The final word from the IOT

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.

Schnase on the failure of #GC2012

Bishop Robert Schnase’s episcopal address to the South Central Jurisdiction has been posted by the UM Reporter. You have to wade through some statistics at the top and it is not soaring oratory, but it is well worth the attention of the church.

When it came to speaking of General Conference, Schnase expressed strong disappointment.

 Let me share a few observations on behalf of the Bishops that we’ve shared with each other since the close of General Conference:

First, I don’t think we were overly invested in any specific organizational plan for change, but we were deeply invested in the hope for change.

Second, there’s a growing perception that the process of the General Conference itself doesn’t work.  We experienced paralysis as a conference, like a spider stuck in its own web.  As an example, the General Conference spent four hours over two days to debate the Standing Rules before eventually approving them exactly as they had been presented by the committee!

Third, we’re concerned about the tightening of “the hairball.”  Gordon McKenzie, author of Orbiting the Giant Hairball, uses the image of a hairball to describe the accruing of rules, requirements, mandates, and policies until they become so tightly bound that they paralyze creativity.  We were disappointed to see an increase of such rules and requirements at every level.   This fosters less flexibility, less contextual latitude, and reduced ability for leaders, conferences, committees, and local church churches to form their own responses.

Fourth, we are concerned about the deep divisions evident in the church, and the intensified focus on personal agendas.

Fifth, we have not begun to solve, or even understand, the complexities, implications, and opportunities of being a truly global church.

Sixth, we are concerned about the troubling and persistent tendency for the church to deny and ignore and avoid the critical challenges.  Adam Hamilton presented the challenges as revealed through the Towers-Watson Report.  He described the reality and urgency of our situation in the US church.  People can honestly disagree about how to respond to these challenges, but we cannot continue to avoid and deny them.  If we learn from the doctor that three cardiac arteries are nearly completely blocked, and if nothing is done, death is virtually assured, the challenge presents many options.  We can consider surgical options, and discuss how extensive and the effects that might follow.  We can consider medicine, and what sort and with what benefits and risks.  We can consider changes in behavior, including exercise, diet, smoking, stress, and weight control.   There are literally dozens of conversations and strategies to discuss and consider.  But we cannot walk away and act as if we do not know the truth and deny that the risks are real.

When he turns to talk about the important thing the bishops take away from General Conference, he begins to sound a bit like the voices in the Western Jurisdiction and elsewhere who decry the denomination’s stance on sexuality. Schnase, of course, was talking about the Call to Action rather than sex, but the conclusion that the general church is not a source for answers or leadership was similar.

We’re convinced as a College of Bishops that the stuckness of General Conference makes what we do in this Jurisdiction and in our Annual Conferences all the more important.   We need to continue to learn, to experiment, to innovate.  Change in the United Methodist Church is going to happen one person at a time, one congregation at a time, one conference at a time.   Change in the church is will happen horizontally as we learn from another, not vertically or from the top.

Compare Schnase’s address with the words of the Director of Communication for the Pacific-Northwest Annual Conference:

That said, the work of the jurisdictional conference could be of significant importance if its will is reflected by the actions of its college of bishops, annual conferences, appointive cabinets, boards of ordained ministry, clergy and lay people. While the General Conference does indeed speak for the denomination, these other groups are responsible for the action of the church. These groups have to decide how to live faithfully in a world where the ecclesial powers may be in conflict with a developing sense of God’s kin(g)dom that includes gay and lesbian people. These leaders will need to be the change agents — moving beyond hope to courageous action; willing to risk reputation for the mission field. They will also need to do so while remaining in dialogue with those within their annual conferences who have a different understanding of God’s vision for human sexuality.

Of course, the similarities should not be pressed too far. The bishop is talking about working within the doctrine and discipline of the church and the communication director is speaking of opposing both. But, even so, both share a conviction that General Conference is broken and therefore the jurisdictions, conferences, local churches, and individuals must take the lead in getting things done. In both cases, the sign of the dysfunction of the General Conference is that it did not do anything in the area of particular interest.

I’m not sure what to make of that other than to observe that it may confirm what the Book of Discipline itself says. Annual Conferences — not the General Conference — are the basic unit of the United Methodist Church, and local churches are the most important venue for making disciples of Jesus Christ.

Sign of unity or protest?

Drew McIntyre offers an extended reflection and commentary on the Eucharist table as the center of a protest at General Conference 2012.

In a world of partisan politics, bitter divides, and thoughtless polemic, the Eucharist should be one place where God reaches through all of the muck and mire to speak a word of grace and peace.  The Lord’s Table is where, like Christ, we are taken, blessed, broken, and given.  To make the Eucharist our act instead of God’s, a mere tool in a game of political manipulation rather than a sacrament of God’s grace, is a great disservice to Christ and his church.