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Framing the Question

Art A. W. Collins thinking about the future of the UMC

All across The United Methodist Church, leaders (lay as well as clergy) are beginning to ask themselves, What do we do when (not if) The UMC comes to a point of separation and self-sorting into new expressions (separate structures) of Methodism. Most congregations haven't had "the talk" about options for the future. A lot of bishops and senior pastors want to project confidence and not have to have "the talk" with their sheep.

Add to this the fact that, even in congregations where people have been paying attention and discussing the UM Gordian Knot, sotto voce, for some time, opinions are mixed. Most congregations have represented within them a variety of opinions on the subjects in dispute, and these opinions are held with varying degrees of intensity. The most hard-core traditionalist congregation has some people in it who don't agree with the majority, and the same is true of the hard-core progressive or hard-core centrist congregation. And even if the preferences are clear, people really don't want to hurt other people whom they have known and loved for so many years. We may disagree, but we don't want to say things to or about each other that would wound; yet we can hardly avoid doing so.

So, if the time is finally coming where we cannot put it off, and must have "the talk," how can a congregation process all their opinions and all their options and make a decision that they can feel comfortable with? One pastor has written a very good teaching outline on sexuality for congregations that helps them think about thinking about stuff, clarifying their beliefs while listening to what others say. This is good. But I'd like to suggest that, in a rough and ready way, there's another way to frame the question. Most congregations depend upon the Annual Conference (and therefore, the denomination) for one thing above all else: their pastoral supply.

Clergy, whether appointed or called, must be acceptable to the Conference (denomination). They must meet certain standards set by the Conference (denomination). Up to now, the only way most congregations have been able to affect the kind of pastor they are likely to get is by the salary they set for the position. The clergy of an Annual Conference are like the fish in a big, deep lake. Different fish swim and feed at different levels. You can't pick out one particular fish you want to land, but by setting the depth of your hook and bait, you limit the possible candidates to a certain stratum within the whole lake. But within United Methodism up till now, there has been no way on earth to predict what you are going to get from a new pastor in terms of theology or values.

That changes if The UMC starts to separate into more coherent groupings. If you have a traditionalist, a progressive, and a centrist Conference (denomination), you will have a traditionalist pond, a progressive pond, and a centrist pond. Those Conferences (denominations) may have different methods of matching clergy with churches, but they certainly will have different standards for training, approving, and promoting clergy. All the clergy in a given pond will be more and more like each other than they are now. So, the question your congregation has to answer is, Which pond do we want to fish in?

Of the traditionalist pastors you know, and the centrist pastors you know, and the progressive pastors you know, which group -- as a whole -- represents the group you want to draw your next generation of pastors from? Quite apart from the presenting issue -- the thing we're all arguing about today -- which group gives you the most confidence that someone from that group can be found that would be acceptable to your church and successful in leading it in the years ahead?

If you get the chance to choose, choose the group whose clergy as a whole most appeal to you. And choose well. You'll be hearing them preach and having them pitch you ministry ideas for a long time.


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