“Weeping May Remain For the Night, but Rejoicing Comes With the Morning” (Psalm 30:5)
Karl Barth was once asked his reaction of the amazing response to his book on Romans. He said that as a local Swiss pastor he felt like a man climbing inside a church tower and falling. As the man reached out into the darkness he grabbed a rope — the rope to the village bell! The whole world, Barth said, seemed to have been longing for the peal of that “bell of hope,” and the era of Neo-Orthodoxy was born!
In the aftermath of a gridlocked General Conference in 2012, some of our bishops are offering creative, prophetic leadership. Though we deny them a substantive role in the work of the General Conference and that body’s attempts to perfect the Book of Discipline, they do have the power of the pen and they are our shepherds. The bishops are our spiritual leaders and one of the few remaining offices that almost all United Methodists want to retain. When they speak, we need to listen carefully, and maybe even respond to them en mass with a bullhorn that says, “WE HEAR YOU.”
Two examples of important teaching from our bishops are Bishop Robert Schnase’s latest book, Seven Levers, and Bishop Michael Coyner’s recent “encyclical” to the Indiana Conference taken from a chapter he has written for a book to be released later this year. Both of these leaders offer much needed contributions to our present discussion about new paradigms, thinking outside the box, and a “flattened” organizational and operational models.
Finding the word “shall” some 4,774 times in the 2012 Book of Discipline, Schnase suggests that our Discipline represents a “hierarchical structure on steroids.”
Schnase asserts that “we should realize that leadership in conferences relies less on hierarchical power and more on persuasion, appealing to mutual values, the power of common language, and the influence of coalition.” He continues, “Mandates don’t work, and plans that dictate compliance from all boards, pastors, or churches are ineffective.” “Working harder isn’t helping because our way of doing things appears less relevant and more distant from real world needs than ever before. Approaching our complex and outdated system is like stepping into a time machine that takes us back to another age of complex bureaucracies, convoluted systems, obscure rules, quaint tradition, endless reports, and infinitely slow processes.”
“Conferences don’t make disciples,” Schnase writes. “They don’t baptize babies, confirm, counsel newly weds, conduct funerals, or form recovery ministries. Conferences don’t conduct Bible Studies or provide pastoral care or solicit volunteers for soup kitchens. Congregations do these things. Conferences aren’t on the front lines. They are not where the action is….” These are the true “connections” — from churches to individuals. The local congregation is the only locus for effective revitalization.
If Facebook chatter, strident internet networking, and emerging protests are indicative of the 2016 General Conference, we are in for either a gridlock or a “donnybrook.” Cultural shifts are occurring rapidly regarding formally sexuality taboos like heterosexual couples living together before marriage, self avowed, practicing homosexuals winning congressional primaries, and gay marriage. Therefore some committee and “floor fights” will ignore our time honored “catholic spirit.” Also, by 2016, Lovett Weems prophecy of a “death tsunami” will be coming to pass. The budget crunch can no longer be ignored; so which ox will we choose to gore? We are closing more churches than we are forming; we are conducting far more funerals than celebrating professions of faith. Our median age is now almost sixty while the community under the shadow of most spires is thirty-five. As Lyle Schaller has written, “Our “Rome” is burning; will we fiddle or fight the fire?”
Schnase, who serves in Missouri, closes his book with a section called “A Future With Hope.” “United Methodists are frustrated with our structure,” Schnase writes. “They love their congregations, embrace our theology and desire to change the world while also finding structure less and less relevant and effective. Our excessive control and focus on rules becomes a stumbling block, causing us to focus energies on ourselves rather that outward.” He then asks the foundational question: “Do we deepen the polity of Wesley and the early innovative Methodists by adding more complexity to an already dense and inflexible structure? Or do we repeat the creativity, boldness, courage, and passion of our forebearers?”
Bishop Michael Coyner of Indiana is asking how much substantive change in structure we can effect without a change in the constitution. “Could each annual conference develop its own social principles?” he asks. This would make policy about ordaining self avowed gay and lesbian persons, performing gay marriages, etc. an issue determined on a conference by conference basis. Indeed he asks if we could jettison the jurisdictional system and let each annual conference elect and pay its own bishop. Presumably, that would free the conference to elect a bishop from within or outside its own membership. Could each conference pay its own bishop rather than sending money to the Episcopal Fund that fractures the umbilical cord between the conference and its own spiritual leader?. Could each annual conference establish its own path to ordination, recognizing sub-cultural diversity? These are Bishop Coyner’s questions, not mine.
In short, Bishop Coyner is asking for less central micro-managing and more local freedom. He is wondering if a “flat structure” might inculcate more trust, with decisions being made closer to the roots from which questions about change arise.
Years ago Lyle Schaller predicted a day when United Methodism’s only choice for survival would be a polity that looked more like a confederation of conferences rather than a centrally controlled system. In his projection, General Conference would be a celebration of Wesley’s grace theology, not a quagmire of parliamentary wrangling. He could be right. A lot of Bishop Coyner’s questions point in that direction.
The sands that have long held together our connection are shifting, with rules and policies that can no longer be supported by our diverse congregational base. The glue of our fragile connection has hardened like that in the old dining room straight chair, brittle and prone to coming undone. Thank God for bishops who are stepping up to offer leadership.
In a recent column, I asked if we could let the local congregation and SPRC and have more ownership in choosing a pastor. Many agreed, but Tim Bonney (who is a refugee from the “call system” of the Baptist and UCC and independent church variants) challenged the article, suggesting that I was advocating for that type of structure.
I in no way believe in adopting the call system of our Baptist brethren. To me and to most United Methodists, that is a foreign paradigm. I believe in, and support our episcopal polity, always remembering that our Restrictive Rule # 3 requires that we “not change or alter any part or rule of our government so as to do away with Episcopacy or destroy the plan of our itinerant general superintendents.”
As Diana Butler Bass wrote in another context, we are in a “time of endings.” Sooner of later, our time-honored appointive system will have to develop into a genuine consultation between bishops, cabinets, pastors and churches before appointments are finalized. Having been on a cabinet in an annual conference with over 800 clergy and 1100 churches, we developed a “profile” notebook to help the process. However appointment making over a limited three month period, with the hope of making effective appointments will have to bend or it will break.
Wesley agreed that scripture does not clearly support either a congregational, presbyterial, or episcopal form of governance. All have their flaws. Those respondents who see my proposal as having some features of both the Episcopal Church and the Lutheran Churches are correct. Their bishops have “input” in the screening of candidates and the right of “veto” to a congregational call. They also come to the local church year round for installations, enhancing the role of their office.
Neither Bishop Schnase nor Bishop Coyner cites itineracy per se; however, their paradigms call for more issues to be addressed. locally. In my previous column on updating our appointment system, the principle for which I plead is twofold:
- A greater trust and empowerment of the clergy who have covenanted to serve the church. Eventually guaranteed appointment will cease to be an entitlement. That will bring less job security for pastors and less guarantee of a pastor for dysfunctional churches. Do we really want to be a system of “kept servants,” subject only to the authority of the Cabinet and Bishop who know so little about our day to day ministry, and for all practical purposes, restricted to one annual conference? What would be harmful about a truly connectional appointment system?
- A greater trust and empowerment of the laity who build and maintain our churches and support the appointed clergy monetarily and relationally. Laity are the stakeholders without whose membership and stewardship, United Methodism would implode–closed for “insufficient funds.” Most laity elected for leadership are not “spiritually or ethically inferior” to clergy on the appointive cabinet. Can “priesthood of all believers” not include a voice in discerning God’s will for our next pastor.
Bishop Coyner’s question is worthy of substantive discussion: “Is it not time to abolish the jurisdictional structure and let every annual conference go as far as the constitution will allow it?” This could include some flexibility in ordination process, enhancing contextually our congregational mission to “make disciples,” and the adoption of social principles. Not negotiable would be our doctrine of grace theology , some modicum of our hallmark of “catholic spirit,” and our bishops’ authority to make appointments.
Freedom is frightening, but we can no longer accommodate the level of mediocrity among pastors nor “clubbishness” among congregations that too often mark our system. The hard truth is that to increase the percentage of growing churches in America, more of our churches and pastors will need to have a larger voice and larger risk in their own destiny. We could retain the biblical role of the bishop and the “steward” and the pastor; and restore the word “connection” to its Wesleyan dimension of fellowship, catholic spirit, and grace theology.