Return from exile provides fruitful metaphor for UMC

Eric Van Meter

Eric Van Meter

The “wilderness” doesn’t fit. We need a new metaphor.

The concept of “wilderness wanderings” has taken a prominent role in conversations about United Methodist leadership, thanks in large part to consultant Gil Rendle’s Journey in the Wilderness (Abingdon Press). The book draws from the story of Israel’s four-decade trek through the Sinai desert following the Exodus, when the nation was marking time before their entry into Canaan.

As a description of the UMC’s situation, the wilderness metaphor has a lot to offer. It gets at the failures of our past, the discomfort of our present, and the uncertainty of our future. It expresses the frustration we feel as we leave modernism behind and try to find our place in a postmodern world.

But descriptors are only good to a point. If they don’t suggest meaningful action, they merely explain where we are. It’s like having a map that tells our position, but doesn’t show any roads.

The wilderness metaphor suggests action, but in a very limited scope. It depends on leaders at the top—new incarnations of Moses and Joshua—to cast the vision that will lead us into a bright new day.

As General Conference looms, the wilderness seems to be the guiding metaphor behind much of the legislation, particularly that prescribed by the Call to Action. The idea seems to be that if we allow greater executive authority, we will stop bumping into each other and find the Promised Land of greater faithfulness, smoother functioning, and financial stability.

If we truly are in the wilderness, without direction and in dire need of a leader, perhaps this action makes sense. It’s worth noting, however, that strong executive leadership only led Israel out of the desert. Once in Canaan, the book of Judges tells us, things fell apart rather dramatically.

And what if we aren’t really in the wilderness at all? What if we’re working with the wrong metaphor? Our situation might look different.

Our actions certainly would.

My friend David suggests that, rather than continue to talk about the wilderness, we need to look at a lesser known yet fundamentally important biblical event: the return from exile in Ezra-Nehemiah.

In some ways, the story of the exile is much like that of the wilderness wanderings. Complacency and misuse of power lead to sin, which in turn leads to separation from God and the disintegration of Israel. It’s a time of suffering, uncertainty and loss.

After the offending generations have died off, God again restores the people through a combination of good leadership, hard work, and favorable circumstances. The people return to Jerusalem with joy, but find it in ruins.

Two things set the return from exile apart as an applicable metaphor for us: power and shared responsibility.

Although the true nature of Israel’s entry into the Promised Land is up for debate, it is often presented as The Conquest. Israel was, according to the book of Joshua, an overwhelming force when they obeyed the Lord. Everyone in their path either joined them or died opposing them.

And although everyone of fighting age was charged with taking up the battle, Joshua clearly takes center stage. One person has the lead. One person gets the credit.

The return from exile happens quite differently. A tiny number (less than 50,000) returns to Jerusalem not as conquerors, but as refugees. They live under the constant threat of annihilation from more than one opponent.

Because of those threats, they have to work together very closely. Although Ezra and Nehemiah play key roles, dozens of other individuals are mentioned by name for the specific work they did. Some repair gates. Others build walls. It seems that everyone who so much as installs a new hinge was lauded for the effort.

The current situation we United Methodists find ourselves in much more closely resembles the exiles as they return home. The former glory of American mainline Protestantism is past. Our structures are crumbling and, although a faithful remnant remains, we have no guarantees of success.

All we have is a nearly irrational hope that God is not finished with us, that the ruins of our denomination can be salvaged.

If that hope is to be realized, we have to work together—not just on reports, but on ground level. We have to work side by side, each of us concentrating on the localized task before us, trusting that our efforts will contribute to the larger rebuilding effort.

By “we,” I mean General Conference. And everybody else.

Perhaps the work of this year’s General Conference will be an important catalyst for rebuilding. Perhaps the legislative actions they take will make our work in the trenches easier. Or perhaps it will only lead to further instability and mistrust. There really is no way to know for sure yet.

Either way, we have to realize that our salvation will not come from anything that General Conference does. We everyday United Methodists cannot keep twiddling our thumbs in the wilderness, waiting for direction from on high. We have to get to work on the task of loving the people in front of us, of tenderly caring for even the smallest of ministries, knowing that every act of love builds the church.

We are exiles from the old UMC. But we—all of us—are vital parts of whatever God does with us next.


The Rev. Eric Van Meter is director of the Wesley Foundation at Arkansas State University. Contact him at

Leave a Reply

The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
Notify of
%d bloggers like this: