It seems to me we have spent an extraordinary amount of time determining the reasons our United Methodist Church is declining. We wonder why membership is down, why apportioned fund collection is down, why clergy burn out is rampant and why we may or may not be effective, and we wonder why we seem to be struggling to recruit and retain young people in our churches and in the ordained ministry. I recognize there are a multitude of issues and pieces to our discernment and a singular solution is not the answer and treating the whole is crucial.
That being said, this may be a simplistic interpretation but it seems to me we have decided the responsibility for this decline is on the shoulders of our structure as a denomination and our clergy. If we could just do away with guaranteed appointments we could deal with ineffective clergy and turn our churches around. If we could just restructure, become more efficient, more relevant, and more engaged in the culture and society by streamlining our agencies we could then transform the world by making disciples.
After trying to stay up with the 2012 General Conference I have continually found myself frustrated, saddened, weary, and disheartened. I do believe some very good things came out of our General Conference; one in particular was creating funding for young adult clergy which is a commitment to our future and vitality. I do believe we have ineffective clergy in our Denomination, I know I have probably been ineffective at times in my calling and we need to have policies in place to provide help and leadership in that area. We even have ineffective churches that tend to chew clergy up and spit them out on a regular basis, and not unlike clergy we need to have policies in place to help churches as well. I do believe we need to mind our structure, streamlining and making us more efficient and effective to make sure we are good stewards of all of our resources across the denomination. However, though these may be a part of the whole, I do not believe this is the core of our struggles or the cause of our decline.
I believe we have a credibility problem. I watched as our United Methodist Church withdrew its affiliation with a long held relationship with a women’s health coalition. I read and listened as the Conference refused to put stronger language in its investment policies in order to more firmly stand alongside and support our Palestinian brothers and sister. I watched again and again at how we seemed to focus less and less on the least and the last and the most vulnerable. I watched with heavy heart as the church disagreed that they could disagree that we disagree on the issue of homosexuality, continuing to turn away and limit the extent to which our GLBT brothers and sisters can participate in the church, and finally ended up back at the status quo.
We have a credibility problem when we say we are a church of Open Hearts when there are words on the floor of our General Conference that likens homosexuality to sex with animals. We have a credibility problem when we vote on whether God loves everyone and whether one can be separated from the love of God and it passes but only with slightly over a fifty percent majority. We have a credibility problem when we say we have Open Minds and filter opposition posts from being displayed, when we refuse to stand beside women and their ability to make choices and do away with long held agencies that speak to those issues. We have a credibility problem when we say we have Open Doors and continue to close the door of ordination and limit a pastor’s ability serve the people of her or his church fully by participating in in their significant life events such as the marriage of those who love one another. We have a credibility problem when we say we practice Radical Hospitality when we in fact do not.
To say “we” in this long post is to paint a rather broad brush stroke of the United Methodist Church. I realize as much as anyone there is a wide diversity of theology and opinion under the umbrella of our denomination. I am not alone in my theology and stance regarding openness and inclusiveness, there are a whole host of us with God’s help who work for transformation and welcome.
In my mind, as votes were consistently cast at around 40% /60%, in the global context of our church the majority of that representation does not embrace Open Minds, Open Hearts, and Open Doors. A friend of mine wrote in a note that we will continue to persevere though, and it will have to be done at the local church level. It is here we as a church must turn to living out our eloquent “open” language in the way we live, work, and “be,” in the world around us. In my opinion, it is our only hope to resurrect love in a struggling church, the love of God in Christ from which we can never be separated. And when love is self-sacrificial, vulnerable, and inclusive, then we as a church will live out our Openness and Discipleship in Christ and truly Transform the World. In the midst of my frustration and heartache I remain resolved, knowing that I am not perfect either, I have shut the door when I should have left it open, I have walked away when I should have engaged, I have spoken without thinking, and I have turned away when I should have embraced and loved. I love God, I love Christ, I love my United Methodist Church, and I love the people I serve at College Hill. I will not throw in the towel, I will not give up, and I will persevere with the Spirit in whom we live and move and have our being, and one day soon justice for all will be, love will be the rule of the day; God of us all hasten that day.
I Love to Serve, and I serve to Love.
Rev. Kent H. Little