by Bob Phillips
John Wayne remains one of my favorite Hollywood (re-actors). I say it that way because he famously said, “I don’t act. I react.” He charges into the saloon and gets the bad guys. He charges into the barn and saves the horse. He charges the hill and whacks the enemy. Cover from shots from bad guys? ‘He don’t got no cover. He don’t need no stinking cover.’ Bring it on.
My years in the Navy and Marine Corps revealed a lot of respect for the John Wayne of cinema, balanced by healthy cautions to the troops to “not be a John Wayne” in a dangerous situation. Hollywood is not real life, John Wayne never actually heard a shot fired in anger, and simply charging into the fray will get you killed. As General Patton really did say (in a cleaned-up version), the point is not to die for your country but to get the enemy so-and-so to die for HIS country.
Hence, three simple guidelines during the season of turmoil and rebooting affecting the United Methodist Church. I write primarily to folks traditional in faith and moral values, but it is relevant to all within the UM family. Here goes…
Discernment is first. Every UM church would be wise to enter a wide and deep discernment as to their church’s spiritual DNA, identity, passion, values, belief, and behavior boundaries, where it is flourishing and floundering, its trajectory in attendance and median age over the previous 20 years or 10 years. Discernment includes serious engagement with the question, “What is Wesleyan Christianity and how do we reflect its gifts and strengths to the larger Body of Christ?”
I am concerned by the number of churches where no meaningful, in-depth discernment is allowed, no serious and balanced discussion of issues is permitted, and cliché signs are raised siding with the stay (and occasionally the ‘go’) mentality. Such signs and slogans can claim a subtitle from a classic line uttered in the movie, Inherit the Wind,” where the protagonist proclaims that “I do not think about things that I do not think about,” to which the antagonist responds, “Do you ever think about things that you DO think about?” Churches that are clear that no discussion is needed for go or stay decisions are alike in being a poster child for denial. Ask Sears, Blockbuster and American Motors how that worked out for them.
Discernment need not have the question of disaffiliation in the room. Let the discernment process drive secondary questions, such as the best fit for affiliation once one has named and taken ownership for one’s core convictions and identity. I know of churches that are pretending there are no issues, no division, no cause to think anew about such things. For many this is an uncritical embrace of a status quo while steadfast in denial over the nature and extent of decline. If you hear the excuse, “Well, all churches are declining,” denial is screaming over honesty and content. Note that conservative churches and clergy also are tempted by denial, acting like teenagers who just want to leave home without any reality checks of how or why another place (Global Methodist, independent, whatever) would be a measurably better state. Infatuation is not insight. This denial is widespread, endemic and, left unaddressed, fatal to any healthy future. Holy discernment matters.
Do I “dance with the one that brung me” or find a new partner? Once a church has a collective and conscious sense of its identity, mission, strengths and foibles, the big question becomes what denominational scaffolding best can support a vigorous structure for ministry into the future. “How is the current system working for you?’, asked as a straight and not a sarcastic question, looms large in a healthy outcome. The status quo mix of bishops and boards, districts and camps, seminaries and general agencies weigh heavily in the mix, in ways not entirely good or bad. United Methodist Women (now ‘Women United in Faith,’ technically United Women in Faith since the acronym of the alternative spells ‘WUF’) is the only official organization for women in the denomination. Has it been invaluable to vital ministry to and by women of all ages? Has this group, mandated by the Discipline to exist and be funded, become something else? How about United Methodist Men, same straight questions? Any new expression, such as the GMC, must be clearly understood as to its similarities, differences, and practical approach to being the church. Wishful thinking or infatuation with change for its own sake is no sale.
Am I, and the local church, willing to count the cost and pay the price to stay or leave? Be in no doubt, staying with a denomination in 54+ years of sustained decline, with the modal age of mainline Protestants today a geriatric 67, and a death tsunami soon to immerse the status quo will be no easy default solution. If a choice of future that begins with less trauma but ends in slow death is made, what exactly was the benefit or honor to God? A vigorous recasting and recommitment to a 21st century United Methodism will be no easy walk. Shifting to the GMC will bring its own equal challenges, rooted in change, loss of some familiar comforts and an expectation of serious discipleship by all church members unprecedented in modern United Methodism (“What, I am required to be an active part of a class meeting?”). Blessings also can flow to churches that choose wisely, rooted in the discernment of their identity, whether to remain UMC or shift to the GMC. Beware the John Wayne attitude, whatever your ‘side,’ ignore the voices casting events as all glory one way and all shame the other. Engage fully, decide wisely, and then act promptly and fully in response to God’s call.
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.