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In Which I Question My #UMC Membership Vows

In Which I Question My #UMC Membership Vows

There’s been a great deal of talk about schism in the United Methodist Church (#UMC) over the last couple of days. It hasn’t disturbed me in the way it has disturbed many of my friends, but it has made me ask this question: Why?

No, not why might we have schism. Why don’t I care more?

I’ve said before that if I left the UMC, it would doubtless have something to do with apportionments. I don’t have a problem with the basic concept, and unlike many, my problem is not that some of my apportionments might support someone who takes some particular stance on homosexuality. I’m sorry, but in a complacent, self-satisfied, rich, apathetic, and unaware American church, a church that is spending much more on maintaining its institutions than on building the kingdom of God, I can’t convince myself that homosexuality is the most important issue we have. How we treat other people, yes. Institutional rules, no.

Here’s an example. Via Allan Bevere (also an Energion author), I discovered the suggestion that the United Methodist Church officially embrace the Nicene Creed, which we apparently don’t. The problem? It would take us a minimum of eight years to accomplish this mission. Then we’d be protected from false doctrine, like all the other churches who embrace the Nicene Creed. Oops!

Don’t get me wrong. I do, in fact, embrace that creed. I’m just thinking that having our general conference debate the issue for the next 8+ years isn’t really going to help us much.

I think it’s my view of denominations. I think denominations are should be a good way for us to group our resources so we can be more effective in building the kingdom of God. Single congregations have some limitations in terms of resources, so they need to work together. I didn’t (and don’t) think it’s necessary or good for all our connections to be within our denomination. I don’t think it’s a good thing when we build our denomination instead of building the kingdom. I think that the amount of time, effort, and money, not to mention words, that is spent on institutional issues indicates that our priorities are not right.

The question I’d ask about schism in the UMC is this: How can we get on with the work of the gospel with the least disruption?

Let’s forget about who owns buildings, and who we like and who we don’t. Go about it in a Christ-like manner. Let people form the institutions they think they need. I personally doubt I’d like either half of a split UMC, but I don’t have to like it. I just have to find the place God calls me to minister. It’s as likely I could find a congregation where God called me to be after as before.

And if you don’t mind, I’m a Christian first and a member of a United Methodist congregation second. As a Christian, I’m going to go right on embracing the Nicene Creed. Don’t go it alone? I’m not. There are hundreds of millions of Christians who do so along with me. We don’t need another eight year debate.

That’s my primary loyalty. To the gospel. As long as I’m a part of a United Methodist congregation, I’ll support it with my prayers, presences, gifts, service, and witness. But if God calls or the institution falls, I’ll go right on following where the Lord leads as best as I can.

The SDA Chaplain of the Senate

The SDA Chaplain of the Senate

The Adventist review has a taste of Barry Black’s testimony, which makes excellent reading (HT: Dave Black Online).

As an ex-Seventh-day Adventist I find his story very interesting. In his career, he was fighting not just racial but also religious discrimination. Some people thought he shouldn’t be in his positions because he was black. Others thought his faith was a problem. His story is well worth reading.

I want to reiterate a few things I’ve said (perhaps too often) about being an ex-SDA. If you’re currently an SDA and you’re thinking of moving to another denomination, check your reasons. If, like me, you find your beliefs incompatible with your denomination, I consider it completely appropriate for you to find an organization you can support more wholeheartedly. In fact, I find it inappropriate for you to remain at that point!

There are several things to avoid, however:

  1. Leaving the SDA, or any church, because of personal issues with people. Those will be with you no matter what organization you join.
  2. Being dishonest with yourself about your reasons for leaving. Often point #1 leads people to claim some other reason, perhaps without even realizing it. You’re going to find people problems in all organization that have people. I don’t like the people of the United Methodist Church better than I did those of the Seventh-day Adventist Church. What I like is that I am more free to carry out ministry in the UMC, and that I also find its doctrinal positions much closer to, though not identical with, mine.
  3. Living with a legacy of hate. People leave denominations or even local church congregations angry. That’s not good for you. You’re not sticking it to your former church by remaining angry. You’re sticking it to yourself.
  4. Don’t live your life as an ex. I call myself ex-SDA when I need to talk about the SDA church and my relation to it. I don’t think of myself that way on a regular basis. I’m a Christian who is now a member of a United Methodist congregation. I used to be a Christian who was a member of a Seventh-day Adventist congregation. Whatever any of the members of these congregations may think of me, I consider them all brothers and sisters in Christ. I’m not some sort of paragon of virtue who experiences no anger or resentment. I just do my best by God’s grace to confess it and leave it behind. I don’t enjoy being called an apostate, but I’m not going to let it define me or my attitude(s).
  5. Always go to, not away from. Find the place where you will be able to be what the Lord wants you to be and serve as the Lord wants you to serve. Then go there. The physical journey is the same, but spiritually it is a much different thing.

These are just my recommendations. They were brought to mind by the story of Chaplain Black’s colleague who told him to change denominations as a career thing. I am impressed, though not surprised, by Chaplain Black’s response. He was absolutely right to stick with his convictions. I believe God honored him for that. I’m thankful for his testimony.

Speaking of Dying Churches

Speaking of Dying Churches

9781893729568sWhat should a church that grows out of the New Testament witness look like? Dave Black posted a list of items on his blog today, and I, with his blanket permission, extracted the list to the Jesus Paradigm web site. (The site supports Dave’s book The Jesus Paradigm, which I publish.)

I hope you will go read, think about, and then discuss the ideas Dave presents. They’re similar to the ones he presented in his book. I’d love for you to read the book as well. It’s available in print as well as for Kindle, Nook, iBooks, and Adobe Digital Editions. My greatest disappointment as a publisher is not when a book doesn’t sell or sells poorly, though I want books to sell well, but when a good, challenging book doesn’t reach as many people as I think it should. The Jesus Paradigm is a book that I think has reached far fewer people than it should.

Now when I say reached, I don’t just mean that people have bought the book, or have read it, or even have agreed with it. What I mean is that people have thought about it. Do you disagree with some of Dave’s points? Fine. Discuss! Much more importantly, do! If a few of us in the church would do more and talk less, it would be great. Talking and listening, writing and reading are great and essential. But action based on good listening, reading, and thinking is better.

My fundamental idea in choosing what I publish for Energion Publications is to ask whether it will drive people to think and study, and then hopefully to put something into action. I think the most important element of learning to study the Bible is actually doing it. I think the most important aspect of mission and ministry is doing it. That’s why I’m delighted that so many of the Energion authors are active in ministry. One of my authors (my mother) is 94 years old and is still active in the mission of her local church. She gives the children’s stories and she’s involved in sewing, knitting and quilt making in service for the poor. Incidentally, she’d agree with the point Dave makes about having all ages together in the church. What about you?

9781938434648sIn addition, this is why I have a diversity of authors. Contrast Dave Black with Bruce Epperly. I publish books by both. They both are or have been seminary professors. One is a Southern Baptist, the other United Church of Christ. But Dave wrote The Jesus Paradigm and Bruce wrote a study guide to Philippians that actually has the audacity to suggest we should be applying a bunch of what Paul says to what we do in our local congregations. With that start, I’m hooked on both. Now I’m editing Bruce’s forthcoming book Transforming Acts, in which he again has the audacity to suggest looking back at the early church to see how we can transform the church now.

Do these books or these authors agree on everything? No. But they’re both taking the step I would like to see readers of this blog or of their books take: They’re looking to the source and listening to the Spirit and asking what this means for the church today.

This post has a somewhat commercial sound to it, and I don’t deny I hope to sell books. But these aren’t the only people thinking about this and taking action. Our pastoral staff at First United Methodist Church in Pensacola have decided to focus on preaching from acts for the seven weeks leading up to Pentecost. What a wonderful way to spend the season of Easter and prepare for Pentecost! Dr. Wesley Wachob is teaching Wednesday evening classes from Acts. He’s preparing a study guide to the book for me to publish. I’m excited about that opening as well.

And I suspect each of you have Bibles as well. Turn to the book of Acts as a starting point, read it, and ask yourself how you can build God’s kingdom. Let me suggest that it wouldn’t be a program, a system, or a denomination. Perhaps it will be people on fire, speaking in many languages, in many ways, in many places.

Is the UMC Dying?

Is the UMC Dying?

I tried not to steal the headline from the article by Rev. Robert Rynders in UM-Insight, The Church Isn’t Dying, It’s Already Dead, but this post is largely to tell you to go read that post.

After reading his article and thinking about the good things I’ve seen happening in some United Methodist churches — and I see quite a few good things happening — is that most of the good things result from people deciding to just do something good in their own congregation or community rather than spending their time on denominational politics.

I will confess to being strongly attracted to this idea simply because I simply can’t stand church politics. It’s not that I’m better than all the other people. It’s just that when we get into committees we all seem to turn into some form of alien monsters. So I’m naturally inclined to accept Rev. Rynders’ thesis. It lets me feel better when I ignore the politics.

What about you? What do you think?

The UMC and Innovation

The UMC and Innovation

Or you might say, denominations (or even just “organizations”) and innovation.

We don’t have to work within the system if we don’t want to. We can work without it. We can go outside of it. We can leave it if it continues to stifle us.

I might have preferred “if God calls us to,” but the author gets around to that:

The simple question should always be, “What does God want me to be doing right now?” We have a responsibility to discern where God is at work in the world, and to participate in it.

In the end, if you can’t do the innovative work that God wants you to do within the structure of a denomination, then you must leave.

Oh, yes, the link. Why I Doubt the UMC Can Handle Innovation. Make sure to follow the links back to the article he’s responding to and previous responses.

I’ve seen plenty of people stifled by the denomination, but not just by the United Methodist Church. Those of us who are older (physically or in the faith) tend to want to keep others from making mistakes. But we can often suppress those who are moving forward with the work of the gospel by preventing what we think are “mistakes.”

Starting with the Local Congregation – or with Me

Starting with the Local Congregation – or with Me

Dave Black responded to my previous post on the United Methodist Church by referring to some thoughts he has had on his own denomination. I want to quote them here, since Dave’s blog doesn’t make linking to a particular entry possible.

7:55 AM Noted Methodist blogger Henry Neufeld ponders the question, How to cure the UMC? He asks:

How much time needs to go into preserving the organization? Is such time well spent? Those are questions that concern me these days.

For what it’s worth, Henry, I once pondered a similar question regarding my own denomination. The bottom of the bottom line for me?

I came away from the convention with a new realization that a Great Commission resurgence will not begin at the denominational level. It will end there. A Great Commission commitment must begin in our homes and marriages, and then in our local churches, each one of them. This is clearly the pattern of the book of Acts. The church at Antioch, the world’s first missional church, is proof of that.

I hope that all of this gets sorted out at the denomination level (and I predict that it will, eventually). But even if it doesn’t, there is nothing to keep me and my local church from doing all we can to help advance God’s kingdom on earth. (From Dave Black Online)

I have found that the concerns of people who are seeking to be servants and missionaries in different denominations are remarkably similar. We have some doctrinal differences, but we struggle with issues of getting the church active. I believe that if we get people studying the Bible, praying, and seeking the unity of the Spirit, doctrinal differences will tend to fade to the background. They’ll either be found to be non-essential or we’ll discover where we each need to change. I think we can be very patient with “erring brethren.” After all, we are ourselves erring brethren, almost by definition!

What I must keep in focus is simply this: God hasn’t called me to solve all the problems of the church. He hasn’t called me to make sure everyone else is fulfilling the great commission. He has called me to be transformed by looking to Him, and to fulfil my call to service.

I don’t mean that I can “be the church” alone. Rather, I can do a much better job of being part of the body if I’m spending more time correcting my own manifold flaws than I spend trying to correct those of others. Much more time, in fact!

Curing the United Methodist Church

Curing the United Methodist Church

No, not that type of curing. Fixing it. Making it healthy and productive.

Practically every day I find in my inbox, or on one of the various feeds I follow, an article on how to fix the dying United Methodist Church. While there are many disagreements on details, generally everyone agrees that the church is, in fact, dying. Everyone agrees that something must be done! Beyond that, we don’t have nearly as much agreement.

Today it was United Methodist Insight with an article by United Methodist pastor Teddy Ray. In it he notes that there were three substantive changes made at the 2012 general conference and that the judicial council has now struck down all three of them. This illustrates the difficulty of changing a very large structure. Pastor Ray is not ready to give up yet. He links to a number of other articles he has written, in which he tries to point the way to a better future.

One thing he recommends, and I agree, is to avoid getting stuck with committee appointments unless you truly believe you can do some good there. It has been a long time since I’ve been invited to sit on a committee and felt that it would be useful. That’s not a matter of boycotting committees. It’s a matter of carefully considering where you can do the best ministry.

As do many other writers, Pastor Ray comes to the conclusion that reforming the United Methodist Church, but that it might be done and he thinks it’s worthwhile. I’m not sure that his reasons, enumerated in Why I am (Still) a Methodist, are enough. I really appreciate Wesleyan theology, but at the moment I must confess that the main reasons I am still a Methodist are just three: 1) My current congregation has many positive aspects to it, 2) I don’t know where else to go with my theology, and 3) what reason do I have to assume I’d do any better?

How much time needs to go into preserving the organization? Is such time well spent? Those are questions that concern me these days.

UMC Pastoral Accountability: What About Bishops?

UMC Pastoral Accountability: What About Bishops?

United Methodist Insight led me to Jeremy Smith’s article, Defeating the Dark Side of Church Metrics. I recommend the second link because of comments. Since one commenter talks about people who oppose accountability but who receive their paycheck from the church, let me note that I am a United Methodist layman, and I do not receive support from the church. I put those little pieces of paper in the offering plate, not vice-versa. (Read the comments to Jeremy’s post if you don’t get this!)

I have been very interested in this debate because I believe strongly in accountability and at the same time don’t see conference dashboards providing the right sort of accountability. I have encountered United Methodist pastors that I thought shouldn’t be shepherding actual sheep, much less church-member-sheep. There are a few poor excuses for pastors out there. But at the same time there are churches that are more difficult to manage than others. (Out of This World describes one. Full disclosure – my company publishes that book.) There are also large numbers of wonderful pastors, trying to fulfill their call, and being hampered by a dying (perhaps suicidal?) church.

So the first thing I noticed was that the metrics being used are not properly weighted. My initial impression is that our bishops are numerically challenged. But that’s not really the problem. They have the numbers. What they don’t have is enough context for the numbers. And while one can hope that when the cabinet discusses appointments, such context will be provided by people who are in the field, when one reads a conference dashboard—say North Alabama—one doesn’t have that context. So the public face of the metrics is without adequate context, in my view.

But I’m just a Methodist layman. Jeremy Smith has looked into this and is suggesting we change the way we do metrics. Much of what he suggests resonates with me. I have to confess that I’m not connectional enough to care whether a particular local church is giving to United Methodist or non-UM projects for the most part. I have a tendency to call myself “a member of a United Methodist congregation” more often than I call myself United Methodist. But in general, he’s talking about the right things, and the charts he uses (see his post for sources) can be helpful in looking at those things.

But ultimately I don’t think any set of numbers will do the job adequately. Numbers can be helpful, but in the end someone has to take responsibility, prayerfully discern the situation in each ministry situation, and make a call. I’d think the person to take that responsibility in our polity would be a bishop. That’s unfortunate, in a way, as bishops supervise too many churches to really understand all their local church communities, no matter how well one designs and then completes charts and reports. It would be better for such responsibility to fall on someone at the district superintendent level, but I don’t want to beat up on DS’s too much, as I perceive their job to involve taking all the blame, getting none of the credit, and having no actual authority to do anything about it. I exaggerate, but the DS does have to work largely by exhorting pastors below and bishops above.

Bishops are elected for life, and we should imagine they are elected because their fellow pastors discern in them special gifts and a special call from God. But is there any point at which a person should no longer be called to account? I want to say there is no such point, but in our clumsy Methodist structure, I’m not sure if we’ve given bishops the authority to accomplish what they need to either. I’m no Book of Discipline expert, but I base this on observation.

I would say the same thing for every level of the church.

1) Provide responsibility with adequate authority to fulfill it

2) Place those with the responsibility to hold one accountable in a position to evaluate and act

3) Hold everyone accountable according to the authority given.

Incidentally, this leaves us with the power vacuum at the top of the United Methodist Church. There is nobody to hold everyone from bishops to boards and agencies accountable. The members of the church at large should do this, but the authority structure is so bizarre that few Methodists know who is accountable for what. We obviously fear strong executive power, but the advantage to such power would be that the membership could understand that if the agencies don’t do what the general conference votes, there is one person, or one small group, who should be held accountable for failing in their task.

Or—and it matters little to me, so long as we do one or the other—we could just become congregational and admit we have little control over what’s happening, and that such control as we do have is generally hampering the gospel rather than helping.