7 Good Things that could happen if Denominations were to Retire

I work on staff for a denomination, serving in middle management for a regional office supporting outreach to young people and communications. I don’t share this to impress anyone, or to suggest I have much sway or power (I have neither). I mention it to provide context to the words that follow.

While I am not a denominational power player, my position has required me to pay attention to what is happening in the church I work for, and to catch the occasional sideways glance at what is occurring in our sister denominations.

My position has also afforded me opportunities to meet a number of the leaders who do have positional and relational power within our structure. They are, with rare exception, faithful, talented, and well-meaning people who work very hard.

In my time serving within this denomination, I’ve rarely met an individual who would say that our best years are still ahead of us. Sure, I’ve been privy to the aspirational sermon or two, but the lofty goals rarely hold fast in real talk grounded in what is actually happening. Too many of the numbers we measure are heading in the wrong direction for that.

This problem is even bigger than you think

A priest raped a 7-year-old girl while he was visiting her in the hospital after she’d had her tonsils removed. Another priest forced a 9-year-old boy into having oral sex, then rinsed out the boy’s mouth with holy water. One boy was forced to say confession to the priest who sexually abused him.”

If those words don’t disturb you, you aren’t paying attention.

A grand jury report released this week in the state of Pennsylvania offered details on more than 300 Roman Catholic priests who victimized over 1,000 children since the 1940s. These statistics do not include the undeterminable number of victims who did not come forward, or whose records of complaint were lost by a church accused of “systematically covering up complaints.” Most of these incidents occurred during years some people nostalgically look back upon as “great.”

The misconduct of Catholic priests is not a new topic. In the 16 years since the Boston Globe unveiled similar patterns of abuse and coverup in the Boston Diocese (a story featured in the excellent film Spotlight), pedophile priests have become a disturbing meme. Equally familiar is the sense that church leadership failed not only in the moment, but that the failure is ongoing as the institution lumbers forward under a cloud, with defensive acts of contrition serving as an ill-fitting replacement for much needed transparency.

More constructively, in 2002 the Catholic Bishops in the United States adopted a “Charter for the Protection of Children and Young People” which implemented needed reforms to safeguard those in their care and to correct some of the patterns of concealment. Absent transparency and contrition from every level of the church, these actions were seen by some as too little, much too late.

While the Catholic Church reluctantly absorbs the spotlight in this area, no church is truly off the hook. The many stories of ministerial misconduct that can be found in news reporting across the country speak to the need for all churches to remain vigilant, adopting practices to safeguard children and other vulnerable persons from abuse and exploitation of all sorts.

Many mainline denominations and some non-denominational churches adopted their own safe church practiceswith renewed vigor after Roman Catholicism’s first public shaming. In some cases, these church bodies were reacting to their own incidents of clergy (and staff) misconduct; in other instances, they were acting proactively to minimize the possibility of some harm being done. Sadly, to this day many churches believe themselves somehow immune to any potential problem, buying into faulty lines of thought like “but we know everyone here.”

While it may be easy for church goers to believe that these new (old) problems in Pennsylvania bear little resemblance to the church they attend, the impact of these headlines is both cumulative and distributed; meaning each continues to erode the reputations of the Church (universal) and religious figures of all sorts, and that to many the sectarian divides we recognize matter little.

Movements like #MeToo remind us that such problems are not limited to vulnerable children, nor to the church. Wherever power imbalances exist, there is the possibility of harm especially in situations where thoughtful protocols and practices have not yet replaced the defaults of good ol’ boynetworking and personal influence. Those traditions that have blessed themselves with an openness to the gifts and callings of female clergy may find themselves doubly blessed in that while women can be sex offenders too, they are far less likely than men to offend and their presence can disrupt good ol’ boy networks.

Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not stop them; for it is to such as these that the kingdom of heaven belongs.” (Matthew 19:14)

The Church has received a difficult charge from Jesus, one made more complicated by our reluctance to break with old patterns and truly repent of past misdeeds. Regaining the necessary institutional trust to call the next generation of disciples forward will take a continued and concerted effort from Christians of all stripes.

So please be disturbed by this latest story of Catholicism’s colossal failure. Be angry too, for its impact first on the vulnerable and then upon us all. Just don’t be complacent.

 

Are you a Uniting Methodist?

I didn’t grow up in The United Methodist Church. For the entire time I’ve been a United Methodist, I’ve also been an employee of the same on either a local church or regional level. And frankly speaking, if I wasn’t an employee of The United Methodist Church, I might just as easily belong to a church of another denomination altogether.

By sharing this, I don’t mean to intimate that I’m just a hired gun, that I’m eager to leave The United Methodist Church, or that I have no concern for its future. In general, I believe that my perspective can be a nice balance to those offered by UMC-lifers who have never identified as something else. But it is also true that it leaves me less capable of understanding the full spectrum of emotions that people express when the topic of schism arises.

I offer this full disclosure because I think it is very important to understand the differing motivations and unspoken assumptions of everyone engaging in dialog around the future of the denomination. In fact, I believe there is a very simple, fundamental question we fail to ask as we consider the difficult conversations that The United Methodist Church is engaged in currently. The question is this:

Is this the action of a uniting Methodist?

The Day the Music Dies -or- Redemption Song? #UMC #NoSuchLaw

Here is a guest post I recently did for the Hacking Christianity blog. If you didn’t read it before, enjoy!

I’ve been wrestling with some pessimistic apathy about this week’s United Methodist Judicial Council hearings. It’s not that I don’t appreciate the potential impact their decision could have, especially for Bishop Karen Oliveto and the Mountain Sky Area. I simply doubt that the ruling will resolve our connectional impasse because of some fundamental shifts in how United Methodists relate to each other. Let me explain by way of an analogy.

In 1999, a peer-to-peer file sharing service called Napster was released into the public. While it wasn’t the first of its kind, the platform made the sharing of digital files easy, just as the MP3 format was becoming popular. The nearly simultaneous release of MP3 players, most notably the original iPod in 2001, drove the adoption of digital music upon the realized promise that one could now hold thousands of songs in their pocket.

When I’m feeling apathetic, I listen to music. Here’s a playlist to accompany the article.

The relative anonymity provided by file sharing platforms like Napster ensured that the music industry would need to respond in some way to what they would define as “stealing music.” The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) would come to sue 35,000 people over a five year period from 2003 to 2008 with the intent of frightening “the general public into not copying music.” While the RIAA was successful in wiping out college savings accounts, harming the reputations of individuals, sometimes errantly, and creating any number of public relations nightmares as they sued indiscriminately, they didn’t actually succeed in changing behavior or, as might be assumed a part of their responsibility, improving the revenues of the labels and artists that make up the music industry. These hard realities didn’t stop them of course; the RIAA only stopped the lawsuits when they ran out of money for them.

In the midst of these tumultuous times, musicians provoked conversations. Some took strong stances on either side of the file-sharing conversation. The rock band Metallica sued Napster head-on, winning some court cases but losing many fans along the way. The band Radiohead responded differently to the digital opportunity, releasing music in ways that connected directly to fans and forced record labels to rethink their purpose and imagine a possible reality where they no longer existed.

The music industry had been in a slump even before their digital “problem” emerged. It wasn’t until 2012 that the industry would experience another year of growth and that came after its embrace of digital sales. Since then, it has continued to explore new formats and models for distributing music. Who would have predicted in 1999 that a growing percentage of consumers would rent their music instead of buying it?

(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction

Now I can appreciate how frustrating the past 20 years must have been for conservatives in The United Methodist Church. Over this time, numerous complaints and a number of high-profile trials have done little to change the minds and hearts of those who feel differently. Progressives have similarly have had their hopes dashed, over and again, for any change in the official position of the church.

What neither side seems to accept is the fundamental manner in which the ways we connect, and derive authority, have changed over this same period of time. Sure, we still have a formal structure that connects church to district, and district to conference, and conference to jurisdiction (or central conference), and jurisdiction to General Conference. But the power of that formal structure is passing away, for better or worse, like CDs made way for digital.

Much has been written about the erosion of trust in institutions. Slow to move, burdened with regulations and bureaucracy, they are an easy enough target for our animus. I doubt that many were surprised when the UMC, like the RIAA, initially responded to LGBTQ-related violations of its polity with the tools institutions have; defrocking and suspensions, our equivalents of lawsuits and threats of the same. What is indeed shocking is how very incapable we have proven ourselves to be in adapting much to the failure of such actions to change behavior, even when compared to the recording industries less than stellar example.

After a particularly disappointing 2012 General Conference, the late Bishop Jack M. Tuell, widely respected for his expertise in United Methodist polity, acknowledged the need for a “tweaking” of our structure as we strive to be a global church. While he affirmed the goal of a global church as a good one, Bishop Tuell wisely recognized the need to limit the scope of General Conference and to define the United States as a region free to make some changes for its distinct mission field, a privilege we had already afforded to the rest of the world.

As the good Bishop acknowledged, these ideas were hardly new in 2012. Our failure to make any meaningful changes to our United Methodist structure has left us in quite a dilemma forcing our leaders to insist on the efficacy of 8-tracks in a digital age, eroding what little moral authority they still retain.

Absent a reasonable forum to address change or engage in sincere Christian conferencing, we’ve unintentionally turned the task of defining United Methodist identity over to the various caucus groups that have arisen to stake out positions on the left and the right. As each year passes, we are more inclined to see ourselves as the true proprietors of United Methodist identity and less inclined to entertain other viewpoints.

The Song Remains the Same 🙁

All of this leaves me feeling apathetic in regards to next week’s Judicial Council hearings, as if we are all just going through the motions. If I’m a conservative, or a liberal, I’ve already been told how I will respond if the Judicial Council does this, that, or the other thing. I’ve seen very little that suggests anyone will simply accept the council’s ruling if they don’t like it. And to be honest, as hard as I struggle to maintain some modicum of moderation, I would be disappointed if they did. The structure we have deserves to fail because we have done so little, together, to help it to adapt to a changing world.

Our one final, moonshot-like, hope resides in the Commission on a Way Forward and the special General Conference in 2019 that has been called by the Council of Bishops. But again I find myself pessimistic. One might think that equipping a group of thoughtful, diverse Christians to speak candidly with each other, and tasking them to work toward solutions, is exactly what we need. In fact, I have no doubt that it would be for many, if not most, United Methodists.

What concerns me is a suspicion that the Commission has been tasked to create a product the loud voices do not want. After all, a truly united Methodist church wouldn’t need all of those caucus groups to tell us what John Wesley would do. Those associations, ministries and even seminaries that mirror the services of the denominations would look foolish without all the distraction our infighting provides; they might even look schismatic.

That is not to neglect our personal role in this. We have all grown accustomed to our own voices and the comfort found in the echo chambers we inhabit. Do we even remember what the church sounds like without the constant politicking; are we wise enough to find value in divergent opinions? Do we share a mission and vision that is capable of unifying our efforts and faithful to the charge we have received? I really don’t know. Some of us have invested much in our CD collections, while others really love the sound of vinyl; neither offers the flexibility required to appreciate the full catalogue of a global church.

I do know that the world could use such a witness in times like these. A truly united Methodist church, inclusive of diverse theological expressions, could testify to a love that is much greater than what is needed to sustain a simple harmony of like minds. Of course, we’d all need to give something to come to that shared turntable; those with power a measure more.

A new digital normal has settled in for the recording industry. Leaders have learned that enough people will pay for music if you make it easy and safe for them to do so; they understand that fear-mongering is unproductive. Easy digital access to music is now seen as an opportunity; something once perceived as a threat is an emerging market experiencing modest growth. To top it off, artists now have more freedom to release music in different ways, consumers have more choices than ever, and even the record labels have adapted to preserve a role for themselves.

May God give us the strength to listen hard to find value in dissonant notes and to await patiently for new melodies to emerge. Our church could use more people gifted with such graces today, and the world would be blessed by their witness.

When Jesus refuses to be crucified

I grew up in a conservative part of the country where women preachers weren’t a thing. People exited the Lutheran church our family belonged to because the denomination was discussing women in leadership (beyond Sunday School). While no change was actually made, some members left to form a new church in an even more conservative synod assumedly to avoid such conversations again.

Eventually I went east for seminary and most of my classmates were women, many around my mother’s age, experiencing a new freedom at the time to pursue a call to ministry. While I grew more comfortable with women in leadership positions because of this, deep seated prejudice still lingered. When my wife started to express and pursue her own call to ministry a few years later, I supported her but peppered her with well-intentioned, to my mind at the time, questions about the ability of women to lead in a culture that didn’t want them to.

I’m thankful that my slow acclimation to change didn’t hold her back.

As rooted as my reservations were in my own prejudice, they weren’t completely fictional either. While the ordination of women is, more or less, a settled issue in the denomination I belong to, female clergy are still caught at times between justice and the residual sexism that lingers in many congregations and in our society at large. The first female pastor at a church is still required to carry an extra burden beyond her pastoral duties. If she is excellent in all ways the church might welcome the next female pastor to come their way, but if she is like most people, imperfect, those faults can reinforce a narrative bubbling just below the surface.

Over the past forty or so years, much maligned mainline denominations like The United Methodist Church have taken official positions aligning themselves with minority groups, and those without power, because thoughtful leaders believed that it was the right thing to do. Despite the narrative of the conservative right, that these churches were simply accommodating themselves to culture, churches stepped up at a time where there was no clear benefit for doing so. If mainline denominations should be accused of anything, it might be their failure to publicly, and repeatedly, acknowledge that death (or a certain lack of popularity) is a likely cost of following Jesus.

For example, in the Pacific Northwest I can think of several progressive churches that affirmed and supported equal rights for gays and lesbians in cities like Seattle before it was culturally acceptable, and long before marriage equality was a real possibility. They did so because they were in the community, they knew the people, could see the pain, and were moved in love to respond. These faith communities often suffered distain (and worse) from other Christians for doing so despite the hard work they did to pioneer new understandings and applications of an old, old story. And as public opinion has shifted toward inclusion, these same churches are now accused of simply following culture despite a clear history that is in conflict with that narrative.

There have always been followers of Jesus, like myself, who have allowed caution, or prevailing wisdom, to get in the way of their calling to pick up the cross and do what it right. Most of Jesus’ disciples, with the exception of a few brave women, were among that number on the day Jesus was crucified. Eventually we get there but we need the prophetic foresight of those who walk ahead.

But there is a more problematic sort of disciple that confuses numerical success with God’s blessing. Jesus had some of these disciples around him too, urging him to assert himself and lead the people in violent revolution. Jesus had the apparent sense to know how short lasting that sort of revolution would have been; unfortunately we don’t always embody that wisdom.

During Holy Week it’s worth remembering that our calling, as followers of Jesus, is to the cross. We may have the promise of resurrection to anticipate, but that is distinct from our calling. Resurrection is God’s work, not ours.

Discerning why some churches grow while others die is a complicated thing, made even more so when we fail to acknowledge the diversity of congregational expressions held within labels like mainline, non-denominational, evangelical, etc. No one factor accounts for everything and shrewd leaders, and sincere disciples, aren’t all cut from one cloth. Sometimes failure is the result of poor leadership, ineptitude, or societal shifts (like where people live) beyond the control of any single congregation.

But when we look at something like the growth trajectories of mainline denominations and non-denominational churches, and fail to acknowledge that there is a cost to being faithful to the Gospel’s demands to do justice, to love kindness, and to walk humbly, we neglect to acknowledge our calling to the cross. We also, unintentionally perhaps, present to the world a Jesus who refuses to be crucified, a cautious Christ that prefers the crowds to the cross.

Societal change doesn’t happen overnight, and institutions (which can, despite my GenX cynicism, be capable of much good) do require leaders who can manage the proverbial temperature. Their work can provide sacred and necessary space for conversation and transformation.

But we must always keep in mind Jesus’ paradoxical calling to us, that we might die to ourselves so that we might truly live.

Any honest interpretation of Good Friday begs us to consider again, in what ways might we die so that others might have life?


Postscript: While some of the preceding may read like a full-throated endorsement of progressive Christianity, it is not intended as such. The failure to collectively embrace discipleship as a serious task, to adopt innovative ways to communicate, teach and worship, and a reluctance in many places to trust the people of the church with modern biblical and theological conversations are all areas of concern. Well-intentioned or not, this can leave the laity in such places politically opinionated but strangely disempowered from the rich theological thought that undergirds some of the positions they have adopted.

 

Lost New Testament manuscript illuminates Jesus’ teaching on immigration

By Patrick Scriven
February 1, 2017

Nazareth, Israel An ancient manuscript scholars believe to be the earliest extant version of the Christian gospel ascribed to Matthew has been found in a bedouin cave in the high desert near the city of Nazareth. The city, famously associated with Jesus and his followers in the 1st century CE, was known to be a stronghold for the earliest believers.

Extraordinarily Clear #muslimban

“I was a stranger and you welcomed me.”

Just to be extraordinarily clear, a country has the sovereign right to close its borders to people it deems undesirable or dangerous. It can build large, magnificent walls and secure its airports and other ports of entry.

An organization, or any gathering of people, can define for themselves who belongs and who doesn’t. They can decide that certain people believe the wrongs things or live the wrong way and shun those who don’t fit.

As individuals, we all have free will and we can choose to empower our fears in the form of a demagogue or some set of exclusionary practices. We can even select alternative words for this like ‘Security,’ ‘faith’ and ‘freedom’ if that makes us feel better about it.

What a country, organization, or individual can’t do is think themselves a Christian nation, the capital ‘C’ Church, or profess themselves to be a follower of Christ while they chose something other than love.

The Bible isn’t extraordinarily clear on as much as I might like it to be, but in this area, it is very hard to read around some inconvenient themes:

“Be not afraid.”

“You are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.”

The themes of resisting fear and offering hospitality don’t just appear in a few scattered texts here or there; they are woven throughout the Bible in such a way that were one to remove these threads they would unravel the very image of God there contained.

“Do not forget to show hospitality to strangers, for by so doing some people have shown hospitality to angels without knowing it.”

The immigrant we turn out from our communities, the refugees that we stop and send back to danger, the person who doesn’t look, act or think like us; they all might be devils bent on our destruction. Living in fear, that is who they remain.

But for the follower of Jesus, the possibility, the promise, that they might be something more – an angel or even Jesus himself – is the starting point of our engagement. We are people “whose citizenship is in heaven” called to live fearlessly so that we might love freely.

We can choose to live in fear or we can be free to love. The choice for Christians may not be easy but it is extraordinarily clear.