Recently I had the opportunity to be in conversation with a leading member of the Interim Operations Team (IOT) regarding the Missional Manifesto for the People Called United Methodist document that I have been a part of. Our “manifesto” was written in part because we felt like the Call to Action (CTA) report and the work of the IOT focused almost exclusively on church structure and practices and not enough on values and theology. This leader was expressing his support for our work, recognizing that it has an important place in the conversation about who we are as United Methodists, but in the midst of the conversation he expressed his own frustration with some of the criticism he had heard regarding the work of the IOT.
I think my frustration sometimes comes when folks assume, because this is not specifically mentioned at each turn, that those on the IOT don’t hold these convictions. I would guess that each of the team members would not only say Yes and Amen, but that they take seriously the living of this document. Our conversations regularly focus on these things, our prayers are centered on these things and our reason for the work we do is that we hope the church might be more focused on being an instrument of God’s mission.
I understand his frustration, for there are indeed many times when the requirements of publishing documents and creating presentations in a limited time frame forces one to focus on specific proposals and suggestions, and not the underlying process that led to those proposals. The press release on new ways of doing things rarely contains much about the hours of conversations, prayer, study, etc. behind the suggested changes, leaving much room for folks to speculate on the motives behind those changes. I have little doubt that both the CTA Task Force and the IOT have spent much time in prayer thinking about the core of who we are as United Methodists. These are folks who love our church, who want that best for our church, and have given countless hours toward working to improve how we function as a body.
Unfortunately I fear their own process and choices about who should be at the table has partially led to the perceptions that somehow the entire process has been disconnected from spiritual and theological concerns. The entire IOT was composed of persons who worship in a large congregation context, who (with the exception of a single active pastor and the few bishops) were lifted up for their business and organizational expertise than their spiritual practices and/or theological acumen. Certainly all are persons of faith, but in the press releases and other information about the team, there was little to suggest that their ultimate concerns in examining our church’s structures would be balanced between both theological/missional concerns on the one hand, and organizational efficiency on the other. This focus on their organizational leadership skills led to the disconnect that several in the UMC face today.
Yet another issue is at play here. I think those in leadership of the CTA and IOT assumed a shared core theology and identity for the people called United Methodists that may not, in point of fact, be as universally shared. We tend to be a church with several generations of persons present, with each generation having experienced a different identity of who we are. We continue to have many leaders whose paradigm for understanding our church was formed in the 1950’s when the Methodist Church was at its height numerically, but when being a good Methodist had to do as much with being a good citizen who lived a moral life than any sense of call to radical discipleship. Those of us in later generations experienced a church in which faith was interpreted in light of the call to social justice, while others have ONLY experienced a denomination in decline and much thrashing about to stem the tide of losses. Certainly, I continue to believe there was a revival of sorts in the late 1980’s and early ‘90’s in which the UMC regained a deeper connection to the scriptures (through the Disciple Bible Study movement) as well as a deeper connection to Wesleyan theology and practices (through the work of folks like Bishop Kenneth Carder, David Lowes Watson, Thomas Frank, Russ Richey, and Steve Manskar). There are other streams as well – the Good News stream, the charismatic stream, and more and more the international stream, with special influences arising from Africa. With all of these streams in play, it has become harder and harder to maintained a clear sense of who we are, and more importantly why we believe God is calling us as United Methodists to continue to be present in the world. Given the complexity of addressing the competing claims of these various theological streams, it becomes much easier to focus on practices and structure, for the deeper conversations we need to have are hard and will take time and commitment that in fact may not be fully present.
And that is where I think some of the frustration about the work of the CTA and IOT lands. It’s not in that we don’t find value in what they are doing. No, it’s that what they have done doesn’t seem to address the deeper issues of a church which doesn’t have a clear sense of calling and mission. They may have had those conversations internally – in fact, I am sure they have as my friend shared above. But the rest of the church, for very valid procedural reasons, hasn’t been invited to the table to be a part of that conversation as well, and we all know that the legislative behemoth that is General Conference simply does not allow space or time for those kinds of conversations. Both of our frustrations are valid – theirs which doesn’t understand why folks are questioning their theological and spiritual intentions, and others which wants to be at the table but are separated from the conversation. Until we can find space for a broader conversation on who we are and God’s calling for us as a church, then we will continue to flounder away with faulty assumptions about the intentions of one another.
Reconciling God, help us not to make assumptions about intentions based on appearances, and help us to listen deeply to the concerns of one another. Break down the walls that divide us and help us all to clearly hear your desires and intentions for our church. Send your grace in special measure so that we may be fully engaged in proclaiming your kingdom and making disciples so that the world will be transformed. Amen.