Top-down polity v. bottom-up policy [bad.hack]

A bad.hack (read more about it here) is a manipulation of a Christian system either using illicit means to achieve an end, or achieving goals that leave the system worse off and less open than before. Read on for the hack!

At General Conference, one item that was hotly debated was a motion to add pastoral accountability to church pastors regarding membership. It was sponsored by the Oklahoma conference, and would have made pastors accountable for decisions regarding membership. This was primarily in response to Judicial Council decision 1032, which erroneously gave sole authority to the pastor regarding membership. Sole authority is good and fine, but there must be some accountability, someone for a pastor to have to answer to if they exclude racial minorities, sexual minorities, or even people who are poor from their flock. [/soapbox]

Open Membership failed by 12 votesAnyway, the item failed by a mere 12 votes, and ¶214 in the Discipline will be the same for the next 4 years. But that’s not what is interesting to this blog’s readership. One of the primary arguments used on the General Conference floor against this measure came from Alice Wolfe, who (at least twice) claimed that this measure would have tied pastor’s hands and forced them to accept people into membership.

Open Membership Worst Case Scenario: $500 in Lost RevenueThe worst-case scenario for Wolfe? That people would join a church just to not have to pay for a wedding. Really. Most UM churches do not charge members of those churches for building usage, such as weddings and funerals. Thus the people who would join to not have to pay for those usages would be stealing about $500 from the church coffers. That’s the scare tactic used by Wolfe which probably was just effective enough to get the 12 votes needed to defeat the measure.

The worst-case scenario for Wolfe is a loss of $500. The worst-case scenario for for those who are gay is denial of membership from a church community that they love and contribute to.

Local Church Policy can nullify the Worst Case Scenario…easily.This is an example of how top-down polity could easily be rectified by bottom-up policy. I’ve worked at many churches, and at least two I’ve been wedding and events coordinators for. In all of those churches, we had a local church policy: You must be a member for at least one year to have building usage fees waived. A simple policy, and as long as it is well-known, then people won’t come sneaking into your churches to steal $500 from your cribs…at least, not for a year.

Closed systems are better at local level than at the top-level.There, isn’t that easier than top-down scare tactics that do not give justice to pastor’s decisions on membership? This claim by Wolfe and supported by members of the minority report was simply a scare-tactic, a straw-man fallacy that was true, but easily remedied at the local level. Instead, we still have a polity that gives sole judgment of receiving into membership into the local church pastor…without accountability. Wouldn’t it have been better to close the system’s loopholes at the local level than dictating it from the highest levels?

I’m ashamed at the fear-mongering tactics and the delegates who voted out of fear of a local church losing $500. I’m angered by our judgmental attitudes on people’s reasons for membership. And I’m a preacher, so I preached about it from my bully pulpit. From my sermon today:

We need to look at the long view, of what happens when people become part of a community, and give trust to God that the Spirit may actually enter into them despite their intentions. This church has accepted people who joined only to get their children baptized. This church has accepted people who joined only to get a members’ discount on a wedding. And you know what…we will continue to do so. Because we must have a bird’s eye view of things, and we leave judgment on people’s hearts to God.

I don’t pastor a fancy church with tons of disposable income that $500 is not needed. It most certainly is needed for ministry! But if a person is willing to take the membership classes and pledge UM vows, who am I to judge what is in their heart? I will leave the judgment up to God. If we lose $500, but there’s a possibility for a new disciple in Christ…friends, that is worth it. Heck, a year’s worth of pledges would most likely be close to $500.

Targeting “cheaters” betrays our lack of trust in God.It just tears my heart up that our polity lost a chance at inclusiveness by 12 votes because delegates were scared of losing money. Not all of them who voted against it voted for that reason, I’m sure, but 12 votes, 6 people? Most likely. We don’t like people who cheat the system, so we close it off to them. That’s human nature. But in this case, our desire to thwart others led us to value $500 over the chance to change a life by exposure to a Christian family and lifestyle. And that hurts my heart.

May the God of New Beginnings signal to local church clergy to trust in God when it comes to readiness for membership, and may their accountability be to Jesus Christ…who will ask them at heaven’s gates why they excluded from membership the least of these for $500.

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Comments

  1. Rev. Sonja says

    …and what about making disciples of Jesus Christ for “the transformation of the world.” I am assuming that we are now playing God and determining who can be in Jesus’ inner circle. Sounds Pharisaic to me.

  2. cometothewaters says

    I agree that the ‘straw human’ argument was weak.

    But I suspect opposition to the measure was based on more than this argument.

  3. Matt Algren says

    I hadn’t heard about the silly arguments, but it doesn’t surprise me. Last Friday I looked up the 1956 conference vote that gave women ordination rights, and the vote was close (though not 12 votes close). We have a tendency to think that these votes are unanimous or at least that they pass by wide margins, but that vote only passed by 92 votes with a 57% majority. If 46 people had changed their votes, it would have gone the other way.

    More importantly, and more to the point of your post, I found a video of 2006’s commemoration of that vote, in which there was a dramatic reading of the floor debate on that issue. Video here, 4th row.

    The debate was just as stupid, with people arguing that only single women should be ordained, then only married women should be ordained, then that it would be demeaning to the women, and of course that the Church isn’t ready.

    It’s cold comfort, but after this finally passes (which it will), in 50 years people will be laughing at the dumb arguments just like we laugh at those from the heated debate 50 years ago.

  4. Rev. Jeremy Smith says

    @ Sonja, yeah, the tagline bothers me a little bit. What about those who don’t consider themselves able-bodied or simply “able” to transform the world? Are they (a) worth less to the church, or (b) now seeing themselves as less worthy?

    @ John (CttW), opposition was definitely based on more than this. But Alice Wolfe was the presenter of the minority report, and thus TWICE she repeated that argument. Did it sway hearts to tumble all amendments? Of course not. But 6 people? Very possibly, especially given the fear-mongering already present on the floor and the culture of suspicion ever-present at GC.

    @ matt, thanks for your comments and the video. I’ll watch that when I get home tonight and will probably thoroughly enjoy it!

  5. Anonymous says

    No way was that vote “swayed” by a lady suggesting churches would be losing out on “facility rental” money.

    As with most votes at G.C. (or anywhere for that matter) 98 % already have a particualar aim in mind with their vote. If votes were swayed, I seriously doubt this is the woman and the logic that swayed them.

    Speaking of women, and the reference to the vote that allowed women to be ordained…I think that is when all the real problems began in the UMC. We wouldn’t be struggling to remain biblically faithful in so many other issues had we remained biblically faithful at that time.

    I know that line of thought is in the minority here on this blog, but it’s the truth!

  6. Rev. Jeremy Smith says

    ….yeah, I think you’d be hard pressed to consider ordaining women to be anything other than a good hack on this blog! :)

    And it is certainly biblically faithful, but probably not in the way you define it!

    Thanks for stopping by…feel free to leave your name and link next time, I like to know more about my readers!

  7. twiceinfinity says

    Great point about the value of $500 versus the value of potential discipling. We need much more of that kind of thinking in the church today.

  8. karen says

    I remember quite vividly how excited I was when the Igniting Ministry campaign was first getting ready to launch. “Open hearts, open minds, open doors” sounded exactly like the kind of UMC I wanted to be a part of. I guess it just looked good on paper. I haven’t seen much of it actually put into practice locally and from some of the reports I’ve read so far about GC it’s not just a local thing. “Open” — unless we think you’re here just for the use of our building or to get your kid baptised … or you’re female with a calling to preach … or you happen to be in a loving (and sexual) relationship with someone who just happens to share the same genitalia. It still have hope for the UMC, though. Sooner or later we’ll get it figured out.

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