By Sky McCracken, Special Contributor…
It’s a quote from a Star Trek movie (First Contact), admittedly with a gender bias, but it certainly applies: “Don’t try to be a great man. Just be a man, and let history make its own judgment.”
I think if you’re going to be an elder in the United Methodist Church, it is good advice—and if you are going to be a district superintendent, you really need to be a man/woman and let God be the judge of what you do. That means saying and doing some tough things in the name of the Lord.
What follows are some tough things that I think need saying in light of a church that is in desperate need of renewal. I think our laity are desperate for it.
1. Changing the stance on homosexuality in the United Methodist Church will not stop the loss of membership in the denomination.
It’s at best a red herring and at worst a lie to espouse otherwise. The Southern Baptist Church continues to lose membership; they are in their fifth year of decline, and they have a very decisive, very clear statement on their opposition to homosexuality.
On the other side of the issue, the Episcopal Church also has a very decisive and clear statement on homosexuality, where they bless and celebrate same-sex unions as they do male-female marriages, even though doing so separated them from the Anglican Communion. Did it help them gain members? Their membership is now lower than it was in 1939.
The loss of membership in both denominations, as well as in the UMC, can be reasonably attributed to one factor: failure to make disciples. We can blame society; we can blame the president and Congress; we can even blame MTV. But we can’t blame our stance on homosexuality.
The fact that I hold an orthodox view on this issue and agree with my denomination’s stance doesn’t let me off the hook for anything—that has nothing to do with a failure to make disciples in the name of Jesus Christ.
As Dallas Willard reminds us, we are more often guilty of the Great Omission: Once we baptize folks, and/or they have been converted to follow Christ, we seem to forget the rest—“teaching them to do everything that [Jesus] commanded you.” That’s discipleship. We have failed at discipleship, and have for several generations.
2. The United Methodist Church has a 1970s polity set up for a 21st-century church. That line is not original; I am stealing it from Bishop Scott Jones. And he might have stolen it from Lyle Schaller, who said in The Ice Cube is Melting that we should delete the restrictive rules so that our Constitution and Book of Discipline could be more easily amended, thus allowing the living—rather than the dead— to write the rules that govern our church.
Before you holler that this is too much like a congregational system, consider Dr. Schaller’s words that the heart of our covenant in the UMC isn’t the covenant among individuals, but rather real estate (trust clause), the pastoral appointment system, and the paying of apportionments. If it were individuals keeping covenant, we wouldn’t have folks (a) threatening to do same-sex marriages, (b) openly showing disdain for the authority of bishops and/or (c) either threatening not to pay their apportionments or simply advocating not paying them.
3. As GC2012 clearly illustrated, we are a denomination united by our mistrust. Look how our Book of Discipline gets thicker and thicker. Look how a committee (Higher Education and Ministry) significantly and with prayerful intent wrestled with the issue of guaranteed appointments, realized that we are in a different season in the UMC, and came to a general consensus on the issue. Yet those wonderful folks were still met with distrust and flat-out ugliness.
On the GC floor, it was not the will of the body to reconsider the committee’s approval of an amended petition to end guaranteed appointments. That measure passed. But now folks are gleefully looking for nooks, crannies and outs to have it overturned, hoping that our Judicial Council will rule in their favor.
Folks say that ethnic minorities and women (and older clergy, and _____, _____, and _____) will suffer if we get rid of guaranteed appointment. That’s just a plain lack of faith in God and in the people called Methodists, and a bit of an entitlement, given that few in our pews have guaranteed jobs.
4. We want accountability . . . up to a point. The United States is becoming an increasingly anti-authoritarian, ruggedly individualistic, entitlement-driven society. Generally, we don’t like to be told what to do, we are selfish and self-absorbed, and we do not wish to be beholden to anyone. I certainly resemble some of these things myself. The problem with these things is that they are antithetical to a covenant community—which, at least on paper, is how the United Methodist Church is constructed.
The problem is obvious: We cannot sustain a covenant community in such a reality, either financially or mechanically. Clergy increasingly itinerate only if it is convenient for their family, or only if they can keep the house that they own. Twenty-first century realities are that the clergy are no longer single men who can live out of a saddlebag with a prayer book, Discipline and Bible in it. The itinerancy is probably outdated and may even need to be ditched.
However, along with that goes the guaranteed appointment (and who knows what will happen in the fall when the Judicial Council meets). We can’t have our cake and eat it, too! With declining numbers and actuarial realities, we cannot possibly continue to support General Boards, clergy pensions and insurance, conference structures, missions and the like. What that means is that demands cannot continue to be made on a system that is no longer sustainable.
The Good News is that God is God, and He still puts up with us. If the UMC doesn’t survive, God will use another means to do Kingdom work. As we stand right now, I suspect we have come full circle to where John Wesley started. We have become what he sought to renew.
But this could be a very exciting time for the people called Methodists. We could reclaim the spirit that birthed us into a world that desperately needs it. The question is: Will we?
The Rev. McCracken is a district superintendent in the Memphis Conference.