What The United Methodist Church Needs to Persevere and Thrive

Every day closer to General Conference intensifies the feeling of apprehension I have about The United Methodist Church. It prompts the question, “What does the church need to persevere and (even) to thrive?” In the following answer, I’ve tried to boil it down to what I believe are essentials.

A Clear Doctrinal Core

Every group, to be a group worthy of membership, has to have a clear purpose defined by core beliefs and values. In the case of a church, it keeps us in vital touch with the apostolic mission.

What is our doctrinal core? We find it in the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith, as well as John Wesley’s Sermons and Explanatory Notes on the New Testament. The Articles and Confession (generally) ground us in the ecumenical, historic faith of the Church across the centuries, notwithstanding the anti-Catholic comments in the Articles of Religion. And John Wesley’s Sermons and Notes identify our distinctive witness in and through and for the Body of Christ at large.

How important is a doctrinal core? An analogy from physical fitness seems in order here. If you follow health professionals, you know the importance of a strong core, that middle part of the body including rib muscles, abs, lumbar (back) muscles and down into the tops of the legs. Without a strong core, you can develop all kinds of problems. If you have back problems, for example, strengthen your abs. You know the drill.

As a denomination, do we still have a shared doctrinal core? I hear both “yes” and “no” from friends and associates. I go back and forth myself, on this question. That it comes up so often suggests that we’re shakier than we’d like to admit. But a doctrinal core cannot be in name only. It has to be real and active and known by members of the Body. Otherwise, we’re kidding ourselves about the future of our church.

Effective Leadership

Every organization needs leaders, obviously. What kind of leaders do we need for the present age?

We could name a list of offices, but I want to focus on the office of bishop. At the risk of appearing to fall into special pleading, I nonetheless want to state clearly that what I’m saying is in no way an editorial comment on any particular bishop or group of bishops. I have a much more conceptual goal in mind.  I am seeking to articulate essential characteristics for a thriving church.

We are an episcopal church.  Bishops are key to our mission and our structures.  We need theologically astute bishops committed to the doctrinal core, able to teach the faith and to explain why our particular doctrines matter for faithful living. This is critically important for The United Methodist Church, but also for our contribution to the church catholic. We need apostolic bishops. I could be accused of redundancy in that sentence.

We need morally courageous bishops. Acting courageously is difficult.  Very difficult.  It’s often unpopular. It is also essential for leaders in order to lead.  I believe that courage is grown through the spiritual disciplines and through practicing the art of making tough decisions.  (Note: remember to pray for our bishops.)

We need to strengthen the office of bishop. Our democratic spirit has become so individualistic, that we stand on the verge of a kind of mob rule. I think bishops need more power, not less, but more power framed by that clear doctrinal core. They need apostolic power, which includes the power of a well-formed character, not just raw political or organizational power.

In terms of basic governance, since General Conference is the only body that speaks officially for The United Methodist Church, what happens when General Conference can’t (or won’t) do its job? Who helps us move when we are stuck? Our General Superintendents. They are tasked with leading the whole church. Theologically astute, morally courageous, compassionate, strong leaders, we desperately need.

A Fundamental Trust in the Integrity of our Body Ecclesiastical

If social media nastiness is any indication, we have lost trust in the integrity of our own communal life. If a significant number of delegates to General Conference do not trust the process, then good decisions simply cannot be made. There is no way around this challenge.

Here we call forth the virtues of intellectual humility and charity toward opponents. I trust you to have the best interests of the church at heart. Though we may disagree severely, I still listen to you because I am confident we both firmly believe in the unity of the body and we know that we’re committed to the same ends (doctrinal core that guides mission) and willing to stay engaged with each other. Knowing this, we dialogue. We keep dialoguing until we find a way to resolve our difference. If we cannot resolve it, we back up until we find our common ground and start to work again.

If you think this vision is politically naive, then maybe you ought to consider how jaded you’ve become.

And yet, I admit, on this topic I feel the most depressed. The United Methodist Church and its predecessor bodies have always had factions. But our current situation suggests a kind of tribalism within the denomination that is degenerating rapidly. In this way we mimic popular culture rather than witness to it.

A Consistent and Workable System of Accountability

I know, this is the especially sticky wicket, but it follows from the point about trust in the integrity of our body ecclesiastical. If we can leave aside for a moment the deep angst we feel over arguments about sexuality, maybe we can see the need for accountability in a better light. If a group has a clear identity and mission guided by a clear core (set of essential beliefs coupled with appropriate practices), that group must have effective means of accountability. We are all prone to wander. We get distracted. We are tempted by catchy, but ephemeral, trends and wounded by the rough-and-tumble of working with divergent opinions on important projects. We must have a way to hold ourselves accountable to the core. If we can’t – or won’t – we are playing the fool at trying to find some way to hold the denomination together.

I’m sure there are other ways to talk about what I’ve tried to discuss here, but it seems to me that these four items are essential to any healthy church. You might add something and I’d likely agree. But I don’t think you can take any of them away.

About Stephen Rankin

Professionally I am an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church. I currently serve as University Chaplain at Southern Methodist University. Personally I am married to Joni and we have four grown children and four grandchildren. You can find my personal thoughts on this site, as well as on twitter at @stephenwrankin.

Comments

  1. Hi Stephen,

    What a great piece! Starting with the core and building from there was a great suggestion (and metaphor). I would tend to think we don’t really have a core. Not one, at least, that has much more agreement than some of the matters of sexuality we’re debating. I wonder how much that long-standing pluralism (in practice, in spite of what’s on paper) has affected our unity.

    I couldn’t agree more with your points about courageous leadership. But you mention something there that may also be a root problem for us. You call for morally courageous bishops and then acknowledge that this kind of courage is often unpopular. As we prepare to elect bishops, I look through the profiles of our episcopal candidates and don’t find much in the way of courageous and unpopular. In our democratic system, you don’t get nominated or elected for the episcopacy by being unpopular. Rather than morally courageous, I notice many profiles that are careful to be ambiguous when they discuss our “hot topics.” Perhaps they expect they would lose more votes than they would gain by taking a bold and courageous stance, regardless of which direction it went.

    If we need morally courageous leadership that may be unpopular, is our method of identifying leaders setting us up for failure?

    • Thank you, Teddy.

      I would have to agree with your observation about the general profile of people we elect to the office of bishop. It’s interesting to take a historical glance at what “kind” of person was elected bishop earlier in our denominational life. There was a period that bishops tended to come from serving either as the head of the “book concern” or as president of an early American Methodist college or seminary (to speak somewhat anachronistically). The academy was seen in those days as much more a part of the church.

      More recently, it seems to me that bishops generally have come either from up through the ranks of conference leadership (especially District Superintendents) or they have established themselves as leaders through numerically growing churches, with a kind of “church growth” persona. Wrap this more recent trend in the pragmatism of modern American Methodism and it is true that we tend to elect leaders/administrators rather than preachers/theologians.

      As you know, I generalize. The individual bishops I have known personally are all very thoughtful people. They’re readers. However, the demands of the job force them into routines that we have come to see as necessary, almost fatalistically so. It leaves little time to develop a ministry of the kind of theological leadership that we desperately need.

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