I've been reading some UM blogs recommended by friends -- particularly about the "Call to Action" report that's circulating in the Church, which should probably be entitled Same Ol', Same Ol'. From the point of view of this here clergyman, here's where I think we should start.
1) Historically, the main purpose of the clergy was/is to celebrate the sacraments. We lead worship. We baptize. We offer communion. We marry and bury. In Wesley's day, most of this was taken care of by the Anglican clergy; Methodist preachers didn't have to do this. But when the C of E collapsed following the American Revolution, it was necessary for the Methodist preachers in America to take up this essential priesthood function.
This being so, let's look at the continual gripes about all our little churches that are said to be such a drag on us. If the first duty of the Church is to provide authorized persons to bring the sacraments within the reach of every believer, then even small churches have their purpose. We don't define a congregation by how many acres it has, or what salary it pays, or how many seats are in the seats on Sunday morning. We figure out how to cover our ministry area with sacramental ministry done by real clergy (that means, Elders, folks), and we make sure that enough outlets for this ministry are available. Along with leading regular worship (with communion) comes other sacramental or quasi-sacramental care: baptizing, confirming, visiting the sick, performing marriages, burying the dead, providing counsel to those in need of reconciliation with God and neighbor.
All pastors should be elders, or on the way to becoming elders. All pastors should spend their main energies doing clergy stuff, not trying to do the laity's job for them (which means, no more acting like Program Directors on the ecclesiastical cruise ship). Buildings are less important than communities.
2) Assuming we've got the sacraments (properly) covered, we go back to the next duty of a Methodist clergyperson: preaching. Wesley's original helpers were preachers, not pastors, not priests.
But, to say that preaching is what we are called to do is not enough. We are to preach Christ, and him crucified. That's the command. We are not called to preach our particular brand of politics, our ideas of social engineering, our philosophy, helpful insights into group dynamics, or how to achieve self-actualization. And, we are to preach Christ as he is found and described in the Bible and the Creeds; to do otherwise is to preach some other salvation or cause, no matter how many times you say the words "God" or "Christ."
The short form is, there is no renewal without doctrinal renewal. There is no doctrinal renewal without demanding orthodoxy from the clergy. Any "fix" of clergy issues or power structures or the episcopacy which attempts to slide past this issue is a monumental waste of time, energy, and money. Period.
3) Intrinsic to the power in the Methodist Revival was the transformative experience of the class meeting. Direct, face-to-face accountability for discipleship was what conserved the fruits of the revival. Now, once we transitioned from a lay movement within the Church of England to a Church on our own, we lost this. We adopted the parochial model of ministry and let the accountability group model decline. We keep trying to revive it, without much success. The fact is, most of our UM members -- and clergy -- have never experienced this, and resist trying it.
One of the jobs of the early Methodist preachers, however, was to run this system: to see who was keeping up with the task of Methodist discipling, and funnel new people into it. When we became a Church, this became the job of the Class Leaders. The last, pathetic remnant of this system is the job of Lay Leader, which nobody knows what to make of.
Every United Methodist should be challenged to be part of some kind of spiritual accountability group. Youth and adult Sunday School should be less about instruction or bull session than face-to-face discipleship. Those not taking part in Sunday School should be guided into Men's groups, Women's groups, Emmaus Reunion Groups, or whatever. Larger congregations could offer many more options than smaller ones. But we must resist the idea that we are Religion Stores that offer religious products and experiences for sale to autonomous buyers, who don't need to be part of anything more in-your-face than the big Sunday morning group.
So, here's my take on UM renewal. Take it for what it's worth. We need Three Things (to start with) to fix our broken system.
1) The number of congregations is determined by the need to project the presbyterate (clergy in Elders orders) into the community, so that the sacraments and competent pastoral care can be extended to everyone. Elders are not called to manage congregations, but to minister to people.
2) UM clergy should preach Christ, and him crucified. And if what they're preaching doesn't measure up to our established standards of doctrine, then they are doing actual damage to persons' souls, no matter how entertaining they are or how many dollars they raise for good causes or how much their parishioners love them. Get rid of them, even if you have to buy them out.
3) Most UMs should be part of accountability groups, one way or another. (Set a minimum level for recognition -- start at 50%, then work up to 75%.) It is the job of the Lay Leaders to administer this system. We need massive re-training for this.
You'll notice I've said nothing about programs, missions projects, retreats, choirs, camps, Agencies, bishops, or Conferences. All those things are extra. All those are good and fine once we get the minimum covered. And the minimum is, sacraments, preaching, discipling. This might seem a clergy-centric kind of view, but the fact is, what's broken is clergy-centric. The laity, once converted and discipled, are perfectly capable of living faithful lives -- and do. It's the clergy and the power/support structures associated with the clergy that are broken. Once we fix the main things, we can keep anything else that contributes to our overall success. Everything else can go.