Last week I had the privilege of writing an article for Um-Insight called Time to Look Under the Hood (click here to see the article). In it, I talked about the need “to figure out how much of the engine that we call the UMC needs replacing.” In the comments section below the article, a man asked this question, “Since you have clearly thought deeply about the options available to this year’s special General Conference, do you have an opinion on the best of the alternative plans?”
To piggyback on my previous analogy, when my cousin Brian began working on the all but destroyed engine of the previously mentioned car, he had to tear all the components of the engine away until there was nothing left but the frame of the engine compartment. In other words, he took out the entire engine so that only the frame the engine sits in was left. From there, he ordered a new block, new pistons, and pretty much new everything else. Given the damage to the engine, it was really the only choice that made any sense.
To answer the question posed to me, I think its time to tear it down to the frame. When John Wesley met with the Holy Club at Oxford, I don’t imagine he had in mind a worldwide denomination. In fact, I don’t believe he thought the idea of a new denomination a good idea at all. In fact, he wrote a pamphlet in 1758 titled, Reasons Against a Separation from the Church of England, where he gave twelve reasons for Methodists to continue being a renewal group within the Anglican Church. And that is what was from Wesley’s perspective, a revivalist movement intended to bring about a social conscience that seems to have died in his time with regard to the poor and working class of England. Wesley hoped that the Methodists in the colonies would follow suit, but because of the politics surrounding the Revolutionary War, the colonists chose to become their own entity. According to the UMC.org website,
When independence from England was won, Wesley recognized that changes were necessary for American Methodism to thrive. He sent Thomas Coke to America to superintend the work with Asbury. Coke brought with him a prayer book entitled The Sunday Service of the Methodists in North America, prepared by Wesley and incorporating his revision of the Church of England’s Thirty-Nine Articles of Religion. Richard Whatcoat and Thomas Vasey, whom Wesley had ordained, accompanied Coke. Wesley’s ordinations set a precedent that ultimately permitted Methodists in America to become an independent church.
When this happened, a funny thing happened to the structure of the American Methodists: we chose to emulate the newly formed United States government by having a form democratic rule (our current delegate system) and maintained the episcopal system. There was, however, one caveat to the system, the episcopacy (bishops) would have no singular leader (ie. no archbishop, no pope, no place where the buck stopped). In doing this, they laid the groundwork for something else to be the arbiter of authority, a book, the Book of Discipline. This opened the door for practically every future disagreement within the church to continue ad infinitude ridiculum or until it was just forgotten. Currently, this creates the impasse regarding the LGBTQIA community but it could just as easily be baptism, women in the pulpit, or red carpet churches versus blue carpet churches. My point is the issue doesn’t matter but the broken nature of the system means it will not get resolved. So, what do we do with the broken engine? The current plans will do nothing to keep this from happening again in the future because they are plans that continue to insist on a global, connected, necessarily bulky oversized system. All artificial systems are inherently self-destructive as they begin to lose cohesion usually, as they get to be too large to stay connected to the center. At this point, they lose structure and to borrow from a book title by China Achebe, “Things Fall Apart.” So, Jack here’s my idea for how to do that.
Chuck it. Melt it down and remold it into something more fitting.
For one, make the annual conference the highest authoritative body for the churches under its purview. At this level, true contextualism can at least have a sporting chance of thriving. Yes, I know that rural churches, suburban churches, and urban churches all have different contexts within the areas we would call annual conferences but remember, we are starting over. If you don’t want in on the ground floor, find another place to connect. Harsh? Maybe. But the last forty-six years have been harsh enough for a lifetime and ending it here might save some grief in the future. Have the annual conference level people handle all the administrative tasks that exist on the national level and go from there. Annual Conferences could maintain a connection with those that they have a true connection with and choose not to affiliate with those they do not.
Next, have bishops and church officers elected from the annual conferences they represent. These are people who will know their area and people best, let them use their leadership skills and relationships in the place they are best able to represent. Not to disparage the problem-solving skills of someone at the level of bishop, but it’s a lot easier to deal with issues at the annual conference level if you are from that annual conference.
Finally, bring back the band/class structure or something like it that resembling a model of making disciples rather than church members. We are so busy keeping the attendance and giving numbers up to support the greater system that we are failing at the basic task at hand, to make disciples. Whatever changes we make are meaningless if we fail to get back to what we are called to. I say get back to because as a denomination (like most denominations) we have been so preoccupied with socio-political problems within and without the church that we have gotten away from the real mission. The socio-political problems have been a red herring to keep us from focusing on the mission. I know, I know, some of you will say they are the mission, they are discipleship. To that I would say, focus on discipleship – serious love God-love neighbor-Sermon on the Mount style discipleship – and those things will sort themselves.
Is this plan foolproof? Nope, like any plan we come up with it can’t be. There are people involved and inevitably there will be some who are in it for the wrong the reasons. But maybe, just maybe, we could use this or something like it as a replacement engine and get running again.