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Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Change or Die: Some Friendly Advice to My Fellow United Methodists

I want to emphasize that these are my thoughts and do not reflect any position taken by GBCS

A recent study by Pew found that 1 in 5 young adults (less than 30 years old) do not hold any religious affiliation and more importantly, are not looking for any religious affiliation. It has rightly raised alarm in church leaders who are already seeing our congregations dwindling and our leadership aging with fewer and fewer people to replace them. I am sure the religious blogosphere is already filled with thoughts on what the church, particularly the United Methodist Church of which I serve, should be doing to better serve and bring in these younger adults. I share not so much their sense of alarm – I actually am not surprised at all. But I am hopeful that a study like this can possibly stir us in the Church to meaningful action.

This study presents some interesting and stark challenges to the church, though I prefer to call them opportunities rather than challenges and this is why I am daring to add my own suggestions. My suggestions are specifically for the United Methodist Church to adopt innovations such as the one I list below or to go quietly into that good night of irrelevancy.

I especially see the stark choice before us when I look back at our most recent General Conference in Tampa. In reflecting, I simply cannot refute the fact that right now the United Methodist Church is irrelevant to far too many people. We fight over marriage equality for same-sex couples and for younger generations, this is simply not something to fight about at all. We fight over church structure, and particularly about who will run that structure, and the absolute last thing that will win over coming generations is control of church structures. In fact, when we make the struggle for control over church structures the central piece of business for an entire two weeks of General Conference (and then we are led over a cliff by a group of people not smart enough to check ahead and see if those changes can even by adopted by current constitutional rules), we only end up permanent alienating younger generations from ever wanting to join such a dysfunctional organization. Who can blame them?

So, before I share my suggestions below for what the United Methodist Church should do to meet the missional challenges of being relevant to newer generations I should say that my approach is not one based on making minor tweaks here and there. I think the time for that has come and gone – years ago. We must radically readjust ourselves and our Church – no halfway measures need apply. I also want to say that I am not getting deeply specific mainly because of space (though this post is certainly long enough!). These suggestions will not be liked by all people. In fact, I guarantee that no one will like all of them. And you know what? I am ok with that. This is not a liberal challenge before us, or a conservative one. This is a missional challenge and that requires we sacrifice some of our golden calfs if only, so that the Kingdom of God might be more deeply experienced by newer generations. Isn’t that why we exist? So here it goes:

1. We need to drop entirely the fights over sexuality language in the Books of Discipline and Resolutions for a period of 12 years. Instead, we need to focus on building bridges between those who favor inclusion with those who do not through missional engagement. I mean take out every reference to sexuality in any and all church documents and focus on loving and serving other people. Focus on mission. I know, waiting twelve years is unfair to those who, in my opinion, should not be excluded right now at all. And yes, I know, it is easy for a straight, white, southern, kind of evangelical male to tell people who are unfairly being left out to wait, but I am. Like I said, not everyone is going to like these suggestions. But let’s be realistic, changing the language in the BOD to welcome the GLBT community into full and recognized membership and leadership in the Church is not going to happen at the 2016 or even the 2020 General Conference. It’s just not going to happen. The votes are not there. And instead, we are going to keep fighting these battles with no winner and we are going to continue to be increasingly irrelevant to the many people who do not give a damn about these battles. They just want to be part of an organization whose sole purpose is to love and serve others – mission.

Instead of each side always making the same speeches, what I find that could be truly prophetic, is to spend twelve years serving and loving other people together together. Rather than fight about being inclusive or welcoming, we should just do it as we engage in missional outreach and service. What do you think folks would say if they saw the Confessing Movement and the Reconciling Ministries Network undertake a joint effort to dramatically lessen the number of homeless in the United States both through direct ministries and advocacy at the state and federal level? Or what would young people say if they saw the General Board of Church and Society and Good News jointly address the need to reform the broken immigration system and create welcoming churches? What would younger adults say about the Church when they saw the Mission Society and the General Board of Global Missions join together to plant new churches in urban areas throughout the world and, from that position of incarnation among the poor, utilize strategic partnerships with suburban affluent churches to serve people and advocate for policies that build up inner-cities through strengthening their infrastructures and create opportunities for sustained local control?

Do you think that these kinds of partnerships – free from the constant bickering where no one ultimately wins – would create a space for greater affiliation among younger adults than currently exists? Moreover, do you think we might actually make ground in the struggle to secure a more inclusive Church membership and leadership? No doubt in my mind that we would.

2. As someone who has started the process of ordination several times (and backed out each time), we need a completely new process for ordination. The process we have now is antiquated and clearly does very little to separate good leaders from bad ones. In fact, I know all too many people who have a clear call for ministry, but it did not fit neatly into the District Committee on Ordained Ministry's definition of what ministry was and so they were rejected and, in a few cases, lost their love for serving others. That is shameful.

We all have horror stories of pastors who are not gifted for ministry or leadership in the Church, but yet who serve for years and move from dwindling church to dwindling church. I am not sure we can have any system in place that gets rid of all bad pastors. But what is more troublesome for me is to see unused gifts for ministry within local congregations that are not being used primarily because we spend so much of our time trying to give every form of service a title or a long and often excruciating process of recognition. What is disturbing to me is also the arrogance of the current system of ordination that seems more bent on ideological agendas and maintaining a status quo than equipping and unleashing those gifted for serving and leading people in ministry.

I have sat in too many churches where the most gifted people for ministry are in the pews without titles or positions and who go unnoticed and even marginalized from the work of the local church because they do not care about being noticed – they care about loving and caring for people. They do not play the games to get the positions with the titles – they just do the work of loving and welcoming people and transforming their communities. Sadly, all too often, this means they continue to do the work of loving and serving other people in their neighborhoods, schools, workplaces and other areas of their communities and yet, they do so without the endorsement and support of the local church!

The problem is that these doers of the word are not often supported with the resources of the larger church because they have no official title and they have not subjected themselves to an often impersonal and debilitating process that is so often the case with too many district and conference boards of ordination. They have neither the time nor the desire to fill out mountains of paperwork, to write answers to often inane questions that have little to no context. They are too busy doing the work! Being set apart for ministry should be based more on actual gifts and real engagement in ministry than in the ability to play institutional games.

I believe we get away from those games if we take the bulk of the recognition of calling into ministry from conference or district-wide structures and instead, place it back into the life of the local church from which that person comes and among whom that individual person is best known. Making the identification of calling more local than institutional will do more to improve the quality of those called to ministry than any tweaking of the ordination system that is currently being considered, in my opinion. Churches can then be connected through a much lighter and more responsive overall structure which works to identify and “share leaders” with one another for what they are challenged with. This will work far more effectively than waiting on someone from up on high who supposedly knows their challenges better than they do and who supposedly knows the gifts and strengths of the pastor better than they do. We should not only let local churches interact with one another - we should do all we can to make it happen!

So yes, I am saying we should do away with the current appointment system because our current system of moving pastors around from place to place is too often not dependent on matching gifts with needs. Instead, it is almost entirely dependent on salary structures. Tell me the last time an ordained pastor whose kids had grown, whose financial needs were less because they were older (no seminary school loans for example), and they were best gifted for a smaller church and they were moved there solely because their gifts were more needed there. It never happens! Why? Because a smaller church means a smaller salary and it would ruin the entire appointment system to move a pastor "down the ladder" even if that were the perfect place for them to serve. We must face the fact that the United Methodist Church is like any other large corporation: success is solely defined by moving up the ladder because that means more prestige and more money. Prestige and money – NOT giftedness – is what drives our appointment system as it is. But it doesn't have to be this way.

The truth is, this suggestion will be tougher to implement than the first recommendation. It's almost like those who go through pledging a fraternity or sorority: those who make it through the current ordination maze do not want to change it precisely because they made it through. But as a lay person, let me remind my ordained friends of one important biblical truth: institutional ordination does not necessarily have anything to do with faithfulness to what God has called us to. We are all called to ministry and human-made structures will never erase someone’s calling nor will it alone authenticate someone’s calling. As a lay person, I am just called to ministry as any ordained person and we would do well to rediscover that truth if we want to raise up and unleash a new generation of leaders. Very few of the coming generations will want to go through our current system of ordination and I cannot blame them at all. 

3. One interesting point in the study is that younger adults do not affiliate with the Church because it is too political. That would seem, on the surface, to say that what I do – building movements among United Methodists to protect and defend the rights of immigrants and to end mass incarceration – is hurting the work of the church in attracting younger adults. Lord knows I am sure I will hear it at some point in the future by some who refuse to think about exactly what they are saying. The problem with this assertion is that we also know that younger adults deeply want meaning and purpose in their lives. They value justice for the most vulnerable and authenticity in their relationships - those are valued highly, in fact.. Their avoidance of anything political thus means an avoidance of anything partisan, which sadly is what describes much of the nature of politics in the United States today.

But to incarnate oneself among the most vulnerable – among populations experiencing marginalization or oppression – and from that position, to advocate for their full inclusion in society and the full recognition of their right to exist and to live free and full lives; this is the essence of what biblical missional engagement is all about. And this is not only missional in the sense that advocating for justice from a position of incarnation among the most vulnerable brings liberation for both the vulnerable as well as those who incarnate themselves among them. Incarnational advocacy is also deeply evangelistic. New people are won to Christ as they see the Church redemptively utilizing their access to resources to gain that same access to those same resources for those whose access has been restricted or denied.

We must realize that genuine relationships are personally and societally transformational. Authentic relationships with people experiencing marginalization will necessarily be political in nature, at least in part. You see, the work I do at my day-job is not essentially about building political movements. It is about building essentially spiritual and inherently relational movements that have deep and profound political implications.

This is why the average age of the church is in the mid-50s and the overall average age of our grassroots leaders on issues like immigration and criminal justice is probably upper 30s to lower 40s. The movements built first and foremost on incarnational relationships among those most vulnerable will inevitably result in political engagement, but it will not be partisan in nature, it will be redemptive.

So, these are my suggestions, at least for now. These are not complete. There actually needs to be more – we need to radically change the way we do things. But this post is already long (thanks for reading all the way to the end!). There is time for me to write more about these changes in the future. But sadly, I should also say, we do not have all the time in the world. We have taken too much time already. We really must change or die and the longer we wait to change the quicker we become an intriguing footnote in history. And the younger generations are not waiting for us. They are moving on. It is time we move as well.

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

How to Lose Friends and Influence No One

It’s not something I am proud of, but I actually was part of a social club (meaning fraternity) in college. McMurry University does not have national frats on campus and instead, has “social clubs” that function as the same thing. While I largely regret the time and energy I poured into being a member of the social club while I was at McMurry, there is one specific part of it I regret most of all.


You see, my last year in college I became President of my social club. Yep, it makes me cringe to even write that – President of a frat does not usually lead to political activist. But like it or not, I was. I had occupied several offices in the years before and I figured since it was my last year in college, I “deserved” to be President. It made sense to me. The thing is, I really did not want to be. In fact, while the rest of the club voted between me and a friend of mine, Shane Brue, everything inside of me was saying, “NO!!!” I didn’t really want to be President. I wanted to just hang out with friends, play intramural sports and actually devote more of my time and energy to the social issues and causes on campus.

I remember it vividly, wanting so badly to run in the room where everyone in the club was voting and ask them to remove my name and make Shane Brue President by acclimation. Shane, who tragically lost his battle with cancer a couple of years ago and who I actually shared this story with several years before that, would have made an incredible President. And I would have had a much happier senior year (actually second senior year – yep, I was smart enough for two senior years!).

But I didn’t run in and tell them to stop voting. My need for recognition and for what I thought I “deserved” overrode my deeper and more pure need to just have fun and allow someone else who would have done a better job to actually do it. I wasn’t a horrible President, but I didn’t enjoy it and I know Shane was better suited to do it. Like I said, I greatly regret it mainly because my pride got in the way.

Now that I am in DC working on issues of such great national importance – defending and supporting the rights of immigrants and ending the mass incarceration of people of color – I honestly work with people who are among the most sincere and most intelligent that I have ever known. At the same time, I also work with people (some of these people are the same as the last group I named) who are as interested in promoting themselves and their organizations as they are in promoting the causes of justice for which we are called to work.

I know I have too often been bitten by this deadly and movement-killing disease since I came to DC. Indeed, the disease is quite contagious. The truth is though, the more I focus on grassroots work – building movements among United Methodists defending and supporting the rights of immigrants, and ending mass incarceration of people of color – the less I am inclined to fall to the endless Washington DC pursuit of self-promotion. Self-promotion is the DC form of pride that eats away at genuine partnership and alliance. Self-promotion of this kind undermines authentic friendship and even human interaction.

I have found DC to be the most superficial place on the face of the earth, but I am still stunned by some of the ladder-climbing that happens at the expense of others – even those you are supposedly working alongside of. I recall a while back working hard to put together an event that was meant to benefit grassroots folks, particularly in faith communities. It was postponed at the last minute and then rescheduled while I was travelling. Because I was travelling I had to share putting it back together with a colleague, a friend. Since I had the original vision for the event it made the most sense for me to host it. However, when I returned from travel I came to find out my colleague had rearranged the entire event and featured themselves as the host and responsible organization for it. The event came off and was a success – which really is the most important thing – but I was stunned at the power grab. Self-promotion knows no loyalties other than to oneself.

And that is what is so damaging to genuine movement building. Working on such important issues and working so closely with others should naturally lead to deeper allegiance to the shared cause, but also for deeper respect to one’s fellow workers. And I honestly can say that this does indeed happen with some of those I work with in DC on certain issues, ending mass incarceration being one. But all too often among too many of us in DC, our loyalty to the issue and the people directly impacted by the issue, is clouded and frankly, marginalized by our loyalties to our organizations and even more, ourselves. It should be no wonder why we lose so much of the time.

In the end though, I constantly remind myself when I am in DC that the main thing – defending the rights of immigrants or ending the mass incarceration of people of color – HAS to remain the main thing. Pride does indeed come before the fall and can affect anyone, including myself. We are all susceptible. But I am afraid all of the work happening throughout the country on such issues like immigration will be ruined because those of us in DC are so consumed with self-promotion. Like no other issue I work on, the funding money available for working on immigration issues to DC organizations is fairly immense and, as a result, the struggle to get a piece of the pie is intense. Several years ago, I was in the thick of the struggle to acquire this funding. But the way in which funders force organizations to behave to acquire funding feels inhumane so I have walked away.

The truth is that the self-promotion I describe above which does such damage to working in genuine partnerships is certainly not confined to Washington DC – it can easily happen in any place large or small! But it is also true that pride is more difficult to sustain the closer you get to the people who are directly and negatively impacted by broken systems. Our efforts to get ahead just do not mean that much to those trying to survive. And that, in great part, is the problem with Washington DC – we simply are too detached. I know it. I hate it. But it is true. When we connect with the people who are directly and negatively impacted by the issues we advocate for I think we will focus less on getting funding and promoting ourselves and our organizations and we will function more as partners, which is the only thing that will defeat the forces of injustice and oppression. The people we advocate alongside of and on behalf of deserve more than our obsession with self-promotion, they need our willingness to sacrifice simply and solely because they have sacrificed so much.