General Conference has become an intractable body, and the Realm of God demands that United Methodists make decisions in a different way, writes the Rev. Sky McCracken.
After six-plus years in various church leadership positions, the Rev. Sky McCracken reflects on what he sees about the current and future United Methodist Church.
As I shared Part I of this blog, these past six-plus years as a district superintendent have gone by quickly, and I’ve had unique opportunities and experiences to see the United Methodist Church in many different lights. I shared earlier about the local church, being a superintendent, and being a former episcopal candidate.
I’ll offer an observation about General Conference:
I’ve attended every General Conference since 1988 as an observer, a reserve delegate, and a delegate. At first I was inspired by the worship and the incredible people I met. Later I was moved from a spectator toward prayer and participation in things I was passionate about (particularly, worship/liturgy, ordination, and discipleship), and as a delegate became focused upon evangelism and discipleship and how our denomination is/is not facilitating such as a Connection. The last two General Conferences I was frustrated, exhausted, and at times prayed that no one from the outside world was watching. This last General Conference (2016) I’m sure it was worse than C-SPAN, in both production quality and content.
To those on the outside watching, we were petition numbers, “point of orders,” people appealing for bishops to be unseated as chairpersons, and caucuses vying for power. I don’t think anyone watching would have thought we United Methodists were living up to a people who used to be known for their embrace of God’s grace; we looked like Congress. I fear our approval ratings are similar.
This is what we’ve evolved into:
¶ 501. Definition of Powers— The General Conference has full legislative power over all matters distinctively connectional (see ¶ 16, Division Two, Section II, Article IV, The Constitution). It has no executive or administrative power.
And if you read the rest of the ¶500’s of the Book of Discipline, it reads like most other statutes of state law that we find in the United States…
- even though we are a denomination that goes beyond the United States…
- even though we are supposed to know the difference between rendering to Caesar and rendering to God…
- even though that we know that the Kingdom of God should be about more than winners and losers, seeing each other less as lawbreakers and more as grace givers…
- even though we should be treating each other like family in covenant, loving each other despite our dysfunction and disagreements…
- even though Wesley’s understanding of conferencing, and what we’ve allowed General Conference to become, are two completely different things.
When I think of General Conference, here is the best word I can think of to describe it: intractable.
in·trac·ta·ble [ˌin ˈtrak təb (ə)l] adjective
1. hard to control or deal with, such as “intractable economic problems”
synonyms: unmanageable, uncontrollable, difficult, awkward, troublesome, demanding, burdensome, such as “intractable problems”
2. (of a person) difficult; stubborn.
synonyms: stubborn, obstinate, obdurate, inflexible, headstrong, willful, unbending, unyielding, uncompromising, unaccommodating, uncooperative, difficult, awkward, perverse, contrary, pigheaded, stiff-necked, such as “an intractable man”
Should things be done decently and in order? Yes.
Is covenant important? Yes.
Should we continue to make the Book of Discipline larger and larger? Please God, No. (And UM Publishing House folks: no one was fooled when the 2016 BOD “looked” smaller than its predecessor).
All of this shows our distrust of God and of each other. We are becoming the Pharisees all over again – keepers of the law without the intent of the law in mind. Covenant is larger – and a lot more enduring – than canon law. We Americans love to argue, democratize, legislate, and codify things. Living in the Realm of God means all those things go by the wayside. Sanctification demands it. Until we live and do things differently, we will continue to see through a dark glass.
I’ll continue the thoughts…
Six-plus years as a district superintendent went by quickly. In that time, I worked under three bishops, attended two General Conferences and several other UM Connectional meetings across the U.S., and many conference, district, and local church gatherings. I honestly liked 90% of what I did as a district superintendent, and I think I was fairly good at it. I was one of the first DS’s to work under the mandate of being a “chief missional strategist.” I was also given the permission to give that work priority as opposed to being a pastoral personnel manager and bureaucrat.
But that season has ended and I am now looking forward to being back in a local church as a pastor. Being an elder in the United Methodist Church is a great way to fulfill my calling, and a challenging way to live out my baptismal vows. These last several years will serve me well in the years ahead.
I’ve used the Daily Office to pray for many years, and part of that discipline has been to be intentionally silent at various times during the day to try to hear God and reflect. Sometimes I hear a divine word, sometimes it’s just a needed silence from a noisy world, and sometimes I (unfortunately) allow it to become an opportunity to
bitch and gripe lament instead of listen.
I think these experiences give me a good view of the current struggles the UMC has, and also allow me a unique opportunity to share with candor some reflections and observations about a few things.
The Local Church
This is where it’s at. Disciples are made in local churches, in their outreach, in their small groups. Districts don’t make disciples. Conferences doesn’t make disciples. General agencies don’t make disciples. Even the General Conference doesn’t make disciples. All of these things are, at best, tools to support the local church so that they might be BETTER at making disciples of Jesus Christ.
Local churches are resilient. They are faithful. And the larger Church has let them down. After six-plus years as a superintendent, I can say that I find it a miracle that some local churches function as well as they do. They are desperately looking to be led. They are desperately looking to be “shepherd-vised” (as opposed to being “supervised”). And they want to be faithful. We clergy and the General Church have let them down. We can do better. Faithful folk gather week in and week out to worship and serve, break bread and drink wine, celebrate baptisms, marriages, and funerals. They live into the baptismal vows at church, at work, and at play. Some of them even call themselves United Methodists.
Superintendency (General and District)
The reason I was a fairly good DS is only because I recruited and helped form a good district operational team, made up of clergy AND laity. We looked at our denominational and conference mission, our values and foci, and built a ministry plan that was both actionable and malleable/adaptable. I listened and adapted as the team looked critically at churches, pastors, me, and our gifts. We developed a Generative Leadership Academy whose primary focus was to help identify the spiritual gifts of the baptized around the district churches. We built our work around covenant: covenant with God, covenant with each other, and covenant to the mission of the UMC: to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. It was very hard work. There were painful conversations. Yet we came away stronger, forged bonds as strong as family, and realized it was all about the mission, not ourselves. Sometimes, I lead. Sometimes, I followed their lead. We always left knowing what we had done was OUR work, not mine or anyone else’s. I think that serves, and continues to serve, the district well.
I was also part of a covenant team with my area brother and sister superintendents. Bishop McAlilly operated under the same principle: all of us are stronger than one of us. I will deeply miss the depth of covenant, transparency, and unconditional love of these wonderful people.
What would I share with you as a DS? Maybe I could clear up some misconceptions:
- The infamous “salary sheet” is really not much help in making pastoral appointments in this day and age. The best way to approach this work is thus: (1) the local church is always the priority, (2) what are the gifts that are needed at a church for a pastor to serve it well, and (3) what pastors do we have that have those gifts. After that, it’s a puzzle to put together. Just as a local church sometimes wrestles with who to put in what offices and positions, so goes the work of a bishop and cabinet where churches and pastors are concerned. One thing is clear: we have to be continually supporting and developing a culture of call – for both laity and (potential) clergy.
- Being a bishop or DS doesn’t mean you’ve “arrived.” As I’ve always told folks, ordination and consecration are subsets of one’s baptism, and they do not subordinate your baptism. Being a bishop or D.S. is different work, but not necessarily higher or more important work. In this season, strategists are needed more than ever – and before you think such mentality stifles the Holy Spirit, consider that Jesus probably had a plan before he went to Jerusalem, and working with the disciples for three years was not just killing time. In my opinion, the district superintendent is in a unique place to affect change in our denomination… if we adhere to more of a “shepherd-vising” model rather than an imperial/managerial model. Using a salary sheet or the “paying one’s dues” method of selecting superintendents hasn’t served us well. Finding people who have the gifts of shepherding, teaching, gift identification, and adeptness in conflict management are crucial, and not limited to any demographic we could list.
- SMU’s Maria Dixon Hall: “Our district superintendents and our bishops are so overtaxed they don’t get a chance to know the people they’re serving with. There are not mechanisms to get to know folks. It is difficult to go into war with someone that you don’t really trust, and you don’t trust them because you don’t know them.” Yes. Become a listening DS. Go to churches not just for worship and charge conferences; go to board meetings, fish fries, and homecomings. Know your people.
- Clergy status/pedigree is largely irrelevant. There are licensed local pastors who are a lot more effective in pastoral ministry than their elder counterparts. While I value my theological education, it lacked heavily in (1) praxis, (2) spiritual formation and maturity, and (3) cultivation in leadership skills. On point three, I’ll paraphrase Maria Dixon Hall when she said that while some seminary grads were theologically adept, many couldn’t lead an ant to a picnic. We have to equip church leaders, lay and clergy, to be more effective leaders and disciplers.
Offering Yourself for the Episcopacy
- Do it only if you hear God calling you to offer yourself. I’ve become acquaintances with enough bishops to know that it takes a toll on you, and takes a few years off your life. It’s also an awesome opportunity to make a difference in the Kingdom.
- Be aware of how your birthday falls. One criticism I heard, despite my assurances to people I would serve no more than 16 years, was my age. Because of how my birthday falls, I could have been a bishop until I was 71 1/2 years old. Seeing first-hand what the office of bishop does to people, there’s no way in hell I would have served as a bishop that long; 16 years would have been plenty long for me, and I would retire and be a full-time grandfather, occasional motorcycle rider, and catch up on movies, baseball, and be a pastor of visitation for a church that needed the help. Such is very difficult to assure delegates of, however.
- Offering yourself for the episcopacy is all about timing; three years from now (the next episcopal election), I won’t be a DS and dean of the cabinet, I won’t be serving a large membership church (our conference doesn’t have many of them), and I’d be kidding myself and everyone else if I tried to run again. You need to be old enough, but not too old. The window is tight. The timing is crucial.
- It ain’t cheap. Producing a video, website design, and mailings just don’t happen. I went cheap on mailings (like the above post card) and had a lot of free help, and put more into video, website, and online media. You’re still talking about thousands of dollars – a lot to ask people to give and sacrifice. I was humbled and blessed by those who gave so much.
- Be aware of the math. It takes 60% of the vote to get elected, which in the SEJ means around 220 votes to get elected. I knew that my chances were, at the very best, 50/50 to get elected. I told myself if I got as many as 130 votes, I would pray about offering myself again in 4 years. The highest vote I received on a ballot was 106. I was very blessed to be endorsed by two conferences. However, both of our conferences (Memphis and Tennessee) have a small number of votes (24 to be exact) when compared to other conferences across the Southeast. Add that to the fact that the Memphis Conference has never been successful at electing a candidate, and you realize that the math is just not there. There are good things that can come out of the Memphis Conference – those who have offered themselves from our conference previously are among the greatest servants of God I know. It’s not an indictment of anything or anybody; it’s just simple math: other conferences want their candidates elected too, and they have more of a base vote of support. All things considered, I consider myself very fortunate to have received the support that I did, especially from the Tennessee Conference folks, who also endorsed me and could have chosen otherwise.
- Be aware of the emotional and spiritual toll. No one could have prepared me for the dark nights of the soul that I would endure upon being nominated and endorsed. I will admit to being nervous when my own conference endorsed me. I will admit to becoming an anxiety-ridden wreck when the Tennessee Conference endorsed me. What a responsibility if elected! What an enormous challenge! And what a burden awaiting me if elected, being a bishop in a church so strife-ridden and in conflict. It was almost to the hour a 40-day trial in the wilderness. What I learned was this: God will fill a lot of voids, and can run interference to a lot of adversity… if you will allow it. Also – be prepared not to be elected, and trust me, it hurts. If you can’t handle the possibility of not being elected, don’t offer yourself for election.
- Without a doubt, the SEJ elected some awesome folks as bishops in 2016. I pray for them by name every day. Unless you’ve offered yourself to such an office, or worked closely with a bishop, you have no idea what they go through every day, and every night. If I ever have a problem with one of them, I’ll let them know in person. You won’t hear me bad mouthing any of them.
Since I’ve been alive, I’ve heard this phrase every four years: “This is the most important election ever.” After considering 240 years of American history, I think it’s safe to say this: that’s a cart full of horse apples. Yet in the process, I am vie…
7. Sky McCracken (Memphis) (Discipleship #4) An Institutionalist. Orthodox. He will seek to negate controversy, quieten situations rather than resolving disobedience. Good leader as a DS, leading various discipleship training sessions himself and demonstrating a passion for his district and his work. He is participant in SLI (Spiritual Leadership Institute) a group favored by Jorge Acevedo. Very likeable personally, not a charismatic speaker. Was endorsed by TN conference also in 2012. A nice guy, but seems to lack boldness or strength in today’s context.
There’s another group in our denomination, some of whom are delegates here; others who are faithful United Methodists who are not represented nor identified with any coalition. We are, as Bishop Coyner wrote a few years ago, “the Methodist middle.” We are not organized and have no other agenda, save offering Christ to a hurting world. This group includes women, men, children, youth, lay, and clergy, maybe even a couple of bishops.
Together with those of differing viewpoints, faithfully serving United Methodist churches, we serve small, medium, large churches. We serve in agencies. We serve throughout the church. We teach Sunday school. We serve in food pantries, clothes closets. We build Habitat houses and serve worldwide through United Methodist Volunteers in Mission. We have a passion for evangelism, and we seek to lift up Christ to persons who are hurting and who are lost and who need the grace of Jesus Christ.
However, more often than not we are silent; and perhaps that is our sin. Silent as other voices speak. Perhaps we’re gripped by fear, fear that if we speak, we will be labeled as the opposition. Fear that we are incapable of preventing our church from being pulled apart at the seams… I pray that we can find a way to hold the tension of the opposites; and I would submit to this body that if those of us in the middle can contain those on both sides of the equation, we might be able to find the unity for which we seek. Thank you. – Daily Christian Advocate, Friday, May 7, 2004.
- Rebaptism. Don’t do it. Ever. We stray, but God stays.
- Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus. It happened. People in the 1st century knew enough science to know the difference between dead and alive, and such survived through great scrutiny. Believing otherwise is like believing we really didn’t land on the moon. Conspiracy theories just don’t carry much weight or stand the test of time.
- Abortion. We were knit together in our mother’s womb and are fearfully and wonderfully made. There are a few medical exceptions for sure, but as birth control and a premeditated act to end life? No.
- Capital punishment. Can’t subscribe to it. It’s a premeditated action to end a life. Jesus made his feelings on it fairly clear. Life without parole? I can support that.
- Holy Communion. We should do it every Sunday. It was standard church practice for 1600 years. Wesley said do it often. It’s the sustaining sacrament of grace. Would you tell your child that you’re only going to hug them once a month so it will be more special when it happens?
- A lot more of the sin of gluttony happens at pot luck dinners and Emmaus Walks under the guise of “hospitality” then does when a few folks have a beer or two at a local pub or restaurant.
- As a denomination, we have been inconsistent on biblical hermeneutics where marriage, divorce, and our views of sexuality are concerned. Of this I am sure: we baptize, ordain, and license sinners every year.
- It shouldn’t be so damned hard to become a United Methodist pastor. And local/non-itinerating pastors should be ORDAINED, not LICENSED. You license someone to fish and hunt. The Church ordains the baptized to specific tasks in the Church. Plus, ordination is a gift from and tool of the church, not a right conferred upon one’s merit and education.
- I fully support the ordination of women. When I became a DS, we had one retired female pastor serving as an associate in the district. We have a dozen female pastors now. I can back such up with scripture (Romans 16). Southern Baptists, Roman Catholics, and some United Methodists obviously disagree with me, but it’s clear (to me) that Phoebe was a deacon, not a deaconess. According to another letter Paul wrote, the women at one particular church had no business teaching or preaching. According to another letter, Paul didn’t think ANYBODY at Galatia had any business teaching and preaching until they learned that they starting living the true Gospel, where we are one in Christ Jesus (male and female included).
- I could go on…
Rogue /rōg/ – to act on one’s own, usually against expectation or instruction.
I posted an old article a few days ago on my Facebook page. I started out by daring someone else to do it, and then realized, “McCracken, you aren’t running for bishop anymore. You post it.” And I did. And I watched the reactions. Mercy, the people called Methodists are a divided bunch.
The beginnings of Methodism could be described as rogue: An Anglican priest holding clandestine “Holy Club” meetings, preaching out in the open fields, banned from Anglican pulpits, and ordaining preachers when no bishop would do it… with no authority other than his belief that elders/presbyters and bishops were of the same order. And while we quote Wesley ad nauseam, the fact remains that John Wesley died an Anglican priest. He never intended to start a new denomination.
So when we talk about orthodoxy and orthopraxy, we Methodists have to be careful. It doesn’t mean that these words don’t have meaning for today’s Methodists, and indeed Wesley was so very clear in the first part of the quote (which we often omit) from The Heart of a Methodist: “But as to all opinions which do not strike at the root of Christianity, [Methodists] think and let think.”
And therein lies the root of the problem. Which root?
As some Anglicans tried to take the best from many traditions by taking the via media – which, contrary to popular belief, isn’t sitting on the fence but intentionally placing one in the middle of the Catholicism and the Reformed church – Early Methodists tried to take the best of Anglicanism, balancing the sacramental and the evangelical, the Word and deed, and taking them to the least and the lost. Today’s United Methodism – and more accurately, United Methodism in the United States – has created a chasm of ideology that has little to do with any of the things that Methodism was birthed from (or, for that matter, any other faith tradition in the above diagram). Worse, we have lost our innovative edge as Anglican evangelists and become once again that which Wesley tried to renew. “Making disciples for the transformation of the world” is our Great Commission and our mission as a denomination, yet such received little – if any – debate or consideration, much less passion or fervor, at General Conference. We more resembled American politics and an FFA (Future Farmers of America) mock meeting where we tried to trip up the presider with parliamentary procedure than a denomination that has as its main mission to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
As I have written before (here, here, here, and here) Wesley tried to do an 180° to reform Anglicanism, but what we have ended up doing is a 360° – and are right back where we started. A rogue denomination has become status quo. General Conference with its consent calendars, committee filibustering, and parliamentary bullying and maneuvering is not the place to make substantive change that a hurting world needs. That change will have to start from the ground up – loving people up, witnessing to the prevenient grace of God, discipling people in Jesus’ name, raising leaders (lay and clergy) for the Church and the Kingdom, and doing so in local churches AND missional communities (which may not look like traditional churches). It is clear that we are being led away (indeed, have led ourselves away) from our missional mandate towards majoring in the minors.
We do not like to talk WITH people; we want to talk AT people. We seem to want NOT to foster relationships, but instead pigeonhole people by what group they align with, where they are from, and how they feel about “the issue.” If General Conference was indicative of the Church, an outsider would rightly label us as Idol Worshipers. Thankfully, most of the UMC (I dare say 85%) does not consider General Conference and its issues as much of an indicator of the Church and reality. And – thankfully! – most of the major media outlets didn’t give us much press. Unfortunately, that also proves how uninteresting and, more damning, inconsequential we are becoming as an agent of transformation for God’s world.
Stephen Long wrote an excellent essay, “The Grace of Doing Nothing – Again: A Defense of the UM Bishops’ Call for Silence.” He says so well what I have believed in our denomination’s struggles with sexuality: we have not had the candid critical and theological conversations we need to have on the subject, and we have lacked a consistent ethic. We have talked past these issues, and past other people, but not with them. As Long says, “Our deliberations lack theological direction.” To handle these things faithfully, we will have to do these things.
In the meantime, we lose ground with those who are hungry for a Church that DOES something. A Church that MEANS something. A Church that embodies CHRIST. A Church that majors in the majors instead of the minors. The Great Commandment and Great Commission are plain and are our priorities. Is there evidence we are living such?
Yes – there is. I could list hundreds of awesome things that local churches do every day. Feeding the hungry. Clothing the naked. Making relationships and ministering to the least, the last, and the lost. Making disciples and leaders.
But in UM circles, it all gets buried beneath that which has become idolatrous – namely, “the issue.” And, after spending a year among the unchurched in a Third Place/Fresh Expressions-like community, I can say that those outside of the Church are as divided as those inside the Church on “the issue.” But for them, it’s a minor. And they see the Church as just another political body that either counts you “in” or “out.”
I hate pigeonholing people. I even hate being pigeonholed even more. But that’s the moniker we’re starting to be given – we’re just another “interest group.” And as many can testify, once you get a nickname, it’s hard to be rid of it.
I’m still hopeful. I think the people called Methodists have a theology and practice that is best suited to change the world, one person, one neighborhood at a time. To do so we’ll have to let go of minors and embrace majors. And I’m bound and determined to do it. I want to fulfill the mission in the district, churches, and neighborhoods around me.
We can change the world – in Jesus’ name.
I was appointed the district superintendent of the Purchase (formerly Paducah) District on March 1, 2011. It was a weird time to start such work; my father had just died, I was already visiting SPRC committees anticipating moves, my first official act …