“The United Methodist Church’s unfixable rot has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with polity.”

Jason Micheli —  March 4, 2019 — 5 Comments

For the record—

I think opposition and resistance to the Traditionalist Plan in the UMC need not equate to a progressive (I hate that term— it’s elitist) United Methodism. In fact, I think if opposition to the TP leads to or becomes synonymous with a progressive Christianity then GC2019 will only hasten our decline. Theologically speaking, I am not progressive. 

I happen to think that, on the one hand, the Traditionalists are not really traditionalist in that their chief concern, sexuality, is not a matter of creedal confession and, on the other hand, the justification of the ungodly is the most inclusive and traditional doctrine possible. A bare-knuckled, unapologetic Pauline understanding of grace makes our holiness-enforcing and bickering over inclusion unintelligble as Christian speech.

Masked by the Traditionalist Plan’s regressive treatment of gay United Methodists is the larger structural problems in the denomination and the longer historic acrimony of which GC2019 was but the latest skirmish.

As Diana Butler Bass shared at a gathering of pastors and laity in my home this weekend: “Those who think that if the One Church Plan had passed all would be well in the UMC are living a fantasy.”

Had the One Church Plan passed a different 50% of the UMC would now feel aggrieved and victimized. That the math and the felt outcome would not have changed— and that the council of bishops were unable to avoid any other outcome— shows the extent to which the UMC is broken. 

Christians are good at burying the dead. 

Christians are seldom good at giving a funeral to church programs or polity.

Brad Todd, a good friend and parishioner, shares these thoughts on GC2019:

“The United Methodist Church has finally admitted this week that it’s not united at all but what’s worse is that few in the nation’s second-largest (for now) Protestant body seem to even understand why. 

After a divisive global gathering of the denomination to sort out policies on gay ordination and gay marriage, I have been more dismayed by the way my fellow Methodists have reacted to the conference than by anything that was decided at the conference – and I think I’d be saying that no matter which side ended up on the 47 end of the 53-47 vote. That event was ill conceived and destined to fail no matter how the votes fell. Almost all American Methodists speaking out this week express angst about the church’s future – but these emotions, on both sides, are mostly unconstructive and not aimed in the direction of our problem.

The United Methodist Church’s unfixable rot has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with polity.

For the purposes of argument let’s totally set aside for the next 1,200 words what I believe is a symptom of our problem – the debate over church’s positions on homosexuality – and focus on the tectonic plate structure that ripped us open at that specific fissure. It’s not that I don’t think the debate over sexuality is one we can respectfully have, but I think people like my pastor Jason Micheli have accurately noted that the Methodist left and Methodist right have both pursued this legalistic question far outside the dominant shadow that should be cast by our shared commitment to spreading a theology of sin-cleansing Grace, and only sin-cleansing Grace. 

So for a moment, let’s assume both sides on this question have enough sin and wrong to go around and look behind the way we got to this food fight.

And while we’re at it, let’s junk the faction labels crudely borrowed from secular politics (my chosen profession, incidentally) and use centuries-old, value-positive religious analogies instead – let’s call those who want to change the Book of Discipline’s policies on gays “reformers” and those who like the current policies “orthodox.” 

For decades in the last century, orthodox Methodists protested the drift of the UMC on societal issues and personnel policies but their objections were beaten back by the majoritarian, procedurally rigid, top-down polity of the denomination’s quadrennial conferences. 

An insulated, career-tenured church bureaucracy functionally ignored the unrest in the years between conferences. But eventually, as mainline American Christians began making church a thing of their memories and not of their lifestyles, the numbers got away from the old majority in the UMC – and the people I’m now calling “reformers” became outnumbered by a booming population of orthodox Methodists in Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe. This week in St. Louis, those globally-diverse orthodox Methodists used the same rigid majoritarian polity to stuff all notions of reform on gay marriage and ordination policies.

Too few got the irony of a mostly-white losing faction using rainbow avatars to deride the lack of inclusiveness of a real rainbow coalition on the orthodox side.

This omission once again should have proven that the problem is polity and not people.

The United Methodist Church as we know it was forged in the post-war era dominated by national brand conformity and big, top-down, bureaucratic solutions. From government to beer brands to department stores, the age that spawned the UMC created national behemoths in almost every consumer category. But today, Sears & Roebuck is in bankruptcy and Amazon is creating a hundred million different, individualized department stores on the smartphones of a hundred million Americans. In politics, a reality show act with a can’t-miss Twitter account created an organic movement that blew up both political parties in the 2016 election. In The Great Revolt, the book I wrote with journalist Salena Zito, we attempted to put that election in the light of every other change that has happened in our economy in the 12 years since the smartphone was introduced. This Methodist failure should also be put on that timeline.

Why should United Methodists think our musty, unresponsive, hierarchy is going to fare any better in this moment of individual empowerment than any other fat, slow post-war monstrosity? 

You simply cannot force people to change their minds or trust your brand today. 

Organizations that dictate from the top are doomed to fall in consumer-led coups. 

Sometimes those coups elect Donald Trump, sometimes those coups nearly nominate Bernie Sanders, sometimes those coups send your company to bankruptcy, and sometimes those coups split your denomination.

The likelihood of this failure in Saint Louis was entirely foreseeable – the numbers are the numbers. But the bishops and ordained church leaders and staff who cooked up the one-sided reform plan ignored the denominational dynamics they’d put in place over the last three decades, and chose to never look in the mirror. Now they seem shocked that the orthodox delegates wouldn’t accept what they smugly dubbed the “One Church Plan” (a title reeking of “do this or else” sentiment) crammed down their throats. The back up Connectional Plan – which would’ve split the church into three quasi-autonomous strains – raised so many long-lead constitutional questions that it had no chance among the delegates, reflecting the fact that it was proposed ten years too late. But tone deaf bureaucracies are always late to the party with the answer that would work. It’s the nature of the arrogance of unchecked power.

The inherent impossibility of running a bottom-up religion with top-down bishops and winner-take-all conference showdowns is the crisis Methodist now must address if we are to quit sniping at each other long enough to get back to the work of spreading the good news of Christ – together or apart.

Next year in Minneapolis when Methodists gather again for the regular global conference, this reform of our polity should be the only item on the agenda. Let’s blow the whole thing up and replace the cathode-ray tube governance model with a digital-age grass roots structure that puts congregational work first.

It might look something like this:

  1. Make a denomination wide commitment to evangelism, above all social activism and even the good work of the church. A shrinking army argues more than a growing one, so it will be good for governance and has the added benefit of being the one thing Christ compelled the church to do (sarcasm intended.)
  2. Allow any UMC church that wants to leave the denomination with its property to gracefully do so, provided they assume any debts associated with the property. Deed over all other church properties to the congregations that remain. Make it clear that no congregation is held captive. The mother church must earn the trust of its congregants every day and a land-poor mother church will be a more responsive mother church.
  3. Make the job of bishop a 5-year, one-term job to be completed at the end of a ministry career. Refashion the job to be a congregational consultant and ministerial mentor instead of the current role of administering a needlessly complicated system of itinerancy and moderating parliamentary procedure.
  4. Dismantle the bulk of the central denominational staff via generous early retirement packages. Every other industry has right-sized itself in the last decade – and many of them gave up middle management layers that were less flabby and failed than ours. Devolving power away from the central organization of the denomination is essential to sustainability in the new age of smartphone connectionalism. Keep only the departments and agencies that provide direct services to congregations, and trim even those. 
  5. Spin off the mission functions of the denomination to separate entities that are sustained only on voluntary subscription payments from congregations. As Christians we believe we are all called to mission – so our denomination should trust Christ to adequately do the compulsion.

Critics of my plan will say that this is incompatible with the inherently catholic notions of pastoral authority that have been embedded in Methodism since our founder John Wesley came from the Anglican tradition. They are right. But Bible-centric orthodox Methodists will surely agree that this pastoral authority model has few plausible New Testament roots and modern reform Methodists have to admit that this system no longer works for any of us no matter how we got it or how long it took them to realize they will never again have the numbers to run the machine.

Dueling speakers on the floor of the St. Louis conference extolled, in alternating speeches, the need for Methodism to focus on the teachings of the Bible and on the need to reach a new generation for Christ. They are both right. We need a new polity to achieve both – or either – aspiration.

Our secular politics has devolved into a poisonous frenetic cycle in which the second line of any dialogue is either: “you’re a bigot” or “you’re a traitor.” Now we’ve let those same slurs come to define how church people talk to each other. We have a better model than that.

Forgive us of our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us. Lead us not into temptation and deliver us from evil. For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. Amen.”

 

 

Jason Micheli

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5 responses to “The United Methodist Church’s unfixable rot has nothing to do with sex and everything to do with polity.”

  1. I’m not a Methodist although our scout pack and troop does meet in a UMC facility and we have friends who attend that church. I have nothing but gratitude towards the UMC for their emphasis on community outreach and service. When other conservative denominations (including my own) tucked tail and ran at the slightest sign of trouble the UMC has kept chartering the BSA. I’m grateful.

    Re this article – it seems to me to be a profound bit of self-awareness and constructive remedies.

    However, it also seems to me to be more than slightly hypocritical and self-serving. Yes, the author has done a reasonable diagnosis. But the remedy is essentially to say “we want to take our toys and go home because we disagree.” If the other side (there’s that other language) had won I doubt they’d be as magnanimous in victory as they are gracious in defeat.

    As an outsider looking in perhaps the truly Christ-like action to take is to submit to each other and bear one another’s burdens. In other words, the progressive wing centered in North America, should perhaps take a time out and acquiesce to the convictions of their African brethren for a time.

    Because any talk of simply letting churches walk with property or splitting reeks of self-serving interest.

    Again, speaking as someone entirely on the outside looking in. With honest gratitude for the UMC.

  2. The TP was never about creating a pure church but a church that acknowledges a sanctifying God. Much of the agonizing over St. Louis is grief over not keeping up with a fallen culture on the broad road into the abyss. This is misplaced grief. What’s needed is repentance.

    • Gary, you nailed it regarding the TP. Well said.

      Jason, I gave this article to my DS to give to my bishop. It’s refreshing in its honest assessment of our broken polity.

      Blessings!

  3. Todd W Scranton March 8, 2019 at 9:05 AM

    I notice you mention itinerancy in passing – as a “needlessly complicated” system that Bishops administer, but is it sustainable? It is a part of our Methodist DNA (genetic companion to the Trust Clause – the part of our system everyone seems so eager to jettison these days), but I don’t hear much discussion of its sustainability.

    I find that ironic because as far as I can tell it the deepest source of anxiety in our system. Many of our local congregations don’t trust the Conference to send them an appropriate pastor, but they are for the most part completely ill-equipped to conduct a search/hiring process of their own. Many also have such limited resources that it is doubtful they could attract pastoral leadership without an appointment system to send them one.

    The situation is no better on the other side, of course. Many pastors distrust the appointment process, but I wonder how they would get by if they had to negotiate anxious days of resumes, cover letters, interviews, and salary package negotiations that employees face in most other occupations.

    At the end of the day we would seem to have a system no one trusts, but at the same time no one is prepared to live without. I’d be curious to hear others’ thoughts.

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