Lost Values of the #CallToAction 01: Humility

Re-forming the Reform, Re-aligning the Realignment

We are a little over 100 days until the Opening Session of General Conference 2012 where the United Methodist Church will consider one of the biggest re-organization plans in recent memory called the Call To Action. It’s no secret this blog is not a fan of most of the re-organization ideas and we have dedicated almost a dozen posts about it.

It is now time. It’s time for us to quit accusing the Call To Action as being a church proposal based on business principles rather than biblical ones. It is. But our church leaders see it as their ‘best’ hope and they adapt their theology around it. To those of us opposed to the dis/connectional nature of the proposals, this is a losing battle to point out what is already been tacitly accepted.

Thus, it is time instead for clergy and theologically-trained laity to start dismantling the theological foundations of the CallToAction. I’m not opposed to some of the recommended changes to our institution, but I am opposed to its theological foundations which are not, in my view, in the Methodist vein.

In three blog posts, posted every Tuesday in January, I offer the following critique of the theological foundations of the CTA movement. I find that the Call To Action moves us away from our Methodist roots and current reality by tendings towards values and sins that have no place in the United Methodist Church that we love.

I’m basing these posts on a sermon by an Episcopal brother in the faith who articulates a similar drift that the Anglican Communion is having and I fear the UMC is heading towards as well. I could have changed the word “Anglican” to “Methodist” and reposted it whole-hog and it would have worked. But I didn’t.

Enjoy. Thanks for reading.

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The first theological error in the Call to Action and its affiliated proposals is the sin of Pride.

Pride has many biblical forms, from haughtiness to self-inflation to being conceited to seeing one’s self as equal to God in Babel-like actions. Our institutional form of pride is called consensus which assumes unanimity on issues and whitewashes over diversity. It is a theological error because it does not pass the Wesleyan Quadrilateral tenet of reason:

[C]onsensus in itself cannot form a term in an argument when a given proposition is being reexamined: to suggest that something must be true either because “we’ve always believed this to be true” or because“everyone says so” is simply a form of logical fallacy — for the truth of a proposition is established neither by being long held or popular: the church can err.

Consensus, after all, means a “common mind with little or no opposition” — so the moment opposition — a new questioning, a new challenge — appears, consensus ceases to exist, and the new proposal must be examined on its own merits against the possible errancy of the formerly unchallenged position

One of the annoying tactics in rhetoric is the argument by consensus. We see it in many forms. Blogs and authors will say “the emerging consensus is…” or “the weight of history is behind it.” This is most often used by traditionalists who want a church to stay as it always has. In this case, the “emerging consensus” is that the current structure of the UMC doesn’t work and must be replaced. But by what? It is here that the “emerging consensus” that the business community has figured it out (and we brought on multi-millionaire business consultants to “guide our discernment”) and we must restructure the UMC like a corporation to survive in a competitive world.

The most overt sin of pride in the Call To Action is its assumption that a multi-million member church can be run like a corporation with a board of directors sitting at the head of the table directing the actions of the general agencies, being fed grant proposals and church metrics to make their decisions. While Mary Brooke Casad is correct in stating in her blog post that the board of directors is only over the general agencies, their ability to control the purse-strings and reallocate money to react to shifting winds without General Conference’s every-four-years-reasoned-approval strikes me as pridefulness. Even if they do not allocate money themselves, the ability to deny money requests is a fiduciary responsibility I would hope lies with a body not chosen by the current power structure (the current Connectional Table would choose the new board…really…didn’t know that until Casad’s blog post)

In the CallToAction’s insistence on a board of directors with no diversity requirements and chosen by the current (apparently failed) power structure, the sin of Pride is evident. It is an edge of a pendulum swing that has no place in the top tiers of the United Methodist Church in form or practice.

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The second theological error in the Call to Action is the sin of Humiliation.

Humiliation is at the opposite end of the pendulum swing from pride. Humiliation is what failure feels like. When we are embarrassed about something that falls short, we want to cut it off. When teenage girls hate their bodies they cut themselves to relieve the pressure. When families are embarrassed about alcoholic Uncle Albert, they cut him off from their gatherings. When church ladies plan social events, they exclude the annoying ones from the parties in passive-aggressive fashion.

Pride resides at the top of the UMC hierarchy; Humiliation at the bottom. Those congregations in rural or under-populated areas that cannot match the numerical success of their urban or suburban or even county-seat churches are seemed to be seen as humiliations to the body. How can I possibly say that? They are the ones that are being adversely affected by the Call to Action in these ways:

  • The Conferences are considering plans that would remove theologically-trained full clergy from multi-point parishes (mostly rural) and instead putting bi-vocational part-time local pastors there. Relevance? Yes. Potential for huge growth? No. Cost savings? Yes. Money poured in to reverse the tides? No.
  • This is what I’ve called “No Church Left Behind” (ala No Child Left Behind) where funds from under-performing areas are taken away and given to successful areas. In other words, while it makes fiscal sense to redeploy assets, it abandons entire mission fields and programs and people instead of securing more funding to make programs more effective. Most of the smallest churches would be “cut off” and removed to put more funding towards those with more potential.

In the CTA’s insistance that we “celebrate success,” the unspoken flipside is that it “abandons failures” and by doing so commits the theological sin of humiliation at the numerical state of many of our God-fearing churches. It is the other edge of the pendulum swing that does no good in the lowest tiers of the United Methodist Church.

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Hear the good news: The United Methodist Church resides in neither Pridefulness or Humiliation, resides in neither a high belief in its infallibility or a disbelief in the potential for discipleship in small churches. Rather, the UMC’s theological claim is to Humility which hangs at the center of the pendulum swing.

Humility stands as a meek (which does not mean “weak”) witness against domination by so-called consensus. [S]ince individual human beings may err, there is no guarantee that an assembly of such errant beings will not also err. Humility points out that even an overwhelming consensus can be quite profoundly mistaken — Galileo can testify to that!

Bishop Peter Weaver echoes this sentiment in the 2004 Preface to the Book of Discipline:

We do not see the Discipline as sacrosanct or infallible, but we do consider it a document suitable to our heritage.

Humility lies at the Methodist Middle with Humiliation at one end and Pride at the other. It is a difficult place to reside, being not too prideful of ourselves to act with haughtiness, and being so ashamed of our failures that we want to cut them off. And it is not a place we are always comfortable residing.

Our Methodist discomfort with humility goes back to the beginning. John Wesley’s tradition (and ours) is from the Anglican tradition (Church of England, Episcopal, Anglican Communion, etc). When John Wesley edited their Articles of Religion to make our own, he removed the following line from our Article 13:

As the Church of Jerusalem, Alexandria, and Antioch, have erred; so also the Church of Rome hath erred, not only in their living and manner of Ceremonies, but also in matters of Faith

Hence Wesley removed one of the most overt references to errors in church history. But at the same time, Wesley also edited the articles to remove some of the doctrines of which his constituency did not have unanimity or which, presumably, he didn’t agree with himself.

Humility means on the institutional level that we do not place judgment in the hands of too few, or heap it upon certain categories. It means that we accept that the church “hath erred” and could be erring at this moment–women clergy and descendants of slaves will tell you that the church hath erred! It means that we retain power in a slow-moving every-four-years General Conference of democratically-elected leadership, unburdened by the inertia of the previous church leadership picking its successors, rather than the knee-jerk potential of a continuous body.

Humility ties deeply into the next two blog posts, so we’ll return to it again. In the meantime, here are two examples of how this humility looks in practice on both the institutional and the values-driven levels of the Church:

  1. In the counter-proposal to the Call To Action that I posted and support, I believe there’s a Methodist call to humility embedded in it. Instead of having a 15-person board of directors for the church, the highest perpetual body has 43 voting members and 24 nonvoting members representing a diversity of voices within the UMC. Also instead of only staffers running the different agencies, each agency has a governing board that is 66% smaller than it has been, which is a significant cost savings. By finding a less extreme position, the values of diversity and inclusiveness is better exhibited at the highest levels of the UMC…and humility as well.
  2. When I proposed the counter-proposal to a group of progressive clergy, one of my colleagues balked at the alternative plan, saying “If we include Africa at the table out of ‘diversity’ then we’ll still be in the same place on progressive causes. Wouldn’t it be easier to convince 8 out of 15 Directors to advance our issues?” In my reply, I reasoned that we can’t be a “win at all costs” movement where we sacrifice diversity for a church that looks like us and talks like us. It is a violation of humility to assume that we know best and we must obtain it by any means possible. By white-washing over diversity and seeking a structure more conducive to doctrinal victories, then we move away from the ‘unity in diversity‘ Methodist middle approach that makes us strong and adaptive to a changing world. I believe the alternative proposal pushes us closer to this value.

The United Methodist movement remains at its center a church comfortable with humility in doctrine and practice. I firmly believe that any initiative that falls too far into Pridefulness or Humiliation is not the Methodist way. Just as a pendulum swings from one side to the next, we are in danger of resting on one end or the other.

But my faith is unshaken, I believe that the Spirit will guide our delegates to a properly delineated and debated proposal that will not be perfect, will not be sacrosanct, but it will be more suitable to our heritage as the United Methodist Church than the Call To Action presently is.

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It is my hope that General Conference delegates in 112 days remember the call to humility contained in this appeal. Feel free to share this blog post with your delegates (ask your conference office for their information, it should be publicly available).

Thoughts?

(Photo credit: Remix of “Foucault’s Pendulum” by sylvar on Flickr, Creative Commons share)
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Comments

  1. says

    First of all, 112 days? Yikes!

    Second, this is well said, as are the other posts on the CTA. I have to say that while the board of directors thing scares me a lot, the more frightening proposals on a practical level are for me found in the rewarding success/abandoning failure end. I’m not even entirely sure if my ministry and my church would be counted as a success or a failure, truth be told, but I am sure that what is required here is strong, theologically grounded, pastorally sensitive leadership. I’m navigating and pastoring here with no less than three retired clergymen in my congregation, and with our combined training and wisdom, I think we’re actually making progress. I don’t believe that seminary-trained clergy are inherently better pastors, leaders, or teachers, but we do have skills that have been developed and teased out some. We hope. Already we have a system that has “good appointments” and “bad appointments” and “good clergy” and “bad clergy”. We don’t need to deepen this divide. Yes, by all means there are churches that probably need to close because they have outlived their calling in a particular time and place, and there are certainly clergy who need to be removed from the appointment pool because they have lost their skills and passion and grace for ministry if ever they had it. But these are tender human situations, where discernment, prayer, loving kindness, and a DS and Bishop who know and love both pastor and church are required to navigate these trembling waters. That’s why we pay them the big bucks. Well, bigger. A more corporate results-driven model will not make this easier or more efficient; it will make it more corporate.

    I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: if I wanted to work in an environment where my superior was a micro manager not encouraged to know or care about me personally, where my future and movement within the organization was dependent upon statistics (that I “honestly” report myself), where the highest goal was to stop the hemorrhaging of the organization and preserve it for its own sake, and where decisions were made by a small group of directors and an overseeing CEO UberBishop, there are plenty of places where I could work and make, say, six time my salary. I thought I worked for a church. I thought our goal was to serve God.

    I think I’m close to naming the theological sin I see in the CTA. We value our institution over the mission, our own survival over dying to live in Christ. Idolatry.

    (now I wanna be on a different committee…)

    Seeking Shalom (through gritted teeth)
    Becca

  2. Jim Cantrell says

    For the most part, I am in agreement but not always for the same reasons. I think that your position on removal of fully trained, seminary graduates from smaller rural congregations for the purpose of fiscal responsibility is incomplete. Several of the smaller, more rural, as well as urban congregations are requesting NOT to have elders and full time pastors appointed because the congregations cannot afford to pay for them. Many congregations are insisting that they receive part time clergy and are refusing to support a full time apointed clergy. I have significant problems with the Call To Action proposals, especially the Board of Directors concept, but I want us to be clear that the issue regarding full time clergy appointments is much more complicated than your article suggests. Quite frankly, I think it is a bit naive to suggest that appropriating more money to smaller congregations, whether rural, urban or suburban, will result in more effective ministry. I do not believe that is an acceptable answer.

    To be transparent, I am a delegate to the General Conference, I am an elder, a pastor and I consider myself to be a progressive Christian, theologically and otherwise. I also believe we need to make some changes on many levels but do not support the Call To Action initiatives. Thank you for your thoughtful, thought-provoking article. I look forward to reading more.

  3. R. Warren Gill III says

    I think theological reflection is something sorely missing from the CTA debate, so thank you for this.

    I want to throw out another (sinful?) theology that I hear in the CTA. I am not exactly sure how to name this theology more accurately, and I am sure someone else might be able to better articulate what I am trying to say. However, I want to call this the theology of Manifest Destiny, which is of course is a theology of colonialism.

    The theology of MD says that because I have both a desire for your land and the means to take it, I can because that must be God’s will. Or because I have guns and you have swords God is on my side because I am more powerful than you.

    This certainly comes from the Bible. The Hebrew Bible is replete with examples of God calling God’s people to war. If they were successful, God was with them. If they weren’t, they must have sinned. So they go through their camps and weed out the sin. Then they go back to war. If they win, God was with them. If not, they find more sin to weed out.

    This is exactly what happened to King Saul. (1 Samuel 15) In fact, it’s why David became king! (1 Samuel 16)

    And it’s how we are treating congregations. We are implicitly saying that success — as we’ve defined it — is a measure of how much God is present in that community. If there is success, God must be working in that congregation, so it deserves more resources. If there isn’t success, God has not look favorably upon that congregation, and we should move on. Perhaps to state this in a bit more nuanced way, we see congregations that are not having the success that we want for them and neglect to see the work that God is doing in that congregation. When we neglect to see God working, we neglect to remember that God is an active participant in that congregation, that God is with them.

    This is the Good News that we hear about and we experience in Jesus Christ: God is with us. Indeed, Christ, Emanuel, is always on our side. To borrow a recent turn-of-phrase, God is for the 100%. God longs to be in relationship with all people. Christ is with us. And the only thing that should be manifest in our theology is the radical love of Jesus Christ. Even if we aren’t having “success” God is always on our side.

  4. Nikki says

    Interesting points, will think about. A few minor grammatical tips:

    “this is a losing battle to point out what is already been tacitly accepted.”

    what has already been or what is already being… tacitly accepted

    “the values of diversity and inclusiveness is better exhibited at the highest levels…”

    the values… are… better exhibited

  5. bert bagley says

    A great article…..I am very concerned with the attitude that we have to “do” something and we must do it all right now……..It would be a great idea to finish one denominational program before starting another. I am not clear at all on the reasoning to enlist consultants that have little or no church background.

    How often has the church changed in the last 8 years? I contend that there have been at least 3 changes. Most of those grabbing a voice in changing things have not served a church in these last 8 years and many are simply out of touch. We should listen to pastors of churches. Systems do not produce disciples….It is TLC….The Local Church.

  6. says

    I think you’ve correctly diagnosed some of the CTA problems, although for me the main problem with it is the fact that it is a solution which won’t actually solve many of the problems we face as a denomination.

    We’re sclerotically bureaucratic. Like in any bureaucracy, significant numbers of our general level people act as if they are more invested in maintaining the system in which they exist than in helping to shape it to meet the purpose for which it exists. They’re far too often unresponsive to the church members for whom they are supposed to be working and in some cases simply do not care what those members think if those thoughts differ from their own. When their oversight body meets only every four years, they need not fear much any significant restraint on their ability to do mostly what they want to do.

    Handing de jure control of denominational operations over to the agencies which already have a de facto control over them is not how to solve this problem. Restructuring them so that some representative body of the church could guide their work would be one way, and I haven’t seen that proposed anywhere. That body would have to meet more than quadrennially in order to have any realistic expectation of helping the church meet challenges at a 21st century pace.

    I am all for maintaining standards of theological training for clergy. I am equally for removing the monopoly on this training held by seminaries which are increasingly abstract and removed from the everyday world of the local church and charge an ever-increasing price for their product. I don’t think they need to be replaced by another system, but I do think our church has handed control of its ordination gateway to a group of institutions whose goals do not always coincide with what is best for the denomination in terms of educational direction or affordability. We need some way to exert pressure on those institutions to take note of what may better serve us as a denomination, such as an alternative method of providing the necessary training and equipping someone for ministry in the local church.

    Another commenter noted that some smaller and more rural churches request licensed local pastors or bivocational clergy, both because of cost and because they feel more secure about the length of the pastor’s tenure. An increase in the number of such pastors is not necessarily a negative in their eyes.

    Again, I agree with a good part of this diagnosis even if I don’t share it all or the solution offered through the alternative proposal you’ve mentioned before. New Year’s blessings to you!

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