Family Systems and the UMC

Family Systems Theory is fascinating, especially when I think of our United Methodist denominational situation. A couple brings in a 14 year old to see the counselor because the teenager is thought to be the family’s problem. The counselor knows that the teenager is the “identified patient,” and everyone in the whole system has issues. It’s just like a mobile over a baby’s crib when one piece is hanging lower than the others and out of sync. It’s not just a problem with one piece. The whole mobile is unbalanced.

The counselor defocuses attention from the identified patient and looks at the whole family system. In detective-like probing, the counselor determines who is the strongest person in the system and coaches, twins, or otherwise nudges that person to change. When that happens, the inter-locking triangles that have been targeting the teenager as the system’s “dumping ground” begin to fall, tension is defused, and the system resets.

In the UMC, we’re organized as a triangle with General Conference, The Council of Bishops, and the Judicial Council. A triangle might be the most stable structure on the planet á la the Pyramids, but triangulation can cause terrible problems in families and organizations. There’s usually an issue about which two corners of the triangle don’t agree, but they’re afraid of speaking directly to each.  They don’t want to risk total ruin of their relationship so they pull in a third corner and both other corners try to get that corner to pick their side of the argument. The third corner, either due to the way the organization/family/denomination is formed and/or due to well-meaning but harmful co-dependency, seeks to alleviate the stress exhibited by the other two corners and ends up being the relief valve and victim of the other two corners’ tension. They become the dumping ground, and pulled both ways.

In the UMC, we spread the stress around all three corners and swap off dumping grounds pretty fluidly. At first I thought the Judicial Council was absolutely wrong in deferring the decisions about Karen Oliveto, but now I think it is actually healthy. Family System theorists suggest that, in order for us to get out of being the dumping ground in a triangle, we need to do two things: defect in place which means to stay in relationship with the other two corners of the triangle, but not become too enmeshed or helpful; and have a non-anxious presence that self-differentiates without taking on the tension and dysfunction of the unbalanced system.

This sounds like what the Judicial Council is doing. The whole denomination has a choice to add fuel to the fire or let the process work. The Judicial Council has stated that they see the Oliveto case as hugely important. The Executive Committee of the Council of Bishops asked that they expedite their ruling and give less than the usual time for briefs, pro and con, to be filed. Now instead of dealing with it on their October docket, it will be addressed next May. Instead of criticizing, I think this is great leadership.

Rabbi Edwin Friedman who wrote the seminal work on Family Systems theory, Generation to Generation: Family Process in Church and Synagogue, also wrote a telling book about what we are witnessing both in the Judicial Council’s deferral and the creation of the Council of Bishop’s “A Way Forward Commission.” His book, A Failure of Nerve: Leadership in the Age of the Quick Fix, actually defends what some, including me, have called “kicking the can down the road.” According to Family Systems Theory, the Judicial Council and the COB have given us appropriate and helpful time to pause, reflect, have non-anxious presence, and defect in place. The question is, “Will we?”

The cycle of ecclesial attacks and reprisals need to end so that we can have a denominational reset. Our local churches and clergy, plus general agencies and bishops need calm so that the best clear thinking will prevail. Let’s let go of the tension and allow the Holy Spirit to lead us. There’s a better chance that we will end up where we need to be if we lay down our swords. This will not sit well with people in two corners of the triangle (Progressive or Conservative), but we all need to chill out, take a breath and quit being distracted away from our primary mission to make disciples.

I’m not saying that we should be false prophets who proclaim peace when there is none, but let’s preach Jesus Christ as Lord while this is all sorted out. I’m sure there will be people, including me, who will still discuss, attend events, strategize, and ponder next steps, but we need to let the tension in the system escape, not by scape-goating, but by valuing one another for the common good. What difference does it make if I’m right if the cycle of tumult continues?

A wise man once said, “There is no way to peace, peace is the way.” The following Jewish folktale reminds me that if peace is to be experienced, someone must stop the cycle of anger and retribution:

“The otter rushed in to see the king crying, ‘My lord, you are a man who loves justice and rules fairly. You have established peace among all your creatures, and yet there is no peace.’ ‘Who has broken the peace?’ asked the king. ‘The Weasel!’ cried the Otter. ‘I dove into the water to hunt food for my children, leaving them in the care of the Weasel. While I was gone my children were killed. An eye for an eye, the Good Book says. I demand vengeance!’

The king sent for the Weasel who soon appeared before him. ‘You have been charged with the death of the Otter’s children. How do you plead?’ demanded the King. ‘Alas, my lord,’ wept the Weasel, ‘I am responsible for the death of the Otter’s children, though it was clearly an accident. As I heard the Woodpecker sound the danger alarm, I rushed to defend our land. In doing so I trampled the Otter’s children by accident.’ The king summoned the Woodpecker. ‘Is it true that you sounded the alarm with your mighty beak?’ inquired the king. ‘It is true, my lord,’ replied the Woodpecker. ‘I began the alarm when I spied the Scorpion sharpening his dagger.’

When the Scorpion appeared before the king, he was asked if he indeed had sharpened his dagger. ‘You understand that sharpening your dagger is an act of war?’ declared the king. ‘I understand,’ said the Scorpion, ‘but I prepared only because I observed the Turtle polishing its armor.’ In his defense the Turtle said, ‘I would not have polished my armor had I not seen the Crab preparing his sword.’ The Crab declared, ‘I saw the Lobster swinging its javelin.’

When the Lobster appeared before the king, he explained, ‘I began to swing my javelin when I saw the Otter swimming toward my children, ready to devour them.’ Turning to the Otter, the king announced, ‘You, not the Weasel, are the guilty party. The blood of your children is upon your own head. Whoever sows death shall reap it.’”

Are we willing to defect in place, have non-anxious presence, self-differentiate, and have enough patience to act as good leaders? I hope so. Our Wesleyan witness and the blessing of God is depending on us to get this right. If we were right yesterday, we will be right tomorrow, but the Gospel’s work today needs us to clear-headed and full of the Holy Spirit. We must all stop our vicious cycle of infighting for the sake of Christ and a lost and hurting world.

Family Systems Picture

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Two Simple and Central Questions for the UMC

There’s an old story of a rabbi in a Russian city at the turn of the twentieth century. One night he was wandering around aimlessly questioning his faith in God and his calling to ministry. In the midst of his despair and lack of direction on that bitterly cold night he wandered into a Russian military compound. It was off-limits to any civilian. The bark of a Russian soldier broke his brooding thoughts, “Who are you? And what are you doing here?” The rabbi replied, “Excuse me?” The soldier asked again, “Who are you and what are you doing here?” After a brief pause and the dawning of enlightenment that came from the soldier’s questions, the rabbi responded in a most gracious tone, “How much do you get paid every day?” The soldier shot back, “What does that have to do with you?” The rabbi then said, “I will pay you the same wages if you will ask me those same questions every day: ‘What are you doing?’ and ‘Why are you here?’” When faced with an identity crisis these two questions will help anyone get back on track!

We all need to answer these two questions, but this weekend they are especially important for the United Methodist Church. This coming Saturday Bishop Melvin Talbert is supposed to conduct a marriage ceremony in Alabama for a homosexual couple against the advice of Bishop Debra Wallace-Padgett of the North Alabama Annual Conference and the Executive Committee of the whole denomination’s Council of Bishops. While I affirm the sacred worth of all people and the fact that we all stand in the need of Christ’s grace, another issue at hand is one of ecclesiology, and hence identity, for our denomination.  Are we headed to schism? Will we live and be in covenant with one another? What are we doing? Why are we here? Bishop Talbert is answering from one perspective while the General Conference and the Council of Bishops has answered from another. What say you?

Here are my thoughts: God holds us together, but so does the Book of Discipline of the UMC. Walk with me through a few pertinent paragraphs of our Discipline as we ponder Bishop Talbert’s actions or the actions of others who might be tempted to do likewise. Paragraph 340.2(a)(3)(a) says that pastors  can perform marriage ceremonies “in accordance with the laws of the state and the rules of the United Methodist Church.” Neither the state of Alabama nor the rules of the UMC allow homosexual unions. Furthermore, Par. 339 defines “Pastors” as elders, etc. which would have to include bishops of the church since they are elders consecrated for a particular task. Paragraph 403 states: “Bishops and superintendents are elders in full connection.”

Some say that Bishop Talbert’s actions will not violate church law, and that the situation is a moot point, because the couple was already legally married in Washington earlier this year and his intention is merely to perform a “ceremony.”  But things get complicated as one follows the Book of Discipline on the matter.

First, what about permission to do such a service in an area under another clergyperson’s charge? Paragraphs 341.4 and 341.6 are instructive in terms of our polity and procedures. Paragraph 341.4 states that no pastor (remember that Bishops are pastors) can hold a religious service within the bounds of a pastoral charge other than the one to which appointed without consent of the pastor of the charge. In this case the pastor of the charge is Bishop Wallace-Padgett and though Bishop Talbert appropriately contacted her about his plans, she told him that he did not have her permission.

Second, does it matter if what Bishop Talbert is doing is just a “Blessing Service?” Par. 341.6 clearly says that “Ceremonies that celebrate (italics mine) homosexual unions” are off-limits. Maybe the Judicial Council will rule that the General Conference will have to define what a “ceremony” is or what “celebrate” means, but for the time being it’s pretty clear: any service that even “celebrates” such a union is non-compliant. Plus the UM Constitution in Paragraph 16.6 gives the sole right to “provide and revise” the hymnal and ritual of the Church to the General Conference. Therefore, if anyone, including Bishop Talbert, tries to perform a “Blessing Ceremony” for a homosexual union then they are essentially creating a liturgy/ritual that the General Conference has not approved. Any such action by a bishop would be in direct violation of Par. 403.1 that states that bishops are “authorized to guard the faith, order, liturgy, doctrine, and discipline of the Church.” This, of course, would be an ipso facto violation of Par. 2702.1(d) which is “disobedience to the order and discipline of the United Methodist Church.” The same would be true for anyone, bishop or not, who would try to rewrite General Conference-approved liturgy.

This gives rise to the nature of any official denominational complaint or charge against Bishop Talbert. Is he violating Par. 341.6 and 2702.1(b), that prohibit a United Methodist clergyperson from conducting “ceremonies that celebrate homosexual unions,” or is he violating Par. 2702.1(f), which is defined as “relationships and/or behavior that undermines the ministry of another pastor”? In this case, the undermined would be the Bishop of North Alabama and at least the Executive Committee of the Council of Bishops if not the whole Council. These are key questions that speak to larger issues of covenant and our connectional polity.

The United Methodist Church is a covenantal body bound together by allegiance to Jesus Christ and our vows as lay members and clergy to be loyal to the United Methodist Church and uphold it by our prayers, presence, gifts, service, and witness. This loyalty to the UMC is most clearly postulated in our Book of Discipline. As a denomination we are at a critical ecclesiological juncture. Will we be a covenantal body with an episcopal polity or shift to a “free church anything goes” polity? Will we be able to stay in covenant with one another? These are the ultimate questions that the Bishop Talbert situation beg – “Who are we?” and “What are we doing?”

Even the way that complaints against bishops are handled is troubling in answering these questions. Bishop Talbert is a member of the Western Jurisdiction’s College of Bishops yet seeks to violate the discipline and order of the church in the Southeastern Jurisdiction. Even if a complaint is made by persons in the Southeastern Jurisdiction, South Central Jurisdiction, North Central Jurisdiction, the Northeastern Jurisdiction, or any Central Conference, the case will be remanded to the Western Jurisdiction’s College of Bishops per Par. 2704.1(a). This process is evidence of the disunity within the church and may even be a planned exercise to further fracture our denomination or expose regionalism. My plea is for us to stay the course and remain faithful to our covenant as United Methodists. Yes, we should love everyone and hold all persons of both sacred worth and in need of grace, but in doing so we must not trample underfoot our identity as a connectional church.

General Conference 2016 is lining up to be historic for our denominational future. There must be thoughtful discernment as we prepare. How can we preach the unity of the church universal if we ourselves don’t live it? Who are we and what are we doing here? How we answer those two questions will either lead us to “Gospel Disobedience” as coined by Bishop Talbert or Obedience to the Order and Discipline of the Church. Which is it? As an elder in the UMC, I know what I have already promised. It is not a question of one over the other. For me, it is both/and by the grace of God that is for all and in all.

At the Brink of GC2012!

Tampa, Here we come! General Conference 2012 is going to be eventful. The means of grace that we call conferencing is something that I look forward to. Will it be holy conferencing?  Yes and no. This isn’t my first rodeo, as the saying goes. As a five-timer I pretty much know what to expect. There will be high moments and low moments: protests, proclamations, wrangling, maneuvering, manipulation, honesty, transparency, duplicity, and the wonderment of first-timers caught in the cross-hairs of our own version of the “Hunger Games.” Quite a few will say, “They call this being the church?” I say give yourself to God first and then to the whole experience: the good, the bad, and the ugly. Don’t get cynical and don’t react too quickly or harshly when you think Satan has showed up. It’s probably just you or me being us.

My Daddy gave me some sage advice when I thought as a teenager that my wild shenanigans were unique in the annals of time. He said, “Son, do you think that your two older brothers never tried that? Do you think I never tried that? Do you think your uncles and your grandfathers never tried that? There ain’t nothing original about original sin!” That was one of my first theology lessons, and a good one. At GC2012 Jesus and the Bad Guy will both show up and will mostly be seen in us. I would guess that’s been the case at every General Conference. We can think we’re doing something earth-shattering and new that’s never been done before in the history of Christendom and, guess what, it’s probably been tried already. Sometimes it’s worked and sometimes it hasn’t. Hey, Dr. Tom Frank already said that the CT/IOT restructuring plan looks exactly like the Evangelical Lutheran one from a couple of years ago. So whether you’re on God’s side or the other side don’t think that what we do in the next two weeks is so important that it can’t be undone in 4 years! Permanency isn’t something to hang your hat on in a church that wants to be a movement more than an institution.

Sure, I take it all very seriously and I believe in miracles. I’m going to Tampa with faith and expectancy. I’m just trying to take a “chill pill”  and blow off some steam before I get there. We all want the Call to Action to work but let me repeat that I am convinced we cannot solve a spiritual problem with a structural solution. I don’t care if it’s the CT/IOT plan, Plan B, MFSA or whatever “new” thing we attempt to come up with in the General Administrative Legislative Committee. Certainly, structure can impede or facilitate making disciples, but in my little corner of the world our deficit in evangelism is not due to bloated agencies or whether or not the pastor has a guaranteed appointment. Our problems are on the personal want-to level. We do what we want to and most around here would rather talk about sports than Jesus.

I guess my point is this to everyone headed to Tampa. Blow off your steam now, rest up, and don’t be shocked if we witness the same-old-same-old. Hey, I’m already a little bumfuddled that all the fancy language and stuff in the slick “Call to Action” booklet that we were sent is hodge-podged in at least 3 different legislative committees. The non-residential set aside bishop is petition #20314 and it’s in Superintendency. By the way, the petition’s rationale is a bit contrary to what I’ve seen recently that says the set-aside bishop is primarily intended to help the Council of Bishops. The petition’s actual rationale says, “A fulltime Council president will give face, voice, leadership and continuity in strengthening and aligning the United Methodist Church’s mission and implementing the Call to Action. It will aid in reconnecting our Church local to worldwide. It will facilitate our work ecumenically as well as in public arenas. This petition …”  Anyway you slice it the rationale for a non-residential COB president sounds a lot more than just sitting on the sidelines and helping the COB – face, voice, aligning the church’s mission, implementing the CTA. Methinks the Book of Disipline (Par. 509.1,2) says that the face and voice of the UMC is General Conference. Just saying.

Then there’s petition #20980 that will be in General Administration. It is the meat of the CTA in terms of restructuring, but the power to allow the 15-member Center and GCSO to run the church is tucked away in petition #20374 and #20375 and they are both in the Conferences Legislative Committee. These two are constitutional amendments that will allow the GC for the first time in our history to delegate its authority to lesser units of the church.  One petition’s title is “Action Between General Conferences” and the title of the other one is called “Action on Funding Between General Conferences.” Yes, indeed, it would be grand to be more “nimble” (Any guesses on how many times we’ll hear this word at GC?) and be able to rearrange structures, agency mandates, or budgets between GC’s, but the last time I checked General Conference is in charge all the time, not just when it’s in session.

Anyway, I’m trying to get it all out of my system now so I can be a part of the coalition of the willing when I hit Tampa. As Jesus said, “Be as shrewd as serpents and as innocent as doves.” We’re at the brink. Ready or not, here I come, with both eyes wide open!