All we like sheep -- and shepherds, too
A clergy colleague says -- with some wisdom, I think -- that people have to experience belonging
before we can expect them to exhibit the belief
we expect of them. That is, people only invest in learning doctrine or changing their habits after they have formed a relationship with others where thinking alike and acting alike becomes important.
Of course, what we so often see when we de-emphasize standards of belief and behavior is that people bond with others who have heterodox beliefs and non-Christian behavior, and then settle down to copy those features of the people they care about. Calling whatever results a Christian church is a bit of a crapshoot thereafter.
Actually, the process of becoming what you're aiming to be can start with head, hands, or heart. If you come to believe that certain things are right or desirable (or wrong and undesirable), then you will start changing your behavior and the people you associate with. If you change your behavior (even unintentionally, like getting into lazy habits), then eventually you will come to justify that behavior in your thinking and associate with those who reinforce it in you. If you start hanging out with people who think and act a certain way, pretty soon you'll copy their thinking and actions.
As an evangelistic strategy, emphasizing the heart -- relationships -- may seem like the easiest way to the other two, but in fact you can start from any one of the three. And here's the kicker: if you don't go on to work on the other two, then you will eventually either lose interest in the church or change it so that it reflects non-Christian or sub-Christian values.
Turning to the issues that are tearing The United Methodist Church apart these days, I would say that the clergy are responsible for at least 85% -- probably more -- of the tumult and decay which we see in our denomination. That's because of the leading position clergy occupy in the guidance mechanisms of the Church. "The fish rots from the head," as Ben Franklin put it. "If you had a shepherd whose sheep grew fewer and less healthy over his tenure, would you not say he was a poor shepherd?" asked Socrates. "If the blind lead the blind, will they not both fall into a pit?" said Jesus.
Right now, we are roiled by the presence of, and our inability to discipline, a number of clergy whose sexual behavior is not approved by the Book of Discipline. This ought to be a no-brainer, but having achieved a place among us, they are determined to stay in that place and others are reluctant to deprive them of it or are hindered by union rules (due process, etc.) in doing so. Many even justify their right to nonconformity and say that our rules are wrong and should be changed.
The inability to discipline clergy who don't behave as the rules require is therefore linked to the inability to enforce standards of belief -- morality as well as doctrine. And not just on sexual matters. Despite our having established standards of teaching and doctrine that have not changed in over two hundred years, the idea that you could get bounced from the United Methodist clergy for the content of your teaching is laughable. We have clergy who don't believe that Jesus was raised from the dead. One elder in my Conference refers to the Scriptures as "the damn Bible." We have adoptionists and Arians and unitarians and gnostics. We have people who think the definition of the Trinity is oppressive. If you can't regulate the content of dogma in those authorized to teach it, then you can't regulate moral teaching, either. And if everyone is allowed to think and teach whatever one likes, then soon everyone is allowed to live as one likes, too.
But lest you think that the rot is simply a matter of doctrine and discipline (belief and behavior), then I wish you could attend a District Committee on Ministry meeting sometime. Review what is going on with supply pastors, local pastors, clergy candidates, and those who are members of other Christian denominations whom we provisionally certify to act as pastors in The UMC. You'd think that belonging -- including bothering to get the right set of credentials for whatever it is you want to be and do in the org you belong to, that is getting your clergy relationships straight -- would be the easy part of keeping the clergy in good order. But we have clergy whose credentials depend upon completing certain coursework who blow that coursework off -- and we don't pull their credentials. We have clergy whose credentials depend upon completing certain forms and making it to certain required meetings who don't bother to do that -- and we let it go. We have clergy who are supposed to be making progress toward satisfying certain requirements -- including bothering to transfer their membership to The UMC -- and they don't. What do we do? What do you think?
And if we can't discipline the lesser clergy for their sloppiness and disregard of the minimum standards of belonging and credentialing we ask of them, why should we assume that the tenured toffs -- the elders in full connection -- can be held to account? We elders are the ones who are supposed to hold everyone accountable. Holding others accountable is a lot easier than holding ourselves accountable. So you can see where that's going. The clergy of The UMC will not hold themselves accountable for their proper belonging, proper belief, or proper behavior. It's not just one thing. It's a systemic collapse.
But Art, you're an elder of many years' standing, you say. If the clergy of The UMC have failed, are you not saying that you have some culpability in that? Yes, I am. Like so many others, I have acquiesced in what I knew was wrong because I got tired of being shut down or shamed for pointing it out. The whisper went round the clergy: just go along, just get along, win the victories you can win and don't bash your head against the wall with the rest. We didn't have the votes, so after a while we just ignored what was happening. The orthodox clergy either attempted to wall themselves off from the approaching ruin -- a vain hope, but you can understand it -- or they comforted themselves by saying that at least I
would never say or do those things that contravened our standards (though my successor might, and I can't help that).
Whether The UMC ends with a bang or a whimper, I don't know. But it certainly can't last much longer as it is presently led. And if the Commission on a Way Forward tries to tinker with things and not address the mess within the clergy, then it will be utterly futile.