Our United Methodist Mission

The mission of the United Methodist Church is “To make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

As a slogan goes, it has deeper rooting in the Christian tradition than our marketing slogan, “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors.” It’s a very short jump from Jesus’ “Go make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you” to “Make disciples of Jesus Christ.” We even see the same words occurring in each.

A case can be made for a Christian reading of “Open Hearts, Open Minds, Open Doors,” but it’s not so direct. If by “Open Hearts” we mean something like “love your neighbor as yourself,” “love one another as I have loved you,” or “hangout with sinners and outcasts like Jesus did,” the meaning is plainly Christian. If by “Open Minds” we mean something like, “Think clearly and apply yourself to becoming educated” or “Be open to the guidance of the Holy Spirit,” we can also read the second admonition as at least amenable to interpretation as consistent with Christianity.

The problem with “Open Minds” lies in the meaning it has in the broader culture, the erstwhile audience of this marketing slogan. To many in our age “Open Minds” is more likely to mean “Be ready to set aside traditional (even traditional Christian) convictions” or “let whatever the preponderance of current scientific/scholarly opinion says replace what you used to believe.” It may be that the “preponderance of current scientific/scholarly opinion says” is worthy of our belief as Christians. But surely it’s not difficult to find instances through the ages of this not being the case.

Nonetheless, I count being an open-minded Christian to be a good thing – as long as my open mind finds its home in my allegiance to Christ. As an open-minded Christian I will seek new learning – even be hungry for increased knowledge. I will turn away from dogmatism and seeking to coerce others to believe exactly as I do. I will also, however, eschew “doctrinal indifferentism” or convictionless Christianity, as I seek to follow John Wesley in maintaining a “Catholic Spirit.” I will also learn from a Catholic Christian of a previous generation, G.K. Chesterton, and I paraphrase from memory: “The purpose of an open mind, like an open mouth, is to close on something healthy and nourishing.”

“Open Doors” is also easily read as a Christian descriptor of a Jesus-oriented church. I’ve been acquainted with too many churches that turn people away for some reason or another. Sometimes it’s been their race. Sometimes it’s been their social class. Sometimes it’s been their age. I’m happy to affirm that I want to lead a Jesus-oriented church with an open door to all sinners, regardless of what sins have currently entranced them. I know I’d be in trouble if the church had shut its doors to sinners of my predilection. Church is a place where sinners are welcomed with open arms.

But church is also a place where sinners are healed and transformed. One of our central Wesleyan convictions is that sin can be overcome. There is no sin we partake in that is necessary, no temptation to which we cannot, through the power of the Spirit, say NO. As a “open-doored hospital for sinners,” we bring them in and lovingly confront their sin. Doubtless, one only needs a superficial knowledge of church history (recent or further back) to know that we’ve not only failed too frequently to have open doors – we’ve also too frequently failed to identify sin as sin and to bring the healing devices of the Spirit into play. Each age seems to have a particular set of sins we rail against AND another set that we coddle and justify.

“Open Doors” can also get us into trouble. Let’s stick with the hospital metaphor for a moment. Hospitals may have open doors – taking all the sick and injured they can so they might heal some. I bet – I hope! – however, that the role of “nurse,” “doctor,” “surgeon,” “therapist,” etc., isn’t immediately open to all comers. If I’m going to be a patient in a hospital, I want people who are well-trained in medicine, who can closely approximate true knowledge of my condition, and who can be skilled in joining in the healing process. Likewise, in church, I want leaders who have the essential Christian convictions, who connect up adequately with reality as construed by the Christian tradition, who can then join in with what God is doing and wants to do.

As United Methodists we have been less than clear in recent generations on that “connecting up adequately with reality as construed by the Christian tradition.” Although we have substantive doctrinal standards, we lack a shared understanding of what those standards say, how they are to be interpreted, and how they are to be put into action. Steve Rankin, Chaplain at Southern Methodist University, recently suggested the need for a “Methodist Magisterium” to overcome just these weaknesses.

I think we’re too far gone as a denomination to make a move to a magisterium. In the first place, for many in our leadership, the normative doctrinal pluralism of our pre-1988 Book of Discipline is still our de facto denominational position. In the second place, our lack of unity will make it impossible to settle on who should serve as the magisterium. Some would say, “Hey – we have official denominational seminaries, surely we can just trust the faculty of those seminaries to function as the magisterium!” Others will note in response, “Not only do some of our seminaries not require faculty members to be United Methodist, they don’t even require them to be Christians.” The United Methodist Church lacks the unity and trust required even to create a magisterium – assuming we became united around the idea of wanting one.

Let’s go back the beginning – to our current mission statement. How are we to read it?

There are two parts: “Make disciples of Jesus Christ” and “for the transformation of the world.” From what I see, our current major factions are willing to claim both parts. But do we share an understanding of what each part means and how each functions? I’m afraid not. The heaviest burden falls on the word “for.”

We can read the mission statement as a statement of means and end. The end, the goal, is the “transformation of the world.” The means to that end is “making disciples of Jesus Christ.”  We can also read the “for” as indicating result: We “make disciples of Jesus Christ” and this results in “the transformation of the world.” My perception is that first reading is more common among progressive United Methodists while the second is more common among traditionalist United Methodists. Both value disciplemaking; both value transforming the world; it’s the emphasis that differs.

Our factions also differ on what we mean by each part of the mission. What does it mean to be/make disciples? What are the specifics of the transformed world we’re looking to produce?

It’s tempting to observe that “transformation of the world” can be read as “achieve our political agenda.” That political agenda may or may not have any connection to the Christian tradition. The more contextualized our churches and ministries, the more we are in danger of settling for a transformation agenda that owes more to our culture than to Christ. I identify this as a temptation; the temptation lies in imagining this is only a danger for the “other team,” the factions of the church I don’t align with. None of us, no matter our protestations to stand for something like the “pure gospel” or “original Wesleyan Methodism” are immune to the influences of our culture. We are always immersed in some particular culture that shapes our world.

Given this reality, I’ll close with two suggestions.

First, when we talk about “transformation of the world” we must begin with the fact that the major transformation of the world has already happened. Because Jesus, God in the flesh, has been crucified and raised from the dead, we live in the new creation. This new creation in Christ is now our fundamental reality. Any approach to transforming the world apart from the reality of Jesus’ resurrection is at best sub-Christian. As those who “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” we must be centered on “Jesus Christ” who is the embodiment of transformation.

Second, Andrew Walls’ concept of the Pilgrim Principle and the Indigenizing Principle can help us hold our connection with the Christian tradition and our host cultures in proper tension. The Pilgrim Principle claims that we are a holy people, God’s chosen people, redeemed by the blood of Christ, set apart for God. We are moving on to perfection (to use the Wesleyan term – which Walls doesn’t). Our destination – our destiny – is defined around Jesus and his kingdom, not this world.

The Indigenizing Principle is what compels us to connect with the world through culture. Drawing from the reality of the incarnation, the Indigenizing Principle is the background of Paul’s self-description in 1 Corinthians 9. Paul “becomes all things to all people” so that he can win them over to Christ. We operate in our local cultures. We learn the local languages and ways of being. We translate the gospel and the kingdom life rooted in it so that through God’s prevenient grace we become bridges for those who are currently outside to come inside.

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Psychiatry and Ministry (sort of)

Pretend this piece on Slate Star Codex isn’t about psychiatry but about ministry. Alexander describes two ways of understanding psychiatry:

Attitude 1 says that patients know what they want but not necessarily how to get it, and psychiatrists are there to advise them. So a patient might say “I want to stop being depressed”, and their psychiatrist might recommend them an antidepressant drug, or a therapy that works against depression. This is nice and straightforward and tends to make patients very happy.

Attitude 2 says that people are complicated. Sometimes this complexity makes them mentally ill, and sometimes it makes them come to psychiatrists and ask for help, but there’s no guarantee that the thing that they’re asking about is actually the problem. In order to solve the problem, you need to unravel the complexity, and that might involve not giving the patient what they want, or giving them things they don’t want. This is not straightforward and requires some justification, so let me give a few cases where Attitude 2 seems to me obviously correct.

Consider the two viewpoints in the context of ministry. To the degree that the sinners we work with have adequate (a) knowledge of themselves, and (b) knowledge of maturity and healthy life in Christ, #1 would be the way to go. To the degree either of these is lacking, #2 would be indicated. If our ministry is entirely about meeting “felt needs,” or our theology has its primary roots in our own experience, we are effectively choosing attitude #1. I’m inclined to think attitude 2 is more fitting, given our limitations.

What do you think?

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I Want a Principle Within

The Charles Wesley hymn, I Want a Principle Within, isn’t sung as often as it used to be. It’s a powerful tool in our quest for holiness, however, so it’s well worth recovering.

At first glance the “principle” we “want within (ourselves)” can be seen as akin to computer programming. As we sing, we’re asking God to make it so that our internal programming, our guidance system, is one conducive to “watchful godly fear.” We want to be able to see things from God’s perspective and to act accordingly. Now if we go beyond the first glance and explore Wesleyan theology more deeply, we notice that this “principle” isn’t some impersonal code, law, or rulebook. This principle is the Holy Spirit, God himself living within us.

We sing that we want an “early warning system” (to use a modern metaphor) for sin. We want to know when it’s come near or entered our lives. Even more, we want to experience PAIN when we feel sin near. Why pain? Charles Wesley desires to feel sin as pain so we will respond to it the way we respond to pain – getting away from it, recognizing its danger and destructive power.

In the second stanza we sing, “Quick as the apple of an eye, O God, my conscience make; awake my soul when sin is nigh, and keep it still awake.” “Apple of an eye” is an ancient image for our pupil. Our pupil is very lively (quick), directing its gaze here and there rapidly. When we sing this we’re asking for God to sharpen our perceptual skills so we can see sin when it comes our way. We also ask for help staying mentally (and spiritually) awake and aware. If we go to sleep, or are dull in spirit, we won’t know what’s hit us until it’s too late.

In the final stanza we sinners cast ourselves on the grace of God offered us in Christ.
Almighty God of truth and love,
To me thy power impart;
The mountain from my soul remove,
The hardness from my heart.
O may the least omission pain
My reawakened soul,
And drive me to that blood again,
Which makes the wounded whole.

In Jesus we find the healing we need if we are to escape sin and live the full life God intends. We need the cleansing power of his blood applied.

This can be a difficult song to sing. Oh, I don’t mean musically (though it may be that if you’ve never heard it). It can be difficult if we’re currently in love with sin. Well, we wouldn’t say we’re exactly in love with sin, but it sure is comfortable. Also, as citizens of the world, our culture (whichever culture that might be) has certain pet sins that it excuses and even extols as part of the good life. This song hits us at the point of our desire. We’re not just singing for God to deliver us from present sin in our lives, we’re also asking for the DESIRE to be rid of it, whenever and however it comes near.

Here’s a rendition from my Texas Annual Conference compatriot Mike Whang:

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Everything (not) Going My Way?

Sunday morning while I was standing outside greeting people as they were entering church someone’s greeting (and I’ve heard this before from time to time) was, ‘Is everything going your way?’ They were trying to be nice & I know the expected answer was ‘Yes,’ but whenever I’m asked that I always take it as a real question and say – emphatically, maybe even with a short laugh of incomprehensible derision, “NO!” I have some inkling of how God wants the world to go, here in our community, around the state, the country and the world. I read enough news to know that most often things fall far short of where God wants them to be. Part of my calling as a Christian – which I think should be a common calling for all who follow Jesus – is to want what he wants for the world and its peoples. So if things aren’t going HIS way, I can’t say they’re going MY way.

Well, I guess I could say they were going MY way as a way of confessing my sin. “Yes, I have been sinning lately, preferring my way over God’s ways. Maybe not everything is going MY way, but too many things are, and I need to learn to ‘seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness.'”

Should I worry about this? The Bible, especially in the New Testament, seems to frown on worrying. We’re supposed to give all our cares to God, because he cares for us. We’re supposed to let him carry our every worry and anxiety. So should I be concerned that things AREN’T going my way – or that things ARE going my way, the way of the sinner I am?

As a parent, I share (bear?) some of my kid’s worries. One child is graduating in May. She’s worried that she won’t find a job in her area. Now my “worry” in that context is somewhat different than hers. I “worry” that she’ll be so exacting that she won’t seize other opportunities that may be available. I “worry” that she’ll worry too much and passively expect jobs to show up on her doorstep. I “worry” that she won’t seek out wisdom & advice from people who know more than she does (her parents about some things, her teachers about others).

It’s when our worries become exclusively OURS & unshared with God that we get in big trouble. Otherwise, at least some (probably a great deal) of the things we call “worries” are things where we see a gap between the way things are and the way things should be. Is awareness of this gap a bad – or unChristian – thing? I don’t see how. What do you think?

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Thinking about Immigration

Immigration has been a contentious topic in the USA for some time now. If one pays any attention to our political discourse, it’s hard to miss. Here are some of my thoughts and questions on the subject.

  1. Why do we allow immigration in the first place? It’s conceivable that a country could decide that it is already perfectly awesome in every way. Its culture is stable, its ways of operating are good for all citizens. In such a state surely the introduction of new people would bring imbalance. Even if we have zero immigration from other countries, we’re still bringing in new people – through birth. Those little people are destabilizers to our current culture and ways of doing things. If you don’t believe that, try having some children (even one would do). As they – and we – age, we look for new opportunities. If we are happy with a static society where change is extremely minimal, having zero immigration (and few children) might be a good idea. But what if  young people want jobs? Do they have to wait until older people retire? What if someone wants a promotion? Or a raise? Thinking from an economic perspective alone (and no, there’s no reason to think in terms of economics alone), new people can bring dynamism to a country. Their demand for goods and services put pressure on suppliers to expand their efforts and offerings.
  2. Or let’s consider the cultural question. Adding new people through birth would seem to be the way to go if we think our culture is already awesome. After all, we train these young ones into our culture, its values and ways of doing things, as they grow up in our homes. They assimilate by growing up with us. Immigrants from outside, most of them already enculturated to a particular culture’s values and ways of doing things, are foreign entities in our national body. So we should keep them out! Or should we? Even if our current culture is awesome in every way, that is a belief about today’s instantiation of our culture. What about our transition to the future? Maybe we need some input into our culture to keep it fresh and adaptive to an ever changing world.
  3. But assimilation is a problem. Well, at least we think it is. Some of our people think that assimilation itself is an evil. Every individual should be completely free to be that particular individual, down to the level of even choosing their own gender. What we call assimilation is an evil imposition on people, a true act of oppression. Or maybe the evil of assimilation looks at other levels of identity. Perhaps we should aim for a true “salad bowl” rather than the old oppressive “melting pot,” where everyone keeps their own cultural identities, where all cultural values and ways of doing things are treated as equally good and worthy of adding to our national culture. The view of immigration commonly called “conservative” is at least partially based on a rejection of the rejection of assimilation. Conservatives like our country the way it is – at least generally. We don’t want North Korean Juche or Muslim Sharia imposed on us. The claim that those immigrant values would just exist alongside our existing cultural values doesn’t look so good when considering their totalizing claims. Conservatives believe that unlimited immigration with only the most tepid assimilation of immigrants will destroy their country.
  4. I believe assimilation of immigrants is a good thing; but it’s not a simple or unmitigated good. In the first place, it’s not simple, because our current culture is not monolithic. We have a profound cultural chasm now expressed between liberals and conservatives. To which American subculture do we want new people to be assimilated? Conservatives would be more open to immigration – I think – if there were a greater possibility that immigrants would be enculturated in their direction. On the one hand, though, liberals control many of the institutions of enculturation: education, entertainment, government bureaucracy, news media. On the other, conservatives have been profoundly unwise (I speak more gently than I’m normally inclined to do), as expressed in our fearless leader’s recent imprecations toward certain countries, in not promoting immigration from cultures where the move to their own way of seeing and operating in the world is not a long journey.
  5. We can also question whether our country is now (or ever was) as totally awesome as we’d like to believe. Thinking in terms of political ideologies, each side tends to think, “If only we were in charge and could put the evil/stupid liberals/conservatives in their place! Once we consolidate control and can make everyone live according to our wisdom, THEN we’ll be totally awesome!” I realize this is the point in the conversation where it’s normal for someone to chime in, “We need each other. We need the wisdom of both sides. We need to split the difference, then we’ll be totally awesome!” I’m too skeptical to make that move. More immigrants – especially if we’re open to learning from them – might help us to see third, fourth, fifth (you get the idea) ways of looking at things that take us beyond our current deep bifurcation.
  6. Some people come to America by choice. They see us as the land of opportunity, not just in general but particularly for them and their families. Others come to America by the choice of some other person – parents bringing their children, and in the past, slaves brought by those who considered them objects, tools and not humans. And now, some number of years later, whether just a few as with children recently brought here, or centuries as with the descendants of slaves, here we are, living in America, trying to get by and get ahead the best we can. Some of the people who have come in the past century came in ways that accord with the law; others came by other means. It seems to me that if people are here, working to better themselves and their families – and their communities, it’s worth our while to keep them.
  7. But not everyone appears to be out to better themselves, their families, and their communities. Some are living wretched lives, totally dependent on others, with no current desire for a different life. Some of these are in that position by their own choices; others are in that position because it’s been inflicted on them and they can’t see any other way as a live option. The thing is, I’ve seen nothing to convince that this has anything to do with one’s immigration status. Sure, some immigrants are bad for our country. I’d look for ways to discourage them from coming. But even more of our native born seem to be bad for our country. Some of these might be totally awesome in their own minds, and for themselves, but an utter disaster for others around them.
  8. We desperately need an improved immigration system and path to citizenship. Many people do the hard work of trying to work within the laws. It’s neither easy nor quick.
  9. We are limited. We, like every other country on earth, have a limited carrying capacity. We can think of this in cultural terms. Assuming assimilation is good and necessary, and I do, to at least some degree, we can only assimilate so many people so quickly. We don’t have a three thousand year old culture like China that is so deep and pervasive that it can assimilate most anything and anyone. Our own culture is new, changing, and contentious. We don’t want to be Mexico, Haiti, Norway, France, or India. We want to be ourselves (even as these and so many other cultures have made contributions to make us what we are). We’re also limited in terms of resources. As a Christian, I can say it’d be a good thing if we were to take in the poorest billion people on the planet and enrich their lives. But I don’t think it can be done.
  10. We’re interconnected. While people talk about building a wall on our southern border, why not a wall on our northern border? In the first place, it’s way too long. The main thing, however, is that their aren’t hordes of people pushing into our country from the north. We see huge numbers coming from the south and think, that’s where we need a wall! But we should think about why hordes aren’t coming from the north. How are the countries to our north different from the ones to our south? At the very least, there is a huge economic difference. Our northern neighbor is far ahead of our southern neighbors economically. It would seem that it would be to our advantage for our southern neighbors to advance economically. Can we do anything to help them (which would in turn help us, if we assume decreased immigration from the south is a good thing)? I think we can.

Well, those are some of my thoughts on immigration. I don’t see them matching up with what either of our current parties are proposing. Since I’m politically homeless, that’s ok with me.

As a Christian, I think it’s great that God is bringing people from all over the world here. Many are coming from what used to be called “unreached countries,” countries where it was nearly impossible to send missionaries. Well, we could send them, we just couldn’t keep them alive, out of prison, or expect them to make it home. For that reason, I personally count immigrants to be a blessing.

 

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Controlling our Speech

One doesn’t have to read far in scripture to see that speech is powerful. In Genesis 1 God speaks creation into being. A couple chapters later the serpent’s speech leads Adam & Eve to their doom. In the New Testament we read of the power of the tongue and the need to control it. I’ll make three general observations in regard to how the power of speech pertains to leadership.

If you are on or follow social media you know we are in an age where people feel the urgency to speak up – and speak out. We can find people with opinions and pronouncements on nearly everything. Occasionally this speech has thought behind it, but often not.

As leaders, there are occasions in which we must speak up. We cannot remain silent. There are other occasions – perhaps more than we’d think – where not speaking up is the thing to do. Sometimes allowing silence for a span of time is the most productive thing we can do. How do we know?

First, let God’s love dwell in you. Let it work through you so that all you think and say is an expression of Jesus’ Great Commandment.

Second, seek understanding before you reply. We – like everyone else- understand things in light of our previous experience. We understand what other people say in terms of our prior experience; they understand what we say in terms of their prior experience. There is never 100% overlap in our prior experience. Misunderstanding is possible – and common. As we engage with people we can come to identify gaps in understanding and determine more closely what is being said.  Understanding requires time and work. Waiting to speak until we maximize understanding requires patience on our part.

Third, we humans tend toward defensiveness. When we take ourselves to be criticized or under attack, we turn the tables and attack back. But what if the criticism isn’t criticism – what if we’ve misunderstood it? Or, what if the criticism is what we need to hear? When we are reflexively defensive we turn away from the opportunity to learn and improve ourselves.

What we say is also important. In Ephesians 4 Paul gives us the Christian rationale for speech. We speak, he suggests, to build others up. We often think the primary reason for speech is to impart information. We have information people need to hear, so we give it to them. Since passing on information happens in speech – and frequently! – we sometimes miss that there is more to speech. If we take Paul seriously, then paying attention to the effect of what we say is absolutely essential.

If our primary goal in speaking is building others up, that means we’ll have to pay closer attention to the people around us. While an application of the Golden Rule will help us sometimes (“I know what kinds of speech build me up, so I will direct those kinds of speech at the people around me”), we cannot assume that all people are like us. Other people hear differently. As I noted above, they hear us out of their own experiences, not ours. They may or may not feel an incentive to do any work to understand us or show us any charity in interpreting our words. As Christians who speak – and as leaders – we need to know our people well enough that we can discern what to say to each one to build them up, given not only their whole life, but also their current situation. Again, you can easily imagine that this will take work.

My third observation is that how we speak matters. We may be timely in what we say. Our content may be intended to build others up. But our way of speaking, or the mode of discourse we employ, may hve a negative influence on people.

One of the things I have to watch most in my own speech is my tendency to sarcasm. I’m very sarcastic on the inside. It used to come out more frequently, but I’ve been working on it for decades. There are probably occasions where it’s not a problem, but there are too many where it is. Too many people in the world don’t “get” sarcasm. For them, it’s always negative, always an attack. Out of our position of strength we might say, “Well, if they’re just a bunch of snowflakes who can’t handle a bit of humor, that’s not my fault.” While it is true that we (all of us) are sometimes overly sensitive, the burden of not injuring another is on the speaker.  If we truly want to live others, if we want all our speech to be edifying, that determines our mode of speech also.

We also need to watch our attitude. Have you ever noticed the general atmosphere of negativity in our culture? Do you like it? Does it build you up? How do you feel when leaders around you speak negatively, when pessimism flows from their mouths? It’s true that we live in a broken and sinful world. It’s true that not everything is or will be happy. It’s true that our expectations and desires will often be thwarted. I’d also admit that mere positivity on our part is no magic. God can speak the world into being; we can’t. Nonetheless, our words and the attitudes they express have power. We can lift our people up or knock them down. Take the time to be positive. Express high expectations. Walk in faith.

So what do you do if you’ve discovered you’ve messed up, that something you’ve said (or not said), or the way you’ve said it, has hurt someone or torn them down? One action is to repent. Recognize what you’ve done wrong as wrong. Turn away from it. Confess it to God and receive forgiveness. Change your ways. In at least some cases, when you discover that you’ve hurt someone, the most appropriate thing to do is to go to them and confess to them. Sometimes they’ll know exactly what you’re talking about. Sometimes what you’ve come to see as wrong on your part will have sailed right by them, with them taking no offense. Either way, it’s worth addressing if you can. (And you can, more often than you think.)

If you want dealing with a situation to be easier – and they are rarely easy at all, unless we live in a community where we’ve practiced this for some time – go to the person (or group) sooner rather than later. If they perceive what you said as hurtful, the longer you wait, the longer it festers. Festering isn’t a good thing. Also, the longer you wait, the more time you give yourself to rationalize your own words and actions, building up your defense so you can demonstrate that you were really in the right. Go sooner rather than later.

Speaking well and with the intention of edifying others, makes for healthy relationships, ministries, and churches. We cannot be the church God wants us to be – or have a significant and lasting impact on others – unless we work hard in this area.

A final word. We are stronger in this area when we hold each other accountable. IF you find me speaking in a way that goes against these guidelines, please let me know. If you want to work on your own speech, invite others to hold you accountable.

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What About Leadership?

The American church has been buffeted by the cult of leadership for a couple of decades now. The cult took root in evangelical Christianity before it did in my own United Methodist Church. We need leaders – not just any leaders, but skilled and committed leaders – so there is a reason behind our acceptance of the cult.

The smaller and more traditional churches are often resistant to the cult. They want office holders who will respect the wishes of the membership, who rule democratically, maintaining things the way they’ve always been done. Insofar as the job of the leader is to instigate change for the good of the organization and the fulfillment of its mission, these churches desperately need leaders, but are usually impervious to them.

You’re probably scratching your head about now, wondering, “Well, is he for or against leaders? He writes of a cult of leadership – calling something a cult makes it sound like a bad thing. Then he goes on to say churches need leaders. How can he have it both ways?”

Good question.

The vast majority of United Methodist Churches (since it’s my own church, I speak of what I know best) have a number of church offices to fill. They have a Nominations Committee that meets every fall (preparing for Charge Conference) to fill slots for the coming year. It’s not uncommon to swap out people from what slot to another, from one committee to another, keeping a common face to the leadership of the church over the years.

One thing that goes unnoticed is that several years ago now the Book of Discipline was changed. What was formerly known as the Nominations Committee became the Lay Leadership Committee. While this newly named group is tasked with making nominations for offices, its main job is identifying, raising up, equipping, and deploying leaders throughout the church. This is a year around job, not just a “charge conference is coming, we better hurry” affair.

We also need to consider what kind of thing the church is. It’s easy to think in terms of businesses – one of the main places we get the substantive teaching for the cult of leadership. The church deals with money, mission statements, employees, etc., so it must be some kind of business (the tax code says it’s “non-profit”). Businesses often run factories, so we may think the church is a kind of factory – we make disciples.

Surely that much – that we make disciples – is correct. But are we a disciple making factory? Are we best off thinking of disciplemaking as akin to an industrial process? We put the inputs together: people, curricula, meeetings, etc., get the machine (church calendar/program) running, and out pops disciples.

If this is the way we think of things, we can see office holders (aka leaders) as cogs in the machine, parts of the industrial process. But what if making disciples is not an industrial process? What if scripture is accurate, and it’s better conceived as an organic process? What if our verb “make” deceives us into thinking in terms of a factory, when we’d be better off thinking of a garden?

Adopting an organic model leads us to think differently about leadership. Leaders are not mere cogs in a machine; neither are they just names plugged in slots of committees. What is of first importance for a leader in a disciple cultivating enterprise like the church is having ones own walk with God. We are able to reproduce – able to help others become and grow into disciples of Jesus – by being disciples ourselves.

Taking this route, the first question for a proposed leadership candidate is not, “Are you willing to serve on this committee?” or “Are you willing to make decisions of governance in this particular domain?” but “How is it with your soul? What is God doing in your life? How are you experiencing the call of God?” ‘What – even better, who – is your heart broken for?” If we start this way, then leaders will always work out of their ongoing (and growing) relationship with God. They will be conduits of God’s grace and wisdom to the people around them, spark plugs (I know, a non-organic analogy!) for Holy Spirit induced combustion in the ministry of the church.

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