Heart-breaking Schism or Healthy Division? Lessons From Dividing Perennials

Heart-breaking Schism or Healthy Division? Lessons From Dividing Perennials May 13, 2013

The larger church functions more like perennials, which come back year after year adding new growth without the necessity of resowing seed. Eventually, however, they get so stuck together that only the act of dividing the perennials gives them an opportunity for new life.


day-lily-sm
(C) Christy Thomas

In 2012, I wrote a post about the now-impossibility of actually reforming death-giving structure of the UMC. My frustration emerged after the Judicial Council, doing exactly what they are supposed to do, put the final nail in the coffin by overturning all significant votes taken at the last General Conference.

Now, the big challenge, besides our structure, are the multiple theologies held by varying United Methodists. One of the UMC’s great strengths is its wide umbrella gathering many under its shelter. That wide umbrella now threatens to self-destruct.

Give Up and Split Up?

So, the questions appear again and again: should we just give up and split up?

My answer is both no and yes. We must not give up. To do so denies the transforming power of the Gospel that all of us seek to uphold.

To say to one another, “Our disagreements are so great that I no longer wish to stay in connection with you,” says to the world, already prepared to condemn the church for its poor ability to create anything approaching heavenly harmony, “Yep, pretty well everything we say to you is a lie.”

If we need to split like this, we just need to give up.

The Healthy Division

But as a gardener as well as a pastor, I also think there is a healthy division. This is a division that brings lots of new life.

As are many gardens, my flower and vegetable beds are a mixture of annuals and perennials.

We plant annuals each year. Ideally, and if we are not using hybrids, the plants produce well for a year, and then set some seeds for rebirth the following year.  Life to death and back to life again, that beautiful cycle.

Part of church life consists of “annuals,” short-term efforts that produce fruit and then die and then have the seeds resown as necessary.

But the larger church functions more like perennials, which come back year after year adding new growth without the necessity of resowing seed. Eventually, however, they get so stuck together that only the act of dividing them gives them an opportunity for new life.

Most gardeners I know take immense pleasure in dividing their perennials and giving them away. The flower beds at the church I served are almost entirely populated with donated perennials. Those plants are a testament to the life-giving process of division and separation.

The image at the top of this post shows a daylily bloom just about ready to offer its beauty with flowers that live just one day. That particular daylily plant is the third or even fourth division of the original plant. One plant has turned into at least 20 more, all related to each other.

There is some evidence that plants do feel pain so the divisions may have been painful. Each plant to be divided had to be forcibly removed from its spot, pried apart and replanted some distance away. Some of the divisions didn’t carry enough roots and withered away. Most thrived after the divisions and will in time be ready to divide again.

The ones not divided eventually quit offering blooms. They are just too tightly wound around each other to offer beauty any longer.

elephant-ears-sm
(c) Christy Thomas

These elephant ears were four years old when I took this photo. I had planted seven bulbs originally. At least sixty to seventy have now come up where the original seven first took root.

At some point, they, too, will have to be divided. Otherwise, they will end up killing each other because of inadequate space to grow and find light and water.

Lessons from the Garden

So what do lessons from the garden say to the church?

Exactly what we need to know:  if we are going to stay alive for generations to come and continue to offer the beauty of grace, we must engage in healthy division practices WHILE staying connected by our DNA.

Right now, we function like a perennial that refuses to be dug up and broken apart. Our roots are so intertwined and stuck together that they can no longer receive water or fertilizer.  Our core has become hard, tight, and unable to bring forth blooms.  lowly, but with great surety, the entire plant, The United Methodist Church, will die without separation.

We must do an intentional division to survive, but a division that brings life to all parts of the divided plant. Let’s not leave some without adequate roots for thriving live.

Doctrinal Purity/Missional Relevance

But how do we do this?  I so appreciate what Jeremy Smith has said hereSchism seeks to end the tension between doctrinal purity and missional relevance, but fails. There can be space in the UMC for both those who place doctrine above the human condition and those who place the human condition above doctrine.

We must not break into different denominations over these issues. We must find a way to strengthen that umbrella so there is room for both to be covered by grace underneath it.

Certainly, there is not going to be unified thinking or universal agreement in our connection particularly with regard to sexuality but also on many other issues. Thanks be to God for that. A place with unified thinking and universal agreement is a place where terror and mind-control rule.  

Our over-arching rule is to be a place of life-giving love. That is how others will know we are Christians. They will see us love WHILE we disagree and fight and argue and make some healthy divisions so we can continue to grow and bloom and give life.

Those on the side of missional relevance need those who value doctrinal purity. Doctrine matters hugely. We are to be distinctively Christian. We are not an “anything goes” church.

Those who value doctrinal purity must learn to find their humility in the mystery of God and grace and recognize that doctrinal purity at its core leads to practices like the Inquisition. When the need for purity is not balanced with deep humility and awareness that all human decisions about the nature of God are deeply limited and always flawed, that need brings death without hope of resurrection.

So, yes, we must divide. No, we must not split or let schism rule.

We need to stay United Methodists. United in love, in the core of our Wesleyan understanding, and held together by the bonds of grace that remind us that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.  That proves God’s love for us.  In the name of Jesus Christ, we are forgiven.  Glory to God.  Amen.

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  • Don Wiley

    My favorite resolution in the United Methodist Church Book of Resolutions (and I believe one of the most critically important to being the Body of Christ):

    Being The Church Amid Disagreement

    To the people called United Methodists, with the hope that through prayer and holy conferencing, we will engage each other in love and grace as we deal with issues upon which we disagree:

    …we reflect on the process of disagreement. In prolonged disagreement, we may find ourselves stepping on the feelings of others in our urgency to find the true, winning position. We remind ourselves as a community of faith to remember who we are, how we are perceived by both civil and religious communities when we disagree, and what we have called ourselves to be as a church.

    Our Calling

    …we hold ourselves accountable to this call: “We recognize that God made all creation and saw that it was good. As a diverse people of God who bring special gifts and evidences of God’s grace to the unity of the church and to society, we are called to be faithful to the example of Jesus’ ministry to all persons.”

    How Shall We Disagree?

    …How we disagree, more so than which position prevails, has a powerful impact on many audiences: young people and children, local congregations, community and national leaders, and those targeted by our disagreements. As caring Christians, we carry responsibility for this impact whether or not we are aware of it.

    Power of a Discerning question

    n the midst of engaged debate, our ability to listen to one another can weaken. True listening … can be enhanced when we focus on discerning one another’s positions on matters of importance. Questions that might help…:

    1. How can we show hospitality to one another while we disagree?

    2. What hopes and interests do we have in common?

    4. Until we can agree on a resolution, can we agree to suspend motions, decisions, policy development that will assert one position over the other?

    5. What are the positive and negative effects of our disagreement on our congregations, our members, our clergy and laity, and on the communities where we serve?

    6. What action as a community of faith should we take in light of these effects?

    7. What would we like the nature of our church or community to be when this issue that divides us is finally resolved?

    Ministry of mindfulness

    Local congregations, study groups, cabinets, clusters and districts, annual, central and General Conferences *can be holy and hopeful places of discord*. Regardless of our positions on controversial issues, we can practice a ministry of mindfulness of the impact of our discord. These strategies may be helpful in these settings:

    1. Begin by sharing and studying relevant Scripture, our primary authority, and the additional aspects of the Wesleyan quadrilateral—tradition, reason, and experience.

    2. Share where we agree.

    3. Remember to honor our relationships to each other as children of God.

    ….

    5. Emphasize the “spiritual discipline of true listening”—attending and listening for the feelings of the others as well as their ideas.

    …..

    7. Be mindful not to attack the messenger when discussing the message.

    …..

    9. Practice “holy conferencing” —infusing debate and dialogue with prayer, silence, and more prayer. Pray for each other, for our church, for future possibilities, for hope and reconciliation, and for guidance of the Holy Spirit as we move through discord.

    10. Pray for and practice the discipline of patience. Forging new understandings and agreements will take intentional effort.

    • Don, thank you so much for posting this. At the very core of what it means to be United Methodists lies the holy conference. And we have left out the “holy” in too much of our conferencing.

  • Pingback: God, Tragedy, Churches, Faith and Forgiveness | thoughtfulpastor()

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  • anon

    “Schism seeks to end the tension between doctrinal purity and missional relevance, but fails.”

    When you break a magnet in two, you do not get one part with a north pole and another part with a south pole. You get two new magnets, each less powerful than the original, each with its own north pole and south pole, each ready to be broken again by someone who does not understand the nature of magnets.

  • anon

    “Schism seeks to end the tension between doctrinal purity and missional relevance, but fails.”

    When you break a magnet in two, you do not get one part with a north pole and another part with a south pole. You get two new magnets, each less powerful than the original, each with its own north pole and south pole, each ready to be broken again by someone who does not understand the nature of magnets.