Examining the proposals for Change

By Donald Haynes

Readers misunderstand my role as a columnist for The United Methodist Reporter often enough to deserve an explanation of where I fit into our denomination’s connection.

I’m an elder who has served his church wherever he was sent in various capacities from 1954-1999, and since retirement, I have served five times as interim pastor. Currently, I’m pastor of a small rural church.

It is from this vantage point that I read the latest report of the Connectional Table to the Call to Action Committee, which will make rather dramatic proposals for change as the 2012 General Conference convenes. Like the folk philosopher of the 1930s, Will Rogers, “all I know is what I read in the paper.” But I hope that passing on their recommendations to you in the local church and in positions of connectional influence might enhance the dialogue.

According to these recommendations, the so-called “bureaucracy” of the church would be reduced sharply, both in numbers and in payroll. We would fold most boards and agencies into five offices: Congregational Vitality, Leadership Excellence, Missional Engagement, Justice and Reconciliation, and Shared Services.

But with what bottom line effect? What will the trickle-down impact be?

The new name recommended for the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry, the “Office of Leadership Excellence,” has a good ring to it. In the fall, I began teaching a seminary class of the “recently called.” What do I say to them? Do we need those whom God is calling? If Lovett Weems and other prognosticators are accurate, and I think they are, our impending “death tsunami” of loyal laity will reduce many of our parishes to a critical mass unable to support a pastor. Is it excellence or excising for which we are preparing?

The underlying assumption seems to be that we are preparing the way for the demise of guaranteed appointment and more quick and compassionate exit procedures for clergy who have mediocre measurable performance. On a practical level, it might well mean more part-time local pastors who—like those in our Pentecostal and Baptist sister communions—have to supplement their income from secular employment, retirement benefits or spouse income. Part-time local pastors or retired pastors will be more effective than the very uncreative resort to old circuit patterns.

 

Lopsided emphasis?

My first surprise in reading the recommendations is that the present General Board of Global Ministries and General Board of Church and Society would anchor two of the new agencies, when the majority of observers have for a long time felt that the Board of Global Ministries has a philosophy and an agenda.

We have a sharply diminished number of traditional “missionaries” in the field. Since the days of the early-1930s debate between Hendrik Kraemer and William Hocking, the Methodist philosophy of missions has had more emphasis on socioeconomic and political agendas than on evangelizing. Our board adopted the theological position of Professor Hocking from Harvard, who called for the affirmation of indigenous religions. We moved overwhelmingly toward educational, medical, agricultural and socioeconomic-political emphases. We rejected the position of Kraemer who wrote a book on the uniqueness of Christianity.

In the developing nations since the end of colonial empires, the Board of Global Ministries abroad has reflected a philosophical ethos identical to that of the Board of Church and Society in American culture. How much connectional structure do we need for social justice advocacy? Do we not need stronger local churches who will “stir up the gift of God” to provide more foot soldiers “to serve this present age”? Do we need the Global Ministries and Church and Society boards and their respective advocacy agencies to occupy a full half of our connectional leadership and half of our fiscal support for board and agency costs? Would it not be more equitable to place these two giant boards and the agencies reflecting their philosophy under one umbrella? I do not write this as a cheap shot, but as a reality check.

My second surprise is that we are placing most of the praxis ministries of the local church in one “office”—Congregational Vitality. This means evangelism, nurture, worship and stewardship will all be in one board while missional engagement and social justice/reconciliation has two! How can we assume this to be a move toward effective general church resourcing for the local church? Already local churches are “doing their own thing” with literature, worship and ministry paradigms. The vertical connectionalism from the local church to Nashville or New York or Washington is only a shadow of what it was a generation ago.

 

Effect on local church

If the new paradigm is to be helpful, congregational vitality must be our focus. Elton Trueblood, the great Quaker, repeatedly insisted in his writings that every church must have a base and a field. The congregational base must be strong enough numerically, spiritually and financially to support “field ministries” in the culture or overseas. If our local churches become too weak to develop leaders and provide monetary support for missional engagement and social justice/reconciliation ministries, those cultural impact ministries will gradually die from asphyxiation. Whom are we kidding to think we can continue to “make a statement” in the marketplace if the muscle of our local churches is feeble and weak?

Let’s get real. We have literally thousands of local churches, some of them historically strong and large, that will not have a giving base alive and in attendance 10 years from now if we cannot bring people to Christ and into the mainstream of Christian discipleship. Who will sing in the choir, teach the Sunday school classes, deliver Meals on Wheels, go on mission building teams, or support with their money the outreach ministries of the church? Indeed, unless they have endowments, how many of our churches will reach a point when they cannot paint the columns and repoint the Gothic mortar and replace the fallen slate from the roof?

If we are to grow again, we must plant more new congregations, but we must rethink the cost of this endeavor. There will be less and less “conference and district” money to buy land, support a pastor for up to five years, and subsidize the building of a first unit. In the planting of congregations, we need a paradigm shift. Almost every American town, even in areas of population decline, has seen a rise in independent and fundamentalist churches and the decline of older mainline, theologically moderate churches. This is not because these independent churches have a superior theology. No one has a more theologically and emotionally healthy theology than the grace theology of United Methodism. Why then do they grow while we shrivel?

 

Regaining passion

Each of the independent churches’ new congregations is an entrepreneurial experiment—“root hog or die.” There is not a paternalistic hand to feed them. Secondly, they have a passion for evangelistic methodology. Their people brag on their preachers and churches. They have lively music, usually a band their first month of opening. Every week they have members bringing friends and neighbors. They use social networking like Facebook and Twitter. Their sermons are often shallow but delivered with “fire in the belly.” The preacher speaks the language of contemporary culture—illustrations, idiomatic expressions, current events, and dealing with “our demons.” Are we preaching from heart to viscera? Does our message on Sunday morning sound like it came from the Internet or from our experience this week with God and humankind?

We tend to stereotype and stigmatize those churches, and disparage them with political imagery, but they look disturbingly like the early Methodists, United Brethren and Evangelicals in the days when we were growing while the older Congregationalists and Anglicans were slipping. We were stereotyped and caricatured but our circuit riders and class meeting leaders were connecting with common people and caring for the wounded.

If our new structure of connectionalism is to help us recover our declining numbers and influence in the culture of “our towns,” our clergy must be re-tooled in “shoe leather connecting.” We have a message: God is love, inculcates a proactive, seeking love, fills us with a “blessed assurance of forgiving grace,” and disciples a faith community for supporting each other on our journey. Let every “call to action” keep the vitality of the local church in ministry as its focus.

Church-ianity has less and less appeal; the cookies aren’t that good and the committees make us weary in well-doing. The hope of our future is an infusion of “Christ-ianity.” Or, as Len Sweet puts it, “a Jesus manifesto” to rescue the perishing.

“Down in the human heart, crushed by the tempter, feelings lie buried that grace can restore. Touched by a loving heart, wakened by kindness, chords that were broken can vibrate once more.” How can our denomination infuse that new blood into our corroded arteries?

Donald Haynes is a retired member of the Western North Carolina Conference and a columnist for The United Methodist Reporter. This article is reprinted by permission of The United Methodist Reporter. Dr. Haynes is also the author of On the Threshold of Grace: Methodist Fundamentals.