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UMC Prejudice or Inertia

I’ve watched with some concern the posts by John the Methodist, and more recent commentary by John Meunier on the same topic. There are things I would like to say, but I’m hampered by a complete lack of knowledge of the particulars.

This morning I read Shane Raynor’s report, and he has some rather interesting things to say. For example:

Granted, I don’t know every little detail, but I’ve looked at the key documents in John’s case, and at the very least, it appears that there have been some errors in judgment by conference officials.

Well, OK, in general I’ll take Shane’s word for this. I am also well aware that it is a major blow to be in candidacy for ministry for that period of time and then to be cast aside. It’s the sort of thing that concerns me. The one time in which I was involved in such an issue there was an individual who needed to be told before he [generic-I won’t reveal gender] got too far into the process that success was unlikely. It was the view of various folks concerned that this individual would not make it all the way, but nobody wanted to simply get up and say, “No, this isn’t going to happen.”

The individual in question withdrew, and I believe one of the reasons was that I told him success was unlikely and why I held that opinion. I was not on any of the committees involved, but would have had to vote on the candidacy in the administrative board.

The reason I go to that length is simply that I was deeply disturbed that so many people were willing to say privately that an individual would not make it, and yet would not speak out, cast their vote according to their convictions, or simply tell the individual in question, “I don’t think this is your call.” I can tell you that I’m stubborn enough that if I felt a person was called, but would have difficulty with the various stages of candidacy, I would certainly vote in their favor, but we’d have a conversation in which I’d make sure they understood the hardships.

I don’t know how common it is, but in that case there was a massive failure to take responsibility for one’s convictions, and that can only work to the detriment of a would-be candidate. That disturbed me deeply.

Now it seems that John the Methodist’s situation is somewhat different. He not only made it through candidacy, but he began to act as pastor, and he is apparently quickly discarded. The sound of it disturbs me. The process had to go through many stages up to that point, and many people have seen a call on this individual’s life, and thought he would make a good United Methodist minister, yet here he is out the door.

The UMC is so decentralized in organization that it’s hard to hold people in leadership accountable. We are also so decentralized in doctrine, that there is almost no doctrinal accountability. Even where we agree on what the rules are, we cannot enforce. Personally, this decentralization was one of the features that attracted me to the church. I like a great deal of freedom. I like debate. I like people to feel free to express their views and take action.

But ever since I joined my first UMC congregation, I also see a dark underbelly to all of this. Doctrinal freedom gets carried to the point of incoherence, to a point where one cannot really say just what a United Methodist is. Then freedom gets curtailed not by explicit positions, but by cultural prejudices.

OK, that last line cries out for definition. I’m speaking strictly from my experience. I’ve noted that one can believe next to nothing, and be a United Methodist. At the first UM church I considered joining the pastor cut me off when I wanted to discuss the belief and practice commitment of the church. “We don’t care what you believe. If you enjoy our fellowship, you’re welcome to become a member.” That’s wonderfully open, but what’s the difference between joining and not?

While I am generally very tolerant of various beliefs, when one forms a group, there has to be something that defines what that group is.

But there is a definite “anti-freedom” possibility when one doesn’t define what is expected–the group may expect things that are simply not written down and have informal ways of getting rid of non-conformists. That has been the case in some churches with charismatic members. I have seen the hierarchy exercise much greater concern over the feelings of more traditional members than over those with a charismatic tendency.

At the same time I have heard both conservatives and liberals express their intention to keep the other camp out of the ministry, and both groups express their intention to keep charismatics out. Fortunately I’ve also observed that they often fail in that goal. But the question is how many people are hurt along the way.

I personally lean toward the more liberal wing, and I find it quite inconsistent for liberals who desire to celebrate doctrinal diversity to attempt to exclude any wing of the church.

Now all this presumably has nothing to do with John the Methodist. At least I don’t know that his theology was involved. But the issue of having comprehensible lines of authority and persons who can be held to account by the membership does apply, I think. And that’s where our very limited executive authority in the church comes into play. I like it, but when you want to get something done, it can make things difficult.

Hmmm. My word count is approaching 1000, and all on a topic on which I said I had limited (read: next-to-no) knowledge. I wish John the (ex-)Methodist all the best. He is in my prayers. I also pray for my church and denomination. If John the Methodist were in my conference, I would certainly contact the relevant committee members to see what might be done.

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One Comment

  1. Now it seems that John the Methodist’s situation is somewhat different. He not only made it through candidacy, but he began to act as pastor, and he is apparently quickly discarded. The sound of it disturbs me. The process had to go through many stages up to that point, and many people have seen a call on this individual’s life, and thought he would make a good United Methodist minister, yet here he is out the door.

    Because of the arduous, expensive, and lengthy process that involves ordination in the UMC, those whom the UMC does not ordain, it destroys utterly.

    I think back to how I could have avoided this disaster, and I can only think of two ways: (1) never to seek a student appointment at all or (2) to deliberately fail my power-hungry lay leader’s theological test, assert that I did not believe in modern day prophecy, and thereby encourage her to satisfy her hungers elsewhere.

    Otherwise, this disaster was unavoidable. And these two possibilities were not really foreseeable. And the second option would have meant be dishonest to my own theological convictions.

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