I’ve learned something from past General Conferences. General Conference can’t save The United Methodist Church.
This summer I have followed on social media the general convention of Seventh-Day Adventists in San Antonio, the general convention of the Episcopal Church in Salt Lake City, and the general assembly of the Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) in Columbus. Each of these gatherings had high points and low points. There were beautiful worship experiences. There were thoughtful times of prayer. There were heated debates. There were winners and losers.
For instance at the Episcopal General Convention, they elected a new presiding Bishop and authorized a revamped language in their liturgy regarding marriage.
The Seventh-Day Adventists debated ordaining women and after much debate voted against it.
The Christian Church (Disciples of Christ) did a bunch of things, but there wasn’t much news about any of it.
So after all that is said and done, what difference does it really make in the life of the local church? It doesn’t matter if your Bishops marched against Gun Violence, or you voted to encourage better relationships with the Palestinians or the Israelis. Outside of a few news outlets, the impact of these three major conventions wasn’t even a blip on the radar. 70,000 people poured into San Antonio for the Seventh-Day Adventists general convention in July and I bet many of the readers of this blog didn’t hear one thing about it.
When I was growing up in the Southern Baptist Church, I remember one year the Southern Baptist Convention voted to boycott Disney. They would encourage all their churches and members to not visit Disney World, not buy Disney products, or go to Disney movies. It was a big deal when it happened. A lot of news media outlets picked it up. Want to know the outcome?
It failed. Miserably. More people went to Disney World. More people bought Disney products. More people saw Disney movies. You may think, “Well, Southern Baptists didn’t.” You would be wrong. I know good Southern Baptists that dismissed this boycott as silly and dumb. Southern Baptist youth choir trips still flocked to Disney World. Eight years later, the Southern Baptist Convention officially ended the boycott.
The truth is that the nebulous mass of the general level in denominations today has grown to the point where it has only marginal impact on the life of the local church. It does not matter how many things we do or don’t do at General Conference in 2016 because these things are not what is important for life in the local church.
We cannot legislate our way to a better denomination.
So what can we do? What has the most impact on the local church? I believe two things have the most impact on the local church.
- Effective Clergy. Clergy who have training in a wide variety of fields from leadership to theology and from pastoral care to administration. I remember one seminary professor telling me, “It is not my job to train you to be a clergy. Its my job to train you to be a theologian.” This won’t be enough anymore. We need entrepreneurs, creatives, artists, writers, counselors, musicians, CEOs, managers, CPAs, and visionaries every bit as much as we need theologians. As a clergy person I have to talk on the spiritual level and the business level. This requires me to have some knowledge of a wide variety of fields. Changing the way we train our clergy would have a huge impact on the local church.
- Effective Laity. For as long as I can remember we have trained our laity in order to serve on committees. If you were put on the Trustees, then you went to Trustees training and learned about what it means to be a Trustee committee member. Same with SPRC or Nominations or Finance or Administrative Board or UMW or UMM or UMYF or anything else you were stuck on as laity. Training people to serve on a committee is not helping us make disciples. A lot of our laity are already engaging in ministry with the world around them. They are inviting people to church. They are present with people who are grieving. They are in our hospitals and our schools caring for others. What would happen if we trained our laity to be the best ministers they already are rather than training them to be a committee member? Changing the way we train our laity would have a huge impact on the local church.
When you have a mix of an effective clergyperson and effective laity then you have a vital congregation that can impact their community and the world. With these two things working together the church flourishes.
So what can General Conference do? As an average clergyperson who has never been to General Conference and has no real desire to go, I see two things that would help me and my local church the most.
- Simplify. I collect Methodist Books of Discipline. I have a Book of Discipline from 51 years ago. You know what size it is? HALF. Half the size of today’s Book of Discipline. That is what it looks like. There is no Wesleyan Quadrilateral in it. There are no social principles in it. Think about this. With the restrictive rule in place we cannot take away, we can only add. That is what we have done for the past 50 years…add. And add. And add some more. STOP. Stop adding. Adding one thing to the Book of Discipline is not going to help clergy or laity become more effective. Instead of adding, why don’t we consider revising?
- What if we simplify our structures? Allow our churches, conferences, and agencies to adopt better forms of leadership. I have served in two churches where it was impossible to get enough people to cover all the committees and numbers that the Book of Discipline mandates. Some churches need big boards and 15 committees to get stuff done. Other churches may need two or three committees and a church council. What would happen if we eliminate mandates like shall and offered guidelines and suggestions instead? What if we let churches form leadership based on their missional setting?
- What if we simplify our emphases? Currently we have six Special Sundays plus Annual Conference Special Sundays plus Four Areas of Focus plus The Advance plus Special Appeals plus World Service Special Gifts plus… Don’t get me wrong. All these things are really big and important things. They all worthy things that we should support, but they can’t all be the thing. Patrick Lencioni, author of The Advantage, says, “If everything is important, than nothing is.” The church that I currently serve has been feeding 50 hungry families a month for longer than anyone can remember. The church that I served before moving feeds homeless and food poor people breakfast every Sunday. One church I was at put all the Special Sundays into their budget for the year except one. That one Special Sunday was emphasized for a whole month. We collected more that one year for that Special Sunday than we have ever done in the past because it was important! We know we need to do missions. Instead of telling all of our churches what missions to do, allow them the freedom to identify the missions in their community.
- Clarify. A lesson that I have learned time and time again in the local church is that the worst thing I can do as a leader is leave people guessing. People do not want to have to figure out what you are trying to say. They want you to be clear and open. They want to know what page you are on. The worst thing you can do is be maybe this, maybe that. On a bigger level, a denomination stays a denomination by sharing something in common. If I ask a Baptist what the Baptists believe, they can tell me. If I ask a Roman Catholic what the Catholics believe, they can tell me. So if you go to a Baptist Church in Louisiana it will be very similar to a Baptist Church in California or a Baptist Church in Indiana or a Baptist Church in North Carolina. This comes from having a universality to their language. I think it would be a challenge right now to find a shared language in the United Methodist Church. Are we speaking the same language? Do we have the same goals and objectives? Is our mission the same? When at the Methodist Conference, John Wesley was asked the question about God’s design in raising up Preachers called Methodists, his reply was, “To reform the nation, particularly the church, and to spread scriptural holiness over the land.”
- What if we clarified our beliefs? No more Outler Quadrilateral system. What if we offered a succinct catechism about what the people called Methodist believe? All this information is already in our Book of Disciple contained in the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith. What if we took this information and formed The General Conference can clarify our doctrines, our distinctive language, our mission, and our goals to make sure our agencies, our jurisdictions, our conferences, our churches, our clergy, and our laity are all on the same page. Clarity could help the haze of fog that currently mires our denomination. Charles Wesley even offered his thoughts on the Church catechism to help us with a starting place. A common catechism could give us a shared language to articulate our faith.
- What if we clarified our mission? Dan Dick wrote a remarkably insightful piece about our current mission, “To make disciples of Christ for the transformation of the world.” For all the emphasis we have placed on this current mission, we have done a terrible job of actually living it out in reality. He spells out some of the current barriers to this mission. A mission statement is a statement of purpose and the reason we exist. The mission should communication direction and clarity to everyone in the organization. All of our resources, time, energy, and money go to living out that mission statement every single day. The problem with the UMC mission statement? It is way to big to be measured in any meaningful way. Everything fits into the mission statement. I could spend the entire day drinking coffee with friends and this is making disciples. I could spend all day on social media and this is making disciples. I could spend all day protesting and this is making disciples. Again these are all good things, but when everything is important, nothing is. Maybe General Conference could give us a real mission that is measurable, that is bold, and that is clear and to the point?
Maybe General Conference can’t save The United Methodist Church, but they can equip us in the local church to be the best we can be. These are some of my thoughts.
What do you think would be the best outcome of General Conference 2016?