Church Conflict and United Methodist Zeitgeist

Church conflict hurts the Gospel. Duh! Who would want to be one of Jesus’ followers if this is how we treat each other? As a District Superintendent I spend a lot of time dealing with disgruntled pastors and church members. It is the infamous triangle: “We can’t talk directly to each other so we’ll dump our issues on you.” Well, in our connectional system that’s the way that the dots connect, and DS’ are major dumping grounds. A healthy outcome largely depends on how I respond to the conflict.

If I get reactive there’s more tension. If I take one side or the other, things get worse. If I do nothing, I come across as either uncaring or incompetent. What’s the answer in a Rabbi Edwin Friedman Generation to Generation sort of way? Non-anxious presence. If I can relate directly with the conflicting interests and coach either to view the situation from a new vantage point, there’s hope. All it takes is a little bit of change to deflate the tension. Reactivity doesn’t help. I have to remain as neutral as possible defecting in place with the different sides while modeling Christ.

Would it have helped if Jesus had got into a shouting match with Pontius Pilate? Of course not. He was quiet. He was secure in himself and it showed. Oh, if we could act like that when things get hot. If we could just chill out and trust the Lord and speak from his perspective to each other. Even better would be to listen to each other with Jesus’ ears.

This isn’t just about local church conflict or conflict in general. This speaks to some of our United Methodist scorched-earth tactics and intractable rhetoric that threatens to divide the denomination. I’ve been reading through Gil Rendle’s book, Back to Zero: The Search to Rediscover the Methodist Movement. I am vividly reminded of our utter failure to conduct holy conferencing at General Conference 2012.

Rendle speaks about our legislative attempts to enact change: “We enact or we deny change through democratic practices. Changes are pushed or resisted by strong voices, interest groups, and caucuses. It is critical to note that in the United Methodist denomination there is no authoritative head leader with positional authority to make declarations and change the balance of competing legislative preferences (pp. 21-22).” What I get from this is that we are a group that likes group-think, but places a high value on arguing about everything.  We have a system that purposefully includes challenges to every issue and all discussions. However, there is one Book of Discipline and only the General Conference can change it. Our last General Conference clearly exposed that we are many conflicting constituencies, and every four years we try to make sausage out of all of the inputs.

No matter how much you agree with the statements coming out of the Western or Northeastern Jurisdictions about “Gospel Obedience” over obedience to the actions of General Conference, this regional diversity of opinion is a problem in a covenantal, albeit argumentative, body like the UMC. Gil Rendle accurately points out that groups who attempt to legislate change cannot do it! He puts it this way: “It has taken a good bit of time for leaders to understand that additional rules will not set a rule-bound people free (p. 23).”

His suggestion to foster our denominational return to being a movement is a starting place, but comes up short in my analysis: “Rather than additional rules, we need bold people. While organizations do not have the capacity to break their own logjam of rules and norms, individuals do (p. 23).” He spends the rest of the book asking questions and offering guidance for how individuals can break the rules while honoring them – no small task. He admirably says that rule-breakers who help nudge the UMC back to movement status must question our whole system of rules in light of our mission. The mission is the driver of everything. My problem is that “bold people” are still people, and, in the words of my late father, “There ain’t nothing original about original sin.” Bold people can sin boldly. Everybody needs redemption.

Now, I don’t want to make short shrift of Rendle’s book. It is engaging and has great images from another favorite book, The Starfish and the Spider, but it leaves me ill at ease. Rendle basically says we need enough differentiated leaders who will break our rules for missional purposes. Yes, how nice, but that’s not how we do things. I have stated before that I believe the UMC needs to have a one or two-month constitutional convention and do what Rendle’s book title suggests and get Back to Zero, in other words, start over. However, when I hear the notion of bold individual rule breakers I foresee internecine warfare over what the mission of the church is exactly. I see reactivity going nuclear. I see schism without a mission because we can’t agree that the sky is blue on a cloudless day.

Ah, now maybe this is where I find hope. Where Rendle comes up short is where most of us, especially me, miss the mark. “Individual” rule breaking is all about “me, me, me, and my agenda.” Where is the “United” in our denominational name in that? Sounds more like “Untied” than “United” Methodist Church. It all depends on where the “I” is placed, doesn’t it? I want to get back to zero and start our denomination over, but want to keep from turning the endeavor into a my “I” against your “I” issue war. It doesn’t matter whether it’s called “missional” or not, if we’ve shot each other up in the process. That’s an oxymoron that can’t be fixed.

It may sound simple, and I know it’s not, but I want to suggest that every denominational and local church conflict does not hinge on our personal determination of what’s missional, or what is God’s preferred cause de jour. It strikes me that we may need to follow the example of Christ and take up a cross and crucify every one of our causes until we discover what is Jesus’ cause. Until we do that we’re just going to keep going around in circles arguing over who’s right, who’s wrong, and letting the Judicial Council sort it out. I’d rather preach Jesus without any elaboration than hear the mixed signals of 9 million individual rule-breakers. If we don’t have a single voice about anything, even General Conference, maybe it’s high time we listened to the Holy Spirit. Chill out, non-anxious presence, defect in place – Psalm 46:10, “Be still, and know that I am God…” Amen to that!

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12 thoughts on “Church Conflict and United Methodist Zeitgeist

  1. Excellent observations, Tim. Thanks for your comments on Individual, missionally-inspired rule breaking by bold leaders. Call it what you will, it is all about me, me, me. In the political sphere, this is why Mussolini and others were almost universally admired early on in the West: bold visions with impatience for well-considered, incremental change. There truly is nothing new under the sun. Personally, I was a little shocked at my first experience of General Conference, with all the partisanship and manipulation of processes. I think all the different sides are savvy to one another’s political moves and acting out. All of us are just not buying it anymore. The results of the overly ambitious attempts at restructuring the last two GCs prove that pragmatic, incremental, Spirit-led change is the way to go. The wholesale condemnation of one side or the other – even by popular bishops – only adds to the atmosphere of impatient distrust by all. The Reset button should be to a default of meaningful ministry and discipleship, beginning on the local level. Thank you for your observations and leadership.

  2. “… maybe it’s high time we listened to the Holy Spirit. Chill out, non-anxious presence, defect in place – Psalm 46:10, “Be still, and know that I am God…” Amen to that!”

    All a very good word and much to think about. It is also good to see things from the vantage point of the District Superintendent.

    It is so easy for many, (myself included) to always seem to put the “I” as the main focus. We often forget Who’s Church it really is. The Church is to be the “Body of Christ”. When the Body of Christ is attacking itself, it is like the Immune System going haywire and instead of protecting the Body from the attack of the enemy the Body starts to attack itself. The whole Body suffers from the outcome. We do need healing to take place. We need to let the Holy Spirit have His Way and do whatever He needs to do. We do need to rest In Him. Let us have Shalom In Him! Thanks for sharing this word and I can say also, “Amen to that!”

    1. Good analogy – body attacking itself is flesh-eating disaster. We’re all wounded. I need the Holy Spirit to do the convicting, not me. I usually make things a lot worse. Thanks for the comment!

      Sent from my iPad

  3. The only thing that seems a little fishy here is using the “individualism” in Rendle’s book to make a statement about the Western and Northeastern Juridisction’s actions which were not “all about me, me, me, and my agenda,” but about what people in these jurisdictions consider to be a legitimate question of justice. You seem to be engaging in a rhetorical sleight-of-hand there.

    Perhaps you could share examples of “rule-breaking” that’s occurring in our denomination which actually is motivated by individual self-interest. It doesn’t seem to me in this case like individualism is the problem. The problem is that the two sides of the culture war are digging in heels and thinking that their side is defending the gospel from a mortal threat by the other.

    It’s a little bit unfair to label something a “cause” or an “agenda” when it has nothing to do with you personally.

    1. I would rather take the Gospel as both cross and crown in a N.T. Wright way, thinking his book “How God Became King,” this world as needing Christians engaged in both atonement activity and social issues, like Wesley. I can name names of leaders who from local church to the COB have done things that appear to be without sound theological undergirding, but, hey, that’s my INDIVIDUAL opinion and I own that. I’m not going to react. All have fallen short and I am chief among those that have and do. You prove my point, only the Holy Spirit knows the intentions of our hearts. Thanks for the reminder.

      Sent from my iPad

      1. I’m sorry Tim. I think I made presumptions about what you were talking about that weren’t accurate.

  4. Oh if we could only treasure the One who holds us together as much as we treasure our opinions which divide us.

  5. I have spent my entire adult life in one local United Methodist Chruch serving in various capacities and have done only a couple of things beyond the local church. I have “been a good Methodist” all my life–in fact, at one point I considered being Methodist was the best part of who I was and was committed to “sticking it out no matter what”…. That is no longer true. I am in the unexpected position of seriously considering a denominational change to The Wesleyan Church. The reasons are many, and ultimately boil down to my local congregation. It is an extremely hard decision and I do not take it lightly–in fact I have been fighting against this “push out the door” for a year now–wanting to make sure of its origin–I have been Gideon, putting down the fleece. Understanding about salvation and who Jesus was AND is is the key thing I missed out on in The UMC. I learned more about how to become an excellent member. I find the former much more appealing and satisfying.

    I have monitored The Wesleyan Church and the congregation closest to me for a couple of years now. The Wesleyans are “babes” at 40 years of age and are only 500,000 strong but they are most definitely growing worldwide. The local congregation is 20 years old and its vision is centered on winning people to Christ, discipling them, and equiping them so that they can start new churches: any time they reach an attendance level of 300, they will send 50 people out to start a new church–they will make themselves smaller so The Church can grow: an example of doing something that is not in “your” best interest–something Rendle talked about.

    During this same time frame, I have also monitored many voices, including yours, from within The UMC and read books from within and outside the UMC. I followed General Conference very closely. There are “bright spots” within the UMC, and I feel like I have an understanding how things got off track, but overall I am dismayed and discouraged at its dysfunctionality and loss of any common focus.

    What prompted this response was your reference to Psalm 46:10. I recently read Bishop Schnase’s address to the SW Jurisdictional Conference and immediately afterwards found myself listening to the State of the Church video address from the General Superintendent of The Wesleyan Church. One of the many things in the video address that grabbed my attention was the General Superintendent announcing, in a very pointed way so that the people of The Wesleyan Church understood it, that after their 2012 General Conference, in which some significant changes were enacted (including having only one General Superintendent), the first planning retreat by denominational staff started with 24 hours of prayer in which they sought God’s direction–there was absolutely no discussion, no planning, no decisions made during this time. The thing that most struck me about this is her desire to be absolutely certain that the people of the church understood that they did not just launch into decision making after an opening prayer–it was extended prayer. When has any UMC leadership publicly acknowledged/modeled/called for an extended time of prayer, seeking God’s guidance in this time of change.

    Also from the The Wesleyan Church Texas/Louisiana District Journal for 2012 (their districts would equate to UMC conferences):
    “A stat that we must wrestle with in our district this year is that 13 of our churches remained the same or declined this year in Sunday attendance. Four churches also had no salvations and six of our churches had no baptisms. It is easy in the busyness of church to forget the business of church. The Church of Christ does not have a mission—the mission has a church and His church must always be about His business. How would God choose to use your church this year in His mission? What God-sized goals would you and the leadership of your church set that would honor God…?” A God-sized goal the General Superintenden put out there was to double the denominational membership in the next 4 years; she acknowledged that if it happened, it would be God’s doing, not theirs.

    “The Church of Christ does not have a mission–the mission has a church and His church must always be about his business”. I would love to see this type of verbage come from the leadership of The UMC at any level. But then again, I don’t think, as a denomination, or probably even as a local church, The UMC can agree what “His business” is. For John Wesley, who has become my mentor, the church was in existence for people to save each their own souls; then secondly to assist each other in saving their souls, watching over each other in love; then thirdly win others to Christ. The emerging Wesleyan movement within The UMC is key in it reclaiming who it is supposed to be, but how that plays out is God’s doing. So I suggest the leadership at all levels take a cue from The Wesleyan Church leadership and spend some extended corporate time with God before launching any new “self-helps” and be willing to act against “your” own best interest. John Wesley exemplified that when he was “kept” from joining his then mentor Peter Bohler and the Moravians “though his heart burned to do so.” (from his journal). And look at what was accomplished!

    1. Betsy, I wholeheartedly agree with a concerted prayerful discernment of our priority to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. Right now there are efforts through the Call to Action in the UMC to do just that! Thousands if not millions are attempting to listen to the promptings of the Holy Spirit to have a Wesleyan renewal of grace for the whole world. I’m thrilled that the Wesleyan Church is doing the same thing: inviting people to a transformative ongoing relationship to Jesus in every way possible. I would encourage you to hang in there in the UMC so we rise to our potential. There are bright spots everywhere. No church is perfect, but if we remember we are the Body of Christ we will put aside argumentative differences and focus on Christ. That will revive us and all Christendom. Thanks for your perspective and I can promise you as a District Superintendent that I will continue to encourage and hold the laity and clergy that I oversee to live all out for Christ. Peace be with you as you keep seeking His will!

      Sent from my iPad

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