I offer it now for all the hardcore church junkies. I have reason to believe that The UMC is not the only denomination I could describe with these observations.
"To serve the present age"
by Arthur Collins
The old Wesley hymn, "A Charge to Keep I Have” includes this stanza:
To serve the present age,
my calling to fulfill:
O, may it all my powers engage
to do my Master’s will.
All of us who labor in the leadership ranks of the Church attempt this. But it seems to me that we in The United Methodist Church have had a problem in understanding what the needs of the present age really are. As a consequence, we continue to dwindle in numbers and influence. To adopt a phrase first used by the Rev. Jesse Jackson in another context in his 1988 presidential campaign, “We makin’ what ain’t nobody buyin’.”
1. Articulating the Faith
When I first entered the ranks of professional ministry in the middle 1970’s, our society was in a great ferment. What has been called the Boomer Awakening was turning everything upside down. Malachi Martin, in his book Three Popes and the Cardinal, noted that the American consensus that had stood for well over two centuries was a compromise between the Enlightenment and the Reformation: Academia represented the Enlightenment and Protestantism represented the Reformation. These were the twin pillars of what we all understood America to be about. But Martin went on to say that in the late ‘70s, Academia no longer believed in the Enlightenment and Protestants no longer believed in the Reformation. The result was that the center wasn’t central anymore; increasingly, nothing was.
The old social and philosophical order that we Boomers grew up in was rapidly being scrapped. That meant that stale old platitudes and religious slogans that had worked for many years just didn’t “sell” anymore. People wanted something new.
I thought at the time that our situation was very like the situation that obtained in a previous time of transition – what we usually call the “Dark Ages.” Beginning in the fifth Century, the old Classical civilization that had obtained for many generations was dying an ugly death. That society, too, had a consensus which summed up its operational values. The late Roman society had come to espouse Roman order and Christian influence. This was the society of Augustine and the City of God, Jerome and the Vulgate, the Cappadocian Fathers and the Nicene Creed.
That society was being torn apart by the very peoples who wanted to be part of it, and who were willing to become Christian if that meant that they could become (in some sense) Roman. The Franks, the Goths, the Angles, the Lombards, and all the rest just wanted to be part of the old order – on their terms. A new world – the beginnings of what we recognize as the nations of Europe – was a-borning.
The Church of that day was faced with the problem of how to evangelize all these pagan peoples. Some flirted with the idea of Romanizing them first, but the most successful missionaries set out to adapt to their native cultures. The Irish -- and later, the English – were among the most adaptable and sensitive of the new missionaries. The evangelization of Northern Europe represents one of the most successful missionary enterprises ever undertaken by the Church in any age.
The task the Church faced was how to articulate the faith that had finally become “at home” in its Classical setting in a way that would be equally “at home” in an English, an Irish, a Scandinavian, a Frankish, a Burgundian, or a Hungarian setting, without ceasing to be “the faith once delivered to the saints.” That the Church did this brilliantly is attested by the fact that most people now think of Christianity as a European religion, rather than a Mediterranean/Near Eastern religion.
And so the Classical became the Medieval through the mediating influence of the Church. As yet, there was no schism between Western (Catholic) and Eastern (Orthodox) Christianity. The Church was largely united, and both wings could lay claim to catholicity and orthodoxy.
Beginning in the 1970s, it seemed to me that the greatest need of our present age was for the Church to renew its understanding of itself and articulate the faith once again to those who were looking for something to believe in. I did not think people needed something new; I thought they needed something renewed. That is, they needed what humanity has always needed – the gospel, the “old, old story,” the “faith once delivered” – but they needed it in a form that they could understand today (without it ceasing to be the faith it had always been). We needed people who would teach that faith, who would re-acquaint people with what was necessary from the past and re-present the faith in terms they were familiar with today.
But the liberals of that day were more interested in “new theologies” (most of which were old heresies, if they weren’t simply political programs). And the conservatives of that day had turned their brains off and were more interested in pitching slogans than actually understanding the faith they claimed to be articulating. Faced with a situation that required real thought, liberals and conservatives preferred to go with programs and experiences, and those of us who wanted to talk about Trinitarian theology or the meaning of the resurrection were basically dismissed as irrelevant or cold.
Today, this need to articulate the faith in a new day continues, and The United Methodist Church continues to ignore it. The liberals of today believe in everything (which means they effectively believe in nothing). The formlessness of their thought is betrayed by their confusing “diversity” with catholicity. In one of our more embarrassing TV commercials, a speaker says, on behalf of United Methodists, “when you embrace diversity, you embrace God.” A more correct articulation would be, “when you embrace Jesus Christ, you embrace God – and by the way, you do not have to become like me (culturally) in order to do that.”
This confusion on the part of our liberal leaders reaches its maximum extent when they refuse to define the boundary of permissible belief or practice. I have a colleague who thinks that, so long as we are all United Methodists together, there is no belief or behavior which should exclude anybody from our Church. But that is nonsense. In order to affirm diversity, you must first affirm unity. But unity is not merely found in the sum of all parts; unity is defined by what is central. All the planets and moons and comets circling the sun are part of the same system, but if the sun were no longer present to orbit, the planets and moons and comets would just be a jumble, not a system.
It is the task of the Church to articulate what is central; that way, what is peripheral may ornament the central unity. Celtic Christianity, African-American Christianity, Holiness Christianity, Reformed Christianity, monasticism, charismatic renewal – all the many ways there are to be Christian – are only enriching when they affirm and articulate the Christ about whom they orbit. When diversity means that peripherals are allowed to exist for the sake of the central, you have what we call the “holy catholic Church.” But when the existence of the peripherals is defined as being the central unity, you have only a smorgasbord that confuses people and makes them decide that Christianity offers nothing worth investigating. As St. Paul put it, “if the trumpet gives an uncertain sound, who will rush into battle?”
Does that mean that the conservatives are doing a better job of articulating the faith? Their record is mixed. The Confessing Movement of today is more inclusive in its membership and more catholic in its interests than the conservative renewal movements of yesterday. At least one does not have to become a Southern-fried Evangelical to feel welcomed in their ranks. But while they are pretty good at polemics, they still don’t do very well at apologetics.
I think that the current interest in “seeker-sensitive” worship too often emphasizes entertainment value over instruction. And while the modern gurus may be doing okay at introducing people to the Bible or to spiritual disciplines, the need to connect what we believe as Christians with what we have learned in school and with our operational values in politics is basically ignored.
The need of the present age is to create a new consensus of what it means to be a Christian in this age, without neglecting what is helpful from previous ages. The goal of the preacher or teacher is not merely to present Christ (and the need to “sign on the bottom line”), but to make sense of the world.
This is what Augustine was doing when he wrote The City of God. As the old order is disappearing, this is what our people need today. But The United Methodist Church has become increasingly incoherent, and therefore we are ignored by those who are looking for something that will help them make sense of things – including what it means to be a Christian in these days.
2. Being Real
My two grown children are part of what sociologists Strauss and Howe call the Thirteener generation. They are a hard nut to crack, especially by Boomers, of whom they have had their fill. Baby-Boomers tend to become, religiously, either very liberal or very conservative – what Strauss and Howe refer to as Aquarians and Evangelicals. But to the Thirteeners, all Boomers are equally self-absorbed phonies who suck all the oxygen out of the room.
Thirteeners carry a grudge against Boomers for their trophy divorces, their self-indulgent abortions, their constant career decisions that disrupted their children’s lives, their sense of entitlement and accompanying refusal to make sure that Social Security and other social benefits will last for the next generation, and so on. To top it all off, Boomers have tended to talk down the Thirteeners as a bunch of slackers and slobs. A lot of Thirteener in-your-face attitude is about a reciprocal contempt for Boomers. To sum up their attitude, “Why can’t you be who you say you are?”
The Church isn’t very successful at dealing with the current twenty-five to thirty-somethings, the “13th Gen.” Now that Boomers are largely heading up the Church leadership, the likelihood of success with the Thirteeners is even more remote. But along about the late 1980s, as Thirteeners began entering the work force and began patronizing entertainers who voiced their attitudes, “to serve the present age” began to acquire a new context.
Authenticity – or, if you like, integrity – became a dominant need for the Church. Being who we say we are has become a critical issue for The United Methodist Church, as for all denominations of Christianity.
What, after all, are we to do about preachers who do not, in fact, believe the doctrines they have all sworn to uphold and teach?
What are we to do about people who break the rules of their Church and expect to remain leaders of it?
What, if anything, does the sign “United Methodist” over the door mean? What does it convey to those who might enter that worshiping community on a Sunday morning?
And, finally, what are we going to do when someone says, “That’s a great slogan, but why don’t you do what you’ve just advocated?”
Let’s look at each of these issues in turn.
Regardless of one’s place on the theological spectrum from left to right, the fact is that we all stand before the Annual Conference upon our admission into the clergy and solemnly avow that we understand our traditional doctrines and will uphold and teach them and no others. In practice, this means little. United Methodist clergy are all over the map, doctrinally. Some are basically heretics; others, crypto-Baptists. All cry “freedom of the pulpit” or “think and let think” when challenged on it.
Years ago, C.S. Lewis noted that people who were called on their failure to uphold and teach the doctrines they swore to uphold and teach when they were ordained tended to accuse their detractors of challenging their sincerity. No one said these leaders’ opinions were not honestly come by, noted Lewis. The question is, how can one continue to accept pay for advocating these positions, when the people who are paying you expected you to teach and preach the positions you said you would when you joined up?
In other words, academic freedom and all the rest of it is a red herring. The real issue is one of fraud. After all, I may honestly believe that the policies of the Democratic Party (for instance) are better than the Republican Party, but if I expect to retain my employment as a paid agent of the Republicans, then I should be expected to use my time and talents to advance their agenda, rather than their opponents’. Quite apart from the issue of who is right on doctrinal questions, there is no disputing the fact that many clergy today are accepting pay for work they do not do – in fact, for work which militates against that which they are being paid to do. In any other profession, these people would be fired; well, actually, in most other professions, these people would have the class to resign from an organization whose stated values and policies they disagreed with.
This problem intensifies when we look at the second issue raised, that of leaders who disobey their own organization’s rules but expect to get by with it. Now, one can raise the issue of civil disobedience – which certainly has a proud and valuable place in our public life. But there are two problems with that.
Whether we are talking about Gandhi, or Martin Luther King, Jr., or even Henry David Thoreau, the first principle of civil disobedience is the willingness to suffer the consequences of one’s actions. In fact, it is by provoking an unjust regime to punish one that the rule-breaker shines the light of morality upon the regime’s false values. Thus, suffering in a good cause is honorable and right. But expecting to be able to break the organization’s rules and get away with it is mere corruption. To say that one is advancing a righteous cause in such a way is mere self-righteousness.
The other problem with rule-breaking is that leaders don’t get to break the rules with the same impunity as underlings. In our tradition of protest, a leader who breaks the rules and enforces one’s whims upon one’s followers is a tyrant, not a liberator. If a leader feels the policies one is forced to administer are unjust, then the proper course of action for that leader is to resign.
Today, there are United Methodist clergy (including some bishops) all over the place who are basically making it up as they go along. They feel free to do all kinds of things in contravention of our doctrinal standards and accepted practices and not only get away with it, but be rewarded for their brave defiance of the rules. And all sides are equally guilty. There are people on the far left who are presiding over prohibited ceremonies (e.g., gay marriage), while others on the far right also preside over prohibited ceremonies (e.g., re-baptism). All the rule-breakers insist that their “pastoral judgment” or “covenant with their fellow elders” or something should allow them to do this. But to the public, both religious and non-religious, we just look ridiculous. Who cares what an organization that doesn’t follow its own rules believes or advocates – about anything?
Next, let’s consider what the sign “United Methodist” over the door of the church means. The diversity of the United Methodist Church, of which some are so proud, should not go so far as to render the brand name meaningless. But individual clergy and congregations are so loosely supervised that the name “United Methodist” guarantees nothing upon entering the building.
A person who walks into Generic UMC in Wherever, Indiana has no brand guarantees. The doctrine could be anything from neo-pagan to fundamentalist. The worship style could be anything from rompin’ stompin’ to funereal. The clergy could be wearing alb, academic gown, blue suit, or polo shirt and khakis. The governance of the congregation could be by committees, work teams, or “local elders”; titles of officers and responsible bodies might be out of the Book of Discipline, but could just be made up. Some congregations support UM causes strongly, while others support no UM causes; indeed, some congregations show a basic hostility to the denominational label. And when the bishop moves one pastor out and another in, everything may change overnight.
Why would a person looking for something to help make sense out of one’s life come to such a church to find it? What can that person possibly know of what one is getting into? So most people who stumble into our churches, I submit, are either connected to someone who is already there, or just walked in out of the blue with only the foggiest notion of what church is about. In either case, “United Methodism” has no real content for them, and they have no reason to be loyal to it – which might become important some day.
The last of the issues I mentioned in this section, above, is the personal challenge. “That’s a great slogan, but why don’t you do what you’ve just advocated?”
We talk about family values, but United Methodist clergy have a higher divorce rate than the general population. We talk about reconciliation, but we have hordes of angry preachers staring out at angry congregations Sunday after Sunday (one reason we have short pastorates). We talk about accountability, but we have too many people who practice the technique of “goof up to move up.” We talk about healing, but if everyone attending Annual Conference on psychotropic drugs stood up, the revelation of our crippled nature would overwhelm all other business.
And my bringing this up is not an attempt to just slam people for their hypocrisy. Hey, we’re all hypocrites – because we’re all sinners. But to the person out there who doesn’t yet know the church dance – who isn’t jaded yet – who might be willing to follow Jesus if we looked like that was what we were doing (even if it weren’t our job) – these things matter. We talk in slogans, we value programs over people, we are so busy. All too often, we just come across as phony: so many used-religion salesmen, pitching Jesus at drop-in customers.
To the Thirteeners, the most basic questions are ones of authenticity, of integrity: Are you who you say you are? Would you be that way even if you didn’t get paid for it? Hey, would you be that way even if you had to pay to get to do it? And will you be there tomorrow, even if the going gets tough?
3. Effective Leadership
As the Thirteeners grow up and the Boomers grow old, a new seriousness has entered The United Methodist Church. We are dying, and we know it. We hold major celebrations for slowing the rate of decline. We worry about protecting the institution. We look for things which will provide growth, but we are risk-averse. A colleague of mine nearing retirement said to me some years ago, “I sure never thought my career would be like it turned out when I started.” To which I replied, “You have been a local manager in a declining industry.” “Yep,” he replied.
In Hey Wait a Minute! I Wrote a Book, John Madden related the one chance he had to talk football with the great Vince Lombardi. Madden asked the legendary coach, what makes a good coach?
Lombardi replied that a good coach knows what the finished product looks like. He has been part of a winning team before; he therefore knows when this play has been run enough, or when that drill needs to be run through again. He is aware of where his players are emotionally, and where his team is in terms of preparation. He’s been there before, and when he has one part of it right, he goes on to work on something else. All the other coaches are running plays, holding meetings, and viewing film, but with this difference: they don’t know what the finished product looks like. They’re just guessing.
It has been so long since The United Methodist Church has had a winning season, we have almost no coaches or players who can recognize a winner when they see one. We’re all just guessing, doing what everybody else does, making excuses at the after-game press conference. We are in desperate need of effective leadership.
Note to interested parties: leadership is not something that is learned at leadership seminars. So where does it come from?
I believe that leadership is not knowing where everyone else should go; leadership is knowing with intense clarity where you want to go – and then taking responsibility for all those who will follow you there. That was the experience of John Wesley – and before him of Martin Luther. For that matter, that was the experience of Moses.
First comes the vision (I’m going to that mountain; you can come if you want). Then comes the learning process of how to keep your following intact and on the move (Jethro to Moses: why don’t you delegate?). And along the way, you do what only you can do – what you must do – and let others do what they need to do.
When I entered the clergy, we were all either supposed to be pastoral counselors or social activists. Oh, yes, and some of us thought we were Billy Graham. But then who is left to pastor, teach, administer the sacraments? The dominant view of what clergy are for has changed several times since I came in (that grinding sound you hear is a paradigm shifting without a clutch), but clergy are still reluctant to do clergy stuff. Today, we have too many clergy who are super-laypersons, trying to hog all the fun of doing lay ministry. Many of us are more like program directors than pastors.
The first step toward effective leadership is that we clergy need to get back to why we have clergy in the first place. We are the institutional memory of the Church. We are the shanahies, the griots, of our tribe. We chant the sacred history. We initiate the young and the outsider into our tribe, the People of God. We hold each other accountable for our passing along the story without garbling it. No one else can do this job if we drop it. It’s why we have such a privileged place in the Church to begin with.
Ordination is not a union card. It is membership in a company of leaders who have a job to do that only they can do. It is about service, not job opportunities. It is also about recognizing those whom God has called to this ministry. General Conference recently redid our entire ordination structure, tossing nearly two thousand years of tradition out the window, in order to give equal status to those we now call Deacons in Full Connection; nevertheless, we continue to leave many persons whose only work is pastoring churches in second class Associate Member or Local Pastor status. I say, if we really believe that God has called these persons to the clergy, we ought to demand of them, and of ourselves, whatever it takes to recognize their ministries with ordination as Elders. It is a denial of our defining vision to do otherwise, and our only excuses are snobbery and job protection.
Then, let us move on to consider bishops and superintendents. We have undergone a huge centralizing tendency over my nearly thirty years in this outfit. District Superintendents, at least in my Annual Conference, are forced to dance attendance on the bishop so much that they have no time to do the job that only they can do. Their secretaries (now called Administrative Assistants) run the districts. The bishop wants an entourage, maybe; or perhaps he wants the Cabinet to function as an executive body. Both of those are corruptions of why we have District Superintendents in the first place.
The DS is an assistant bishop, a middle manager. His job is to move around. He or she needs to be dropping in on pastors in their parsonages and congregations at their special times of celebration. Conducting Charge Conference once a year is not good enough. Having everyone come to the District Office for consultation is not efficient, it merely insulates the DS from reality.
The DS needs to go out where the pastors and people are. The rank and file of both clergy and laity need to feel that this person knows who they are and will listen to what is on their minds. Building trust by spending face time with each other is what is necessary for the DS to do what only the DS can do: act as the personnel officer of the Church. That way, when the bishop gathers the Cabinet to consider appointments, Superintendents convey the mood and possibilities of people and positions they have personally observed.
In South Indiana Conference these days, our Pastor-Parish Committees are being taught to take annual votes of confidence in their pastors and sign covenants of acceptance when a new pastor is brought in. In this way, they are being taught congregationalism, and the bishop is sowing the seeds of destruction for the episcopacy’s absolute right of appointment. All this paper is supposed to drive home the point that the congregation is obligated to go along with the choice being made, but in fact by asking for recorded votes we are teaching them the opposite. After all, if their votes are advisory only, why do they need to be recorded? If it is necessary for them to sign on the bottom line, can they not refuse to do so? In the same way, Henry VIII sowed future troubles for Elizabeth I and later, the Stuarts, by using Parliament to reform the English Church. For if Parliament’s votes can establish a form of church government at the king’s request, why can’t they establish a form of church government at the people’s request?
How did we get along for so many years without all these votes and signatures? By the bishop and superintendents being visible and approachable. The laity do not question the right of decision of leaders whom they see leading. But when bigwigs withdraw permanently into their faraway offices to conduct meetings, the natives get restless. I submit that the natives wouldn’t be restless if they were visited now and then by leaders who had time to listen to them and share their organizational lives.
I also submit that most of what is done by the full-time Conference staff could be done by part-timers or the committee structure of the Conference. Just as Central Office personnel tend to increase in a school corporation even when there are fewer students to teach and fewer teachers to teach them, so Conference staff tends to grow regardless of whether the Church is growing or not. As C. Northcote Parkinson pointed out years ago, bureaucrats advance by multiplying subordinates.
It has not been my purpose in this essay to merely gripe about The United Methodist Church. I care deeply about our Church, and I want her to succeed. I believe we could succeed; indeed, I see no reason why we couldn’t return to the times when we were “building two a day.”
But as we prepare for another General Conference, I must admit that I am discouraged. My colleagues talk about what might be done at this General Conference. Some are hopeful; others, afraid. I am mostly resigned.
At Annual Conference last year, persons seeking to be elected to General and Jurisdictional Conference were asked in some form or another what they considered the biggest challenges facing The United Methodist Church. Though I was not a candidate, this essay is my attempt to answer that question. I have not included a list of possible fixes. I thought perhaps I should, lest the essay be overwhelmingly negative in tone; however, any list of “we oughtas” appended to the analysis would risk being treated as a mere laundry list of political actions, all of which would be argued down by those who have different positions to defend or advance. In the end, I prefer to keep my focus upon the main point.
In the thirty years I have either been preparing for leadership or exercising it, the three biggest challenges I have seen are those which I have described here: articulating the Faith in a changing world; maintaining one’s integrity and the integrity of the Church; being effective leaders who know what a winner looks like. And though I would much rather not have to say it, I believe that The United Methodist Church has so far failed at every one of these challenges. Individual pastors and congregations have succeeded at times, but as a whole, the Church has not.
That is why we continue to decline. If we finally decide that we want to begin to succeed again, we must address ourselves to the challenges of our day and begin “to serve the present age” in ways that will lead to different results.