My father is Rev. Dr. Ron Holland, retired UM Elder in the Kansas East Conference. He attended Garrett Seminary and was ordained in the ME church in 1965, the 2nd generation pastor in our family of 3. He and my Mom Marci attend my church at Trinity. A remarkable joy to have my parents in church where I serve. Dad sent me this by email as part of our ongoing discussion about the church. I surprised him when I asked if I could post it on my blog. He said yes, but insisted on a second draft! So here is the finished product. I trust you will find it as interesting as I did. Mark
This is a commentary on The United Methodist Church using a phrase from Railroaded, a history of the North American transcontinental railroads in the second half of the 19th century by Richard White, historian at Stanford University. Published by W W Norton, 2011.
Hear this quote: In the paradox of transcontinental railroads as transformative failures lies their historical importance and interest. The transcontinentals were monuments to arrogance, ignorance, and greed, but this was not all they were. They shaped modern North America….
The referenced railroads are covered, in this book, over a fifty year period. Five decades. They were corrupt in their dealings with the federal government. Their financial failings caused bank failures and national depressions. Many people made huge fortunes building the railroads. There are other significant transformations which took place as a result of the failures of the railroads.
I suggest that the “paradox of transformative failure” could easily be descriptive of the United Methodist General Conference, beginning – let’s say – 20 years ago. Beginning about the time of the heated arguments over the language regarding homosexuality. The issue came earlier, the stalemates came about 20 years ago. The just finished two week General Conference is only a short term sample of the issue. The quandary over the “Central Conferences” (or more accurately the colonials) is but a further symptom of a greater social movement. If, as I suggest here, the “transformative failure” is but 20 years old, we have 30 years to go of a random guess of half a century for this to play out.
A snapshot of the United Methodist Church in 1957 shows a brawny, growing, powerful, highly respected denomination. By the time of the 1968 merger, we knew that era was gone, but we didn’t talk about it. The merger was a muddying of the waters. No real bureaucratic merger took place. The bureaucracies of both denominations were just forced into a single big box. Ten years after the merger we began to talk about being in trouble. Twenty years ago we fought about homosexuality instead of dealing with a more comprehensive failure. We were reeling from quarrels over the political/social issues of Civil Rights and Vietnam. Our hypocrisy on civil rights/racial issues was laid bare. The secondary place of women (clergy) in the church was an ongoing tension-provoking embarrassment. We were shrinking and had no energy. We were over built on bureaucracy and had lost headway “on the street.” Our strongholds of churches and membership in both urban and rural America were disintegrating. We were dead in the water. For the last twenty years we’ve tried to fix it at General Conference. At this General Conference, those twenty years of failure were poured out on the sidewalks of Tampa, Florida, for everyone to see. Just as the stalemates in the United States Legislative Branch have led to expansion of the Executive Branch, stalemate in the General Conference is increasing pressure to depend on the Executive Branch of our church for direction and decision.
The paradox of transformative failure, The United Methodist Church, I submit, will be very different in thirty years. We will transform and be transformed. We will have an impact on our culture, here and abroad. We may or may not rise from the failure. The transformation may be positive or negative. Or both. We WILL be different. We will have a different bureaucracy. Our structure will be different. Our reputation will be different. Imagine that our best days as a denomination might be if we address the world from a position of “weakness,” rather than of “power.” Imagine what it would look like if the Gospel we preach showed through more clearly than our denominational peculiarities!
Our failure will transform us. For better or for worse. What’s better or worse will be in the eyes of the beholders. This paradox could be our salvation!
Grace and Peace!
Ronald E. Holland DMin DD