By Ben Boruff, Special Contributor…
As conversations about denominational vitality and increasingly global mission efforts move to the forefront of the UMC’s mind—as they should—trust-related issues pepper our thoughts.
In a recent United Methodist News Service report about the Connectional Table, Bishop Bruce Ough, the group’s new chair, noted “the intense level of distrust that exists within the United Methodist Church.” Bishop Ough continued, highlighting the possibility of “reformation and reordering and re-energizing,” but his initial diagnosis should not be overlooked.
Given the frequency and certainty with which we mention our denominational propensity for distrust, we must consider what we mean. Because if we believe that distrust is harmful, then we probably believe that trust is a virtue, and that means that we are asking others, Methodists and non-Methodists, to trust us. We must, then, address the question: Why should I trust you?
In the aftermath of General Conference 2012, many bishops, pastors and lay leaders—including myself—concur with Bishop Ough’s analysis. Texas lay leader Ricky Harrison discussed the “culture of fear and distrust which surrounded the entire mess” of General Conference in a commentary in the United Methodist Reporter. The Rev. Sky McCracken, a district superintendent in the Memphis Conference, asserted that “we are a denomination united by our mistrust.” The Rev. Craig Parrish of the Pacific Northwest Conference said that “suspicion and distrust . . . permeates some quarters of the church.”
Some have attempted to pinpoint the cause. The Rev. Øyvind Helliesen of Norway observed that “the church in the U.S. is more divided and more political than the rest of the denomination. . . . For the rest of the denomination, as I know it, I don’t feel distrust is strong.” In other words, this trend may be U.S.-specific.
These are all important observations, worthy of consideration; but I want to offer a different approach. Though unearthing the origins of our distrust disorder may offer clues regarding the source of our denominational dissolution, we must nonetheless learn how to operate effectively in our current reality, a reality of pervasive distrust. Instead of looking solely to the past for answers, let us boldly face our current situation. To do this, we must ask and be asked, “Why should I trust you?”
In a rapidly changing, globalized world, the UMC must justify its existence to societies that are less membership-oriented than those of past eras, and this requires us to show others that we are worthy of their trust. Walking into a church is an act of vulnerability. Why should I walk into your church? Why should I trust you with my spiritual life?
Likewise, we must address that pressing question, “Why should I trust you?” to those inside the denomination. Rather than vaguely moralizing about the value of trust, we must substantiate our trustworthiness.
Pastors must earn the trust of their congregations and of the bishops who make appointments rather than relying on the itinerant system to provide a sense of purpose and a paycheck. Lay leaders, including young people, must demonstrate responsibility if they wish to be leaders in a global organization. And, finally, bishops must lead with a sense of purpose, as visionaries, as giants of Wesleyan theology.
I believe that the fact that our bishops do not have more power within our denomination is absurd, but I also believe that bishops must earn our collective trust. We spend thousands—possibly millions—of dollars and countless, arduous hours electing and appointing our bishops through an elaborate, prayer-filled process, and then we give them minimal leadership opportunities outside of annual conferences. By indulging this odd phenomenon, we are being ineffective, poor stewards of our resources. Still, bishops must give United Methodists reasons to trust, reasons to be proud of United Methodism and its leaders, and proud of the positive impact that our denomination is having on the world.
Amid the chorus of accusations and cries against distrust, we have the opportunity to address a pressing question. All levels of the church, all individuals and all groups associated with Methodism must ask and be asked the trust question. Then we must respond to it.
To ask, “Why should I trust you?” is to consider the possibility of reconciliation. To ask, “Why should you trust me?” is to consider who you are as a Christian leader and why you are making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.
Mr. Boruff served on the UMC’s Connectional Table and Call to Action Steering Committee. He’s a member of Churubusco UMC in Churubusco, Ind., and children’s ministry director at Nashville UMC in Nashville, Ind.