As the mushroom cloud surrounding the end of General Conference slowly dissipates, United Methodist leaders across the nation (I don’t presume to speak for those abroad) are in a frenzy of frustration.
The delegates are frustrated that, after the failure to adopt a valid restructuring plan, their work seems for naught. Non-delegates are angry that our representatives are coming home with little to show except the removal of guaranteed appointment, which hardly enjoys universal popularity. And everyone is upset at the prospect of another quadrennium of wondering what we should do next.
I’m not sure about the answer to the “What now?” question. I have my opinions, of course. So does everyone else. But it doesn’t seem wise to rush into fix-it mode so soon after the meltdown. When the going gets tough—and oh my, has it gotten tough—we don’t need to rush, either toward blame or solution.
We need perspective.
It’s going to be okay.
Perhaps not in the sense that we wish. None of us want to see our Mother Church struggle so mightily. All of us want more faithful and fruitful ministries, even if we define those things a bit differently. Regardless of our wishes, however, it’s likely that she will flounder for at least four more years.
Two things, however, give me reason to be hopeful amid the chaos.
For starters, the amount of prayer and hard work that went into the proposed restructuring at GC represents a faithful undertaking from our appointed leaders. Just because their solution was not ultimately the right one does not mean it was a failure, any more than one of Edison’s discarded ideas for the light bulb were failures. The things we learned may yet bear fruit.
Precisely what those lessons are is not yet clear, although it does seem that General Conference sent a clear message of discomfort with affording the episcopacy the powers that the Council of Bishops sought. We are not ready to relinquish democracy in our polity.
But what’s really at stake with the failures of this year’s GC? From the furor over Plan UMC, the answer seems to be restructuring. Much of the church recognizes that our bureaucracy is far too sprawling and uncoordinated, and virtually everyone I know still hopes to find a corrective to our inefficiency.
Still, we’re talking about efficiency here. And although it is certainly a component of faithful living, it’s rather low on the list. We are told to be loving, compassionate, merciful, courageous, faithful, hope-filled, and so forth. Jesus never says, “Above all, be thou efficient.”
The day GC 2012 ended, I brought up this idea with my friend John, a former district superintendent during a period of intense restructuring in our annual conference. In his retirement, John has become a historian. I asked him to help me put this year’s GC in context.
“Oh, I suppose it’s going to cause a lot of hand-wringing for some people,” he said. “But in almost three hundred years of Methodism, I’ve yet to find a single instance of revival coming through restructuring.”
He went on to talk about the earliest structures of Methodism, how in his view Wesley’s organization came as a response to the movement in progress, and not the other way around. Such organization was vital—it’s what made Methodism sustainable, while George Whitefield’s revival quickly dissipated.
It’s a lesson repeated in our day. No matter our intentions, we cannot renew the UMC through restructuring.
Any legislation GC might have passed would not make us more faithful, nor, I would argue, would it make us more fruitful. It would have made some decisions smoother. It might have saved us money (although, after watching similar premises to the Call to Action being enacted in my own annual conference, I have grave doubts about that).
But no one will be spurred toward greater acts of love because of restructuring. No one will sacrifice time and prayers and energy and money for the sake of someone else because our church runs more efficiently.
Rather, our faith catches fire because of our sense of being loved by God and each other, which in turn leads us to return love to both God and neighbor.
The end of General Conference coincided with the “super-moon,” a full moon of incredible brightness brought about by the unusual nearness of its orbit. It reminded me of what G. K. Chesterton said about St. Francis, that he “is the mirror of Christ rather as the moon is the mirror of the sun. The moon is much smaller than the sun, but it is also much nearer to us; and being less vivid it is more visible.”
If we are going to thrive as Wesleyan Christians, our first and most important task is not to formulate an efficient church. It’s to develop and live out a passionate love for both God and neighbor. Those of us who have given our lives to that cause are still going to work every day to make that happen. Regardless of our narrative of decline, I still believe such work is contagious. Even if it’s not, it’s still the work of Christ.
The primary responsibility for our most important task still lies with those of us near enough to our neighbors to mirror God’s love vividly.
If we give ourselves to that—live or die, one way or another—It’s going to be okay.
The Rev. Van Meter directs the Wesley Foundation at Arkansas State University.