upper room daily devotions

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Honest and Humble Churches and Scapegoating

Every now and I become preoccupied with the idea of "honest and humble faith." It is this preoccupation, in part, that has led me away from blogging on a regular basis. I've been trying to leave open space for God to work in my life without succumbing to the need to fill every moment with talking, writing, and exhorting. Part of my vocation is grounded in helping others also to seek a more humble and honest way through the world. Yet, here I am blogging...

A study group in The United Methodist Church has concluded that the denomination should do away with guaranteed appointments because, according to the article, they contribute "to mediocrity and ineffectiveness and emphasize the needs of the ministers rather than the mission of the church." Accountability is important for clergy - very important. But, accountability for what, exactly? Accountability for knowing liturgy; accountable for knowing how the Church, for centuries, has set the Table for Holy Communion; accountable for knowing laws on reporting abuse (and doing so); accountable for understanding Greek and Hebrew so that we can interpret the Bible with at least an approximation of accuracy; accountable for competent interpersonal skills; accountable for basic administrative skills; accountable for creating and maintaining healthy boundaries within the congregation and within the annual conference; accountable for keeping a Sabbath, daily prayer, and personal devotion; accountable for knowing the life situations of our congregation members and the realities of our neighborhoods; accountable to do what exactly? I believe that these are not what drives this report. This report is a red herring; it is a scapegoating. Any who knows me will know that I agree that we have ordained and continue to ordain some people more in need of ministering than they are gifted and called to minister. Even so, I believe what drives this report is a desperate attempt to name why the church is hemorrhaging members. This is a report about membership and institutional survival. I don't think it's honest. It wasn’t generated out of a desire to address clergy accountability; it is an attempt to name those responsible for a dwindling denomination.

Moreover, I don't think that the denomination as a whole is ready to be honest...or humble. It has become obsessed with growth. If this obsession were born out of a missional desire to touch people's lives with the gospel, I would be right there with them. And while I, of course, believe that the church wants to reach people for Christ, I don't think that is the major driving factor behind almost anything that we are doing these days. It is institutional survival. What tells me this is our frenetic attachment to anything from the business world that might lead to growth. I hear words like "captured learnings," "best practices," "business plan," and "marketing plan" bandied about like we are Starbucks. Of course we need to be intentional about how we spread the Gospel. Of course. That is not my point. My point is that growth is being talked about as though it were the goal. Growth is not the goal. That is the goal of a virus. Rather, healthy congregational growth is just one - albeit an important one - measure of a successfully proclaimed Gospel. Growth is a result of lives touched and transformed. Growth is a measure; it is not the goal - at least in my understanding of Christ’s mission and ministry.

An honest denomination would ask where the underserved are located. It would ask if we are present in the lives of the broken, the poor, and the outcast. It would be funding more prison chaplains, sending pastors back for more CPE credits, teaching second languages and sponsoring cross-cultural experiences for pastors. It would strip down conference offices so that our congregations could become more connectional. It would encourage bishops to be visible faces of the denomination - right out in front of cameras and on the Internet - proclaiming justice. It would be building hospitals, not closing them. It would be opening medical co-ops, teaching parenting classes, and it would be honest about our places of fracture and division. It would name that our denomination isn't "opening doors" - not to LGBTQI people. It would name the reality that we have people with deep faith who struggle with their denominational identity.

An honest and humble church would name its errors in the world and seek repentance. It would confess our part in the slave trade, in segregation, in the displacement of Native peoples. It would name the continuing misogyny that is still at work in the church. It would not pretend that we are post-racial or post-ethnic. It would name the areas in which we still need to be shaped and stretched by the Gospel in which we believe but to which we have yet to fully submit. An honest church would say to our wealthy congregations that they need to do more than send mission trips away “to help to others who are unlike them - the unfortunate” and instead remind them that they no different from the people who are in need, just more fortunate. An honest church would seek the wisdom of those not in worshiping in our pews and who have never hear “O For a Thousand Tongues We Sing.” We would reach out with open arms to our ecumenical and interfaith partners in every place that our missions overlap. We would be more interested in binding the wounds of the world than leaving our mark.

I am blogging today because I want to be part of a church like this. I want to be part of a movement that knows in its marrow that it has a Gospel to proclaim and to embody. I want to be part of a church that recognizes that it is “on its way” to perfection, but humble enough to say that we’ve not reached it yet. I want to be part of a church that is hungry to be closer to the God we supposedly worship. I want to be part of a church that prayerfully and considerately places men and women in service to others through the mantle of ordination and then supports them with sabbaticals, continuing education, times for confession, and spiritual direction. I want to be part of a church that becomes so charged and impassioned for ministry that it sings with joy and dances in love rather than singing laments at days gone by and limping through programs. A honest assessment of The United Methodist Church may mean that it is time for us to let go of a great deal to which we cling very tightly. It is time to set our eyes on God’s holy kingdom here on this earth, just as we pray that we do each time we say the Lord’s Prayer, and to strive with every breath to live in the assurance that it already has come near if only we allowed our God to open our eyes and ears to its holy presence.

Thanks for telling me, church, that pastors suck because we can’t grow congregations. As someone who has inherited two congregations in the midst of 30 year declines, it’s nice to be labeled “ineffective” in reviving them. It’s not that I don’t want to work hard or have my feet kept to the fire. It’s that, in the end, I don’t think it’s my job to revive anything. From what I read in scripture, God is the one who revives. It’s my job to bring people to this life-giving God.

I expect the few who make it to the end of this tirade will have differing thoughts. I just hope that those who respond don’t misconstrue what I’m saying... Basically, I am asking that we hold one another accountable in Christian love - for doing what we actually can do.


Molly said...

I resonate with the rant. But the question that remains inside me is why doesn't reviving go side-by-side with leading people to God? I can't help but think that is part of the partnership that God calls us to as clergy. Did I miss your point, Katie? Having just come into the appointment system, this is a pretty important discussion.

Rev Katie M Ladd said...

I thought that I was saying exactly what you are saying - that reviving the church is leading people to God. That was the whole point of the entry; if I didn't make that point, I deeply apologize. Leading people to God is, I believe, what will revive all churches.

My issues are with the idea of growth for growth's sake and with the blame that some feel need to be assigned for loss of membership within the denomination. Perhaps it's time to just do the work of leading people to God and walk away from the institutional navel gazing.

Thanks for your feedback, Molly. Say more if I missed the heart of your comment.

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