Voter’s Remorse (Or When The Connection Goes Bad)

A decade or so ago, United Methodists in Indiana were encouraged to “Imagine Indiana,” a plan to unite the two annual conferences in the State into one. For years, Indiana shared one bishop between two annual conferences that were defined roughly along an east-west division of the northern and southern halves of the State.

I grew up in the North Indiana Conference as my family followed my father, an Elder in that annual conference, to his various appointments. When I returned to The United Methodist Church after a ten year hiatus I lived in the South Indiana Conference. I answered my call to ministry which had been felt nearly twenty years earlier and my appointments to churches all were within the South Indiana Conference with the exception of the two years with the General Board of Global Ministries as a missionary in West Africa. Even then my sense of connection was strongly with the South Indiana Conference. Then came the call to “Imagine Indiana.”

“Imagine Indiana” was greatly influenced by well-connected and influential laypersons who were well-known in both church and corporate circles and clergy appointed to influential churches that had been complaining about the amount of apportionments their congregations were expected to pay to support the shared bishop and the two annual conference operations. We were assured that the proposal was not based on financial reasons.

The proposal we were urged to imagine, however, did call for a drastic reduction in the number of districts in the new structure. In fact, the entire length and breadth of Indiana would have only the same number of districts as the South Indiana Conference alone had at the time. This would result in halving the amount required to support district superintendents, the mid-level managers in our connectional structure, and district offices and secretaries. The proponents of the imagined Indiana Conference dangled the carrot of video conferencing capacity in the new “district resource centers” which would reduce the need to travel several hours for meetings. We were also enticed with the assurance of the “inverted initiative” in which the local church would be the most important part of our connection rather than the top-down hierarchical corporate model in which the annual conference staff and leadership would offer or impose its one-size fits all programs and policies that had become the norm whether they worked or not. A carrot dangled before the clergy in the South Indiana Conference was the availability of more larger churches for appointments with presumably higher levels of compensation up north.

I arrived at the Annual Conference Session where we would vote on whether to unite the annual conferences with the intention of voting against the union. I do not know if I was naive, hypnotized or caught up in the moment, but I ended up voting for the union. While I doubt that it would have made a difference in what has resulted, I now wish I had stuck to my original intention.

I majored in political science as an undergraduate. Among the topics I studied was bureaucracy. While I plead guilty to over-simplification, bureaucracy arose to carry out necessary tasks of government, but was subject to sinful human nature in the form of bribery, favoritism, patronage and nepotism. So systems were developed which, among other things, were designed to curb the bureaucrats’ ability to abuse their authority and discretion. Since human systems rarely remain in some semblance of moderation and sanity, this led to further circumscription of the bureaucrats’ opportunities to abuse discretion to the point that regulations prevented bureaucrats’ ability to exercise any discretion no matter how sound or compassionate. In addition, bureaucrats, who do provide valued service to the entity which employs and empowers them, make themselves more and more valuable to the entity, gaining more and more authority and power, protecting their positions and influence and isolating and insulating themselves from the rank and file of membership organizations or the public in terms of governmental bureaucracy systems.

While I do not ascribe nefarious or even intentional efforts on the part of the bureaucracy of the Indiana Conference to do so, that is what has happened. The “inverted initiative” has been subverted. “District Superintendents” have now become “Conference Superintendents.” This change in nomenclature is very much reflective of the ongoing trend to centralize authority and importance in the annual conference and its decision-makers, further distancing the annual conference from the districts and especially the local congregations. Directors of the various annual conference program and service units are now members of the “Bishop’s Extended Cabinet.”

Prior to the union, district superintendents were expected to visit each church within the district annually. Often this was done at annual charge conferences, but diligent superintendents were often known to show up unexpectedly and without announcement at Sunday morning worship. District clergy gatherings and other opportunities gave superintendents the opportunity to know pastors and their families better and vice versa. Presently, the districts are so large “Conference Superintendents” simply cannot do this and have embraced the expedient of holding “cluster” or even district charge conferences. The result is paltry attendance and participation by members and leaders of the local churches within the cluster or district beyond the pastors. Laity have a remarkable ability to discern when something is a poor or unwelcome use of their time. When actively serving a local church I often offered to have such gatherings at my church knowing that would assure me of having most of my church’s leaders and influencers attend. The end result is that superintendents do not and indeed cannot know anything about the strengths and weaknesses, hopes and fears of the churches and pastors ostensibly under their supervision beyond the often inaccurate official reports Methodists are so well known for.

District resource centers with video conferencing capability never appeared. In fact, most districts now do not have offices, much less resources.

The Indiana Conference leadership has been greatly influenced by management consultants and gurus who claim to have the latest silver bullet approach to arresting the decline of local churches and the denomination. The result of this has been an increasingly corporate approach to being the church in which local congregations are treated as franchisees and clergy as fungible employees. Decision-making bodies have been downsized in the name of efficiency, leanness and nimbleness. While decisions made by large groups of people are often painful to achieve and sometimes poor in result, the reverse puts decision-making in the hands of smaller groups that are very susceptible and subject to influence by the annual conference bureaucracy.

Shortly after the union I was elected to chair the annual conference board of trustees, the board of directors of the corporate entity recognized by the State of Indiana. As such I was part of the assembly of committee and board chairs that was empowered to make decisions on behalf of the annual conference between Annual Conference Sessions. At one meeting, a newly hired annual conference staff member made a proposal regarding this person’s portfolio. I pointed out that we had just decided at the previous meeting of this body to approach the matter slightly differently. Another member of the annual conference bureaucracy chastised me and exhorted the rest of the body to support the new staff member’s proposal because the staff member had just been hired and we needed to support the new staff member’s first proposal for annual conference attention, showing our loyalty and welcome. Soon thereafter a proposal was made from the top of the annual conference bureaucratic hierarchy that the decision-making body be reduced in number of decision-makers. Among the positions to be removed was the one I held. At the time, I was not the least upset since this meant there would be fewer expenditures of days spent traveling to and from the conference headquarters for meetings.

In retrospect I realize this was just one more step in the implementation of secular corporate management models and means in the life of our church, further separating annual conference leadership from the rank and file. Recently those chickens came home to roost when this smaller, leaner, less representative and less diverse body made a decision to disenfranchise a constituency from voting for representatives at the Annual Conference Sessions.

The union between the two annual conferences in Indiana would have been difficult under the best of circumstances. The two had distinct differences in the culture particularly of the clergy. The South Conference clergy were much more fractious when it came to relationships between liberals and conservatives. This really reflected the political and social divisions between many communities and churches in the south from those in the north. The southern half of Indiana was and remains more conservative and this was and is reflected in the congregations in those communities. As the conference began the process of cross-pollenization by moving clergy back and forth from north to south, east to west it became apparent that those making such decisions had no effective understanding of many churches and the most effective clergy to lead them. Many decisions since have only made things worse. Corporate methods have replaced community. Connectionalism has been redefined as deference and obedience to hierarchy. Relationships between churches and among clergy have become frayed even when they exist in geography or theory.

Rather than uniting the church in Indiana, it has contributed to the untying of our connection. Stay tuned for the next manifestation of this. Perhaps when The United Methodist Church finally makes the needed decision to dissolve, what remains or what is raised from the ashes will be able to rebuild the connection in smaller settings and structures.

Hurry Christmas?

Yesterday was the first day of Advent. During worship, the Candle of Hope was lit on the Advent Wreath.  The Scripture lesson was Jeremiah 23:5-6 which reads:

The time is coming, declares the Lord, when I will raise up a righteous descendant from David’s line, and he will rule as a wise king. He will do what is just and right in the land. During his lifetime, Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And his name will be The Lord Is Our Righteousness.

During her sermon, the pastor pointed out that there were roughly 600 years between Jeremiah’s prophecy for the Lord and the birth of the Messiah. That’s a long time to hold on to hope.

When I was a child it seemed like the longest span of time in the year was between Thanksgiving and Christmas. I certainly resonated with the old Alvin and the Chipmunks song that said, “Hurry Christmas! Don’t be late.” Patience and hope were tough to practice.

Back in my lawyer days I was a partner in a law firm, but for those who do not know the ins and outs of partnership law, not all partners are created equally in all partnerships. I was more of a junior partner. I got a percentage of the partnership’s earnings, but not as much as the equity partners and they did not have to guarantee my salary as they had when I was an associate. And I was still at the bottom of the firm’s totem pole. Things flowed downhill and there was no one below me.

I was assigned a case from an older attorney who was sort of a rainmaker. He brought cases, but others handled them and he got a piece of the action in the end. This case was an appeal from a denial of unemployment compensation.

Frank had worked for more than 20 years for a major corporate grocery store chain, the last several as a produce manager. The laws of capitalism dictate that there are times when seniority and tenure make it advisable to discharge employees when younger ones will cost less. Frank was one of those. He got shnookered by his manager into resigning rather than being fired. It would look better on his resume, they said. He fell for it – like a lot of people in this right-to-work state.

When he applied for unemployment benefits, the employer objected saying he voluntarily quit. This was an absolute bar to benefits under Indiana law. Frank came to the rainmaker who filed an appeal and then dropped the file on my desk.

It was a hopeless case. Cut and dried. Just go through the motions. I did my best to be honest and yet hopeful with Frank. But talk about a waste of time…

Then a minor miracle happened. When the appeal hearing occurred, no one for the employer appeared. Frank won by default and received his unemployment benefits. Frank thought he had the best lawyer ever. I knew it was just a fluke.

Fast forward several years, I’m now the associate pastor of the church Frank’s wife Rosie attends very regularly without Frank. She tells Frank about the new associate pastor. He remembers me and starts to attend worship somewhat regularly, at least on the one Sunday a month I preached.

Months later, he tells me he wants to profess faith in Christ and be baptized – by me. The Senior Pastor was a delightfully non-territorial person so she readily agreed.

After worship that Sunday, Rosie came up to me for a hug, tears streaming down her face making her mascara run like a sweaty football player’s eyeblack.

“I’ve been praying for this day for 35 years,” she said.

What persistence!

What patience!

What hope!

How persistent in patience are we as we wait through Advent, waiting for the full realization of the hope we have for the Messiah?

24 days?

35 years?

6 Centuries?

Millennia?

Keep the First Rule the First Thing

I and my colleagues and fellow Hoosier United Methodists are about to gather in Indianapolis for our Annual Conference. In recent years Annual Conference has been so tightly scripted and streamlined it could have been handled through e-mail. This time will, I suspect, be very different. We are dealing with the results of the Special General Conference in St. Louis in February of this year and electing delegates for the “regularly scheduled” General Conference in May of next year.

The vaunted “connectional system” in our denomination has pretty clearly frayed, if not broken entirely. I’m not even sure Wespath, our pension system, and the Trust Clause,which legally places ownership of property in the ultimate hands of the denomination rather than the local congregation, keeps the “united” in The United Methodist Church any longer.

Recently there has been a fair amount of discussion about how those who disagree with the draconian policies enacted by the conservative segments of the UMC should resist the spiritual and ecclesiastical tyranny by disobeying the prohibitions and mandates of The Book of Discipline they believe unfaithful and abhorrent. While this may be necessary for those who believe so strongly that they find the prospect of nonlethal martyrdom attractive, I would encourage a better approach.

First, resistance will be painful and expensive. It would be possible to bring the UMC to a grinding halt by tying up the system and its resources with a flood of church trials for officiating at same-sex weddings, but that will only increase the pain and division within our denomination further eroding our witness for Christ. We have a hard enough time barely doing church. I can speak from experience that we do a church court even worse.

Instead, I encourage us – and especially those who will be delegates to the next General Conference – to remember John Wesley’s first rule for members of his Methodist societies: First Do No Harm.

We need to stop doing harm to those who disagree with us on the issues surrounding ministry and human sexuality. We need to admit that those with whom we disagree are sisters and brothers in Christ who firmly believe they are being faithful to Christ and led by the Holy Spirit. It is time to stop beating up on each other and re-organize the church to beat the Devil.

It is time to elect delegates who will admit that The United Methodist Church is broken and the time has come to dissolve the denomination. No successor denomination or covenant structure should be allowed to retain the name or symbol of The United Methodist Church. It will be hard, painful work, requiring repentance and humility and grace on all sides, but it can be done. As my colleague Darren Cushman-Wood recently pointed out much can be civilly achieved through mediation and arbitration.

The reality is there are no winners in this fight and there can never be. We are in a lose-lose situation. Let us admit it and stop harming each other.

Bind Us Together, Lord?

I love worship music that involves electric guitars and drums. I have the battle scars from the worship wars to prove it. I started live praise team music in 5 of the last 6 appointments and the only reason I wasn’t 6 for 6 was because one of them had already fought and won that war. It actually goes back to the late 1960’s for me, but back then it was more folk than rock on the Harmony Stella 3/4 guitar my parents gave me for my 14th birthday (I actually wanted a Gretsch hollow body like Mike Nesmith of The Monkees played).

But I also like hymns and liturgy. Recently The Beloved and I were worshiping at our snowbird church. I pulled a United Methodist Hymnal from the rack on the back of the pew in front of me. I have nothing against projecting the lyrics for the hoi polloi but I treasure the opportunity to see if I can add some tenor harmonies and that requires me to read the music.

I noticed that the hymnal I was holding had a broken binding on its spine. I was glad to know that the last church to which I was appointed was not the only one to have hymnals in such disrepair. Then I thought such hymnals were a fit metaphor for The United Methodist Church. The “new” hymnals were published in 1989 and were far and away better than the 1964 Methodist Hymnal since the poobahs who decided what made it into the hymnal actually listened to pastors and singers in the pews as opposed to relying on the judgment of “experts” in church academia. The hymnals were in dire need of refreshing and replacement, but the reality is we may never see another United Methodist Hymnal because a committed minority of theological ideologues have attempted to impose their narrow will upon the church.

Some friends and colleagues who supported the Traditional Plan have posted their “pain” over the nasty things being said about them. They say they love LGBTQ+ people and think the “attacks” on them are unfair. I have this to say: First, you knew your actions and support of this Taliban-esque plan would have this effect on everybody who was not a card-carrying, button-wearing member of your group. Please do not act surprised or try to play the victim. Second, for you to profess your love for LGBTQ+ people at this point is the equivalent of saying, “I have nothing against black people. Some of my best friends are black.” Spare us. You have declared where you stand. Own it and the pain you have brought upon your brothers and sisters in Christ and the possibly irreparable damage you have done to the body of Christ.

Those of us who have the audacity of faith to believe The United Methodist Church can allow diverse opinions and practices anchored in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus have not bowed the knee to Baal or, as one colleague put it, offered a pinch of incense on the altar to Caesar. We actually believe the full message of Holy Scripture. We believe The United Methodist Church can and should include conservatives and liberals, progressives and traditionalists, Africans, Asians, Europeans and North Americans.

During the same Sunday morning worship service as my encounter with the deteriorating hymnal, the Epistle Lesson was Romans 10:8-13.

But what does it say? The word is near you, in your mouth and in your heart (that is, the message of faith that we preach). Because if you confess with your mouth “Jesus is Lord” and in your heart you have faith that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved. 10 Trusting with the heart leads to righteousness, and confessing with the mouth leads to salvation. 11 The scripture says, All who have faith in him won’t be put to shame12 There is no distinction between Jew and Greek, because the same Lord is Lord of all, who gives richly to all who call on him. 13 All who call on the Lord’s name will be saved.

All. Not just some. Not just those who salute and get in line with the Wesleyan Covenant Association.

All who call on the Lord’s name will be saved.

Up Close and Personal

During General Conference 2000, I had a cup of coffee and conversation at a table in the Cleveland convention center with a man who identified himself as a member of Broadway United Methodist Church in the Northern Illinois Conference once led by the Rev. Greg Dell. Rev. Dell, who died in 2016, had conducted a “sacred union” service for a gay couple in 1998. This ran afoul of the prohibition in The Book of Discipline of United Methodist clergy officiating or celebrating such religious services. A disciplinary complaint was filed against Rev. Dell and he was suspended indefinitely from ministry at a church trial. He was offered the opportunity to have the suspension lifted if he promised not to do it again, but he declined. The suspension was eventually limited to one year.

My coffee and conversation companion was an articulate and intelligent person. If I recall correctly he was a physician. He was also a “self-identified, practicing homosexual” in a committed same-sex, monogamous relationship. He lobbied me to vote to relax our denominational limitations and proscriptions regarding people like him. I listened attentively and graciously. I could sense evidence of God’s grace in his life.

I told him I believed our denominational standards were in keeping with the Bible and I intended to vote accordingly. We parted in peace, but I could see the disappointment in his eyes.

A few years later I was at my desk in the office of a church on what locals called “The Sunny Side of Louisville” when a call came through. The caller was pleasant, identified herself as an “evangelical lesbian” and asked if she and her partner would be welcome in that church. Her self-identification was one I had never heard before. I explained that as the pastor I welcomed everyone to Jesus through the church, but since I was relatively new to that church I did not know how the members of the congregation would receive them. I do not know if the couple came to worship in that church.

I thought I was being honest and subsequent events proved the congregation was highly conflicted and dysfunctional. But nagging retrospection tells me my response was a cop-out not unlike those congregations that tell a district superintendent they are open to receiving a female pastor or a pastor of a different race or ethnicity but they don’t believe their community would be as understanding and welcoming.

At my next appointment, two women and their children began regularly attending worship services and Sunday School. Then they asked if they could become professing members of the church. They were a family and wanted to be part of our church family. I sensed deep faith and active grace in them. We had deep and grace-filled conversation. I told them I welcomed them, but wanted to avoid causing them and their children and the church harm so I wanted some time to have some meetings before the meeting with others before they took the membership vows.

After several straightforward and grace-filled conversations with church leaders and influencers, the day came when I gladly received them into membership of that vital congregation. Of course, having been around the block a few times, I intentionally asked my district superintendent to stand beside me in the chancel that Sunday morning and he did. The fallout in that typical Midwestern center-right congregation was very minimal. From everything I know, the family was well assimilated in the congregation.

These are just three of my personal pastoral experiences over the years of local church ministry. There were more with young and older adults seeking healing in their relationship with Christ and his church and their sexuality or that of their adolescent or adult children. Of course, I cannot deny the impact of my experience with my own child. Rather than repeat those elements, however, I encourage you to read a couple of my previous blogs. Since I am new to the blogosphere they will not be hard to find.

I doubt that my experiences over the years are that uncommon, but in the event you are inclined to celebrate “winning” at General Conference 2019, I ask you to sit down and listen to a clergy colleague explain how your vote to punish her or him for engaging in pastoral ministry under a faithful understanding of the leading of the Holy Spirit will impair their ministry. Take the risk and time to listen to someone share how your vote denies God’s call on their life to licensed or ordained ministry. Hear the cries and see the tears of persons baptized and confirmed in The United Methodist Church as they tell you of their realization that statements to the contrary they feel rejected by what had once been their church.

From A Distance

Last night I watched “After Braveheart”, a movie about the Scots’ invasion of Ireland in the 14th Century in an effort to drive the English out. It did not turn out well for Edward Bruce, the brother of Robert Bruce, the King of Scotland.

This morning I listened to portions of a recorded novel. One of the plot elements was drones firing missiles controlled by someone far away from the target.

I was struck by the contrast between the 14th and 21st Century means of defeating one’s enemy. In the former, it was literally up close and personal. The combatants looked each other in the eye. The winner stood a great chance of being wounded also and certainly would often be stained by the loser’s blood and body fluids. In the latter, the winner sits at a screen manipulating controls and pushing buttons. No muss, no fuss. Target destroyed.

I have had my reservations about the One Church Plan from the beginning. It would have seriously changed the connectional understanding of The United Methodist Church even as the half-century since 1968 had exposed a fair amount of it to be mythological and a long way from actuality. But I could not and still cannot fully understand why those committed to the Traditional Plan considered it the Rubicon that must not be crossed. Congregations, pastors and annual conferences that were opposed to any changes in our denominational dictates on LGBTQ issues would not be required to permit or perform same-sex wedding services or license, ordain and appoint LGBTQ clergy. They would be able to vote to continue policies and practices in effect since 1972. Those portions of the global church where culture disapproved of and their nations criminalized LGBTQ relationships and behavior would be able to vote to maintain policy and practice that fell in line with their culture and maintain compliance with the laws of the land. This, however, was not sufficient for the slim majority.

Why?

I accept that many of the majority deeply believe they were fighting for the truth, upholding the tradition of the church and obeying the proscriptions of Scripture. The means of doing so, however, are the equivalent of standing far away from the opponent rather than engaging face to face.

The Wesleyan Covenant Association and its allies can claim victory over their opponents without having to stand up and be counted in a local Church Conference or an Annual Conference Session. They will not face the risk of seeing and hearing fellow believers give voice to their deep wounds or finding themselves stained by the tears of others. They will not have to risk votes at a local church or annual conference level that might reveal they are not in the majority they believe they represent.

Instead, they can say, “We won. You lost. So the choice is yours – either fall in line and salute or face the wrath of the harsh discipline we chose to impose.” No fuss. No muss.

At the very least, I ask all who voted in favor of the Traditional Plan to have the courage to get up close and personal with those who believe and feel they have been told they are no longer integral parts of the church. Listen to their cries of pain. Do not look away from their tears.

They are not objects or subjects on a computer screen. They are your brothers and sisters in Christ.

Majorityrannyism

If my math is correct, only 54.5% of the delegates voted to maybe decide the acceleration of the decline of The United Methodist Church. I say “maybe” because I am not yet clear on what provisions of the Traditional Plan previously determined to be unconstitutional, but adopted by the majority of delegates will mean to the constitutionality or lack thereof of the whole shebang.

An insider on the winning team has offered this analysis of their victory: https://juicyecumenism.com/2019/02/27/2019-general-conference/?fbclid=IwAR3FX0Z34OJpe7rA9PWa03Tjw5il1_P3-xVFLd6DcaXkKk5NbnuyRDQ2DSA

What strikes me is the tenor and tone of what the evangelical right is claiming as their success. It is all negative and punitive toward those who do not share their rigid standards.

The One Church Plan had its flaws and would certainly have drastically changed the official, much less common, understanding of our connectional system. But it kept the doors open to those whose hearts and minds understood and practiced ministry and mission differently. The evangelical right slammed the door shut and strung razor wire in front of it.

To put the evangelical right’s coup d’eglise in some perspective, 30% of delegates were from African and 7% from Philippine central conferences, very theo-politically conservative portions of our global church. I doubt that all of them voted in lockstep with the North American evangelical right, but I am confident most of them did. If their votes are removed, North American support for collapsing any notion of the UMC as a big tent church shrinks considerably.

The United States Constitution and the Bill of Rights protect minorities from the tyranny of the majority ultimately, although from time to time majorities bridle at their restraints and do their best to hurt, if not eliminate, minority groups.

The 54.5% in St. Louis may not have all intended to do that by their actions, but that is at best an unintended consequence. Some of them knew full well what they were doing and clearly intend to cleanse the church from apostates and infidels.

The good news is that another General Conference is just a year away and it will not take many votes to swing the majority the other way. So, if you can vote to elect delegates get thee to Annual Conference this year.

Remember St. Louis 2019.