Prodded by Jeremy Smith this morning, I did take a casual read through the final report of the Call to Action Interim Operations Team. Most of it is familiar to anyone who has been following the Call to Action process. The team writes that the defeat of the Call to Action proposals at General Conference do not change the underlying issues, and it calls for continued action to place more focus on vital congregations, recruit young clergy, and use consistent metrics to hold all clergy accountable.
The report calls for a end to “self-interested independence” that runs rampant through the UMC. It also calls for greater accountability among bishops. These two calls strike me as quite interesting as they point the way that the “leaders” of our denomination could put actions behind their rhetoric on the Call to Action, and perhaps do something about the most often ignored finding of the Call to Action research: lack of trust within the connection.
The formal leadership in the denomination is in the hands of the bishops. Their charge is to uphold the teaching (the doctrine) of the UMC and be symbols of unity. In recent years, I have not seen a lot of evidence of either of these functions of the episcopacy taking center stage. The removal of Bishop Earl Bledsoe in North Texas may have been a sign of greater accountability for bishops, but that was not a case of the Council of Bishops holding one of its own accountable. The clergy and laity of the jurisdiction did that.
If bishops hold the formal leadership of our denomination, the pastors of megachurches are the informal — and perhaps de facto — leaders of the UMC. Here is what I hear people in the UMC say about megachurch pastors. They say the hallmark of megachurch pastors is the intentional efforts they make to gain and secure independence from the denomination. On matters of polity and doctrine, megachurches become a law unto themselves. While, their success is measured in the very metrics that the rest of the connection is asked to adopt, their mode of operation is to shake free as much as possible from the connection itself. Is it any wonder many clergy view such leaders with a mix of awe and suspicion?
What can we do in the face of such problems?
The IOT final report includes a well-worn reference to John Wesley:
John Wesley was not afraid to identify the loss of spiritual vitality and true effectiveness in the Church. He knew that only plain speaking about and commitment to address the hard problems of his day would change the situation. In a famous bit of prose he suggested that survival of the Church was not his worry: “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid, lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case, unless they hold fast to both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out” (Thoughts Upon Methodism, London, August 4, 1786).
The quote by Wesley highlights what the Call to Action has left out from the beginning. Wesley’s concern was with the power of Methodism as a Holy Spirit infused movement of Christians. The Call to Action has fashioned a version of “discipline” that it desires to see adopted by the connection, but it has gone as far out of its way as possible to keep its hands off matters of doctrine and spirit.
And this is precisely why so many people have had so little enthusiasm for the cause. It appears to seek to save United Methodism by turning it into a connection of shopkeepers looking to increase the profit-and-loss statement for the next quarter. I have no doubt that the authors and advocates of the Call to Action do not believe this is what they are doing, but I would argue that a large segment of the UMC interprets it that way. I do not believe we will ever overcome the disconnect between leadership rhetoric and wider reception of the Call to Action so long as we overlook the importance of doctrine and spirit.
Methodism began because a group of college kids obsessed with holiness of heart and life discovered that such holiness was a gift of grace by faith in the saving work of Christ. They called it justification by faith and they preached it to everyone who would listen and to those who would not listen. Thrown out of pulpits, they preached it in the fields.
It was a movement grounded in spiritual disciplines and convinced that holy living included and required following the moral law of God. As it gathered people, it created new disciplines to help the people grow in grace. They held each other accountable in love for progress toward perfection in love. This was the growth that Wesley cultivated, growth in holiness. He would gut the membership of a society if he thought that was required to increase the holiness of the members who remained. This is what he meant by discipline.
In our 21st century context, we do cultivate independence, as the IOT report says. We cultivate independence from our own tradition and our vows of ordination. We cultivate independence from the doctrine of our own denomination. We cultivate independence from our own connection. Our solution, paradoxically, is to solve our decline by skipping over matters of doctrine and spirit and focusing solely on matters of discipline — but only for certain segments of the connection.
Much of what the Call to Action seeks to do is worthy, but the initiative has missed the words that it has quoted in its own support. If we seek not just the form of religion but its power, we need to grasp hold again of the doctrine, spirit, and discipline of our movement. One out of three will not do it, I fear.