The first major problem is, we don’t all believe the same things. At the root of everything, there are different theological commitments amongst the leadership of the Church that can no longer be papered over. The different commitments apply to both theological content (what we believe and teach) and to theological process (where we get this from).
We have dealt with the widening gap between one group and another for a hundred years now. Heresy trials were attempted in the early days of the controversy, but nobody was willing to convict fellow union members, and so “pluralism” became the de facto policy of the church, long before it was explicitly adopted. Freedom of the pulpit, and all that.
Well, so long as the theological differences didn’t affect piety or practice, we muddled along. You’d get a modernist/progressive/liberal pastor, and then you’d get a traditional/orthodox/conservative pastor. We all taught confirmation, we all conducted worship and visited the sick, and we all modeled the respectable life and obeyed the rules. That obeying the rules part went without saying. Nobody would defrock you for teaching heresy, but if you did something scandalous or wouldn’t do the grunt work assigned you by the bishop, then you got the sack.
That’s not the case anymore, which is the second major problem. We now have not only individual clergy, but whole Boards of Ordained Ministry and whole Conferences (Annual and Jurisdictional) who are in active rebellion against the rules, and are paying no price for it. They think they are working to make the church a more just and loving organization, but the ordinary name for what they are doing is, simply, mutiny.
Some part of the crew, including many of its officers, are attempting to seize the ship and take it in their preferred direction, against the will of the greater part of the crew and officers – and against the will of the greater part of the passengers, if that matters to you. Meanwhile, the very powers that are set up to contain disobedience have joined in it. This is schism, and we are in it. The United Methodist Church is not “united” in much if it operates under different rules in one place than in another.
So, the different theological commitments among United Methodists now intersect with an unwillingness to live by a common set of rules, and there you have the controversy GC ’19 has been called to address. But whatever GC ’19 achieves (or fails to achieve) regarding these two major problems, there is a third major problem of at least equal importance – an iceberg that will sink the ship, no matter how or if its fractious crew finds a way to agree on doctrine and discipline.
The third major problem is the staggering incompetence of our leadership. I have now served under six bishops and worked with or known several others. The quality is declining, let me tell you, and it affects everybody else in leadership. As Parkinson noted years ago, when the top people are second-rate, they will only choose third-raters to serve under them, lest somebody show them up. And third-raters will only promote fourth-raters to serve under them.
Our current bishop here in Indiana is a genial mediocrity who keeps all power and initiative close to Conference HQ, and then does nothing with it. He thinks that giving inflated (and non-Disciplinary) titles to his Superintendents will make us more successful. He didn’t start the rot at HQ, but he exemplifies the attitude of Brother Juniper, who said while driving down a rapidly deteriorating road, “Of course we’re lost; but we’re making such good time, let’s keep going!”
The same mindless rot has afflicted all parts of UM leadership for some time. Nobody believes in our own core processes any more. For instance: when was the last time you attended an actual Charge Conference? You know, where a pastoral charge was called together to give an account of their work for the Lord over the past year? Where actual business was conducted and actual decisions made? Nowadays, we have dozens of congregations thrown together at once, where they throw the reports in a pile, and the DS conducts a rally. A rally, for heaven’s sake. Sis, boom, bah!
I filled out the forms for years, I went through the motions, I kept up the façade of connectional accountability, and my congregations sleepwalked through it all. I didn’t make a stir, because I was in a position where the neglect had gone on so long that all that was holding the denominational walls up was the paint on them.
But does nobody ever try to do the job right? Yes, I knew one DS who really, really tried. It killed him. My DS in the old Evansville District, Larry Richert, tried to do the job he knew needed to be done on top of the jobs he was assigned by the bishop. I don’t know what his health problems were, but I saw him deteriorate alarmingly over the course of several years in the Superintendency. He finally took a leave of absence to deal with his health, but he died suddenly, only weeks into his leave. Since then, I have known at least one or two really smart and able Superintendents, who keep their health by playing the game. They do the stupid rallies, they bark the slogans, they promote whatever inane programs HQ is pushing. In personal supervision, they can be perceptive and supportive. But they are lieutenants on a ship where the captain is barking mad, and the Admiralty is barking mad, and the only way to do any good at all is to play along and be as mad as everybody else. Which of course means that some of their colleagues aren’t just pretending.
We have spent over twenty years dis-inventing the District and the Conference. Even our General Agencies don’t believe in our core processes. I sat on the General Commission on United Methodist Men for four years, and I saw the push to credential Men’s Ministry Specialists and Scouting Ministry Specialists in every Conference. Do these “specialists” do valuable work out in their fields of labor? A few, perhaps. My own acquaintance with SMS people gives me the impression that it’s another gong to wear on your uniform, so to speak. A little tin badge of importance. Most of them don’t attempt much, and the official organs of the denomination pay no attention to them, anyway. One of the best SMS I know can’t even get the time of day from his Senior Pastor. So why do we have them? Because a lot of Conferences don’t have District and Conference Scouting Coordinators like they’re supposed to. And even if they have them, GCUMM can’t get them to respond to anything they send out. So GCUMM has created its own shadow cadre of officers they can send stuff to and who will respond to them. The fact that all these “specialists” are not connected to anything in the Connection is irrelevant. Somebody reads our e-mails, so we must be accomplishing something.
Once upon a time, there was a way to be a Methodist. We taught an actual method(!). There were class meetings, and even after those faded away, there were still class leaders. We told people, this is how you do it. And we did it. There was also a way to do church. We modeled it and taught it and gave high expectations that you would do it. We expected there to be Sunday School and confirmation classes and support for denominational causes and all the stuff that we still report at Charge Conference and Check Day. And the numbers weren’t just made up, because we all agreed that these were things we cared about succeeding at. We understood how to make disciples and we understood how to keep people on track with their spiritual lives and their church relationships. There was a time when attending Conference was a big deal, too. Good heavens, there was a time when “preach like a bishop” was a compliment!
Today’s higher leadership have no idea what works. They’re just throwing spaghetti against the wall, hoping that something will stick. Meanwhile, today’s pastors are trying out whatever the mega-church pastors, or their favorite “church leadership consultants” promote on their blogs and in their books. We’re all just making it up as we go along. We’ve forgotten how it’s done, and we have no confidence that “Methodism” will help us get it done.
I’m hoping that GC ’19 will make progress on addressing the intersection of doctrine and discipline. But no matter how successful it is (and I pray for its success with desperate fervor), all the delegates will come home next week and face the same old situation in their Conferences and Districts. Long ago, Xenophon quoted Socrates as saying, “If you had a shepherd whose sheep were fewer and in poorer condition after his tenure, wouldn’t you say he was a bad shepherd?” He said this in reference to the leaders of Athens, but he could have been talking about The United Methodist Church.