The United Methodist Church is dying because a) we cannot agree on what story to tell, and b) we treat people like sh*t.The first part of that problem is theological, and our theological confusion/conflict has been debilitating; however, the second part of that problem is no less true, and just as debilitating. Who wants to belong to an organization that treats them so badly?
For four years, I had seen the sausage made at a general agency. GCUMM was generally accorded the status as the most orthodox and evangelical of our general agencies. Since it housed the Office of CYSA/Scouting, it was also presumed to be friendly to UM Scouters of all sorts. It was, in fact, a hotbed of jealousies and vicious politics. Even among the good ol' boys -- and there were some very nice guys in that crowd -- the maintenance of their special treehouse (i.e., having their own agency) trumped doing anything like ministry; if you weren't one of the special club members, you would never be more than a guest. (Indeed, I was known to remark at about that time that as a UM Scouter, I had always assumed that while GCUMM might know a lot about men's ministry, they sure didn't know much about Scouting ministry. After four years of service on the board, however, I had changed my mind; I now saw that they didn't know much about men's ministry, either.) And this was the best of our agencies. I shuddered to think what went on at those that were worse.
The same thing is true of the Indiana Annual Conference. The vicious politics, the contempt from HQ for those in the field, the desire to capture the purpose and activity of the Conference for the maintenance of what the leadership want to do, reign here, too. We "redesigned" the Conference when we merged and built something truly awful.
The leadership felt that it was arduous and expensive to have lots of committees staffed by volunteers, so they reduced the number of committees -- and therefore the number of people necessary to process the Conference business. Fewer people made the decisions, fewer people could get their ideas heard, fewer people were in competition for available money -- and all of it could be controlled by the powers that be. Does this mean that we saved money? that we reduced bureaucracy? Oh, dear me, no. We spend lots of money, and we have expanded the Conference staff to do what committees used to do.
The leadership felt that nobody liked long, boring meetings, so they reduced the total actual business to a handful of necessary actions. All other actions were reserved for the leadership; meanwhile, the Conference session was filled with, I guess you could call it, "entertainment": speakers, workshops, ministry projects. "The Conference" is presumed to be the people who meet in that overpriced suite of offices in Carmel: the Conference staff, the bishop's Cabinet, and maybe the BOOM. Clergy have been reduced to "employees," to be ordered about by clerks from HQ (retired clergy, since they are no longer employed, are simply non-persons); laity have been made over into "customers" to whom we pitch our shoddy novelties; the Annual Conference session has been converted to a trade show to promote stuff few want or can use to an ever-dwindling audience. Many people only come because they must, and they leave regretting that they did.
And, of course, if we were to talk about the local church, the same would be true there -- with some notable exceptions. Years ago, I was sitting up late at a District Scout Retreat, filling out Thank You certificates for the staff, and a friend said to me, "You know, this is the only thing I do in the church where I ever get thanked." Local churches -- even where they aren't conflictual -- are often very poor in thanking people, recognizing service, noticing newcomers. "We're a friendly church" they all say, wondering why nobody stays long except the old regulars. They don't see that they're only friendly with each other, the old regulars. And when one of the old regulars gets his or her nose out of joint, nobody's feelings are spared and no one can contain the rumpus. This is true of far too many of our congregations, and who wants to belong to an organization like that?
Now, I don't say this as a yelp of pain. I'm not complaining (though I am frequently angry about things I see). I'm trying to get across that The UMC has a problem, and it goes beyond theology. If we finally create a New and Improved Methodist Church with all the right doctrine, all telling the same Story -- "but have not love" -- we will become just as dysfunctional as we are now. He that hath ears . . .