upper room daily devotions

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

"Engaging in Ministry with the Poor" - What's wrong with this?

Today The United Methodist Church hosted a Leadership Summit about membership decline within our denomination and what we might do to address this disheartening trend. I'm not going to write about most of what was discussed. Rather, I want to hone in on one thing that serves, in my opinion, as an example of how the church still doesn't get it. And, if it did finally "get it," how much easier it would be for us to do what here to do (more on that later).

Time and again, in literature produced by the denomination and in presentations, the following phrase and phrases like it saturate our discourse: "The United Methodist Church is engaged in ministries with the poor." You may respond, "Well, of course we are engaged in ministries with the poor. Jesus ministered to and with the poor and so should we." Let me cut you off right there. I have no objection to the church's involvement in the lives people who are poor, in advocating policies and laws that help people who are poor, or in denouncing policies or laws that oppress and marginalize the poor. The problem with this statement isn't about its concern for poor people; the problem is in the sentence's syntax.

"Engaging in ministries with _____" is an institutionally crafted phrase that reveals, by its own construction, our spiritual and physical distance from people who are poor. Why do we say that we "engage in ministries with" rather than the more simple "minister with"...and does it matter? Obviously, I think it does matter. It grammatically reveals what our actions actually do - we distance ourselves from our core mission. And, rather than face up to this distance, we obfuscate it through the use of charts, mission statements, visioning, restructuring, conferencing, consulting, and recreating the same bureaucracy over and over. We are afraid of our core mission and so we latch on to peripheral processes and issues that *appear* to be *related* to our mission, and we concentrate on these. I mean, let's face it, Jesus never "engaged in ministries." He "engaged with" people.

For the past several years, The United Methodist Church has been sounding the alarm on our decline. Like all other mainline denominations, our membership and attendance have been in a steady decline that increases in momentum with each passing year. In order to "combat" this decline, the denomination has spent millions of dollars on advertising, hired numerous consultants, and has begun the difficult conversation of downsizing at the conference level as well as with the general boards and agencies. In and of themselves, these are not bad things. However, they do miss the mark in hitting the target. They are, to use the words of Ronald Heifetz, technical fixes to adaptive challenges. And, they will never produce appreciative change for or within our denomination. Nor should they. Their goal should not be to "save us" but to heal the world.

In their books "Leadership on the Line" and "The Practice of Adaptive Leadership," Heifetz, along with Marty Linsky and Alexander Grashow, take on institutions like The United Methodist Church that profess a desire for change but that do not change - at least not in a desirable way. It boils down to this, companies and institutions profess a desire to change so that they can make more money, run more efficiently, be a friendlier work space, expand their mission field, transform their working environments, and so forth. Yet, nothing really changes despite hiring consultants and going through all kinds of change leadership work. Why don't these organizations change? Well, to change they would have to...be different. It sounds simple, but the reality is that people and the organizations which they inhabit do not like change - and so, in the face of inertia and resistance, people and their organizations spend their resources in technical fixes for things that really are adaptive challenges.

Leadership begins...with the diagnostic work of separating a problem's technical elements from its adaptive elements...Adaptive challenges are typically grounded in the complexity of values, beliefs, and loyalties rather than technical complexity and stir up intense emotions rather than dispassionate analysis. For these reasons, organizations often avoid addressing the value-laden aspects and try to get through the issue with a technical fix...One way you know that there is an adaptive challenge facing your organization or community is that the problem persists even after a series of attempted technical fixes (The Practice of Adaptive Leadership, 70).
The United Methodist Church would rather "engage in ministries with" than the more pure "minister with" because to simply "minister with" would require a deep change within our church. It is much safer to tinker around the edges. Otherwise, we would have to transfer our gaze from agencies and boards to neighborhoods. We would spend less time on conference legislation (who cares??) and more time out in the world. We would bicker less about social issues, and we would treat one another with love and respect. We would have to do what Jesus did in this past week's lectionary gospel lesson (John 9:1-41) and get messy in the world. We would be touching the wounds of the world with compassion and without care for our own survival and well being. We would be in jails, prisons, on the streets, under bridges, with prostitutes, in the bars, and in hospices. We would be in small groups with one another facing our questions of faith, praying with and for one another, learning the stories of our faith. We would take our baptism seriously and recognize the responsibility it places upon us for our life in the world. We would feast at God's holy and abundant table...and we would want to do it as often as we can. We would do so many things that have nothing to do with board meetings, trustees, restructuring task force, conference board of _____, connectional _____, or anything that removes us from the hurting and holy places of this world.

One problem with The United Methodist Church is in our mission statement to "make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world." We don't know how to "make" "disciples." And, I am not sure that I am interested in "making" them. I want to be one. I want to teach others about Jesus and invite them into discipleship. I want to live a Christ-like life. But, even if we changed this wording (a technical fix), the adaptive challenge would not be addressed. We have become middle class, respectable, and afraid as a people. If we want to be *faithful* in the world, then we would give up a bit of our respectability for communion with the poor and stop trying to "engage in ministries." We would live the passion of our Christ, who was anything but respectable and who was all about ministering with the poor.


John Meunier said...

It is interesting that the Call to Action report uses the phrase "adaptive challenge" a great deal, yet it sounds from your post that it does not attach the same meaning to it as you do here.

Mark said...

one of my favorite people Shane Claibourne wrote "One of my friends has a shirt marked with the words of late Catholic bishop Dom Helder Camara: “When I fed the hungry, they called me a saint. When I asked why people are hungry, they called me a communist.” Charity wins awards and applause but joining the poor gets you killed. People do not get crucified for living out of love that disrupts the social order that calls forth a new world. People are not crucified for helping poor people. People are crucified for joining them."
— Shane Claiborne (The Irresistible Revolution: Living as an Ordinary Radical)

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