Great Expectations

Great Expectations (an unfinished entry from 9/21/2011)

Q: What may we reasonably believe to be God’s design, in raising up the preachers called Methodists?
A: To reform the Continent, and spread scripture holiness through these lands.
(1784 Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church)

The above Q & A is taken directly from the first edition of our Discipline, the 1784 Discipline of the Methodist Episcopal Church created with the founding of our denomination at the Christmas Conference in Baltimore. Recent events have led me to reflect on a similar question, and the radically different answer I perceive being exerted upon me and my fellow clergy colleagues:

Q: What do you think we might reasonably believe is God’s intent and desire for our Methodist leaders?
A: To save the United Methodist institution.

Don’t misunderstand me, I’ve been snarky and skeptical (and even, to my shame, cynical) plenty before, but I have always loved our Church and our heritage. Even as a seminarian championing “we need to change!” in order to reach GenX and Millennials, I was formed in and through our Church. I was influenced by Christians of deep passion and serious thought, and continue to grow in my admiration for John and Charles Wesley and the earliest Methodist movement.

But lately – as our Church and leaders continue to require new ministries and “practices of fruitful churches” and “Calls to Action” and tools for “vital congregations” and surveys about “church vitality,” etc. – I’ve begun to feel further out of place than I did as a young(er) clergy person championing for change. Suddenly everyone is encouraging change – but (it seems to me) there is an aimlessness to it. We have gravitated to a number of programs or gurus or dashboards or other indicators and methods for change, sometimes complementary and sometimes conflicting. And if our leadership is questioned about it, we’re simply told “it’s all important.”

I love our history and our Wesleyan roots, but frankly I am increasingly discouraged that the unwritten expectation for our clergy at large – and younger clergy specifically! – is that we will make the changes (and, often, sacrifices) to save the ship. Mission statements or challenges from our denominational leaders increasingly sound and feel like they are coming from a survivor mentality rather than a true passion for Jesus Christ. Our desire for change seems motivated more by a desire to save ourselves, rather than a true desire to fulfill Christ’s Great Commission. Indeed, I have heard our leaders tell us that we need to start new churches not to save new people, but to increase the number of Methodists to sustain our Church!

At the same time, we young clergy can expect to lose what has been the equivalent of “tenure” for decades – e.g. guaranteed appointments for ordained elders – while also being held accountable for greater growth and health than the church has known since 1965! We will continue to be expected to itinerate – going where we are told to go – and then evaluated as to whether we effectively “fit” the community we serve. Even as our conference structures are loathe to change insurance or pension plans for our current retirees, it is no far stretch to recognize that retirement for currently active clergy will be diminished and more challenging. In short, the current path of leaders focused on our struggling institution will continue to negatively impact our clergy, leading to increasing feelings of alienation and isolation.

As clergy respond to a difficult but often irresistible calling from God to lead others in making “disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world,” we feel pulled in multiple directions to support, sustain, or outright save the denomination. Not to be a Negative Nancy, but I hear this struggle from too many of my colleagues to ignore it, and it deeply concerns me.

So what do we do?

I believe that our hope, and the foundation for any substantive or positive change in our situation, lies in the (re)discovery that as pastoral leaders, our primary calling is doing our best to follow Jesus and bring others to follow Jesus. As Methodists, we do so – we live, serve, and journey as servant leaders of Jesus Christ – in the company and guidance of the Wesleys and other Methodists. Our heritage (and denomination) is a resource to aid our mission, not a sacred cow to drive numeric goal-setting.

Our focus needs to be not on the institution, but on the people around us and the unique means our Wesleyan heritage has of sharing the message of the Good News of Jesus Christ. Which naturally leads to the all important questions: why do we, and our neighbors, need Jesus Christ? This question, taught for decades by Bill Easum and others who would coach churches, remains the ultimate question we are called to ask of ourselves and our churches.

Perhaps instead of worrying about how we will grow the church, we need to spend more time focusing on questions related to why we need Jesus today. I can’t even say I know the right questions, but I think I might start with some like…

What are the real – and felt – needs of the communities we serve in that Jesus would address if he were here?
What issues facing our neighbors might faith in Jesus Christ positively impact?
How can re respond to our neighbors’ needs in such a way as to fulfill our mission to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world”?
How can Jesus help with the disintegrating sense of family and community felt by so many?
How can Jesus and Christian faith help overcome social additions to hurry and material possessiveness?
How can our daily choices and teachings encourage people toward the life of holy happiness God calls us to (eg. “spread Scriptural holiness”)?
How can the witness of our faith, the ministries of our churches, and the very vocations of our lives (whether we be clergy or laity) positively impact our communities (e.g. “reform the Continent” or “transform the world”)?

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