By Bill Mefford
While I have not been obsessing over the next steps for United Methodists after the fundamentalist takeover at the 2019 General Conference, I have been watching the various meetings of groups that have come together to figure out what is next. UM Forward has begun the amazing and much-needed work of centering people of color and LGBTQ clergy so that their voices will be integral to the formation of whatever comes next.
For centrists, UM Next met earlier this week in Kansas City and has been formed to explore possible transitions from the repressive legislation passed at this year’s General Conference to a more kinder and gentler church. Though they avoid going too far in one direction or another and remain safely in the middle, they at least provide a space for people to begin stepping away from the UMC and that is a good thing.
So, I am happy to see both of these efforts, as well as the thousands of conversations happening on social media and between people face to face who care about the birthing a more just and inclusive church. There has been an almost universal acceptance of the fact that the status quo cannot be maintained and something must happen. And for that I am so grateful. It has been long in the making.
And yet, with all that has been happening, I am still disappointed to a certain extent. From the distance I am at - having not attended any of the meetings that have been held and as an outsider looking in, it seems to me that very little if anything at all has been said about the need for leadership and structural reform. In fact, the smart bureaucrats that they are, many of those who benefit from the behemoth institution are now attaching themselves to some of the reform efforts so as to keep all institutional doors open and so that any reform will not reorder or diminish the vertical nature of the current status quo.
I just finished watching the taped press conference after the UM Next gathering in Kansas City and while it was very helpful to explain what was discussed and what direction the centrists are moving towards, having general secretaries of general boards and bishops as part of the gathering obviously means that this group has no plans of looking at reforming what to me is a basic cause of repression, patriarchy, racism, spiritual abuse, and the stifling of missional innovation - the institutional structure itself.
On this crucial aspect of reform I hear little to nothing from anyone.
So, rather than pout and throw pointed missives from the sidelines I thought I would start with the values I would want to see and be a part of for an alternative vision of another movement of Methodism. So, let me begin with suggesting some foundational values:
Missionally focused - the new movement should have one goal and one goal only: to love God and to love people. Fairly simple, right? It reflects what Jesus identified as the greatest commandment - to love God and to love others fully. This really is our sole reason for existing is it not? The call to love God and love other people guides us and disciplines us for if any effort or undertaking is not centered on loving God and loving people then we do not do it. At all. Ever. Imagine a local gathering of believers who care only about loving God and loving others. Kind of like the church in Acts, right? That’s the point.
Justice-seeking - Loving God and loving others means that we seek justice for those marginalized and oppressed and we do so from a position of incarnating ourselves among those directly impacted by injustice. Love and justice are not two sides of the same coin; they are the same coin. You cannot do one without the other. But we have so separated the two in the life of the United Methodist Church that we have even created committees and agencies supposedly solely dedicated to justice. Removing the bifurcation and normalizing justice into the worship and life of local gatherings of believers would go a long ways to making our churches reflective of a just and loving God. And we could get rid of yet another level of needless bureaucracy that has done so little to effectively equip and unleash us to love God, love others, and do justice.
Fully inclusive - This seems so obvious it is almost embarrassing to have to name it, but given the context of where the UMC is right now, naming it is vital. All means all. And this is more than just saying all are welcome. This means, as UM Forward is leading us to do, that we center people of color and LGBTQ folks. And that means decentering the normal power structures that have used the rhetoric of inclusion, but have maintained the violence of vertical hierarchies; the violence that has been used to institutionally persecute LGBTQ people especially. Being inclusive flows naturally from being missionally focused and seeking justice - you literally cannot be inclusive of people of color and LGBTQ folks if you are not missionally focused, incarnationally positioned, and seeking justice. It just can’t authentically happen any other way if your focus is on loving God, loving others, and doing justice.
Radically local and organically connected - Methodism was once a movement that had tremendous impact and transformation on the world. I do not want to imply that the UMC no longer has any impact as that would be inaccurate, but I do think it is fair to say that the transformative value of the UMC has been greatly diminished in recent decades and that is in part because whenever a movement becomes an institution then the vision that drove the movement drifts into maintaining the various structures that now uphold the institution. Those various structures have had important roles to play in the past, but they have now become so overpowering and burdensome that they slow us down. The vision to be missional, to seek justice, and to be inclusive has been swallowed up in their greater agenda which is to survive.
Thus, I want to suggest we liquidate the boards and agencies and the Council of Bishops and use the enormous financial reserves associated with those bodies (and the amount is considerable) to cover the costs associated with pensions and retirement funds for retired and retiring clergy. In other words, we liquidate structures to once again focus on people. I also believe we move away from maintaining large buildings and properties and instead, become more biblical in our understanding of location by becoming mobile and dynamic. Rather than the church being a building with a fixed address, the local church is a group of people radically focused on loving God, loving people, and doing justice. The church does not exist on a corner, but is instead witnessed as small groups of people living and loving on the margins of society.
Doing away with buildings and institutional structures means we begin what will most likely take several years to do and that is we move away from institutional ordination and the guaranteed appointments/jobs that the creation of a clergy caste has ensured. Instead, we move towards a team model of leadership much like what was experienced in the church in Acts and articulated by Paul in his letter to the church in Corinth as to the roles of the Body of Christ; none more important than any others, yet all are held accountable to one another.
Local gatherings of believers will be strengthened and will be liberated from the imprisonment of overbearing institutional commitments that have little to do with the local context of mission. This is as it was in the New Testament. We are local bands of believers connected with other local bands or gatherings, learning and shaping one another mutually. By removing artificial institutional bonds that may or may not have meant much to so many people, these connections will be intentional and will center around the shared values of loving God, loving others, and doing justice. Gone are the forced and often meaningless apportionments that local gatherings never knew where they went or what they did. Time and money and other resources can be better utilized for local missional contexts anyway than for paying for detached and expensive bureaucracies. As a result, connections will occur more dynamically and will create more powerful and flexible bonds between local gatherings of believers throughout the country and the world who want to work towards common goals.
Making connections more organic will likely remove the colonialism that often resides in the current institutional structures. Resources will not be stored away in general bodies which could then be used to buy influence and favor in order to maintain their survival. Instead, resources can actually be used for the work of justice and connections can be more mutual, reciprocal, and, importantly, egalitarian.
This last value will be much more difficult both to accept and to implement. But I believe it needs to be said first and foremost. In addition, being radically local and organically connected naturally flows out of our shared commitment to loving God, loving others, and doing justice. Loving God and others fully, seeking justice alongside those most directly impacted by injustice, and being fully inclusive means that we will devote our time, attention, and resources to people and less to maintaining what has been an arcane, top-heavy, hierarchical, patriarchal, racist, incredibly expensive, and even, at times, spiritually abusive bureaucracy. At least once a week, and many times more than this, I am told by someone how some denominational structure has hurt them, rejected them, or repressed their dreams for ministry. The United States is increasingly rejecting faith in Jesus and one reason for this is because the person of Jesus has become lost in our pursuit of institutional power and maintenance. Simply put, the world does NOT know us by our love. They know us by our fights with each other and the hurt we inflict on others.
I have sat in churches all of my life where the folks I sat beside knew more about the life of the Methodist denomination than they did the life of the neighborhood where we were sitting. This just cannot happen if we shed ourselves of the bureaucracy and the buildings and the thirst for power and survival and instead, when we emphasize the Body of Church moving missionally in the world, loving God, loving people, and doing justice all for the glory of God.