscores the slow and patient work that pastors like her do in thousands of unheralded corners of the connection.

In my more zealous moments, I identify with Dan’s impatience. It reminds me of John Wesley’s zeal for real Christianity.

In my work with an actual congregation, I am likely to fall back more on Katie’s hope and patience, counting of God to work on and in people. I do not want to hurt them, and I do not want them to throw rocks at me. (I am, you see, basically a coward.)

As a United Methodist, I hope Dan is wrong about our system. Or I hope it can change.

20 thoughts on “Discipleship poor fit for UMC

  1. John, all those things — discipleship, spirit’s fire, body life, undoing the clergy-laity distinction — in their most effective form, are incompatible with ANY system, not just the UMC’s system. Jesus said no one knows where the spirit comes from or goes. God is busy in lots of places, but he will not be pinned down like a bug in a collection.

    John, my friend, in the past, when I have felt impatient with you, it’s always been when you have sought for answers in a return to the very structures and systems that keep God from moving in the congregations and in the lives of individual believers (tradition, creeds, Wesley’s sermons, the Book of Discipline). No one can serve two masters. You cannot serve God and Man’s approval. You cannot serve God and ANY System. (kosmos = world = system)

    I know your reference to being a coward is half-serious, half-joking. I know I experience it, and try to avoid yielding to it. The disciple-making pastor who was criticized by her D.S. was criticized. John, I care about you like a brother. You and I are like oil and vinegar. I can only say that if you fully pursue the ministry that burns in your heart, you are going to have to let go of approval, respectability, safety, everything. You will even have to let go of Wesley in order to BE like Wesley.

  2. I couldn’t figure out how to be a disciple of Jesus and a pastor in the United Methodist Church. So, after 24 years I retired from the ordained ministry. The world is now my parish. I still attend worship in a United Methodist Church, but it is becoming more difficult for me each week. The church I attend is “vital” according to metrics, but I am not hearing sermons on justification, or sanctification. But according to the Interim Operation Team, theology really isn’t a factor in church vitality. It is becoming more and more difficult for me to attend on Sunday.

      1. I am very angry at the senior pastor right now. As a retired pastor, I believe I should be supportive of the pastors, but I am having difficulty doing that at the moment. I am not hearing Christ preached by the senior pastor. The sermons are one-sided messages about “God loves everybody and you too.” Sin is not mentioned or acknowledged, there is nothing about the cross, justification, or sanctification. The church is “vital” according to the kind of metrics CTA is advocating, but I see little evidence of a Christian basis for that vitality. I am also angry with the senior pastor because the church recently added a new pastor on its staff. The church recently took over responsibility for a defunct church building in the inner city. Even though the congregation decided to do this as a mission outreach, the senior pastor did not allow the SPR Committee to conduct a decent search for the right person for this position. Instead, he presented them with his protege. This protege is a seminary student who was a member of the senior pastor’s former congregation. He is being paid $50K plus housing and benefits for what is essentially part-time work at this point. (The New Church Development Fund of the conference is funding his position and financing the new church start.) The position SHOULD have been filled by a pastor who fits the neighborhood, bilingual and or Hispanic. NOT a mirror image (albeit younger) of our current senior pastor. This young man is being allowed to stay in his suburban home rather than move into the community we are trying to serve. (Living IN the community was a KEY part of our plan to be in mission there–at least on paper.) I am appalled that the congregation has allowed the senior pastor to get away with this. It is the epitome of “good-ol boy” appointment making. I have trouble supporting the new mission of our church at this point, even though I was thrilled when we voted to adopt this as a new ministry.

        By the way, I think this is the model for revitalizing the UMC that is being proposed by CTA. Dying churches will be officially killed off. “Ineffective” pastors will be transitioned out of ministry and replaced with proteges of large church pastors. Two members of the IOT are from Florida, where this model is being implemented already.

  3. Dan’s observations about “trouble pastors” seems to me to be selective magnification of anecdote, heavily colored with a particlular vantage point. I see that this observation was made while doing an important study, but was this story a result of a statstically sound study? Do the the conclusions have any verified correlation (discipleship and connectional trouble)?

    If not, then his conclusions are irresponsible and his rhetoric is damaging. If so, then I am moremthan willing to calm down.

    There is something brewing inside of me in this whole conversation that I can’t quite articulate yet. Right now it is just a bad taste in my mouth. I keep thinking about the congregations who are helping people become disciples and all ofmthe people who are becoming disciples…then I wondermwhat some of us important online folk are saying about them and about God’s work in their lives/communities.

    1. In fairness to Dan, it was in response to a question I raised about whether bishops would support pastors who disrupt congregations by insisting on discipleship.

      Dan’s conclusions and anecdotes are generally based on lots of research that he did when part of GBOD. Some of that was quantitative. Some was qualitative.

      None that invalidates your points, Jim. We can look for more bright spots.

  4. Hello Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ, As a southern UM church member I have recently come to a brick wall so to speak about a couple of things, the most important to me today is, why do we (UM) people become so brittle about discipleship? The last year we ended up in the whole with apportionments. Also, the Outreach Committe, which I am a member has been on fire. Helping the congregation, boy scouts, girl scouts, fire dept. Salkahatchie mission, battered women’s shelter, homeless people, food bank, Christmas Family, other families in need etc. A wonderful outpouring of the true Spirit of the Church. Our committee is self sustaining, sponsoring, many events to bring in monies to contribute, in the name of the Church, to all of these outreach needs. Sunday we started a sign up for a chili supper, all the Sunday School adult classes and others were invited to bring a special receipe to share, a flat fee would be charged at the door to continue supporting all the ministries of the church. One person said they weren’t going to be brow beaten into doing anything, and another wanted to know why we never gave any of the proceed back to the church.
    that person didn’t think outreach was to provide “all that money” to others when we were in need to pay electric bills, etc.
    that brought a question to my mind, what do we think sustains the church? I believe it is tithe. The other activities I feel are offerings to further the outreach of the church. What do some of you think?
    All the funds we collect go to the treasurer, and specific contributions like cents for Salk, which our children are involved with was asked to be kept for that mission effort, especially now that we need to pay for the peoples application when they sign up. A lot of the youth over the years have had a new outlook since they participated in this mission. The money collected since the last Salk mission was substantial, and was used for Apportionments at the end of the year, which was not even revealed to the committee until we asked how much money was ready to send in for that mission event. The money was taken up in the name of the mission trip, but used somewhere else.
    Why are we so strange when it comes to money?

    1. Millie,

      I don’t have time for a long reply, but thank you for sharing your story. I don’t think there is any strict rule about tithes and offerings, but it does certainly sound like something is wrong when money designated for a mission is redirected like that.

      Not being there, however, I am hesitant to make any judgments.

      It does sound like your outreach committee has great spirit and energy about it.

    2. Millie, I was taught and have maintained in my congregations that designated funds MUST be used for the purposes designated UNLESS permission has been obtained from the giver. While I am a believer in paying our full apportionment, I would disagree with using designated funds for ongoing expenses — which is fact what the apportionment it. I’m sorry that those protections weren’t put in place for you.

      1. I wonder what the best coarse of action should be. The new Pastor is trying to clear up some of the problem. What should I say to the person who asked me, “don’t forget the church”, with our outreach funds? Or is the time to just put in the hands of the Lord and pray!

  5. Jim, not all of us here are “important online folk.” The “anecdote” above, while not representative of the UMC, does demonstrate that some people are unable to distinguish between major institutional issues (money) and sanctification-discipleship issues.

    This anecdote doesn’t leave a bad taste in my mouth. It does, however, confirm some of my core convictions regarding the nature and ministry of the church, and the common failure of church leaders to explain to their people the difference between institutional maintenance and Christian growth.

  6. Ron,

    Thanks for the thoughts. 1st: “important folk” is used tongue-in-cheek. The bad taste I refer to concerns the whole discipleship/failure argument.

    I understand what you are saying concerning institutional confusion and I agree with that.

    The narrative in the sample of Dan’s writing, though it may remind us and help us put words to something that we might be feeling, is not the sum of all truth on this issue. It does not seem that this conclusion comes from research method. What it leaves out are the stories of people who are willing to raise the banner of holiness and discipleship in local church contexts, the churches who are changing the world around them, the individuals who are making spiritual breakthroughs by the grace of God. Those stories may be just as (if not more) statistically significant.

    By admission, I am trying to work out some thoughts that are in process and I doubt that I am adequately expressing myself.

  7. Jim, you’ve fielded my feistiness graciously. Thank you. You know, we really do need to get WordPress to give us smiley faces. 🙂

    The anecdote I was referring to was not the one mentioned by John, but one in this thread itself, someone unable to distinguish between finances and discipleship.

    In case it isn’t obvious, I am not working through many of these issues, but have decided convictions. I often hesitate to state them, knowing that most of y’all are clergy, and my reading of scripture tells me that for you to “bear fruit befitting repentance” would mean surrendering your papers and leave the behemoth that threatens to consume your love and strength, which someone else has called “dibs” on.

    I hesitate to say it full strength for several reasons. One, I don’t want to be dismissed as a crank (which is a form of cowardice, “man-fearer”). Second, I don’t want to place more burdens on people who are already up to their eyeballs in conflicting demands and expectations.

    I think Hollyboardman’s decision to leave the clergy is an excellent decision. What would happen to the UMC? At the risk of being called simplistic, let me quote Jesus and apply it to his disciples: “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”

    The seed? The UMC. Kinda like “The Shoes of the Fisherman,” only different.

    Jim, I understand. Many good things take place in the congregations, that’s where people live their lives and grow in grace and love — and those are not just cliches. What I . . . grieve? detest? object to is placing pastors in that untenable conflct between four masters: 1) their congregations, 2) their clerical superiors, 3) their real estate holdings and office space, and 4) God.

  8. In reading this, I also have to wonder what paradigm we, as pastors, employ when measuring discipleship. Without spiritual transformation, the Christian life is empty; however, that transformation begins with broken people and is played out over time. Broken people will act like broken people, and thereby have a tendency to see things and make decisions from a worldly perspective. As I see it, churches where real discipleship is happening will have a much broader spectrum of individuals along that path of transformation. I disagree that the UMC is a poor fit for pastors emphasizing discipleship; quite the opposite, I think discipleship is the underlying core which drives Methodism. I just wonder if we sometimes mistakenly define discipleship by what it looks like when we have “arrived”, rather than by the growth which takes us there.

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