Four Things Progressive Bishops Should Do Before the Coming Split in the United Methodist Church

I have been saying for years that the locus of God’s change and transformation in the world happens through local churches; not through denominational structures or leaders from on high,separated from the real context in which people live. Change happens locally. So, most of the time I honestly could not care less what those on the top end of the pay scale of the church do or say – that’s not where the real action is. However, because the United Methodist Church is shaped more like a vertical corporation than a counter cultural network designed to usher in the Kingdom of God, there is unfortunately an incredible amount of resources within reach of those at the top of this vertical structure. And those resources can and should be utilized to help build a new progressive Wesleyan movement. 

The United Methodist institution is careening towards dismantling and while this is a sad thing for many people, there are many of us who have left whose primary sadness is the fact that the church seems so solely focused on its survival that it often forgets the substance of its calling – to love, to serve, to sacrifice, to missionally risk, to save. It is time for progressive people in “leadership” positions to put their proclaimed values into action. Here are a few suggestions: 

1) Begin to plant worshiping communities specifically for those who have been marginalized by the United Methodist institution. There are numerous people who have left the church, who are generally Wesleyan in their theological approach, and who have no church home. It literally is a large mission field and one that is filled with gifted leaders who often have been cast off from an uncaring, unthinking, unprophetic, unpastoral institution that grinds people like fuel. I hear progressive United Methodists bemoan all the time how so many people have left the church because of the systematic repression and marginalization, but besides a few statements of dismay and sadness, nothing is being done! Many tremendous leaders have left the church and all we do is shake our heads? What about creating missional outposts, small worshiping and missional communities with the marginalized appointed leaders and unleash their gifts into a world that has long stopped giving one damn about what denominations or massive religious institutions think or do, primarily because they have done so little. Massive religious institutions have done and will always do a very poor job of reaching people at the margins. You need people who are in the margins to reach people in the margins. And there are so many people who would love to begin building the new progressive Wesleyan movement outside the rigid, repressive confines of the institution. Pour all you can into these missional outposts whose focus will not be on buildings or institutional politics; just on the people who will never step foot in the in the fancy foyers of our current structures – this is where the energy for movement building is.

2) I can see the questions floating in your mind – how the hell can we pay for new mission starts when our congregations are declining and that means less money. Well, we are declining for a reason and one major reason is because we define the extent of our mission based on the financial bottom line. We look at what we financially can do rather than what we are called to do. But I do have one suggestion to build towards the new progressive Wesleyan movement – close dying churches. Like this week. It is far past time to invest in new works, new and innovative expressions of God’s missional love for the world. We treat most dying churches like we treat this dying denomination: keep doing the same things that brought about the current slow death, but hope against all hope for some magical turnaround. But that turnaround never comes. So, we devote enormous sums of money to what amounts to babysitting. Close them and devote the remaining resources that exist in those fellowships – especially the people – to the new missional outposts that will be planted outside the institution. These outposts will not need structures and the leaders are already bi-vocational so the only thing that is missing is your leadership and creative thinking. This is where the energy for movement building is and it is time that we put our money into where God’s heart is: the margins.

3) Of course, in moving out of an organizing design via institutional structures characterized by stasis and inertia, and into organic networks, led by people who organize via relationships among those directly impacted by injustice, we are going to have to throw over much of what we have relied on; much of what has sustained those of us who have existed at the top of these structures for so long. In short, the new progressive Wesleyan movement will need Bishops and other leaders with big titles and shiny statuses to shed themselves of all of those titles and statuses and to just lead. My suggestion is to for us to actually live out the priesthood of all believers. This is what Kingdom leadership entails. This is what makes the new progressive Wesleyan movement so exciting; we will finally manifest what we have preached about but have resisted tooth and nail for so long. Jesus came to serve, not to be served. Jesus’ reign is not identified by his place high on an institutional throne, far above and detached from the suffering of people who live on the margins. No! Jesus came to live in the margins, incarnated among those society disdains and ostracizes. I am absolutely convinced that the single greatest act a United Methodist Bishop or denominational leader can make today is to renounce their title, give up the benefits that go along with it, and join a local band of Jesus followers who live and work and minister among the margins. Nothing could stop the momentum towards modeling the leadership necessary to build a new progressive Wesleyan movement created by such an act of faithfulness. This is what real leadership looks like. 

4) The last suggestion I have is actually one fundamentalist organizations fling at progressive leaders all the time. They mean it in a derogatory manner, as a way to degrade, but I bring it up as a means of liberation. My last suggestion is this: if you are going to ignore parts of the Book of Discipline, why not ignore the whole thing? Again, fundamentalist organizations want to accuse you of creating chaos, but when your institution can only be characterized by torpor and lethargy chaos is necessary and good. No step of maturity in Christ has happened without some feeling of chaos. It's how we know the old self is dying and new, unexpected life for Christ is being born. This does not mean that aspects of the Book of Discipline cannot be adhered to, but perhaps it is time to acknowledge that rigid obedience to a book created by a top-heavy, dying institution – a book with many sections that most fundamentalists have absolutely no interest in following – does not constitute faithfulness to Jesus. If we as progressives believe that God wants to do something new, raise up new leaders, dream new dreams, create new networks among people who share similar passions and visions, live more genuinely into God’s loving reality where all people are welcome and have access to justice and liberation, then why do we continue to pour this new wine into the same old dried out and worn wineskins? In a spirit of wisdom and discernment, let’s chunk the Book of Discipline, recalling it only as a relic of institutional days past, and seek out a new order that connects us and drives us on to perfected love; a new order written on our hearts, linking us to others who share this same passion.

A Book of Disciplineless network of people living passionately on the margins, rejecting the phony titles and lofty statuses of an old institution that reflected empire more than God’s Kingdom; this could be our destiny. So many of us are waiting expectantly.

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