A Missional UM Future: Part 3-- A Structure of Grace, not Control

Part 3 of 21...

Lovett Weems goes on to ask:

Can we move from a structure of control to a structure of grace?

Specifically, he means by that three things:

a) Can the UMC adopt a barebones Discipline-- across the whole church, and then in each region of it-- that addresses ONLY the basic necessary doctrinal and structural questions, and leaves most of the detail to each region, and then within each region to each entity within it that actually does the work-- to decide?

b) Can we structure accountability relationships NOT around authority figures, but rather around shared vision, mission and values?

c) Can we understand the primary role of leaders as holding questions about what God is calling us to do in front of us, rather than telling us what to do?

Can we? Yes, all of these things can be done.

Is that likely?

Many of the voices in the emerging missional church are skeptical of the "Institutional Church" (or IC for short), and this question is the main reason. We have seen again and again our language being coopted and even some of our concepts being tried, but basically as "the latest thing" in what remains the same old game-- whether it's congregations adding "emerging worship services" to "attract" 20 and 30 somethings, or it's denominational leaders talking about leading by mission or vision but not actually changing the way that people are employed, or how they work together, or how judicatory and denominational agencies actually relate to or are held accountable or funded by local congregations.

I'm speaking generally and pan-denominationally here, based on reading across the emerging blogsphere. And what I read there says most of us think it's not likely at all. The current structures are simply too wed to the power and forms of influence by which they currently do what they do (whatever that may be) to be willing to let go of them without a struggle. And many of us feel like we're too much in the minority to be a force to change that-- so why bother.

I have another perspective. I agree it will be difficult for UM structures as they exist to change substantially into more missional directions quickly. But I see signs we want to.

Streamlining the Discipline will be the easy part. We could do that in two or three General Conferences. Work is already being done toward this end. Even leadership around key questions rather than authority figures should be fairly doable. Frankly, in the UMC, we already have a number of key leaders at the national and the conference level who function just this way.

It's the second one that may be most challenging-- accountability relationships. This is most challenging for two reasons. First, we're very used to accountability looking more military (and often punitive) than missional and redemptive. And second, relationships among leaders in the UMC operate by non-transparent (to the average churchgoer, at least) codes of deference and protocol that reinforce a more leader-figure-centered than a common-mission accountability model. Perhaps we need to change the language of accountability altogether (any better ideas?). Or perhaps we should spend some time considering whether there can be any bridge from where we are to where we might be going with this question-- or whether we actually have to take a significant leap into a different paradigm, and leave the other behind entirely.

Let me reflect a bit further though on accountability-- in something closer to its initial Methodist sense. Accountability for Methodists wasn't then primarily about getting things done (achieving corporate objectives) across a denomination (and not just because it wasn't a denomination!). Accountability was much more about literally watching over one another in love, and looking for signs that those being watched over, and those doing the watching, were in fact growing in holiness-- in love of God and neighbor. The role of the class leader was precisely to ask questions... questions that were aimed at ensuring that growth in holiness was occuring in the lives of those with whom the leader worked. This was all about grace-- not control.

So, we do have in our recessive Methodist DNA knowledge about how to work at accountability that does the very things Dr. Weems is asking-- at least at that very local level. When that most local level was attended to first and seen as the ultimate level of referral-- and the levels "above" it (the society, the conferences-- district and annual) were in effect reporting on the cumulative EFFECTS of the local work rather than trying to CONTROL it or even direct it from THEIR level, we didn't seem to have the problems with accountability as positional rather than missional that we seem to encounter at this point.

Why? Because then all the systems, all the institutional structures of Methodism, were aligned in effect to SERVE (not control) the smallest system-- the class meeting, and ultimately the individuals in it.

United Methodism is a far more complex set of systems than early Methodism. We are global. We are congregational (remember, early Methodism was not starting or planting churches, but rather societies of class meetings). We have bishops (the general superintendency Mr Wesley had in mind was a set of leaders for Methodism, essentially to carry on and multiply the kind of work he had been doing, not bishops for churches with all kinds of agency responsibilities). And we have agencies that do all kinds of things early Methodism might never have envisioned or necessarily desired for itself, in part because it didn't see itself as a church.

If the Council of Bishops and the leaders of the Connectional Table are serious, though, about helping us live the Methodist Way, and if by that they mean something like restoring the General Rules to some sort of real function in our midst by which we can and will watch over one another in love in small groups-- maybe, just maybe, they are saying they want to see that "old-time" alignment of institutions serving the smallest missional unit (the class meeting) come back for a try in our present age.

But there's the key, I think. The IC announcing to the basic missional units that the IC has found THE WAY that all the basic missional units need to get lined up with-- well, that's just the IC way at work.

The transformation has to happen at two levels. Those basic missional units have to exist and work. Regardless of what other structures we may have as a denomination or a congregation, without that one-- a structure for watching over one another in love that actually works-- we don't have Methodism, or as Wesley would say, we don't have "experimental [experiential] Christianity." Whatever else we do as emerging missional Methodists, let's all agree to help that happen where ever we are by whatever means we can.

THEN the IC pieces
really need to WANT not to CONTROL or corral, and maybe not even to count exactly, but rather to SERVE those basic missional units. This doesn't mean we stop having something like a General Board of Global Ministries to handle all the staffing, complex travel issues, and advocacy for ministry and worship in all sorts of ways in the US and globally. The IC pieces will do what they do, too-- in all the ways they actually can-- and they need to! The difference would be that they do so understanding and actually clearly articulating HOW what they are doing either underwrites or extends what the basic missional units are actually doing-- not JUST what great accomplishments THEY (the IC pieces) have done, or how badly the denomination as a whole has done on some metrics, in the course of their reporting period.

What do you think? What does a grace-based structure for a United Methodist Missional Future look like where you sit?

Peace in Christ,

Taylor Burton-Edwards