I know a lot of people recoil at business talk and vocabulary in the church. I’ve never understood that reaction. We don’t object to using insights from other fields in the organization and management of the church. No one, so far as I know, objects to using modern plumbing simply because it is “secular.”
Nonetheless, I know some people recoil when business language comes up. If that is you, I’ll ask that you hold that to the side for a few moments while I share something that I did yesterday.
I was sitting on a question and answer session for a case competition at my business school when my mind started drifting. Three men from an international consulting firm were talking to students about a hypothetical business that is trying to expand into new markets. They kept coming back to how important it was for the company to stay true to its core values, mission, and brand as it was seeking out new markets and planning to enter them.
They talked about standard practices in opening stores in a new market. When this happens, companies will take their best people from existing stores and send them to the new one to make sure the values, work processes, and identity of the company are firmly rooted in the new store, especially in the first days and weeks of its operations. The company has invested vast resources in establishing its brand, clarifying its values, and establishing work practices. It wants to make sure those are transplanted to the new location from the first day.
Maybe you know where I am going here.
As I was listening, I kept wondering what — if anything — could be identified as the United Methodist brand, values, and processes.
In early Methodism, the “brand” was closely tied to particular theological convictions and methods. Others used similar methods (there were Baptist itinerant preachers, too) but the combination of theology and method made Methodists unique and identifiable.
I don’t think you can say that now. I don’t see a way to clearly distinguish us from a more-or-less generic mainline Protestantism. We have a more liberal inflection in some places and more evangelical in others, but I struggle to identify — to use an old Wesleyan phrase — the marks of United Methodism.
For the last few years, I’ve tried to be part of a conversation in the church about rooting our brand, values, mission, and processes in our Wesleyan heritage. I still believe that would be fruitful, but I know this is a conversation that is many ways at the margins of the actual work of the church. Wesley gets name checked more these days — I gather — than he did 25 years ago, but we often only draft Wesley to argue points we already wanted to make and would have made whether he fits them or not. We use him a bit the way KFC uses Col. Sanders. And often he only gets mentioned by way of dismissing him. You hear it phrased this way, “John Wesley was a great man, but …” So, despite my own interest, I would not say our brand is strikingly or decisively Wesleyan in a way that translates into practices that would be obvious to church members and or even clergy.
This all presses on me as I prepare to move from part-time pastor to full-time this summer. I have done my commissioning work, so I can report what we say in our Book of Discipline our distinctive emphases are. But as I prepare to go to a new appointment, I also find myself wondering how I will identify healthy Methodism in my new charge, articulate it to them, and work with them to instill the values and practices that make us uniquely Methodist. (Maybe it is a good thing that I waited until after gaining approval of the Board of Ordained Ministry to write this post.)