Seven Major Benefits from the “Mitosis” of The United Methodist Church: The Upside of “Splitting the Difference”
by Bob Phillips
“The dream of every cell is to become two cells.” (Francois Jacob, Molecular Biologist)
A collective dread of schism hangs over the United Methodist Church and for good reason. Schism is something for a church to dread. The word bears freight such as anger, disdain, destructiveness and acrimony. All are structurally weakened and spiritually defaced when schism wins the day within the body of Christ. No one of sound mind or theology seeks or welcomes schism. It is a religious version of burning the village, and the villagers, in order to save them.
There is another way, another reality. It is a different word, freighted with hope, life, and scriptural truth. It can transcend theological divisions, not by win-lose scenarios but in practical and expansive ways. It is the spiritual mitosis of the church, rooted in the nature of God-created life that sustains itself by cell division and reproduction. Institutions, and spiritual-earthly organizations such as the church, also can heed its call to good ends.
Mitosis within the Methodist body gave the world the Nazarene, Free Methodist and Wesleyan churches, capturing a powerful witness for holiness and opposition to slavery when the larger body struggled to find its way. Mitosis within the Methodist body gave the world the Salvation Army with its passionate service to the poor and those kicked by life to the margins. As the spirit of schism dishonors Christ, so the vision of mitosis honors Christ in method and intent.
Our existing unity is illusory on many levels. An intriguing comparison is available on Youtube, in an SNL skit with Will Ferrell and company sitting at dinner as a dysfunctional family (dysfunction family dinner-SNL). When conflict rages out of hand, Will seeks to end discussion by announcing loudly, “I drive a Dodge Stratus!” Appeals to organizational unity for the sake of the organization rather than unity ring hollow to many on the left, center and right of the table spat. It is crucial that the SNL skit not become a metaphor for the 2019 Special General Conference.
What follows are seven suggestive benefits from a grace-filled and affirming mitosis in the American United Methodist church. One will note the current slugfest over homosexuality and related sexuality issues is a minor player on the list. This reflects the reality of the current denomination, beset by a ‘wicked problem’ it has been unable to articulate. The events of the 2019 General Conference will be an exercise in ‘shooting the wolf nearest the sled,’ and hoping the journey of the church toward the Kingdom will resume without further compelling distraction. That will not happen. In the nature of institutions, that cannot happen.
The deeper issue is reflected in the wisdom that “every organization is perfectly aligned to the results it gets.” Someone asked recently where that statement is found in the Bible. I replied, “Try the Book of Acts.” Acts tells of a spiritual mitosis from the Judaism that birthed Jesus and every leader and most members of the early church. The organization was aligned to “the apostles’ teaching and fellowship, the breaking of bread and the prayers,” (Acts 2:42). The preaching of the essential gospel kerygma, a new wineskin innovative approach that also valued the old wine of living tradition (Acts 15:26-29), and a holy, Spirit-inspired passion combined to birth a church that grew in numbers, in faith and in vision (Acts 2:46-7). Mission, structure, energy and organized were perfectly aligned to produce the results that followed, a Christian church that would transform lives, culture and even the calendar of the planet.
The existing United Methodist church, in structure, processes and preaching, is not the enemy. The church continues to bear faithful witness to the Lord of Glory. People are getting saved, sanctified, clothed and fed in Jesus’ name by the church. Mitosis affirms and sustains the sources of life and spiritual strength in the existing configuration while re-forming, reviving and renewing that configuration toward multiplied impact and transforming change. In that spirit, consider what such a mitosis, a holy and Spirit-led reformation can address. What follows is suggestive and brief; reflection and conversation can expand the possibilities.
Here is where it begins and, if done badly, where it ends. Theology provides the message of the gospel, the definitions of faith-atonement-repentance-resurrection. Theology teases out the implications of “holiness of heart and life.” Theology provides the basic answer to the question, “Why bother…with becoming a Christian or being part of a church.” In 2003 the College of Bishops of the North Central Jurisdiction decreed that valid ‘interpretations’ of the gospel could affirm or reject the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the incarnation of God in Christ through the actual virgin birth, a transcendent atonement for human sin through Jesus’ death on the cross, the claim of Jesus as “the Way, the Truth and the Life.” When the NCJ College dismissed complaints against Bishop Joseph Sprague, who affirmed belief in all the above but interpreted those beliefs symbolically rather than in ‘neo-literal’ ways, a theological fissure greater than anyone realized was formed. Mitosis will enable the Progressive-Moderate wing of the church to proceed with understandings of the gospel that clearly would take such as the resurrection of Jesus “seriously, not literally.’ Evangelical-Moderates in the Wesleyan tradition argue that taking the Bible seriously and literally are not necessarily contradictions and that as Paul said, “If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile,” by which beyond doubt he meant a bodily resurrection…not a resuscitation nor a symbolic spiritual imagining. Theology tells us why it matters to believe, what matters in belief, and how a life of discipleship forms faithful to the Christ who calls us. Mitosis can enable two branches of the larger Wesley tradition to proceed into the future without feeling that wildly contradictory understandings of core truth somehow must coexist. It is past time to reboot.
My conference has 250 churches with worship attendance of 20 or less, requiring three full-time District Superintendents and administrative support to oversee Sunday-school class sized congregations. Over 80% receive no new adult member on profession of faith during any given year. Numerous congregations are located where people no longer live, while population centers languish with little Wesleyan presence. No coherent strategy has emerged from the status quo to address any of these sample issues in any profound way. Mitosis will empower the new Wesleyan twins to reboot, rescope and renew an outdated and ineffective structure. It is past time to reboot.
#3 Education and Training
Healthy secular organizations align training and education of employees and leadership to validated requirements, career progression, and metrics of effectiveness that fold into decisions of placement and promotion. No consistent or coherent approach exists for the preparation, deployment or promotion of clergy in the denomination. The US church has virtually the same number of official seminaries with 6.8 million members as it had when it had 10.8 million members 50 years ago. Rice bowl loyalties trump mission focus. The active collaboration of churches and seminaries in preparing clergy through methods such as the “Integrated Learning Environment” of classroom/web based/on the job training exists in no conference or seminary, though secular organizations have been using such approaches with positive effect for over a decade. Mitosis reframes and reforms the entirety of education and training to align with the mission and empower effective leadership, whether through seminary or other venues and locations for training. It is past time to reboot.
Stephen Covey identified trust as “the one thing that changes everything in an organization.” Trust deficits abound in the denomination. For some the poster child is the active disobedience of some bishops and conferences to teaching affirmed by the global General Conference, and gaming the system of accountability that undercuts trust in the integrity of a system that cannot survive without trust. To others the poster child for trust deficits is an appointive system in which clergy and congregations can feel marginalized or vulnerable to the whims of an annoyed DS or bishop. To others the trust deficit is expressed through the apportionment system, or some general boards and agencies perceived to set agendas and spend money regardless of what the laity think. Trust issues transcend any specific theological or issue-based label. Mitosis can offer a chance to “open the windows,” as John XXIII said as his purpose in convening the Second Vatican Council. It is past time to reboot.
Existing conference structures guarantee a sea of retiree gray and blue hair dominating every annual conference (and I am a retiree). But dumping old and irrelevant does not mean that young and stupid is an improvement. Identifying effective and passionate leaders of all ages and positioning them to impact church priorities and resources to reach areas not reached and age populations not currently active requires a profound shaking of the foundations. Largely conservative conferences with a lack of liberal clergy are loathe to fund a church start led by a ‘heretic.’ Liberal conferences with a lack of conservative clergy are loathe to fund a church start led by a ‘fundamentalist fascist.’ Mitosis can creatively divide the cell into two cells that can offer the best of both possibilities for outreach in areas and among peoples underserved by the existing denomination. It is past time to reboot.
#6 Worship and Preaching
A new restaurant started in a large city. Its emphasis was on its welcome. All were welcome. All would be served and valued, regardless of race, color or other factors. No shirt, no shoes…no problem in this restaurant. In 90 days, it went broke, not because it was inclusive but because the food was lousy and the service stunk. The Wesleyan tradition affirms the theological integrity of various styles of worship, which was Wesley’s agenda issue behind his often-quoted, “Though we cannot think alike, may we not love alike?” Authentic, scripturally solid, gospel-based worship that is contemporary-traditional-gospel-contemplative-Hispanic or whatever are part of the Wesleyan way, and often is done badly by well-intentioned clergy and churches. Stand-alone and independent churches are eating our lunch and drawing folks we could serve by doing well what we aren’t doing well. Mitosis enables center-left and center-right expressions of the Wesleyan way to focus with laser-like passion on improving the quality of corporate worship, through which healthy churches draw, incorporate and disciple followers of Jesus. It is time to reboot.
# 7 Human Sexuality
Every American Protestant denomination that has adopted a functional equal to the “One Church Plan” has suffered catastrophic losses, often mixed with expensive and venomous litigation over property and assets. A traditional plan that reframes the denomination around cleaning house of the relatively few bishops and conferences defying existing teaching will have trouble winning disciples who seek definition in Christ rather than a cause. The Connectional plan actually has some merit in teasing out constructive separation, but the number of amendments required to make it happen is daunting and probably beyond reach. When centrist-moderate leaders equate affirmation of existing church teaching to defenses of slavery, segregation and the oppression of women, those on the right get the message that bigotry, neurosis or ignorance are the only real reasons behind their rejecting of same gender behaviors. When centrist-progressives hear their positions described as immoral, unethical and a compromise of Word and gospel, they get the message that they are defending the indefensible. Mitosis enables the church to put this issue in the rear-view mirror and address the other 6 issues already mentioned and dozens not mentioned. A center-left and center-right twin birth can provide space to act according to conscience and to cease the painful drain of spiritual and logistical resources. It is past time to reboot.
The best long-term outcome from the 2019 General Conference would be to set the stage for a formal, constructive and spiritually affirming mitosis of the existing body, beginning in earnest in 2020. Birthing Wesleyan twins of progressive and traditional complexion, sharing DNA and family ties and various aspects of ongoing ministry (UMCOR, UMEA, etc.) is worth the effort. The alternative is not worth the cost. It is time to revive, reform and reboot. There really is an upside to splitting the difference.
Rev. Dr. Bob Phillips is a Phi Beta Kappa graduate of the University of Illinois, with advanced degrees from Asbury, Princeton and St. Andrews (Scotland). He retired with the rank of Captain as the senior United Methodist Chaplain in the US Navy in 2005. An elder in the Illinois Great Rivers Conference, Bob most recently served as Directing Pastor of Peoria First United Methodist Church prior to his retirement.
Photo Credit: https://ima.org.uk/911/arrange-seven-points-puzzle/