Which Birthing Assistant Does the #UMC Need?

Reflections from a soon-to-be parent

One of the big changes in our life is that we are expecting a baby the first week of October. Part of that process is finding a medical professional to assist with the birth. Which we did. But then we moved across the country. So we had to find a new medical professional to assist in our new context.

We have found one…and fresh off another check-up, I’m struck by the difference between the two. And in that difference, I think I have some insight into the situation of decline in the United Methodist Church. Yes, my mind is in the moment with my love in the room, but when I’m waiting outside whilst getting blood work done, my mind wanders to the other great love in my life: the Church.

Our first medical professional was an OB-GYN doctor. He was smart and personable with multiple medical degrees. He had a handheld ultrasound and could show us where the baby’s head was (which I geeked out on). He talked about the science behind some of his recommendations, pointing to the posters on the walls with diagrams and drug recommendations. He talked about what measurement would dictate what procedure. He talked about exactly what inches of dilation would disallow an epidural. He talked about preferring to use medical instruments to cut rather than risk a tear. He talked about a 12 hour rule that the hospital had where women would have to be induced 12 hours after they were admitted. Our pads of paper were loaded with numbers when we left his office. We really enjoyed him and–being first time parents–we were sad to leave as we thought his persona and his metrics were proven and would be successful in the delivery of our first child.

Then we moved. And notice the differences we saw!

Our second medical professional is a midwife working in a hospital (technically a team of midwives who run a birthing center in the same facility as OB-GYNs but with a different ethos). She has extensive medical degrees. She used her hands to feel and point out where the baby’s head was. She talked about the experiences of women in her care, pointed to the wall of smiling babies that she had personally delivered. She said that an epidural would be disallowed only when it would interrupt the final moments of the birthing process. She used a paper towel to demonstrate the higher likelihood of damage if we snip rather than allow to tear and heal. She talked about the 24 hour expectation (not rule) that the birthing center had with the hospital. Our pads of paper were blank without numbers to obsess over when we left her office. We really enjoy these midwives’ experience and touch and sensibility and just know they will be successful in the delivery of our first child.

Did you notice the difference?

While both were proven professionals, the OB used measurements, technology, inches of dilation, cutting, rules, and proven metrics that would allow for a successful birth. The midwife used touch, pictures, personal stories, and some sensible refutation of scientific common practices. Is one better than the other? No, both were equal in our eyes. Even with the research that my partner has been doing into midwives and the birthing industry, we would likely have stayed with the first OB if we remained in our first context because we trusted him. But the language, methods, and stories of the Midwife made for a much stronger connection that we know we are going to enjoy.

I’m not a medical professional and I’m not really comparing midwives and doctors. Other people smarter than I can talk about those differences all day. I’m also a man and realize the futility in talking about birthing. I get it. But what I am doing is comparing the language and the different emphases of these two people who are focused on the same thing: bringing new life into the world. And like the divided church also focused on the same thing (vital congregations), we have two different sets of language and emphases to see that happen.

Our church is desperately in need of a birthing assistant, isn’t it? We are pregnant with possibilities. We have young adults pushing their way towards the light in many contexts (expressed bi-weekly in our DreamUMC conversations). We have elderly leadership unwilling even in a churchwide change to relenquish control to an epidural. We have huge swaths of Christendom in the Bible Belt who are comfortable floating in their ambiotic predominantly Christian culture, unprepared for the rude awakening into a secular society that the West and North has already been born into.

The church is pregnant, not dying. The church is struggling with radical change in its operations, and at times it feels like unbearable pain of death…but maybe it is the incredible pain of birthing a new church. And if so, there’s a question: which type of birthing assistant do we need to make this transition the best?

For the last quadrennium, the Church had the OB. We had the metrics. We saw the videos of decline. We saw the ticking heartbeat of the vital congregations website. We saw the death village in Adam Hamilton’s GC video. Bishops have instituted church metrics in their annual conferences (without voted approval). Conferences have dashboards showing the successes of the technocrats in their contexts. Fear is a great motivator and in some ways it worked. Without the sensibility of the Judicial Council, fear might have reorganized the Church into something unrecognizable. It would have worked, it would have been effective, and metrics and reactions to numerical points of data would have ruled the day. I’m sure it would have had measurable impact.

For the next quadrennium, I’m convinced the Church needs the midwife. We need the touch, to feel our way through our local church’s vitality rather than assume a required measurable change will make it happen. We need to pay attention to the personal stories that may refute the church science and consultants. We need to trust the amorphous can’t-put-your-finger-on-it connection between a church and its community. We need to teach people that relationships save a church not new worship services or bleached hair worship leaders struggling into girl jeans. I’m sure it will have felt impact.

We can learn from the midwives in our midst?

  1. What if we talked to our communities and responded to needs rather than asked outside church consultants or were dictated by metrics data? What if we felt our way through it? Instead of hiring big church consultants, we could bring in hospitality experts, group dynamics, activists who could help us find the touch points in our stories. Instead of focusing on the numbers, we could focus on the personal touches that make us human, trusting that Christ will bring the divine with us.
  2. What if we chose not to abandon ministry contexts? Some OBs would not accept patients in their final trimester due to the risk; midwives seemed to be available even for 9th month transfers. Our church venerates newness and leaves entire mission fields to the wolves (see the final paragraphs here). I used to critique that one annual conference ONLY planted churches in one rich white suburb while closing rural and inner-city churches every year. Yes, there are the church plants that are high impact and low risk, but the midwife wouldn’t allow someone to struggle to birth something new alone. Instead of funneling funds towards church plants, perhaps funds earmarked towards cooperative ministries ONLY (involving 3 or more churches that worship under 100 people each) could help each church find the true extent of its life cycle.
  3. What if we made complex topics evocative rather than simplistic? If I had a criticism, some of our questions to the OB were replied in yes or no answers (which makes sense, we don’t know the science). But the midwives used illustrations or examples to give more information beyond what the questions ask (for example, tearing a paper towel to illustrate what could happen during birth…if you don’t know, you don’t want to know). The generation after you is not content with pat answers and theologies stuck in the pre-middle ages. The generation after you, waiting to be in the light of life, will not be patronized or accept theologies that are reactionary rather than wholistic. How can we better take the deep theology of hymns, famous preachers, and biblical teaching and make it evocative to the life of faith rather than incidental to it?

I don’t know how to be a midwife. I’m on the other side of the reclining chair both in birthing practice and in my role as clergy. I’m simply trying to figure out how we can create the conditions to birth a new church that is connected to the old but not defined by it; that embraces the connectionalism but doesn’t use it as a weapon; that seeks unity in mission and diversity in expression; that builds up the country church to the white steeples proportionally; that figures out how to be a global church that is local in expression; that does all these things exhibiting the best forms of the Wesleyan Grace and the missional outlook that has defined the church for centuries.

What church will you birth? One of numbers, statistics, church science, and cause/effect matras? Or one of touch, feel, authenticity to story, and bravery to face the challenges unknown but together? Both can bring a new church into the world, let’s be clear, but in my opinion, only one of them would be recognizable as a heartfelt church willing to take risks, willing to lose control, and willing to “get through this together” like the midwife will be saying to me and my spouse in a few short weeks.

The choice of what church we birth is yours. Thoughts?

(Photo credit: “Midwives” by Voxphoto, Creative Commons share on Flickr)
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  1. Glynden Bode says

    Love this analogy! You are probably aware that the metaphor of “midwife” is used in spiritual direction circles all the time. We speak of the spiritual director as a “midwife” — one who is present to, encourages, supports the process of birthing (but does not manipulate it, or tell you what the outcome “should” be, etc.)

    I heard John Philip Newell speak last year and he talked about a dream he’d had about a tall, well-known steeple and a giant turd coming down on the steeple. When he shared this with a group, a woman who was a midwife told him that in birthing, “the turd comes just before the birth”. So it was taken as a positive and hopeful image, even though messy and not fun.

    Thanks for the blog, and blessings on your way as you journey in this process of birthing and parenting!


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