I didn’t grow up in The United Methodist Church. For the entire time I’ve been a United Methodist, I’ve also been an employee of the same on either a local church or regional level. And frankly speaking, if I wasn’t an employee of The United Methodist Church, I might just as easily belong to a church of another denomination altogether.
By sharing this, I don’t mean to intimate that I’m just a hired gun, that I’m eager to leave The United Methodist Church, or that I have no concern for its future. In general, I believe that my perspective can be a nice balance to those offered by UMC-lifers who have never identified as something else. But it is also true that it leaves me less capable of understanding the full spectrum of emotions that people express when the topic of schism arises.
I offer this full disclosure because I think it is very important to understand the differing motivations and unspoken assumptions of everyone engaging in dialog around the future of the denomination. In fact, I believe there is a very simple, fundamental question we fail to ask as we consider the difficult conversations that The United Methodist Church is engaged in currently. The question is this:
Is this the action of a uniting Methodist?
Naming my Bias
Like most people, my first experiences of our denomination were in a local church. The one I attended was modestly diverse, with most of that diversity being theological. Leadership was prone to avoid conflict, as is often the case, but there was an embrace of the spirit of the denomination’s relatively new (at that time) tagline: open hearts, open minds, open doors. While one study group worked its way through the latest book from a Jesus Seminar author like Crossan or Borg, another would be planning the next Walk to Emmaus.
I don’t want to romanticize this early experience of the UMC; it wasn’t perfect, but it was a place where people could grow and have some stereotypes challenged by reality. On the occasions where conflict did arise, it was more likely than not that the tent posts would move just enough to accommodate the new people or ideas encountered. Sometimes this felt like too little to some, or too much for others. And of course, some folks would leave as they couldn’t see themselves as a part of this new way of being, or grew too exhausted waiting for others to discover something they already knew.
As the youth director, I was encouraged to push the boundaries and sometimes found myself equipped for the task. My first experience of the larger denomination, and the tension of our conflict, came when I attended a youth ministry training at Perkins School of Theology. While sitting at a table group, a speaker referenced the same “open hearts…” tagline I mentioned earlier, errantly referring to it as the denomination’s mission statement. A young man sitting across from me got visibly angry at this and the table subsequently spent several minutes listening to (his opinion of) the harm this “liberal propaganda” was doing to his church.
I share these memories because they were formative in the development of my understanding of United Methodism. They represent a bias I bring to the table and, for me, they also inform my understanding of the question, “Is this the action of a uniting Methodist?”
How has your heart been strangely warmed?
I’ve been lukewarm and on fire for Jesus. I’ve been conservative, borderline fundamentalist, post-denominational, and even a liberal United Methodist. In each place, I have grown the most through the relationships I’ve had with people who differed from me. They have, and continue to, challenge me to think more expansively. I’d be lying if I said that I always enjoyed these moments, especially the ones that made me look foolish. But when there has been true fellowship and Christian affection, growth has been the common outcome; of this I have little doubt.
But we don’t grow from conflict alone. We develop very little from angrily scanning the latest tweets of a politician we’ll never meet or by belittling a straw-person of our ideological opposition among like-minded friends. It befuddles me how often we overlook the essential requirements of formative relationship, that true fellowship and Christian affection, in our definitions of what it means to be a Church that transforms people’s lives. Absent this, we can certainly cultivate a way of thinking about the world but we should absolutely question how Christian the process has been.
So, as I consider the never-ending blog posts, caucus group statements, demonstrations, and political maneuvers, liberal and conservative alike, I find that I keep coming back to this simple question: Are they the actions of a uniting Methodist? Do they reflect a spirit of engagement and an openness to the well-being of others or are they bound up in fear, pain, anger, or some need to control another?
During the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others?” Despite all the pain we hold, Jesus’ words should still matter, right? When we speak or act without the transformation of the “other” in mind, or when we actively plan for a future in our theological bubble (with our own seminary, publishing house, and caucuses/associations), I’m not sure that we believe Jesus’ words really matter anymore.
Are you a Uniting Methodist?
Some can say that I write from a place of comfort and privilege in The United Methodist Church – I won’t argue that point. Beyond being a straight, white male clever enough to hide any heretical notions, the biggest privilege I carry, as I mentioned before, is how easy it is for me to imagine belonging to a Church beyond this broken one.
Despite a lot of misgivings about the squishy United Methodist middle, I do find some affinity with the Uniting Methodists movement that launched this week. Among the publicly named leaders of this effort you’ll find some familiar faces from across the political spectrum. Many serve at churches filled with people who don’t fit neatly into one camp, bubble, or silo. If you want to question their motivations, they also have a lot to lose if the denomination chooses a way forward that pulls the center pole out from our proverbial big tent.
The ‘movement’ is taking some hits on social media already. Some conservatives have lashed out at the effort as a compromised endeavor too friendly to liberals and lacking any serious theological credibility. Some progressives have called into question the lack of uncloseted LGBTQ individuals on the “Leadership Team” (a legitimate question BTW) while inferring that the movement is the latest harmful concession to conservatives from “so-called allies of oppressed people.”
Still, when I consider the stark polarities of our current political climate, my spirit longs for a Church that offers something different. The big tent of United Methodism may be destined to go the way of the Ringling Brothers Circus but will what follows provide the liminal space where personal transformation can happen?
Regardless, until the circus is over for us, I’ll continue to attempt to discern the never-ending blog posts, caucus group statements, demonstrations, and political maneuvers offered with this question:
Is this the action of a uniting Methodist?
For those torn between the “centrist” approach reflected in the Uniting Methodists movement and other positions held across the spectrum, I’d recommend a number of other blogs. Among a number of options you’ll find online, I’d suggest starting with Kevin Watson’s post entitled “My Struggle with Centrism #UMC” and the response to it from Adam Hamilton entitled “In Support of United Methodist Centrism.”
If you’ve run across others, please feel free to leave a link and your thoughts in the comments section below.
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Image Credit: The featured image includes a cropped image Flickr user Jeb Bjerke, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0. The “Uniting Methodists” logo was added.