by Bob Phillips
“For everything there is a season, and a time for every purpose under Heaven…” (Ecclesiastes 3:1)
Resignation and grudging acceptance have greeted news that the May, 2020 General Conference has been reschedule for late summer/early Fall of 2021. No one argues that a date change was necessary and wise, given the COVID19 pandemic. Many United Methodists, representing a wide theological perspective, simply want stuff decided and the logjam to end. Many others, immersed in merry denial, are happy to join hands with Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind fame, whose approach to war and pestilence was captured in her ditty, “I’ll think about that tomorrow. Tomorrow is another day.”
That said, there are significant benefits in extending the time where the denomination will, and must, take decisive action. Paul in Ephesians 5 calls Christians to ‘make the most of the time, for the days are evil.’ A US denomination whose numerical status is slipping from consistent decline toward numerical free-fall is locked into evil days. While sexuality debates are the presenting problem, a myriad of other issues can upend the denomination no matter what its decision on sexuality. The enforced delay in GC2020 can be a disaster if the time is wasted in political posturing by combatants designed to undercut the “others,” while larger issues facing the church are placed on hold.
Lasting good can come from the delay, leaving a healthier outcome for all parties and a stronger Wesleyan movement in the US and globally to advance the Kingdom. Consider these advantages or positive possibilities arising from the gift of an additional year:
- A gift of time to unpack the implications of being a global church. Statistics are a wee blurry but it is likely a majority of UM members live outside the USA. One-fourth of all members live in Congo, where the median annual income is $400 per year and the median age of citizens is 19. All numerical growth of the existing UMC is happening outside the US; no US conference has shown consistent growth. It is crucial to move beyond a politicized or colonial relationship with the global church. How can the wealthy Western church nourish the rest of the Body of Christ, and how can the rest of the Body encourage and minister to the American Laodicean Methodists struggling with pride of thought and things (Rev. 3:15-17)? The global church has its own real issues with spiritual health and practical dysfunctions that are harming the transition of converts into disciples, a problem shared with the US church. Time now is available to face with honesty and hope the implications of shifting from a ‘confederacy’ of Methodist expressions into a true and seamless body. Thinking through practical implications of a ‘mitosis’ division of the existing cell into two Wesleyan cells now has more wiggle room to chase down unintended consequences.
- A gift of time to nurture a fully Wesleyan perspective of church and discipleship. The retired president of one of the official seminaries of the church commented to me on his concern over the loss of the vision of experiential conversion to Christ within both the progressive and the traditional expressions of the US church. What makes a congregation, a conference or a jurisdiction a healthy and growing Wesleyan version of church? How can membership be shifted to discipleship? What really is needed to be a Wesleyan Christian congregation, and what has become culture-bound expectations and practices rooted in dead traditional-ism rather than living tradition? More time has been offered to think through how true reformation, born of a renewal sparked by revival, can be unleashed.
- A gift of time in dealing with “the weeds.” A thousand technical concerns and practical questions flow from ten thousand voices of left, center and right. Outdated, ineffective, obsolete structures, processes and assumptions that have contributed to a half century of sustained US decline must go. The weeds questions deal with specifics of what and when and how. Progressive/centrist and traditional leaders see massive change on the horizon. The delay offers time to identify and deal with multiple practical issues that can enable or handicap the birth of new expressions of the former United Methodist Church, reformed in body and spirit to minister in the 21st century. The delay of GC2020 enables various players to move away from the image of “Building an airplane while in flight” as a description of the challenges in dealing with the numerous mini-issues that thwart or befuddle fresh efforts.
- A gift of space to shake off confirmation bias and denial practiced by all parties. Todd Bolsinger warns in his book, Canoeing the Mountains, that when faced with the choice to change or die, 90% choose death. Self-protection is a quality of any organism or organization, including status quo United Methodism. When criticized by clergy shocked at the innovative move to hold worship services in a Chicago theater, D.L. Moody replied, “I like my way of doing it better than your way of not doing it.” All stakeholders must confront their own confirmation bias, that filters out unpleasant truths that are no less true for being ignored. The pervasive attitude of denial, selectively practiced by all sides, aptly defined by Harvard’s Richard Tedlow as “Protective stupidity,” must be named, as Jesus named the legion of demons infesting the Gadarene demoniac. Only then can the demons be given the boot, so salvation and spiritual health can return to a wounded church. The oasis of time frees all players to address these awkward but compelling dimensions within their own camps, thus creating informed and vibrant new expressions of the Wesleyan way.
- A gift of time to recover lost certainties and empower morale. Ronald Heifetz and Martin Linsky of Harvard have commented that “People don’t resist change; they resist loss.” The rescheduling to GC2021 allows space to address the inevitable loss of old ways that have ceased to aid Kingdom purposes, the loss of the comfortable certainties of the status quo, amid a fresh vision of the risen Christ and his “unshakable kingdom” that the people called Methodists are invited to serve. This also allows time to identify and affirm the myriad ways in which the Holy Spirit continues to move within the church, and to preserve what is working, what continues to bear faithful and effective witness. Not in deadly schism but life-giving mitosis, not in bitter warfare but collaborative and mutual blessing, not in a vision of political maneuvering but in fresh adventure, let GC2021 happen. Unlike every other mainline Protestant US church, may the children of Wesley model a more excellent way to face its challenges and move with confidence in God into the future the Holy Spirit has prepared.
Chair WCA, Illinois Great Rivers Conference
Degrees from University of Illinois, Asbury and Princeton Seminaries, University of St. Andrews
Graduate of Senior Executive Seminar on Morality, Ethics and Public Policy, Brookings Institution
Captain, Chaplain Corps, US Navy (ret)