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COMMENTARY: Fear shouldn’t govern us in restructuring the UMC Gary Keene, Jan 30, 2012
By Gary M. Keene Special Contributor
Fresh proposals for restructuring the United Methodist Church are generating concerns such as those expressed by the Rev. Tim McClendon (Reporter, Nov. 11, 2011). Some of the issues have deep roots in our constitution and polity, while others are of a more recent vintage; all merit discussion.
Dr. McClendon is straight-up about his fundamental concern, and he is not alone: “Actually, I think money-saving is a smoke screen to hand more power over to the Council of Bishops.” This concern about power is paralleled by the “frightening thought” that “oversight will come from a 45-member group” chaired by a set-aside bishop.
There are three aspects to this concern: the historic separation of powers; the loss of diversity in the representative process; and the pollution of the church by business-driven principles. Let’s take the last one first:
It’s in vogue to blame the UMC’s decline in part on its embrace of 1950s business principles, which were codified by the 1968 merger in the Book of Discipline. Yet business principles have never been inherently antithetical to the church.
Today, church leadership is drawing upon resources informed by research in business (Good to Great by Jim Collins is widely read among pastors). Our institutional error was encoding organizational knowledge of one era such that it has been virtually impossible to adapt to ongoing change and learning. The proposed legislation is an explicit attempt to address that.
What is troubling is the inference that business principles used by faithful laypersons are somehow unworthy of the “church world.” Is not God also at work beyond the church, even in business? Might there be something there of value—including better stewardship of resources?
More interesting and frankly disturbing is how quick we are to repudiate business principles, yet blindly cling to principles of governance that may be more outdated and counter-productive than 1950s organizational theories. Which brings us to the separation of powers.
The mildest student of Methodist history knows that John Wesley did not set out to establish a new church; he wrote sermons, not polity. So when the Wesleyan movement gained enough critical mass to require long-term leadership and management, the emergent U.S. government offered a handy and acceptable solution. With that came the principle of separation of powers.
Dr. McClendon and others make much of this principle of separation, and are quick to quote Judicial Council decisions and the Discipline to assert it. And yet the prejudices of successive generations of General Conference actions, and later, Judicial Council decisions—all codified into the Discipline—have together functioned as a self-reinforcing loop that in different eras sustained slavery, excluded women from membership and ordination, and continues to leave us behind the curve of graceful inclusion of all persons regardless of sexual orientation.
Even if we lay this to “going on to perfection’—oh so slowly—the fundamental question must be asked: How is it that we have not only codified but elevated principles of governance over our gospel? More acutely, how is it that we have willfully incorporated the principle of fear in the governance of Christian community?
The gospel that defines us is incarnational, not constitutional. God comes as a child, a body, a man, who preaches, heals, suffers, dies and is resurrected. We hold that the Church universal, and our Wesleyan expression of that, is the Body of Christ now incarnate in and witnessing to the world. The primary model for governance of the United Methodist Church should be the human form itself.
In contrast, the U.S. Constitution was formed in the context of literal war with England and its monarchy. Thus, our constitution was infected from the beginning with an adversarial approach to governance and its necessary use of power. If one wishes to find a culprit for our lack of denominational leadership, here is the leading candidate.
While this separation is not without some value, carried to the extreme (as it has become) it can only fuel distrust into the kind of fear expressed in handing more power over to the Council of Bishops with a “quasi pope” as its leader. Our unquestioned and vigorous assertion of this fear at the root of our polity has displaced the “perfect love that casts out fear” that 1 John 4:18 describes, and proves one denominational leader’s comment: that today, we are more American than we are Christian.
Admittedly, streamlining governance by concentrating representation in a smaller group is sure to increase the already pervasive mistrust in our system; but amplifying representation has not increased trust, only polarization and stasis.
In the human body, there is a distribution of powers, not a division of powers. The church needs to reclaim the incarnate gospel if it is to truly offer an alternative to the ways of the world. In business terms, we can either “play the game or change the game,” and we have played the current version of the divided, hyper-representational game long enough to see the results.
Kierkegaard said, “The purpose of Christianity from the very beginning was to change the world.” If that’s truly our mission, then we need to use all the tools at hand, including some new ones and some really old ones.
There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. (1 John 4:18-19 NRSV)
The Rev. Keene is executive assistant to the bishop for the Los Angeles Area (California-Pacific Conference).