I realized recently that I am hopeless about the United Methodist Church – and that this is a good thing.
In a marvelous lecture I would commend to all pastors and leaders, Dr. Henry Cloud unpacks definitions and leadership strategies for dealing with three categories of people: the wise, the evil, and the foolish. The short version is this:
- The wise: love correction and can be trusted to hear it and act on it.
- The evil: are toxic, twisted, or sick, and will only respond to lawyers, police, and medication.
- The foolish: despise feedback, are not honest, and will continue to act out unless you get hopeless.
For years I’ve done what I know to try and offer correction to a denomination that seems dedicated to self-destruction. Like Cloud’s naive manager, stuck in a vicious cycle of correcting a fool who isn’t prepared to hear it, I’ve gotten more and more frustrated while the fool continued his foolishness. As Cloud points out, when fools are met with critique, they minimize, shoot the messenger, shift blame, and deny the problems. We’ve all worked with people like this.
Cloud notes the only way to end this cycle is to get hopeless, and have what we’d call a “come to Jesus” meeting. The gist of it? “I don’t know how to help you. I am hopeless for you. Let’s have a conversation about how helping you doesn’t help.” Cloud notes that talking doesn’t help in dealing with fools (note how most solutions offered to the current impasse assume more talking is part of the answer – in fact, it only serves the ongoing foolishness of the fool). The leader then draws a boundary with the fool and describes the consequences for continuing in this behavior. But to get to that place, the leader must get hopeless.
I’m hopeless about the UMC. To put it another way, I’ve completed the grief process. I’ve gone through the full gamut of the classic responses to grief: I’ve been angry, I’ve bargained with God, I’ve gotten depressed over it, and I’ve tried to deny where we are heading. Now I’ve hit the end of the cycle, I’ve reached acceptance.
Death is happening. I’m hopeless – and that’s just fine.
As Christopher Ritter recently pointed out, there’s a good chance schism won’t nearly be as bad as we think. Don’t get me wrong. It will suck. It will not be fun. But we are Easter people, and we know that death is not the end of the story. We’ve been here before, anyway. We’ve split, splintered, and reunited. Let’s get hopeless for the UMC as it is currently configured.
The alternatives are not pleasant. You could, instead of accepting the coming schism:
- Naively think the Bishop’s Commission will find anything new that can both heal our divisions and pass the called General Conference.
- Catastrophize (like this and this) the coming schism as if it will stop the Kingdom from coming. (The sad part is, this is coming from folks who’ve either been silent or actively cheered the schismatic actions that got us to this place.)
- Continually re-define the covenant away, which is just another form of denial.
To put it simply: I’m hopeless, and that’s okay. I think you should be hopeless too. I believe I’m in a place similar to what Oliver Wendell Holmes describes:
“For the simplicity that lies this side of complexity, I would not give a fig, but for the simplicity that lies on the other side of complexity, I would give my life.”
On the other side of this grief cycle, of trying and failing to encourage an orthodox, united, healthy future, I’m simply hopeless.
Note that I am hopeless for the entity called the United Methodist Church. I am not hopeless for the church, which is much larger than this particular member of the Body of Christ. I am not hopeless for the Wesleyan movement, which I believe is among the truest, most beautiful expressions of Christian faith ever offered. Finally, I am not hopeless for the local church. I am blessed to serve a wonderful congregation at present, and in this diverse group of disciples, I see a great hope for impacting our community and changing lives through the power of the gospel.
Some folks will, after reading this far, say that I am not leaving room for God’s Spirit to do a miracle, to bring a stream in this desert. Of course I believe this is possible and pray for a miracle, as I always do when ministering with someone who is dying. As an Arminian, however, I also believe in free will. God honors our desire to either be with God or live apart from God. As such, let me be clear: I do not believe that schism is God’s best future for the church, either the church as a whole, or the UMC. But I do believe that God will give us the division to which we’ve been so dedicated (by both what we have done, and what we have left undone). He will honor that choice, even though it will grieve Him.
Sometimes relationships become toxic, and when all efforts at healing are exhausted, there are only two choices left: continue to damage each other, or go our separate ways.
I’m hopeless. I believe our efforts at healing are exhausted. I don’t want us to continue to damage each other. I don’t know where all this will land, truth be told, but I am ready to accept the uncertainty of a schism if that means I can embrace hopelessness, and cease putting energy and resources into a fool that despises correction.
As Christians, we are supposed to be in the reality business. We are not utopian and we are not nihilists. As Paul puts it, I grieve, but I grieve with hope – hope that God will do a new thing, hope that there will be a healthy, orthodox, Wesleyan church or churches on the other side of this, hope that as pastors we can guide our churches through tumultuous times, and that the Spirit will not depart from us in that process.
I can hope for all of this and more because I am hopeless for the UMC.