The key word over the past 8 years or so for United Methodism has been “Covenant”–as in “Clergy Covenant” or the way in which United Methodist clergy are accountable to one another. It is necessary to address this critical topic in whatever is next for United Methodism.
Drawing on the revelations during the same time period from Wisconsin and Mississippi, it seems clear that three things need to happen to the Clergy Covenant in whatever is next for United Methodism.
1. The Covenant Will Be More Local
When Wesley set up the small groups–Wesleyan bands, Class Meetings, and accountability groups–they weren’t people from neighboring states. They were neighbors, people you saw every day or week in your daily life. Accountability was to this small group and the nearby worshiping community. You knew them by name.
Today, accountability is such a faceless experience in United Methodism. Clergy from across Annual Conference lines can bring charges against one another, and clergy can even petition to remove laity from local church membership outside of their own conference.
For early Wesleyanism, he knew the class closest to you has authority and accountability. It’s not a far-off person who can best lay down judgment (unless it is John Wesley himself, haha), but the accountability and discipling community that has the most authority.
The Clergy Covenant will be better defined if it is clearly–and ultimately–between members of the same annual (regional) conference. Complaints are accepted by peers or laity in their annual conference, trials are by one’s conference, appointments are by one’s conference, and status changes are voted on by one’s conference.
In whatever is Next for Methodism, the Covenant needs to get smaller before it can be effective across the Connection again.
2. The Covenant Will Be More Direct
“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you next time, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses.” Matthew 18, NRSV
The #NextMethodism post earlier this week played out in real time one of the critical problems with the clergy covenant: the indirect nature of the complaint process is really problematic.
As a case study, when I posted about the #NextMethodism, adding to the conversation online, I linked to all the participants by name so they knew the conversation was happening. But an odd thing happened:
- Instead of directly conversing with me, most of the participants chose to talk about me in disparaging ways (see screenshots above).
- Even the most respected among them–Dr. Watson, a seminary dean–chose to dismiss my writings as “conspiracy theories” rather than engage them directly (indeed that’s the second time Dr. Watson has done so).
- Finally, the fact that several of those involved in the NextMethodism conversation have blocked me (and other progressives) online not only shows their lack of desire for healthy dialogue with an informed party, but also their abdication of the clergy covenant of “watching over one another in love.”
But overall, it was worth it. The indirect subtweeting culture of this particular segment of online Methodism revealed a greater truth: perceived violations to the Clergy Covenant need to be initially dealt with directly, not indirectly. At present, perceived violations go to one’s supervisor (Bishop) without any communication to the targeted clergy. For example, the Rev. Anna Blaedel had her 2016 charges handwritten on a sheet of paper a few tables over from where she sat and turned in to her supervisors.
The next iteration of the Clergy Covenant will require people who have difficulties with one another to address them directly (face to face, or at least via personal correspondence) before they advance to the complaint stage with an indirect superior. Complainants would be required to show how they attempted their complaint directly rather than being sent directly to a superior (though exceptions would need to be made in the case of sexual assault or child endangerment and other emergency situations).
In whatever is Next for Methodism, the Covenant will be stronger when we are required to discuss things like adults–face to face, or at least directly–and perhaps our online behavior will evolve as well.
3. Covenant Will Be Better Practiced
Finally, one of the learnings from Wisconsin and Mississippi is that the Covenant statement to uphold the Discipline requires participation in the practices of the Church, not just assent to its prescribed beliefs. The Covenant is active, not passive.
In both Wisconsin and Mississippi, they found that their clergy were not practicing the Covenant and their relationships were strained. Big churches didn’t rub shoulders with small churches, and churches that became less and less Methodist did so without proper correction from their peers. In both cases, exhortations were made to better know and watch over one another between scandals, not just during one.
I think their articulation of the Covenant as a practice and not merely a set of beliefs is important. It matches my own experience:
- I’ve personally seen a megachurch pastor (and prominent supporter of the Wesleyan Covenant Association) leaving halfway through a mandatory clergy meeting. Not to go visit a hospital or a pastoral emergency, but to eat lunch and then go home. I’ve gotten a letter from the Bishop for missing a mandatory meeting, so I know such accountability is enforced, but not when large church pastors are forced to mingle with smaller ones.
- Clergy regularly do not call for the required six special offerings a year, as noted in their Charge Conference reports, a practice that benefits connectional entities such as UMCOR. A clergy friend noted on Facebook that in one Oklahoma district one year, only 11 out of 41 did the UMCOR special offering. In fact, there’s at least 25 ways how UM pastors don’t follow the Discipline.
In short, because United Methodists are not practicing a healthy form of the Clergy Covenant, all are suffering from the lack of valuing the Connection.
In whatever is Next for Methodism, clergy of all-sizes-of-churches will need to attend district meetings, uphold as much of the Discipline as possible, and commit to being “watched over” before they watch over one another and issue complaints in the mail.
“It might be brave to leave church, but it is braver to rebuild church in a way that is going to be a church of solidarity, a church of justice, a church of personal nurture, a church where fidelity to relationships and to covenant is being nurtured.” ~Ched Myers
I hope this was a helpful contribution. My hope is that as we discern what is Next for United Methodism (and like the quote, I do hope for an incremental approach rather than the repeal-and-replace approach) that we consider the ways how our own clergy covenant has fallen short.
These are easy corrections to the Clergy Covenant to make it more intimate, more local, and more effective in transforming one another into a common character of Methodists.
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