By Bill Mefford
My favorite family vacation was just a couple of years ago when me and my family flew to Texas to see family and then drove back to DC through the South over the course of a week. We drove through Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, North Carolina, and then Virginia. We combined seeing a few college campuses (my oldest son was then looking at colleges), watching some minor league baseball games, and stopping at some of the important Civil Rights Movement sites. I loved it on so many levels.
One of my favorite civil rights stops was at Medgar Ever’s home in Jackson, MS. Medgar Evers was assassinated outside his home the same night that President Kennedy made an important speech on TV about his commitment to civil rights legislation. What made this stop so interesting is the intimacy of the setting; you actually schedule your own private tour of Mr. Evers’ home from one of the curators who is a volunteer and is passionate about the history of Mr. Evers and Mississippi’s movement. There is no staff; it is all led by volunteers.
The woman who led our tour had an encyclopedic memory about Mr. Evers and what all happened during that time in Mississippi – and there was a lot to remember. While she shared with us about Medgar Evers and the Mississippi movement a major rain storm was happening outside, even knocking out the power for a short time. But we sat there in Mr. Evers’ home and talked until it calmed down. The intimate nature of the conversation and the setting – sitting in Medgar Evers’ home talking about the impact this amazing man had on Mississippi and the nation as a whole, is something I will always treasure.
Because the “staff” was volunteer, they only encouraged donations in a box that was on a table near the door. I started out giving $20, which was what was recommended. By the time we left, because I was so incredibly impressed and encouraged, I had given $70. I wish I could have given more. It was worth it.
I share this much detail about our visit because a week or so ago I wrote a very strong – some might say harsh – post on why I was leaving the United Methodist Church. I don’t regret writing it at all – it was honest. Some of the responses I got personally asked me – or maybe even challenged me – to envision something better. Numerous times in the past I think I have put forward visions of better ways to do church, but I feel the need to continue to do so; to do more than simply criticize the current dysfunction of the United Methodist Church and to do more than simply call for its dissolution, though I do feel it would be better for all for it to disband.
And so I want to suggest that we could learn much from the curators of the Medgar Evers home. They were clearly experts in their vast knowledge they held about Medgar Evers and the Mississippi civil rights movement. Their expertise is most certainly needed as far too many people know far too little about these subjects today.
Likewise, we need experts in the United Methodist Church as well, but I am afraid we currently have far too many that demand far too much support. In other words, the UMC is top-heavy and there just simply is not the need for so many “experts;” certainly not so many whose only vocation is to be “experts.” When I worked at the national level of the UMC I found that the greatest experts in doing the work of organizing and advocacy were local churches themselves. This is why, increasingly, I was doing less and less trainings and finding opportunities for leaders from local churches to lead and share their wisdom. Local church leaders leading the training events were always the most instructive as people want to know what doing advocacy and organizing looks like in a local church context and that can only be led by those doing it in a local church context.
This is why I firmly and absolutely believe that the locus of God’s change and transformation for the world is through local churches. Part of the irrelevancy of the bureaucracy of the UMC is the fact that the prevailing belief is that local churches are NOT the locus of God’s change and transformation.
What’s more, I think another crucial lesson from visiting Medgar Evers historical home was that the experts were not dependent on our financial gifts; they were volunteers and they worked at other jobs. Curating Medgar Evers’ home was their passion. We have long mistaken expertise with vocation and I think we have to recover a more biblical form of leadership: bivocationalism. That in itself made me want to give way more than what was recommended. I knew the gift I was giving was going entirely to help provide this same experience to others. The top-down apportionment system which is forced on local churches like government taxes now utilized by the UMC virtually guarantees that apportionments will not be paid. The tired old line, “apportionments extends the ministry of the local church beyond its local context” is just that – tired and old. In an increasingly globalized world local churches simply have little need for enormous top-heavy institutional bureaucracies. We truly want connections and you simply do not need the massive bureaucracies to facilitate that. Like everything, you need people with passion.
Now, my suggestion is not to be confused with the free-market-infused ideas of rigid conservatives who want to make all general agencies compete for the financial support of local churches. Honestly, conservatives’ ideas really suck most of the time. They are more committed to laissez-faire commercialism than they are to a biblically-centered ecclesiology. The free-marketeers want to put church expertise in competition with one another, instilling an ecclesial Darwinism; may the most popular church resource win. I got a glimpse of this a few years ago when giving a training on justice and mercy in New Orleans with some church resource people. Afterwards, one of them came to me and had a great way to “package” what I was saying into an acronym. It was all packaging, no soul. No thanks, buddy.
No, we don’t need competition. Instead, those of us in local churches need new ways to connect with people who share similar passions and expertise so we can mutually learn from one another. Again, you simply don’t need massive bureaucracies, thousands of employees, and multi-million dollar budgets to facilitate that. You need passion and vision. The curators at the Medgar Evers historical home understood that and were doing it. Why can’t the church learn this lesson?
What if we had leaders where none of them were detached from the local church – they were all in leadership in local churches, and most of those who led local churches were bivocational? Imagine the resources we would free up to truly impact the entire world with the good news of Jesus? Man, that gets me so pumped because it is so biblically-based and so powerful in its scope. But let’s be serious, this will only happen in a completely new structure; actually, a new movement.
This kind of a biblically-centered, Spirit-inspired movement starts from the ground up. We find those who have passion and expertise – those who are already doing the various forms of ministry – and we highlight them for those who are just starting. We foster connections and in so doing, we disciple new leaders. Most importantly, this is NOT an idea to repair the UMC as it is. I think transitioning a broken, overly bureaucratic, tired, old, institutional wineskin into holding new wine is utterly futile. This is why I left the UMC; there is no way to “fix” it. I doubt the institution will die any time soon; too many bureaucrats sucking on the teat. But I do hope those of us who have left and are wanting to create new connections and new dreams will take hold of the lessons that can be learned from places like the Medgar Evers historical home.
For those who have ears, let us hear.