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The connection: End of life or new creation?


1:00 P.M. EST June 22, 2010

United Methodist Bishops (from left) Janice Riggle Huie, B. Michael Watson and John R. Schol take counsel with one another as they discuss leadership issues during a fall 2009 meeting in Lake Junaluska, N.C. A UMNS file photo by Kathy L. Gilbert.
United Methodist Bishops (from left) Janice Riggle Huie, B. Michael Watson and John R. Schol take counsel with one another as they discuss leadership issues during a fall 2009 meeting in Lake Junaluska, N.C. A UMNS file photo by Kathy L. Gilbert.
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Most U.S. annual conferences are preparing, in the midst of or concluding their gatherings.

While I write from a particular region (Western North Carolina, Southeast Jurisdiction), my sense from conversations across the U.S. church is that a common experience is occurring. There is a heightened degree of stress among participants and distrust of leadership. The economic downturn has contributed to this (fewer church resources, greater human missional needs, increased costs in areas of health care and pension), as has decline in denominational membership and largely unnoticed but very real trends in generational giving.

Related to this is the need to lower the expectations of those participating in and dependent upon the annual conferences as systems. Thus, "plum" assignments seem to be fewer in supply, and denominational institutions that were birthed by our tradition can expect decreasing levels of support—here I am thinking of children's homes and campus ministries, colleges and seminaries, missionaries and communities for the aged.

The heightened stress can be projected onto the leadership—bishops, conference or general church staff. This must be a disorienting place to inhabit these days. These men and women have arrived in positions of influence through the affirmation and trust of their peers; they now discover an almost default suspicion, and even devaluing of their roles.

Bishops are secure because of our restrictive rules, but the merger of annual conferences is a sign of the larger church's estimate of their contribution to the church's mission. General church agencies find themselves in a several-year limbo, as the church studies itself (at last count, by nine authorized or self-appointed groups). Annual conference staffs, which once mediated between the general church and council of bishops and the local church, are disappearing, apart from necessary administrative functions related to personnel, finance and property. If you think this mirrors developments in corporate culture, you are correct.

An unfortunate reality

The disappearance of these mediating structures, alongside the diminished role of the general church agencies, coincides unfortunately with a reality in most annual conferences that, with exceptions, most United Methodist congregations are not as strong as they were 10 years ago. Again, blame can be assigned to leadership (the pastors, or, by extension, the seminaries), but the factors may be beyond our own institutions: increased social mobility and dislocation; the explosion of sports cultures that have become normative for many young people and their families on weekends; a lower birth rate among Caucasian families and an as yet unwillingness to assimilate immigrant families into our mission.

Most annual conferences have not come to terms with how to deploy clergy to the "medium" size churches, which in most instances are becoming small congregations. And so the average annual conference will increasingly approximate an ecosystem of a few very large congregations and a massive number of small ones. Like the annual conference staff, the mediating structure (the middle size church) will disappear.

I am seeking to be more descriptive here than judgmental. Bishops do perform a crucial function: to teach the faith, to assign clergy, to guide the church through a chaotic time, to frame the key questions. General church staff are essential in developing resources or sustaining institutions that are beyond the scope of the local church: I am thinking about Disciple Bible Study and the Upper Room, Africa University and the United Methodist Committee on Relief, Nothing But Nets and the “Five Practices.” And annual conference staffs are often populated with very creative and conscientious men and women.

Yet the demands on these persons are increasing at precisely the time when resources flowing toward them are constricting. The cliche "doing more with less" is becoming, in real time, "doing less with less."

The Rev. Ken Carter
The Rev. Ken Carter

Less connectional

We convince ourselves that we are connectional, and the annual conference is the visible sign of this (as is, every four years, the General Conference). And yet the stark reality is that we are becoming less connectional, more a confederation of congregations than a communion.

Annual conferences are by economic necessity decreasing the hours of their meetings at precisely the moment they actually require more time together, to build ownership for key decisions and to create the capacity to see them to fruition (this is also true for the General Conference). There is little agreement on what constitutes the mission of the church, the meaning of what it means to be a United Methodist, or even if it is essential that one be a Christian.

The connection is a legacy passed to us from an earlier generation, but it is now in a fragile state. We gather together, but we cannot give a clear explanation for what we hope to accomplish.

Signs of hope

There are, to be sure, signs of hope: Our infrastructure can be a gift to the world in the aftermath of a crisis (Katrina and Haiti are two recent examples; one wonders if the oil debacle in the Gulf will bring us together in the same way). There are theologians on a number of seminary campuses doing remarkable work; I will step aside from my usual Duke bias by naming Jason Vickers of United Seminary and Dana Robert of Boston University among them.

There are a few very creative and even visionary bishops. A very small number of our United Methodist colleges have awakened to the notion that their historic identity could actually be their niche in an increasingly secular culture. United Methodist Communications is doing cutting-edge work in connecting a technologically savvy audience with hands-on mission. The missional church movement is more aligned with Wesleyan theology than any other stream of the tradition. And there are congregations that are taking risks for the Kingdom of God. These are more prevalent than we sometimes imagine.

These signs of hope are renewing the connection, either by distancing themselves from the system where possible, accessing the system when that is helpful, and strengthening the system even when it would be easy to do otherwise (and here I am thinking of someone like Adam Hamilton). Yet these signs of hope cannot and should not lead us to the avoidance of the present reality: The stress that is felt in our system is the breaking apart of a structure that is no longer sustainable, missional, or even functional.

Saving our collective soul

Conferencing will increasingly be a gathering place for four types of participants: those seeking to avoid the chaos of the surrounding culture as they remember the glory years; others who are seeking to process their disorientation in a system that cannot provide the rewards it once promised; those who wonder how much or how little they should invest in a system that no longer seems relevant; and those who sense that Methodism can yet be reinvented through, in Dean Greg Jones' wonderful phrase, "traditioned innovation."

I find myself in this last cohort. I did not really ever participate in the glory years, and I am fully a part of the denomination, in every sense of that word and at every level. Many of my friends, and many clergy for whom I have deep respect are among the most disoriented, and I can only listen and pray. And yet I believe that there is something of substance in the Methodist movement; it is the gospel itself, a rich and broad understanding of grace and a deep and wide perspective about holiness.

If we can get in touch with a grace that is lifelong and complex and a holiness that is personal and social, we will connect with the source that may yet be the salvation of our collective soul.

My sense is that reformations have always been theological before they have been institutional. Put differently, they have been gifts from God. And so the heightened degree of stress is either the end of life, or the birth pangs of a new creation. My hope is that all of this is the latter.

*Carter is pastor of Providence United Methodist Church in Charlotte, N.C. This commentary was adapted from his blog at http://kenatprovidence.blogspot.com.

News media contact: Tim Tanton, Nashville, Tenn., (615) 742-5470 or newsdesk@umcom.org.

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