By Walter Fenton
Many United Methodists are justifiably wary of anything that resembles the “institutional” church of which they are now a part. They are wary of numerous bureaucratic and costly general boards and agencies, and they are particularly wary of institutional leaders called bishops.
And yet, it has often been said over the past decade, “It’s not that our theological teachings and church governance structure are bad; our problem is bad actors.” Saddled with a number of bishops who have refused to abide by our Book of Discipline, these same bishops have led the church into a state of dysfunction and crisis.
As the WCA has worked on drafting a document for a new church, those involved have learned to repeatedly ask themselves, “Are we in danger of allowing our present frustrations to predominate as we attempt to discern a faithful way forward?” If we are, then we are in danger of throwing the proverbial baby out with the bath water.
To avoid this terrible mistake the WCA has repeatedly circled back around to the touchstones of our faith: to Scripture, the great creeds, the Articles of Religion, the Confession of Faith, the General Rules, and Wesley’s sermons. It is in them we are reminded of our great, collective calling and mission: to worship and praise the Triune God; to proclaim the Good News of Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior; and, “to make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”
And so the “Book of Doctrines and Discipline,” the working document the WCA’s Global Legislative Assembly recently made available for review and comments, is the association’s attempt to propose the creation of a movement oriented church, grounded in its calling, and organized to fulfill its mission in the 21st century.
For two reasons, the WCA envisions a much leaner, nimbler, and less costly general church.
First, our present age calls for a mission driven church. We need to reach unchurched, marginalized people, and we need to reach young people, people of color, and people of various ethnicities wherever they live. Fortunately, many local churches– from small to large, in Africa, Eurasia, the Philippines, and the U.S. – have amply demonstrated how to be mission driven without relying on an expensive, top-down, institutional bureaucracy. In the same way many of these local churches have leveraged the services of numerous para-church organizations for everything from Sunday school resources to global mission partnerships, the WCA believes a general church must do the same. In the same way these churches have leveraged advances in technology, media resources, and the internet to make critical connections within and beyond their churches, the WCA believes a general church must do likewise. The WCA believes this approach is a model to emulate as it works to press into large cities, suburbs, and rural areas to plant new churches and revitalize old ones. Therefore, a mission driven church will concentrate more on disseminating and sharing ideas from the grassroots rather than rolling out major plans it expects everyone to adopt. It will leave far more resources in the local church, and expect them to be more creative, intentional, “hands-on,” and fully engaged in their own ministries and missions.
Second, the WCA is in sync with its members and friends. It knows local churches, clergy and laity have no interest in and will not be party to reconstituting a costly, bureaucratic institution. Therefore, it has no intention of building one. The WCA envisions a movement of the willing, not the coerced, so it proposes no “trust clause” in a new church. Consequently, the power dynamics in a mission driven church shift from the top to the bottom. Local churches will demand a leaner and more nimble general church that serves and resources them rather than vice-versa. Without a trust clause local churches will not be beholden to support a costly and unaccountable bureaucracy. Instead, a mission driven general church will have to demonstrate value to local churches, clergy and laity, or suffer the consequences of failing to do so.
Only broadly shared and approved ministry and mission goals would drive what institutional structure there would be in a new Methodist church. And given our calling and our evaluation of our most pressing needs, the WCA envisions major investments in planting new churches and revitalizing old ones with the specific aim of reaching young people, people of color, and people of various ethnicities, wherever they live. It also recognizes that while faithful, talented, and dedicated young people feel called to ministry in challenging places, they will need significant support. A new church must make major financial commitments to help educate young clergy, and then partner them with proven leaders who will serve as their mentors. And for a season, it must provide them with sufficient salaries and benefits that would alleviate the worry of providing for themselves and their families as they work hard to plant and revitalize churches in challenging places.
No one is under the illusion any of this will be easy, but the alternative is an inefficient use of precious resources, stagnation, and eventually failure to fulfill our high calling. As local churches, laity, and clergy step forward into something new, they will inevitably put themselves at risk. But the WCA is convinced many know the greater risk is to remain mired in a dysfunctional church that often constrains and even undermines our shared desire to focus on being a mission driven church, focused solely on our high calling to praise and worship God, proclaim Christ as Lord and Savior, and to make disciples of all nations.
The Rev. Walter Fenton is Vice President for Strategic Engagement for the Wesleyan Covenant Association and is an elder in the Greater New Jersey Annual Conference.