The Captivity of Titles and Status Positions

By Bill Mefford

Not a lot of people know this, but before I became the Director of Civil and Human Rights for the General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church – a helluva long title by the way – I was writing my dissertation, was an anti-war activist (this was during the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan), was a stay-at-home dad as we lived in downtown Lexington, KY, and I worked three part-time jobs. One of my part-time jobs that allowed me to stay at home while my wife took on the bulk of the responsibility of bringing home enough money so we could pay our bills was that I delivered the Lexington Herald-News every morning at 4 am. Yep, two days before I started as the Director of Civil and Human Rights for the General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church I was a paper boy.

There is something about titles that is seductive. The minute word started to spread on my seminary campus that I was to become the Director of Civil and Human Rights for the General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church; I mean, before I even started the job or moved to DC, people started coming to me and asking to meet with me. These are people who had never given me the time of day, people I had hardly ever talked to before. But, all of a sudden they wanted to grab a cup of coffee and visit with me. At seminary I was always just kind of a back-seat, loud-mouth, smart-ass, hell-raiser, but once I got the big title – Director of Civil and Human Rights for the General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church – I had the distinct impression that people were puckering up to kiss my backside.

Besides being kind of funny, it felt kind of sleazy. I am fairly sure they felt let down once they did talk to me though. Title or no title, I was still just a back-seat, loud-mouth, smart-ass, hell-raiser. Maybe that’s why I don’t have that title anymore.

But it is disturbing how title-driven we are, not just as a society, but especially within the church. Considering that God seems not just indifferent, but even put off by big, impressive titles and status positions I am surprised at how status-driven as a church we still are until I remember how overly-institutionalized we United Methodists tend to be. Then it begins to make sense. You remember how David looked around at all of his wealth and then seeing the Tabernacle – the place of the Lord’s presence – underneath a shabby tent, he built a massive temple for God? He had to improve God’s status to legitimate his own. Something tells me we still do this with all of our titles and awards. I am not sure God really gives a damn.

But titles and status positions grease the wheels of institutional machines. I have seen it up close. We opt for the title over the role like we opt for form over the function. Though someone might be more gifted at performing a specific role or task, we tend to go with the one who has the job title because it confirms the institutional seal of approval. We seem far more fascinated by what we call one another than by what we do or how well we do it. And this is all to the detriment of the effectiveness of our mission.

One of my favorite passages in Scripture is at the beginning of Luke 3. I was first drawn to this way back when I was in college and it still convicts me. The passage reads:

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Phillip ruler of Ituraea and Trachonitus, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. (Luke 3:1-2)

I love the subtle contrast it makes as Luke lists the power players of the day, not only in the government but in the priesthood as well. These are the movers and shakers of their day and yet, despite their significance and impressive resumes, God chose none of them to send God’s word to; the word that will set the stage for the coming of the Messiah. Instead, God chose John. John has no title and in comparison to the titled and privileged, he is unimportant, virtually unknown. In fact, he is identified only by his relationship – the son of Zechariah. On top of all of that, he was even in the wilderness! He doesn’t live in a center of power, he holds no special distinction, yet John will be the one to prepare the way for the coming Messiah to the world. He is just John. And God chose him.

The funny thing is that after I became the Director of Civil and….blah, blah, blah (that title is too damn long to type it every time), when I began finding out who in the United Methodist Church were immigrants and who was incarnated among immigrants I usually had to skip past those with the fancy titles, and instead, look for those who, regardless of whatever title or status they had (or didn’t have), held the greatest passion for immigrants. Great passion for immigrants was evidenced by people who were faithfully doing the hard work of organizing and advocating for just and humane immigration reform. Yes, occasionally those with titles also had tremendous passion, but to be brutally honest, this was more the exception than the rule.

As it was when God chose John, the pursuit of titles often prevents us from seeking after that which matters: authentic relationships among those directly impacted by injustice. I tend to be an ecclesial anarchist, but I do seriously wonder what would happen to our beloved United Methodist Church if we dropped all of the titles altogether – no Bishops, no ordained elders, no deacons, no General Secretaries, and no Director of Civil and Human Rights! Instead, what if we just functioned on who was gifted by the Holy Spirit for achieving specific tasks? Let the titles fall on people organically and according to where the fruit is rather than make them a political game geared for those with the temperament to uphold the institutional status quo. Rather than forced statuses that are politically driven, let’s equip the entire Body of Christ to serve and those who love the most, get to lead the most. Something tells me I think we might all be surprised who the real directors of civil and human rights are. They might not even work in a big building in Washington DC. In fact, I am pretty sure they won’t.