By Bill Mefford
Numerous times on this blog I have encouraged progressives in the United Methodist Church to leave the institution. Fundamentalist groups are slowly but surely taking over the church and institutionalists are protecting their turf at all costs. Rather than fight over institutional control I think progressives can do much better if they leave and create something that better resembles God’s Kingdom of love, justice, and compassion. I strongly believe this is not possible in the current structure of the church, nor in anything that will be coming out of the commission.
It is indeed a time for new dreams, new connections, and new leaders.
To that end I have been asked for some practical things that progressive Wesleyans can do or questions they should be asking right now. Here are the first ten things that come to mind:
1. As with all pursuits for justice, creating change ALWAYS begins with relationships formed through one on one conversations. Progressive leaders need to be talking with one another regularly (and please note I use the word "leaders" inclusively, not just those who are ordained). Progressives need to check in with one another and also ask the bigger questions, a couple of which I talk about below. We need to do more than than just gripe about the commission, or the fundamentalist takeover. Let's take the time to dream; to share our passions and visions with one another for where the church should be going and growing. Birthing a progressive Wesleyan movement is not something that can happen at a weekend retreat. We need to take the time and truly invest in one another; listen to one another, share our dreams and hopes and fears and through this process, we can be mutually transformed.
2. During the one on one conversations, one of the questions progressive leaders need to ask one another is, "What kind of leadership do we want and what are the structures that will nurture and grow those leaders?" One of the biggest problems the UMC faces (and I believe it is the biggest challenge) is a lack of leadership. Progressives have leaders in institutional positions, but all too often those leaders act in defense of the institution rather than in boldly advancing a progressive Wesleyan movement. Thus, any new birth of a progressive Wesleyan movement must include a new imagining of what leadership structures are needed that will advance a movement that truly transforms the world. Old wineskins cannot hold new wine. We need new leaders and new dynamic and organic ways to connect new leaders.
3. As I said in #1, the first step towards birthing a progressive Wesleyan movement are one on one conversations. But those conversations must be collected and gathered, otherwise, the strength and power of those conversations are lost. If states or conferences have strong existing structures like Reconciling Ministries groups or a strong MFSA connection, those networks are the best ways to bring groups of leaders together. Groups should be formed organically, but to organize the groups of progressive leaders, you can use an existing network if one exists. Of course, those networks must agree to take this on, but what higher purpose can those networks serve than to help birth a progressive Wesleyan movement?
4. If you are in a state or conference without strong, existing networks, then you will have to create one. Creating a network is not creating a new organization. We start with the one on one conversations to identify progressive leaders and to share our visions and passions. But as groups of progressive leaders are formed,ideally in geographical regions, you will need for these groups to communicate with one another and to meet face to face at times. This is where the power of the movement can truly begin to take hold and the visions and passions begin to truly take shape. Far too often we flip this process and start with the large regional or national conferences to bring us together. But those larger gatherings often lack the power that comes when they are preceded by groups of people connected through one on one conversations. New networks will birth movements, but, as with all things, it all begins with one on one conversations.
5. As new networks are created, there will naturally be discussions about what structures to adopt. New ecclesial models must be considered. The truth is that when the UMC splits or folds far too many progressive leaders will automatically pursue other progressive denominations. I understand the impetus for such a move, but I believe that there is something far more powerful and innovative that can happen; that wants to happen through progressive Wesleyans. So, I suggest looking at younger movements as models, especially the beginning of the Methodist movement, when small bands of believers, incarnated among the poor and vulnerable, began a movement that changed the face of the UK and the young American nation. This was a movement based in justice and social holiness, as much as it was about personal piety. We should recover and celebrate this movement and resist the safe moves to other established denominations. This movement is us.
6. I understand that one of the prominent reasons many clergy will leave (or have already left) for other denominations is simply to be able to be gainfully employed. That is obviously a necessity for those who are called to full-time vocational ministry. What I want to suggest to those progressive leaders who are clergy is to consider bi-vocational ministry. The truth is that massive institutions require equally massive infusions of funds and these institutions are dinosaurs; historic relics of times gone by. We need new structures that are organic and can move and be shaped as times change and challenges warrant new approaches. The truth is that many of us who are not ordained have just as strong a sense of calling, but yet, most of us are bi-vocational. It is challenging to think about, but this is the way that the church will grow in the future and as progressives we should lean into that change, not resist it.
7. One suggestion I will make is to keep the one on one conversations about birthing something new somewhat quiet. The truth is that those in charge of the current institution do not want a new birthing of a progressive Wesleyan movement. They like the old, stale version. They will insist, without anything to back this up with, that the new progressive Wesleyan movement can be experienced in the current structure. They will insist this because as primary benefactors of the current structure they desperately need people (and their continued funding) to remain intact. Dreaming of new models is institutional subversion. They are right. We are subversives. And we are in good company. Nothing powerful has ever started that did not get tremendous pushback and resistance. A good question to those who insist that the current structure can birth a new progressive Wesleyan movement is to ask why it hasn't ever happened. What I said previously remains true: old wineskins cannot hold new wine. I urge you to subvert the institution by dreaming of a new movement and to do so quietly for the time being.
8. As you engage in one on one conversations, one question to ask each other is what you love about the community you are currently serving. What is your vision for change where you are now? In all of the tumult that surrounds the direction of where the UMC is heading (or not heading), progressive leaders must always remember that God has called you to serve your community. One of the worst things about the constant fighting is that we forget the paramount importance of serving our communities. You are called by God to love the people you live among, to lead them to a greater and deeper understanding and practice of God's love for the world. Do not forget to love the people you serve among as you dream about the future.
9. Likewise, progressive leaders must weekly, if not daily, remember your calling. The value of the one on one conversations, above all things, can best be realized if they remind us of who we are in Christ and what we were originally called to do and to be. These one on one conversations will serve to hold us accountable and will be that which nurtures and sustains us. Regardless, of what happens with the UMC, there is virtually nothing more important to our ministry than loving accountability with a nurturing challenge to continue to pursue God and God's justice for the world relentlessly. So, go have three one on one conversations this week!
10. Lastly, DREAM. As you talk and share your passions and visions, allow God's Kingdom dreams to be your only limit. This can either be a depressing and confusing and contentious time, or this can be the most exciting time in our ministry lives as we dream about the limitless expanse of what the church can and should be to fully resemble God's Kingdom. There is nothing more important than right now. Let's quit waiting for others to tell us what the direction is and let's seek God, and within relationships with other progressive Wesleyan leaders, let's set the direction ourselves.
Let's get to it. I am ready.