by Bob Phillips
My wife was raised on a dairy farm in rural northern Pennsylvania. The other day she shared a memory from her youth. The barn housing the cows caught fire, most likely an electrical short. Everyone scrambled to get the cows out of the barn before the roof collapsed. The cows didn’t want to leave. When pulled out of the barn, many of them tried to go back into the barn, even as it was being fully engulfed in flames. Knowing memory can be tricky, my wife called her brother, a past president of the Holstein Association, USA. He confirmed both her memories of that night and the disposition of cattle to be fixed on home, unwilling to change their setting even if it is crashing in flames.
When I heard that story, shared in another context, I immediately thought of the travails of many laity and clergy in the storm-tossed United Methodist Church. When I returned to active ministry in my conference after 28 years serving as a Navy chaplain, I found my annual conference literally didn’t exist. Technically there was a merger with another much larger conference to form the Illinois Great Rivers Conference, but the equal to the entire membership of my former pre-merger Southern Illinois Conference had vanished without so much as a burp.
What struck me about that glaring reality was the almost total absence of urgency or recognition of that fact. The air was filled on occasion with the kinds of “ought” and “should” comments that once drove renowned psychotherapist Karen Horney up the wall over the “tyranny of the ‘should.’” Yes, the conference should be larger and we ought to do better, but most of the lights still work and good is still being done. Like Scarlett O’Hara from Gone with the Wind, the basic response I discovered to the steady fire burning down the house of Wesley seemed to be, “Well, fiddle-dee-dee. I’ll think about that tomorrow. Tomorrow is another day.”
The forthcoming division of the denomination is a certainty. Certainty is a scary concept to lots of Methodists. In his delightful book, The Italians, John Hooper has said that in Italy years of dictatorship produced a curious backlash against decisiveness and suspicion of anything suggesting objective truth. Hence if a pedestrian crosswalk is painted a bright white, other workmen show up the next week to gray over the white, lest bright contrasting colors suggest a dogmatism of boundaries that creates dis-ease. As a Methodist whose maternal roots are in Calabria, I have seen the connection. A decisive separation is nearing inescapable reality and the usual suspects are shifting into high denial.
Division is a way of acknowledging the barn is burning. The formation of two new expressions to renew and rebirth the legacy church forces all players into situations that push boundaries and redefine comforts and home. Separation, and I speak of a constructive Methodist mitosis with minimal rancor, hissing and spitting, still upheaves the familiar and predictable. Human nature, like cow nature, abhors such level of transformative change. After all the Methodist barn is burning at a relatively slow pace. Numerically if nothing is done the US church will not face functional extinction for perhaps 70 years, by which time everyone reading this article will have joined this writer in death. Thus did Hezekiah respond to Isaiah’s warning about the collapse of Judah by outwardly affirming God’s will, while inwardly shrugging since the hammer would fall on the next generation (2 Kings 20).
Thus, calls to explore the alternative of a Global Methodist Church likely will fall on a large number of deaf ears. Douglas Southall Freeman described a confederate general in these words: “He did not fail beyond explanation or excuse. He did not succeed.” Absent an obvious calamity, many initially will choose the nurture of tradition, the reassurance of the familiar, and the cow’s comfort of home, fire or no fire. What is overlooked is that profound and top-to-bottom change also will be demanded of the legacy church and leadership. Wise and dedicated Christians will choose to affiliate with the Continuing UMC and with the Global MC. Wisdom will be revealed if both groups walk decisively into the midst of major change rather than be backed into reactive change demanded by events that control them rather than the other way around.
Note some of the ways the cow reaction can be reflected in current church actions and inactions. The list is a sampler, not a full recounting of evidence. First, facing facts becomes a microaggression. In the play, Inherit the Wind, defense attorney Henry Drummond asks the self-assured prosecutor (modeled very imperfectly after the real-life William Jennings Bryan) if he ever had thought about a certain matter. He replied, “I do not think about things that I do not think about.” Or consider philosopher Frank Ramsey’s subtle comment that ‘what we can’t say we can’t say, and we can’t whistle it either.”
Grounds for refusal to allow conference conversation on the impending division typically is framed in terms of its prematurity. Too much remains unknown; one desires not to unduly agitate the sheep with unnecessary bleating. Note there is truth to the desire to find Kairos moments amid the chronos of daily church life, but the difference between healthy pacing of conversation and bushwhacking a congregation can get lost in the imposed silence. When pastors feel real pressure to say nothing about…any subject that inevitably will affect their congregation, something has misfired. Listen for the “moo.”
Second, leadership seems to be writing Revelation 23. Of course, there is no such chapter. Revelation concludes with a marvelous vision of the fulfillment of the Kingdom and a God who “makes all things new.” When bishops and higher authorities begin to fixate on how wonderful things can be and how marvelous the future church will be, it is past time to count the silverware and hide the linen. The mills of denial are running full steam. The lion will lie down with the lamb (but as a New Yorker cartoon once said in a picture of a lamb talking to a lion, ‘OK but you lay down first”). Where there is no clear strategic vision, braced by practical metrics of effective and transforming change, the people and the institution perish. Listen to the “moo.”
Third, leadership rounds up twice the usual suspects. OK, so Casablanca is my favorite movie. The real villains, according to guardians Castle Wesley, are those making noise, complaining, pointing out issues. In the novel, The Day of the Jackal, a minor official lackey is described as being “never publicly wrong nor inconveniently right.” When leadership’s primary response to those who are inconveniently right is attack on motive or integrity, the cow is heading back to the barn. Thus, in June 2021, a Director of Communication for an annual conference, and the chair of that conference’s General Conference delegation, publicly proposed mobilizing the general church much praised connectional resources to ensure all non-US delegates be vaccinated and visa-ed. The proposal was forwarded up the chain of command, where it died. When the WCA acted to fulfill a piece of that vision after a year of inaction, allegations of racism and colonialism filled the air. Do we really insist on vaccinating all 90 million citizens of Congo prior to vaccinating that delegation? Listen to the moo.
Many churches will remain with the legacy denomination for understandable and wise reasons, given their theology and other factors. Many others probably will remain as a default, the price of inertia, and fear of disruptive change. They must beware lest they trade off what matters most to preserve what matters now. Some will align with the GMC without thinking through all the implications and will be unpleasantly surprised to learn that being ‘right’ brings no exemption from major and scary change. The irony is that, no matter where a local church may land, profound change is a given. The central truth remains. The barn is burning. Human nature, like our friend the cow, leans toward the security of a known and familiar place, even if it is certain to collapse amid denial. Resist the moo. Don’t follow the cows into denial. Throw a Methodist potluck, with holy barbecue as the central serving, and put the cows to good use.
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)
See Bob’s work on Methodist Mitosis in Methodist Review.