A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life

A Weblog Dedicated to the Discussion of the Christian Faith and 21st Century Life
I do not seek to understand that I may believe, but I believe in order to understand. For this also I believe, –that unless I believed, I should not understand.-- St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109)

Monday, April 30, 2012

Turf Wars in Tampa and Great Expectations

Let's be frank: there are lots of good delegates in Tampa for the General Conference who want what's best for the United Methodist Church.They are sincere in their beliefs and they truly hope that some good will come out of Tampa over two weeks of conferencing.

And, yet, those same people are lovingly engaged in turf wars because of the fear that the bold (and drastic) measures proposed will result in the loss of their own little microcosm of a kingdom in the midst of the macrocosm of God's Kingdom. It's not that their little microcosms are unimportant, but once the microcosm becomes one's little world, the macrocosm is lost behind the horizon and can no longer be seen. So people fight tenaciously for their little kingdom because their little kingdom has become their Kingdom. Again, it's not that folks have nefarious motives, but honest intentions are not the point; the point is whether we will be guided by a large vision or a narrow one.

As I have said, while I have some misgivings about CTA, it is time for bold action and to move forward and to perfect things as we move along, but we have chosen the safer route. So much for General Conference leading by example. Is it no surprise that our local churches are so timid and work to maintain the status quo? After all, most of our delegates come from those churches. After CTA was set aside, Bishop William Willimon tweeted:

While I'm disappointed that the bishops' proposals for greater coherence and accountability for the boards and agencies appears to be being replace by Plan B, I'm not surprised. It's very difficult to turn around a church in precipitous decline. People are fearful of change. However, I want to reassure those who are concerned about our church that most of us change oriented bishops will not stop working for a more faithful, vibrant church!
It is indeed difficult to turn around a church in such decline. Churches in decline, denominations and local churches, cannot resist the temptation of moving into survival mode to protect what they have instead of taking a Kierkegaardian leap of faith moving into a future that cannot necessarily be controlled by human hands. Perhaps one of the important ingredients in "holy" conferencing is trusting more in God and less in our denominational structure to secure our turf. Circling the wagons for protection may feel safe and secure for the moment, but when the wagons are all huddled together there is no way to move forward. Perhaps that is why (at least from many of the Tweets I've read this past week) delegates are grasping for any moment that seems to point to the holy. Holiness is difficult when the main task is simply to survive. If the word "holy" means to be set apart for God's purposes, God's agenda, it can be difficult to sense the holy when our focus is on survival; for such focus is... well... self-focused.

And that leads me to the second point I want to make in this post. I said in a post last week that we expect too much from General Conference believing it can deliver more than is possible. CTA has been criticized because it doesn't get to the heart of the problem. That problem is that we have not focused on discipleship. That the key to having vital congregations means making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world has not been questioned. I know of  no one who supports CTA that thinks otherwise. The question that must be asked here is what do we expect the GC to do in reference to putting forward something that will insure that local churches will be about that singular and all important task? Surely the General Conference can encourage it. I suppose it can pass legislation stating that all churches will have Covenant Discipleship groups (which would be a great thing, but good luck enforcing it). But making vital disciples can only begin at the local church level. I think annual conferences and districts would be more effective at encouraging discipleship making at the local church level, but even then it starts with the local church lay leadership and pastors in the local churches. If the local church is less about discipleship and being missional, and more about preserving the existent local United Methodist Church as a status quo,  bourgeois, preference driven country club, then there is nothing the General Conference or an annual conference or a district can do to change that. The General Conference has voted to maintain its status quo, bourgeois, preference driven status. In so doing it has lost its authority as an agent of real change. Any local church that wants to maintain its status quo, bourgeois, preference driven country club identity need only point to Tampa.

Adam Hamilton acknowledged that CTA was not perfect, but then challenged the GC to pass it and then perfect it. We Methodists used to be good at going on to perfection, but perfection cannot be a goal when survival is the order of the day. Going on to perfection necessitates moving in one particular direction. Now that we have circled the wagons we will by default continue to move in the opposite direction-- and that direction will only lead to demise.

CTA has been criticized as an affront to connectionalism. I love our connectional system and I disagree with that assessment. But only 15% of our UM congregations in the United States are considered vital. I say that's an affront to the gospel.


Ken L. Hagler said...

Great post Allan, especially pointing out the reality that our little kingdoms over-ride The Kingdom. Developmental thought would note this is a stage of Power by Symbols, which is where the majority of us are.

The CTA is far from perfect, agreed, but saying pass it, then perfect it is like a certain politician who said, "You have to pass before you can know what is in it." My concern is who will make sure things get done to perfect it?

To lay the blame only at the feet of local congregations, is a tough argument to make. Those in smaller congregations are dealing with years of issues, and now they have to do the weekly reporting, look ahead to quarterly reports, charge conference reports and year end reports. And where does the blame go?

This is, and will remain an issue of trust. We would do well to not listen to business models and try considering the work of folks in this area such as Parker Palmer (http://www.couragerenewal.org) who are wrestling with the deeper issues dividing groups such as ours. My fear? This is a soul issue that we no longer have the capacity or courage to truly face.

Allan R. Bevere said...


Thanks for your response. I would only say that this is different from a certain politician's appeal to "pass it so you can see what's in it." CTA has been out there for people to read. There was nothing secret about it. Now obviously it is difficult to see all of the ramifications of CTA as it would have unfolded in the future, but that is true of most changes we decide to make.

Trish said...

Thanks Allan. Great article. From a lay person who is studying the Exodus (actually desert, post Exodus), I see the local church right there too. They were in "survival" mode, which took the focus off of what God had done and where he was taking them and even who he was. A comment was made by a congregation member/leader (?) that they were waiting for the local church to become "vital" to see if they would stay or not. Wow, are we ALL waiting around til it becomes vital? What about being part of the "vitality"? Partnering with God to create his vital church? God led the Israelites into the desert to humble them, to test them, so he would know (experience) their hearts. It took along time of training! He never gave up on them, always loved them, always faithful. He still is! Do we believe it? I agree there is often good intention, yet even at the local level "the point is whther we will be guided by a large vision or a narrow one", is true. I pray we chose God's vision and I know I need the community of faith to submit to that, be held accountable to that.

Dennis Sanders said...

What's CTA?

Allan R. Bevere said...

Call to Action-- It is a restructuring proposal. It's certainly not a fix for the UMC... our problems are much deeper... but it would have been a good step, for the most part, on the General Conference level. The details of the report are here: http://umccalltoaction.org/

Ken L. Hagler said...

My comparison is more with your paraphrase of Adam Hamilton: "pass it and then perfect it."

Allan R. Bevere said...

I understand that Ken and perhaps I should have worded it differently. I think Adam was simply saying that the GC has the power to make it a better proposal.

John Partridge said...

I think much of CTA was on-target but other parts, much like our federal government often does, determined to create new structures/rules instead of fixing what was broken.

I'm not surprised, frankly. Whenever you propose big changes, special interests from every spectrum will find fault with some part of it and come together to defeat and destroy. Perhaps the way forward is incrementally, though that's assuredly difficult when the GC only meets once every four years.

The end result, I fear, is that the GC is growing increasingly irrelevant.

Bruce Hitchcock said...

You are right. The GC is irrelevant on most levels. Kind of like what happens a Annual Conference.