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What Would It Take for Us to Dream Anew?

Tom Lambrecht Realistic commentary on the possibilities for United Methodist future. Best line: "Any conference or denominational leader who calls for more of the same way of doing should be questioned over their privilege – only those who benefit most from a broken system would call to perpetuate that brokenness. Status quo does not bring peace to a broken system. It only perpetuates the dysfunction."

by Ben Gosden

July 8, 2019

Acts 2 offers us a vision of church where the people are reminded of prophecies of old:

17 “‘In the last days, God says,

I will pour out my Spirit on all people.

Your sons and daughters will prophesy,

your young men will see visions,

your old men will dream dreams. (Acts 2:17)

We’re at a crossroads in The United Methodist Church. People of all theological leanings are (finally) waking up to the notion that church as we’ve always known it is no longer sustainable. LGBTQ Christians are tired of being hurt and told to “just hang in there, change is coming.” Persons with Traditionalist views are tired of the constant fighting when it’s clear we have irreconcilable differences. It seems everyone is ready to take steps toward a new way of doing church…

…well almost everyone

Institutionalism is Alive and Well

Just this week cabinet leaders from the Cal-Nevada Annual Conference released a statement discouraging people from disaffiliating from The United Methodist Church. Disaffiliation is now a Discipline-supported option for churches who want to leave and retain their buildings. Essentially those churches are required to pass the idea of disaffiliation by a certain vote margin, pay their pension liabilities, and pay a certain amount of apportionments. Upon meeting these required steps, they can leave the UMC and retain their building. In the last week or so we found out that 7 churches in the Mississippi Annual Conference exercised the option to disaffiliate in a satisfactory way.

In anticipation of inclusive churches wanting to take a similar path, cabinet officials from Cal-Nevada offer 6 reasons why they do not support such a path. Sounds all well and good, right? Except I can’t help but detect the stale, dank smell of institutionalism all over their statement.

First of all, the spirit of shaming is loud and clear in their words. Painting churches who want to disaffiliate as “neo-colonialist” or “not Wesleyan” is a poor line of logic and a blatant misuse of their power. Churches who are considering disaffiliating are not all doing so out of disobedience. They’re doing it for faithful reasons like being tired of LGBTQ members feeling abused by our system or being tired of our system being mired in disagreement and not focused on our mission to make disciples. For an entire cabinet to shame churches reveals just how tone deaf some of our leaders are.

Secondly, any conference or denominational leader who calls for more of the same way of doing should be questioned over their privilege – only those who benefit most from a broken system would call to perpetuate that brokenness. Status quo does not bring peace to a broken system. It only perpetuates the dysfunction.

It’s Time to Build Bridges Into New Lands

A friend offered a wise word before the delegation elections. He said instead of asking what “side” a candidate supports, we should ask if they support overhauling the system or not. I would agree. The Connectional Conference Plan was the stepchild because people complained the constitutional amendments would be too hard to pass. I wrote before General Conference 2019 that delegates should support the CCP precisely because it’s hard. Doing what’s easy is what brought into the mess we’re now in. The Traditionalist Plan was easy because it’s one side trying to exercise more power over another side. The One Church Plan was easy because people assumed everyone would magically fall into one of three new spaces and never question the intentions of the Methodists down the road who do church in radically different ways. Both plans missed the mark and we saw the fallout as General Conference turned into a 3-ring circus.

It’s now time for Traditionalists, Centrists, and Progressives to WORK TOGETHER to do what is hard and overhaul our system. Building bridges might actually provide the road we need to venture into new and unchartered territories of Methodism. It’s time to prayerfully and intentionally work toward being a 21st Century church. And, yes, that will require our willingness to let many of our 1950s ways of doing church die so that resurrection can take place.

Some Early Conclusions

I’m starting a running list of early conclusions that seem to be more and more clear. These aren’t perfect, but they’re working conclusions I’m holding on to (but willing to change) as we continue onward in this uncertain season of denominational life:

  1. Those who benefit most from our current system do NOT need to be the primary decision makers in our future. Products of our past will most likely not have solutions for the future. Their best function could be finding ways to give new people voice and creating space where new ideas can be shared.

  2. Our system doesn’t need a few tweaks. It’s needs an overhaul. From our agencies to our conferences down to our districts and local churches – we need to realign the system where the goal can more than just connectionalism, but also shared values, goals, and ways of uniquely living into those things at every level.

  3. Shaming people calling for change is an act of privilege and should be named as such. Our leaders owe us better than that. I can tell you that my church has considered disaffiliation and we’re not currently taking that option. But it’s not because our bishop has shamed us into that decision.

  4. This current division is an opportunity to do something bigger than just address the issue of human sexuality. It’s a chance to shed the ways of doing church that have grown tired and ineffective. It’s a chance to reimagine the church and create systems that can carry us into the next 100+ years.

I still think Acts 2 is possible, even in The United Methodist Church. But it’s doing to take the grace of God and our willingness to dream new dreams and see visions of a church that looks very different from the 1950s to make it so.

Ben Gosden

The Rev. Ben Gosden serves as lead pastor at Trinity United Methodist Church in Savannah, Ga. This post is republished with permission from his blog, Covered in the Master's Dust.

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