. . . loquacious with a graphFour years ago, a highly-placed body of movers and shakers tried to re-write the entire Constitution of The UMC from the progressive point of view, and got it all through General Conference. The votes in the Annual Conferences failed to ratify these changes. Every last one of them was rejected. This time around, a highly-placed body of movers and shakers (a couple of bodies, actually, as there were competing plans) tried to re-do the structure of The UMC without re-writing the Constitution; they were more pragmatic than progressive, but they all felt that we had to do something.
or a gospel, gustily audacious over three heavens.
To which one really must reply, Why? Why must we do something, anything? Are we so broken that our structure will not function?
I have a different point of view. I think the structure is just fine. Oh, it’s clunky, and there are some inequities in it. But it’ll get you where you want to go. The problem is the crew, not the ship. It is people – more specifically, leaders – who are our problem, not our way of organizing ourselves.
Our bishops have shown themselves to be unwilling to enforce obvious rules. They are, for all intents and purposes, unaccountable for their actions. Why do you think giving them more power will fix anything? The obvious answer is to get different bishops, which you do by going into Jurisdictional and Central Conferences refusing to vote for the same old ecclesiastical politicians.
Our general agencies and their heads have shown themselves to be disconnected from the local church, unaccountable to General Conference, and huge wasters of money. Why do you think some new structure will restrain them? Cut off their money supply, and they will reform themselves or go out of business.
Our churches and clergy are caught in a spiral of unproductivity. Huge efforts have reaped ever smaller harvests. Why do you think demanding productivity by shouting louder or burdening them with the need to produce numbers to justify themselves will correct this? What we lack is not effort, but clarity of vision, and the will to do those things that truly matter and leave off those things that truly don’t.
Socrates, in Xenophon’s Memorabilia, asks the leaders of Athens, If you have a shepherd, who at the end of his term of service has fewer sheep and those in unhealthier condition, would you not say that he was a bad shepherd? The obvious application to the rulers of Athens was another strike against Socrates, but he was right. And the obvious application to the leaders of The UMC is blinding in its obviousness, though I make myself no friends for saying it.
Once upon a time, I was a student of political science. And what I know is, “personnel is policy.” Change the people, and you change what the structure produces. You can change the people – especially, the leaders – by changing them from the inside out, by renewal of their vision, by drawing them on after you in a new direction; or you can change them by replacing them with people who will work with you instead of against you. One or the other. But tinkering with structure while keeping all the same leaders, unchanged, is a ginormous waste of time and effort.
Over against this are those who believe that if we all just do something – or give someone enough power to compel something – then we can save the Church or the cause or whatever. And they are willing to go down the road of blind faith in unproved leaders and untested paths. They are willing to dump democracy because it is slow and difficult. They are desperate and thus they are dangerous. I’m not happy about the state of The UMC, but I’m not sorry that all the folks desperate to DO SOMETHING failed at this General Conference.
And so, it’s back to the same old routine, of prayer and work. Teaching the faith. Rounding up the strays. Celebrating the sacraments. Working with people to nudge them closer to God. That work has not changed or been much improved upon since St. Cuthbert was doing it in 7th Century Northumbria, or John Wesley was doing it in 18th Century England, or the circuit riders were doing it on the American frontier when my current congregation was formed. What worked then, works now. I doubt that anything our bloated structure could do, now or in some imagined future, would harm or help that work very much, though no doubt leaders throughout that structure could help, even now, if they were of a mind to, and not obsessed with their own importance.