The divided soul of Methodism

We have been reaping a lot of poisoned fruit in the division of the United Methodist Church.

John Wesley warned us this would happen.

In his sermon “On Schism,” he warned the Methodist societies of his day about the dangers of division within the church, which he argued was the true biblical meaning of the word “schism.” Such factions and parties, he wrote, bring forth evil fruit.

It opens a door to all unkind tempers, both in ourselves and others. It leads directly to a whole train of evil surmisings, to severe and uncharitable judging of each other. It gives occasion to offense, to anger and resentment, perhaps in ourselves as well as in our brethern; which, if not presently stopped, may issue in bitterness, malice, and settled hatred; creating a present hell wherever they are found, as a prelude to eternal hell.

To be clear, we were rent with division long before traditionalists started leaving the church. We fell into hostile camps long ago. When I write that schism is bearing evil fruit, I do not lay the blame at the feet of those currently disaffiliating. I lay the blame on all of us. I have no interest in parceling out blame or engaging in the sibling game of “he did it first.” I merely observe that the long division within the UMC, which is now leading to actual division from the UMC, has given birth to many of the things Wesley warned us about.

I have seen Methodists calling their brothers and sisters tools of Satan. We have spat venom at each other and given in to bitterness and malice so much that I fear it will indeed settle into a real hatred. We gather around the fires of our contempt and confuse the warmth we feel for the Holy Spirit’s flame. We who declare our tables open to all have, in too many cases, closed our hearts to each other. Not all of us, but far too many of us.

This began long before disaffiliation. We divided long before we started falling apart. The opportunity to stamp out this out when it was but an ember is long past. The trees like torches blaze with light.

We all need to be on our knees in prayer about this.

If we claim to be Wesleyan at all, we should heed Father John’s warning and work as diligently as we can to repent and repair the damage we have done to our own souls.

The place as it really is

One of the things I’ve read that most resonates with my sense of pastoral work was written by Wendell Berry. Berry is not a pastor or theologian. He is a poet, a writer, and — most important here — a farmer.

In one book of his essays, I have a book mark that I go back to from time to time because it speaks to me of the heart and craft of pastoral ministry and work. Please pardon a fairly long quotation.

[I]t is not uncharacteristic for a farmer’s connection to a farm to begin in love. … One loves the place because present appearances recommend it, and because they suggest possibilities irresistibly imaginable. One’s head, like a lover’s, grows full of visions. One walks over the premises, saying, “If this were mine, I’d make a permanent pasture here; here is where I’d plant an orchard; here is where I’d dig a pond.” These visions are the usual stuff of unfulfilled love and induce wakefulness at night.

When ones buys the farm and moves there to live, something different begins. Thoughts begin to be translated into acts. Truth begins to intrude with its matter-of-fact. One’s work may be defined in part by one’s visions, but it is defined in part too by problems, which the work leads to and reveals. And daily life, work, and the problems gradually alter the visions. It invariably turns out, I think, that one’s first vision of one’s place was to some extent an imposition on it. But if one’s sight is clear and if one stays on and works well, one’s love responds to the place as it really is, and one’s visions gradually image possibilities that are really in it.

Wendell Berry, Standing by Words, pp. 69-70

I’m tempted to quote more, but I fear even this much is more than some of you will read. If you skipped the quotation, please, lift your gaze a couple paragraphs and give it a few moments of your time.

So what does this have to do with being a pastor?

Pastors coming to a new church are very much like Berry’s farmer. When you first see the place, when you stand in the pulpit and survey the rows of empty pews or chairs, when you drive through the neighborhood around the church, you begin to imagine things that might be. This is especially so if you are a pastor with “vision.” Many a pastor loves a new church not for what it is, but they imagine it might be or become.

But the truth always intrudes on these visions. Every church is a place with a history. Its people are a unique collection of sinners and saints who have worshipped, celebrated, grieved, worried, hoped, and fought with each other for a long time. The congregation is like Berry’s farm. It reveals to you over time how God is at work in and through it and how with some degree of skill and patience a pastor might work with what is already there to help nurture what could be.

Every pastor knows all this, but we do not all believe it. For some, the vision of what the church could be — what it should be — drives them to take a bulldozer to what is already there. If they are talented enough and stubborn enough, they can do impressive things to the old place, but they often leave a lot of spiritual wreckage to be carted off in the process.

And, sadly, most of us pastors are neither talented enough nor stubborn enough to force a congregation to conform to the visions we would impose on them. Instead, the pastors begin to resent the very flock they are supposed to serve. They tell cynical jokes to each other at clergy gatherings. They long for greener pastures and better church members. They have less and less joy in the work and, often, turn back from the plow they once spent so much time and energy to take up.

This is not a large church vs small church thing. I’ve seen pastors of churches of all sizes who learned to let the place shape their visions. I’ve seen pastors of churches of all sizes try, with growing anger, resentment, and heartbreak, to force the congregation into their vision of what the church should be.

I will never claim to be an expert or a great pastor. My ministry has been an immense blessing to me, and I pray I have been useful to the church. For my part, I have always seen my role very much in keeping with Berry’s description of the farmer who learns through the work to see what is possible, what is already being done by God, and how those things might be shaped by the gospel’s vision.

This is not speedy work, but our Lord who spoke to us of sheep and seeds and harvests, I think, appreciates a good farming metaphor. I know I am grateful to have been called to this work.

The quest for healthier and smarter churches

I am in that curious time in the life of a United Methodist pastor. I’ve left my previous church and not yet started work at my new church. It is a time of anticipation and enforced patience.

For me, it is a time to think about my first year in this new place. As part of that, I’m reading again Patrick Lencioni’s book The Advantage.

In the opening pages of the book, Lencioni writes about the fact that there is a crucial difference between the value of being a smart organization and a healthy organization. You need both. Lencioni writes that in all his years working as a consultant, he has never spent time with a business and thought the problem was that the executives needed to work on getting smarter about their business or fundamental business activities such as marketing, technology, and finance. The problem he sees that organizations are not healthy.

A healthy organization is marked by these qualities: Minimal politics, minimal confusion, high morale, high productivity, and low turnover.

Most businesses are smart enough to succeed. Lots of them are unhealthy and don’t know how to get healthy.

What does this have to do with churches?

I’m not expert. I’ve been a pastor for 14 years at small to very small churches. I have no book to write about church growth, and if I wrote one, no one would buy it. But I do have a few thoughts on this question.

First, a lot of churches have a double-sided problem. They struggle with being healthy organizations. Sadly, churches are often places with lots of politics, lots of confusion, low morale and the other markers of unhealthy organizations. This is nothing new. Read the New Testament and you see it from the beginning. But being healthy is not the only challenge many churches face. They also often struggle with the fundamentals. They can be quite muddled about strategy, confused about how to reach and communicate with insiders and outsiders, and challenged by technology and sound and basic financial management. Not every church has these problems, but many do.

Second, I think Lencioni is fundamentally correct when he says that healthy organizations get smarter. Healthy organizations see problems and deal with them instead of avoiding them. As a result they develop the skills they need. I’ve seen businesses and churches that exemplify this. They are exciting places to be.

So the question then becomes: How do churches become healthy?

That is the rest of the book, which I’ve only started reading again. Stay tuned. Please feel free to share your experiences with healthy and unhealthy churches.