That said, my friend’s indictment of the present state of The UMC goes basically unchallenged by me. We have far too many barnacles on the hull (looking at you, General Agencies), a lot of the officers (bishops and other pooh-bahs) are privateering (or have gone downright pirate) rather than obey their orders, and the course set doesn’t seem to lead anywhere productive. So, what to do?
G.K. Chesterton said that people would sometimes, after long and careful deliberation, act upon a new idea, but that they would only act suddenly and decisively upon an old idea. All successful revolutions are conservative. My take is, we should not try to re-invent Methodism, but recover it. And not just some classic stage of Methodism; we have twenty centuries of Christian experience to draw upon.
Let’s begin by asking, how was the church (and especially the Methodist movement in the church) supposed to operate?
First, the clergy. The clergy’s primary duties are to preach (and teach) and to see that the sacraments are offered to the people. This means they need to go where the people are. And it may mean that they wind up preaching and celebrating on a circuit, instead of a station appointment. Secondarily, the clergy are to supervise the lay leaders, whose primary job is Christian development and accountability. Thirdly, the clergy are concerned with church-wide governance, which primarily consists of maintaining standards and credentials of new clergy and holding existing clergy to account (the Conference).
The Laity (especially in Methodism) are organized in small groups (classes, bands, select societies), which is the primary vehicle for spiritual development and accountability. In Wesley’s day, a Methodist was someone who was in a class or band, not just who came to a preaching service. Each Methodist in a class is responsible not only for one’s relationship with Christ, but for one’s response as ministry in family and community.
Congregations – parishes – were originally not part of Methodism’s structure. The Church of England had parishes, but Methodists didn’t bother much with property and institutions. That changed when the C of E collapsed during the American Revolution, and the American Methodists had to become a religious denomination on their own. In Methodism, the Congregation is a mediating institution. It is primarily about property and finance on the one hand, and connectional ministry on the other. The Trustees hold the property, with its concerns. And the Congregation (Charge) is the vehicle by which preachers/pastors get paid and contributions to connectional ministries are forwarded to where they need to get.
This form of organization began to endure great stress as soon as Mr. Wesley passed from the scene. The Second Great Awakening that touched off in 1801 at Cane Ridge, Kentucky, made Revivalism the big thing. The Methodist preachers were very congenial to this, but in emphasizing revivalist ministry to the exclusion of almost everything else, the laity began to become an audience, and the classes and bands were lost. It became possible to "join the church" without participating in anything that would actually disciple one. The Sunday School movement of the 19th Century did somewhat to pick up the slack in Christian formation and lay accountability/leadership, but the special emphases of Methodist practice were mostly lost.
Second, as the 19th Century wound to its close, the great days of itinerant ministry drew to an end. Preachers wanted to settle down. Parsonages were provided them. More and more, the clergy desired to pastor a single congregation – and each congregation wanted “its own minister.” The congregation began to become a programmatic machine. Not only that, but the pastor, now that he was resident in one place and didn’t need to leave the laity in charge while he was preaching elsewhere on the circuit, could hog all the glory and usurp all the leadership. The vision of the big church with all the cool stuff happening under the inspired leadership of the Rev. Oral Fixation began to hove into view. The mega-church was struggling to be born.
Meanwhile, denominational structures were metastasizing. We used to just have a Publishing House and a few bishops. Now we have 13 General Agencies with all kinds of staff, a Council of Bishops and several regional Colleges of Bishops, and Jurisdictional committees, too. The Annual Conference got involved in more and more things, many of them of questionable value and all of them expensive.
Recently, those in charge of Conferences and Districts realized things weren’t working very well, so they set about dis-inventing their own structures. In the Indiana Annual Conference, ALL initiative is now concentrated in a few persons at Conference HQ, and the actual Conference session has been reduced to a trade show and rally. Our bishop and his minions act like the Intelligences of the Spheres, as if they are required to impart motion to everything that happens. Conference has become a colossal bore; meanwhile, the actual gifts of the thousands of people and congregations that are part of the Conference are ignored while all decisions and priorities are funneled through a couple dozen insiders in Indianapolis.
We no longer do actual Charge Conferences, where the Presiding Elder asks the awkward questions and the people have to say what they have accomplished this last year. Instead, we throw huge numbers of charges together and race through the business so we can have another rally. Sis-boom-bah! Let’s hear it for VIBRANT MINISTRY! Accountability was once the keystone of Methodism, but there is no accountability here, no face to face reckoning, no actual responses or decisions made. We are all just throwing the spaghetti against the wall, to see if anything sticks. But then, we are desperate; we have lost our way, and we don’t know what we’re doing anymore.
A recovered Methodism would feature clergy who do clergy things and let laity do laity things; a reordering of our congregational life that abjures the worship of the merely big and glossy; a stripping away of encrusted bureaucracies; and an emphasis upon accountability at every level of the church. It requires recovering the techniques and simple steps which led to the phenomenal growth of Methodism. It requires a recovery of orthodox teaching, as well as lots of prayer. And it needs to be expressed in simple, traditional language that avoids the buzz-words and boutique guru-ese that means whatever the speaker means (which leaves him in charge of evaluating everyone else, while free to say he has always succeeded).