The Methodist Fiasco

The Methodist Fiasco May 18, 2012

As an observer and critic of denominations, I watch the United Methodist Church General Conference from afar earlier this month. And it confirmed my opinion: Of all the screwed up denominational systems, the UMC is the most screwed up.

Don’t take my word for it. Listen to Will Willimon, a Methodist bishop, writing in The United Methodist Reporter:

Methodist Bishop Will Willimon

General Conference in Tampa made history as the most expensive ($1,500 per minute!), least productive, most fatuous assemblage in the history of Methodism.  Sunday evening’s “A Celebration of Ministry” fiasco was a metaphor for our nearly two weeks at church expense: four hours of belabored supplication by the General Commission on Status and Role of Women, five Ethnic National Plans, Strengthening the Black Church for the 21st Century, United Methodist Men, Girl Scouts, Africa University and a number of other agencies I can’t remember.  A subtheme of that long night: even though we can’t cite specific fruit, please don’t force us to change or to expend less on ourselves.

Even after suffering this abuse, General Conference succumbed to the agencies’ pleadings.  In a post-GC blog, Mike Slaughter (who with Adam Hamilton eloquently—and futilely—warned GC that we must change or face certain death) told the truth: “Our denominational systems continue to resist change by protecting archaic structures.  From our seminaries to boards and agencies, institutional preservation was a strong resistant influence throughout GC.  Entrenched organizational bureaucracies resist accountability …”

Willimon goes on to say something about the UMC that I’ve been jumping up and down and screaming about all denominational bureaucracies:

My organizational guru Ron Heifetz speaks of the “myth of the broken system.”  Heifetz argues that all systems are “healthy” in that systems produce what those who profit from the system desire. Though the CGC can’t produce a complicated, large scale, two week convention, the CGC produces a General Conference that protects those in positions of power in our church.

All bureaucracies are good at one thing: self-perpetuation. They may be good at other things, too, but the propagation of the gospel is not one of those. Bureaucracy is good at distributing drivers licenses. But bureaucracies are bad for the gospel.

I just hope that enough of you young UMC clergy have the temerity to stand up and walk out of that system. Trust me, what you’re putting up with is not worth the health insurance — you’re getting the raw end of that deal.

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  • In the words of one of my Junior high girls. “Oooooooo snap.”

  • Brian

    I won’t argue with Willimon but Tony, the reality is that the local church, where any real change happens, could care less about the General Conference. Even more removed than many are from the national elections in November, folks in the ground give little head to the the wrangling in Tampa. Instead, local Methodists are focused on local charity, mission, and yes, sel preservation. The only real level of bureaucracy criticized is the Bishop and cabinet, usually overs pastoral assignments. I do find Willimon’s comments a bit disingenuous, coming from someone well served by the system.

    • roger flyer

      Don’t know all the context to WW’s comments, but I’d agree with Brian they do seem disingenuous as he has certainly been a primary beneficiary of the system.

  • I don’t know if the UMC is the most screwed up denomination out there, but that’s only because I don’t have the background to make that call. But, as a former Methodist, I know their plenty screwed up, so I will accept your assesment. I’ve long been put off by the directionn the church was heading and not at the denominational level; individual congregation are just as screwed up. I sat through more than one Sunday school class during the height of the Occupy movement where the attendees just didn’t get what Occupiers where trying to do, complaining instead about how they were rich kids who didn’t have to work, pointing out the fact they were bitching about corporations while drinking Starbuck’s and texting on their iPhones. One person even said “If they want to help poor people, why don’t they go work in soup kitchen?” At it’s upper levels, the UMC may remain dedicated to the principles of social justice that Wesley founded his movement on, but at the congregational level, they just don’t get it. The last straw for me was the vote to change the language about the ordination of LGBT individuals; it was defeated 60% to 40%. In fact, the conservatives wouldn’t even allow an amendment stating that church opinion was divided on this. Seeing the denomination I love vote to keep discrimination alive in it’s governing document, followed closely by my home state doing the same thing was too much for me and I formally left the UMC. I’m not the only one, several clergy I know have either left also or are contemplating it. The UMC was already in trouble, this may the end of the denomination as we know it.

    • Tom

      Methodists are politically conservative, I don’t argue that. But they are theologically liberal. We all have our “hot buttons.” Some Methodists leave the church because they don’t like the music. You left over gay ordination. I doubt either spells doom for the church.

      • Scott Manning

        The statistical data is not on the side of Methodists being politically conservative. The data suggests that the church is as divided as the nation, politically, and has been for a long time. Conservatives may have a slight edge over liberals, but neither group has succeeded in gaining a majority of the rank and file of the Church. The General Conference shows that the conservatives were able to muster more votes on some key issues, but they needed the African delegation to accomplish it. Yes, Methodists have some chaos to work through, but it is not impossible for us to work through those. Yes, it is possible that a schism may occur and that may not be a bad thing. However, dumping denominational covenants will accomplish nothing more than having churches and pastors without any accountablity to the larger Church community. This liberal Methodist is not going to quickly abandon The United Methodist Church or denominational identity just because of some jilted bishop’s rant.

        • Rick

          Scott hits the nail on the head. There is a lot wrong with the United Methodist Church, a lot that greatly disappoints me. But not enough–yet–to make me jump ship. Maybe schism–the big one of 1844 only lasted 95 years, because it took the Church South that long to get over the regional hard feelings that gave us the Civil War–because the southern tier will take a while to catch up with the rest of the church on the human rights and dignity of glbtq folks. As to the issue of debureaucratizing the church, the problem lies more with the drafters of legislation than anywhere else. They should have realized that their proposals violated the church’s constitution, which has to be amended. I remain troubled that the abolition of the itineracy covenant passed constitutional muster. But I will not abandon the church I love over these differences, any more than I would abandon my siblings because we have political differences. We continue to be family. Church as voluntary association is unbiblical, a surrender to American culture. Church as covenant community remains the Way of God.

          • WK

            heh if thats the only reason you haven’t left the UMC it might be good to know you are still part of “the family” if you leave the Methodist Denomination.

            I surely hope you don’t believe Methodism is the only legit Denomination.

  • Tom

    I’m Methodist, and not a big fan of bureaucracy. On the church level, very little of what goes on at GC trickles down to congregations. It really is largely irrelevant to the average Methodist church-goer.

  • Mark West

    If all bureaucracies are bad for the Gospel, then I’m perplexed about why the missionaries our congregation supports through the Board of Global Ministries are doing such a good job of proclaiming the Gospel in creative and courageous ways. They are part of the denomination’s mission bureaucracy, aren’t they?

    I’m tired of post-GC attacks on structure that throw the baby out with the bath water. The southern conservatives lost in their attempt to restructure power, so let’s move on. Sounding like Tea Party whiners does nothing to move the discussion forward.

  • Tracy

    What I’ve sometimes noticed about Methodists is that they seem to have more team pride than other mainline denominations too. Maybe I’m wrong about this, but I hear my friends (and Willimon, quite often) say things like, “As a United Methodist, I…” and claim that label as the rest of us might claim “Christian.” In my admittedly limited sample, other mainline Protestants might know something of their history but are less attached and glad to borrow a good idea from the Anglicans or the Presbyterians or the Catholics. What Calvin or Cramner said might be interesting to us, but doesn’t seem to have the quality of holy writ that Wesley has for a Methodist. Makes me think they’re likely to become more attached to their systems too.

    • ME

      I go to a methodists church, am a big fan of Wesley. Your criticism seems valid to me- methodists should change so people don’t get that perception.

    • Jas H

      I’ve seen what you’re saying in some churches but not in others. I’d love to think that it’s because Wesley is just so great, but it probably has more to do with our brand-loyalty-building way of doing Confirmation classes with teenagers.
      There was a study, though, from a few years ago that said United Methodists are the 4th or 5th most loyal mainline denomination in the US. Lutherans, Southern Baptists, Catholics and Anglicans all beat us. But I don’t remember the order.

    • roger flyer

      Good insight.

  • I can’t agree more. I tried again a few years ago to be part of the organized system and failed for this very reason, the institution’s addiction to power and self-preservation.

  • ME

    I’ve listened to dozens of Willimon’s podcasts (obviously I like him) and to the person who said he is disingenuous, I don’t think that’s quite accurate. As a bishop Willimon has been very vocal in his criticism of the Methodist church. I think he really tries to reform from with-in.

    The statement that bureaucracies are bad for the Gospel is very interesting. I certainly believe they have elements that are bad but, determining if they are always a net bad is a hard determination to make. Would the Gospel be better off with a non-united Methodist church? Without a centralized catholic church? I’d like to hear more evidence for the case against them. I’m certainly open to believing they are a net bad.

  • Bruce

    Even with such a homophobic environment at General Conference, gay couples keep showing up at my church– and people keep welcoming them. We are a socially progressive local church right in the buckle of the Bible belt, and we are growing not only in number, but– most importantly, in incarnational, relational mission. Thirteen per cent of our money goes to national and global projects through my denomination. Though it’s not perfect at that level– some of our national denominational efforts are having a remarkable imact on the world. Google “UMCOR” if you want to see one of the most trusted emergency relief organizations in the world. Because of another organization at the top of our denomination– General Board of Global Ministries– I spent five years in Alaska as a missionary and had an awesome experience discipling many folks there. There are always ego’s at the top of any organization– even the loosely knit “Emergent Church” can look petty when the big ego’s get together. YOU CANNOT GET AWAY FROM STRUCTURE no matter what kind of church you are part of, even congregational. The only church that never has a problem at the lead end is the one that meets in a one chair deer stand. I’ll stay a United Methodist pastor as long as the Wind is blowing where I serve. Dysfunction has always been a part of the Body of Christ, ever since First Church Corinth. They just didn’t have live-stream at Corinth’s big gathering.

  • Erin

    Have to echo the above statements: what happens at GC stays at GC, at least as far as anyone in a local UMC knows or cares. I’m a UMC local church lay staff member who watched the proceedings with interest, in the same way I watch lumberjack games or the Westminster Dog Show. After GC ended, I promptly went to work reviving a group that is our closest local modern equivalent to a band meeting. If Methodism is to have a hope for being “good for the gospel,” we need to be a movement instead of a monument.

    • Erin, I think that you and those who commented above you are naïve. There is a trickle-down from GC to local congregations. To think anything else is, as I said, naïve.

      • Erin

        Tony, it’s not there there isn’t trickle down from GC, it’s that most of the people in the pews have no idea that the changes that happen are coming from GC. I’m in the trenches here, so with all due respect, I have to decline the label “naive”.

        • Erin, I agree that most people in in pews have no idea, and some know but don’t care. I think that’s the problem.

        • Whether they know it or not, it’s trickling down, right?

          • Right. The question of joining any organization should not be taken lightly. Any partnership involves compromise. You have to balance how much support you get for what you believe is right and how much support can you give. Wesley had some great things to say about “works” and he did great things, but the support has been moving away from that for a long time.

      • Bruce

        I think your article represents another kind of naivete. There are lots of ways to skin the ecclesiological cat, and I’m not sure there will ever be a perfect system. The system I am in– the UMC– is loaded with strengths and weaknesses– as is yours. I could easily post on my blog a snarky criticism of Emergent Christianity and invite you to rise above your temerity and get out while you can. But would that not be naive of me? Tony, you have proven your point that the UMC has warts. That’s easy to make. I can self-rightously throw rocks at other systems all day long. Don’t get me wrong– I know we have problems. But the grass is never greener on the other side of anything. Our purpose is not to “fix” our problems so that we can “get on” with serving and loving. Our purpose is to serve and love in the midst of our deep brokenness (communally and individually). I’m alright with serving as a Christian pastor in a screwed up system. If you want to pretend that you’ve found the silver bullet for organized Christianity, congratulations. If you enjoy finding snarky blogs from PO’d bishops, great. But you don’t know enough about 39,000 UM pastors to ask them to leave. By the way, I’m not under the UMC health insurance.

  • Vince

    While I agree that General Conference was about as close as it comes to an unmitigated failure, I find it bad form for someone who has only watched the process “from afar” to blast the UMC, and your using it as an attempt to actively discourage clergy who have chosen to dedicate their lives to ministry within the United Methodist Church because we are in favor of connectionalism, because we believe in the UMC mission to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world”, because we are proud to be a part of a global church that feeds 1 million people a day and sponser an agency that often beats the Red Cross to disaster-affected areas (the United Methodist Committee on Relief), becauase we connect with Wesleyan theology, or for any number of other reasons is insulting and frankly offensive. We get a lot more out of serving in the UMC than health insurance, and shame on you for suggesting otherwise.

    • It’s surprising to me how reticent you Methodists are to criticize the system. Take a lesson from your bishop — the system has failed, and you need to criticize it!

      • Erin

        Why are you surprised that a people who embraced a derogatory nickname as their denominational identity are clinging to our “method” system? 🙂 Actually, there are lots of us who would like to (and are starting to) effect change so that the system returns to its roots of supporting accountable discipleship and spreading the gospel.

      • ME

        He’s only the bishop for Alabama. Do you really want people taking lessons from Alabama? 😉

        • Rev. Run

          That’s not a fair criticism, because he was *assigned* to Alabama.

        • WK

          As much of a joke as you think that comment is.
          “This is why we can’t have nice things”
          because of attitudes like this.

          How are we United if we belittle our brothers and sisters. :/

      • Bruce

        Ok, I swear this is my last response. There are lots of us who are criticizing what is wrong with our system– and are doing absolutely all we can to re-form it from the inside. What makes you think many within are not doing that? Again, another really “broad brush” comment Tony. What makes you think you know what is going on? I’ve gone public with many of my frustrations, and will continue to. I know many who are doing the same thing.

        • Because I think enough study has been done on modern bureaucracies to say unequivocally that they cannot be reformed from within. This isn’t about the UMC, it’s about laws of modern bureaucracies.

          The crazy thing is that bureaucracies trick those within them that they can reform from within. That’s how they maintain allegiance.

          • Bruce

            I’d love to see a list of all churches that operate without any form of governance. I realize my church has lots of work to get it’s governance into the 21st century. But even as we creep into a new form of governance that better fits our mission and our time, we will still have some form of structure, connection, and leadership. My UMC church allowed a non-denom to worship in our sanctuary, and we shared our facilities with them. All we asked was that they helped defer electricity costs. We shared ministry events, mission opp’s, and did Bible studies together. I couldn’t help but notice that they held monthly meetings, wrote up a covenant of agreement together, and had structure to their decision-making. If I was cynical, I could call it “bureaucracy.”

          • The UMC only meets once every four years. I think many would disagree with their Queer, Transgender, Bisexual, Lesbian and Gay (QTBLG) direction in the denomination.

      • Today I connected/encouraged/ministered with a 47 yr old single mother of three kids who, when she was six, was told by her father to take her younger sister into their playroom and not come out. While in said playroom, Dad sits down in his lazy-boy, contemplates his PTSD from serving in combat, and similarly contemplates the biological impossibility of his wife’s having been impregnated from him while he was at war in Vietnam. Unable to arrive at any conclusion other than the obvious one, Dad decides to put a bullet through his brain.
        Scenario = Girl. Sister. Dad. Playroom. Chair. Gun. Bullet. Brains. Mess. Shock. Irrevocable. Harm. Shambles.
        Sounds tough, huh? Six months later the bereaved wife, and mother of a three month old child, and two daughters, decides to take her life in the exact fashion that Dad did.
        Doubly Whammy.
        I met the now 47 yr old woman last weekend at the United Methodist Church that I serve. We were doing a community event for the poor. Close to 250 people of all ages, races and religious understandings came to take advantage of services we were offering; free haircuts, free food, hygiene and household cleaning products, free family portraits and free dental screenings.

        “It’s surprising to me how reticent you Methodists are to criticize the system. Take a lesson from your bishop — the system has failed, and you need to criticize it!”
        Tony, honestly. Plenty of us have considered other options in terms of the best avenue for living out our calling to expand the Kingdom of God.
        On my road to Ordination as Elder, aka Methodist hazing, I considered such a move. Ultimately, due to my convictions (or my stupidity) I remained steadfast in my commitment to serve Christ. That service happens to be in the United Methodist Church. And I’m staying put. But not to serve a system, to serve Christ. And to serve this mother of three.
        Could I serve her apart from this system? Maybe. I just don’t know of any emergent churches in my entire state that does anything other than appeal to middle-upper class white people.

        If and when the United Methodist Church flatlines, I have confidence that the Kingdom of God, due to its unshakeable and infinite power, will be fine. The UMC may be in trouble, but the Kingdom is not.
        So, my apologies for my naivety.
        I may not have any temerity, (is that this week’s buzzword or what) but I got confidence. (And now that my church went all contemporary, I also got rhythm. And music. Who could ask for anything more? Yeah. We went contemporary. That’s really gonna turn it around!)

  • Jas H

    Tony, I agree with pretty much every denominational criticism you’ve ever written (including this one) but I disagree with you call to leave. I’m a United Methodist Pastor and plan to be one for quite some time. And, Tony, it’s not because of the health insurrance. I stay because there are people in the United Methodist Church who are longing to be a part of the Kingdom of God more fully. And (at least for now) I think I can help them move in that direction. Yes, I have to avoid the coverage of General Conference every 4 years because it pisses me off to no end. And, yes, I have to attend a lot of largely pointless meetings. But the bulk of my work has nothing to do with our admittedly screwed up strucutre. It has to do with people. Call me to leave? OK – that’s your right. Accuse me of staying soley out of self preservation? Over the line.

    I’ll keep reading, though. Your work has been very helpful.

  • I am mixed with both pride from my friends from the Minnesota delegation that did some last minute maneuvering and stopped the UMC from making even stronger anti-LGBT statements and shame from public displays of some really poor behavior in general. I agree with above comments about UMCOR, but UMCOR isn’t church, it is an almost completely secular arm for charity. I actually see church moving in that direction and hope the UMC figures out a way to save that arm, but that’s another discussion.

    What got my interest in the emerging church is that people like Tony saw something happening and talked openly about it, then started experimenting with it. The UMC has known about liberals in their midst for decades, but they kept them marginalized. I was in one of those little local churches that was doing great things, but when I started moving up I noticed that the types of things we were doing were not mentioned in any of the wider publications and communications.

    Now some of the leadership needs those isolated groups to be organized. It’s a little late for that.

  • Rick Bennett

    The only quibble I have (as one who was there some of the time) is to say it is the most screwed up denomination is to give too much credit to the others.

  • Tony, when you invite people to leave, where are you inviting them to go? Out the door to no longer be involved in any denomination? To another mainline denomination? To the streets?

    I couldn’t agree with you less about bureaucracies being bad for the gospel. Our denominational bureaucracies are bad for the gospel NOW because they cannot manage to adapt to the current culture and its accelerated pace of change due to the rise of instant communication and a networked world. That doesn’t mean they were always bad for the gospel, or that they will continue to be bad for the gospel into the indefinite future. I pray that young UMC pastors remain UMC and call the UMC to greater faithfulness. That’s the only way the UMC bureaucracy–which once was among the most successful at planting new churches to preach the gospel in a growing nation–will be able to live up to the call of Christ.

  • Tony,
    You successfully get my attention whenever you tweak those of us in denominations about our health insurance. I appreciate that you left our pensions out of this time. 🙂 I agree with you that denominations are full of little entrenched fiefdoms but I wish you’d acknowledge that those of us in denominations get this better than anyone else. The harshest critiques of denominations come not from people like you but from people like Willimon who speak from the inside. Many of us on the inside are working proactively to subvert the system because we are skeptical of starting over from scratch with a new and necessary organizational structure and because we recognize that healthy church governance is good for the gospel. We believe that accountability and supervision, effective training for young leaders, and yes, health insurance, are helpful for creating a leadership environment that helps churches thrive in local communities. We also recognize that by sharing resources we are able to do things that we can’t do on our own, like develop the kick-ass curriculum that Sparkhouse is putting out right now. Sparkhouse is a project of the ELCA and is an example of a bureaucracy being good for the gospel. I wish you’d acknowledge some of the good in us pension-loving, health insurance-grubbing denominationalists every once in awhile.

  • I watched GC2012 from afar too with some interest, but I grieved with my UMC friends at what an an apparent disaster it was. As a Disciples of Christ pastor, we have already gone through that process over the years. Our structure was already fairly minimal because of our polity, so there hasn’t been that much to dismantle. I recognize too that the process has not finished.

    One of the realities, from my perspective at least, has been all the work and energy we spend at our big gatherings and on a denominational level often has no trickle down effect to local congregations. Many responses to this post have said the same thing – what happens at GC doesn’t affect us local congregations. If so, why bother? Why spend money on it? Why give money to it?

    Keep those things that are strengths and are sources of energy. Then get rid of the rest.

    My DoC organizational friends have suggested we are ahead of the curve (not for all the right reasons either) on the denominational front… because we have already been there for the most part.

  • Susan Cox

    There are enough people within the UMC jumping up and down and screaming, so you can stop it now. We get it. We got it. Some got it when in 1844 the then Methodist church split over the slavery issue. We got it better when the two sides came together in 1939, but at an enormous expense to black Methodists who were confined until 1968 to a “separate but unequal” system. The General Board of Church and Society, located near the Capitol Hill gets it every day while advocating for immigration, health care for all and economic justice. The UMC wears its ambiguity on its sleeve; the LARGE UMBRELLA that we tout with pride is finding some serious tears as its stretch is not quite large enough; and through it all, UMCers will be singing, starting in a few weeks at ACs, “And Are We Yet Alive.” Conferences will hear about the thousands and thousands of dollars raised to buy mosquito net sin Africa, saving thousands of lives; the conferences will hear about successful new church starts in every conference; we will hear about the growing average age of members and the lower attendance averages; we will see enthusiastic youth talking about their mission trips; we will see friends we have seen at AC for decades and mentors whose guidance we cherish, proud of our conncetionalis again; we will wear our rainbow stoles and weep; we will say the church has gotta change or we’re gonna die (again); we will pray with sighs too deep for words; and even though we are people who are Arminians through and through, we will rejoice most of all in a Good God who will continue to work the divine purposes out with or without us.

    • Helen

      Thanks Susan Cox for your wonderful comments and statements.

      You are a good writer as usual.

      Will see you at a/c in the retirement ceremonies.

      You deserve the best on your move.

      • Susan Cox

        Thanks so much!

  • I am formerly a Methodist and published an essay about my experience in the “system” in the book The Hyphenateds. That being said, what happened at GC was not at all surprising, in fact, it should have been expected. They made some moves to change the “system” but those changes are in the end self-serving and only underscore the real systemic problems.

    And Willimon is really good at pandering to both sides of the aisle. I’d be interested to hear him put himself in a postion of enacting real institutional change. (And if he has–where’s the results? Or is GC a reaction as a backlash to these efforts?) Note that the only dissenting voice who seems to get heard, complete with a publishing ministry from Abingdon, is from someone who is actually in a position to do something about it.

    I appreciate the comment about subverting the system from the inside. Yes.

  • Three points in response to this post:

    1) What you call a “denominational system,” I would call an “ecclesiastical communion.” In this case the ecclesiastical communion has over 12 million members. How can an instantiation of the body of Christ exist at such a size without bureaucracy? The short answer is that it cannot, and that means the question is not over whether to have bureaucracy or not but rather what kind of bureaucracy and to what end.

    2) You may not like what you see with a large church like the UMC, but to disagree with the way it exists is an issue of polity. Surely you know that all matters of ecclesiology can’t be adjudicated with a kneejerk preference toward a default mode of congregationalism. Those are matters that can be debated, and large ecclesiastical communions have a lot to offer in that debate — including about 1900 years of Christian history. Or are you really expecting “emergent” congregationalism to revolutionize the Christian world?

    3) It is unhelpful and irresponsible to advocate for young Methodist clergy to flee their church. I hope you are only being snarky by saying that. If you are serious, then please leave the UMC alone and pester someone else. Or at least offer something more substantial than a 200-word critique — which would involve actually delving into the history & theology of the tradition you are blithely dismissing.

    • toddh

      Bureaucracy is not inevitable. Others are experimenting with networking principles (though right now on a much smaller scale). Eventually other forms of organizing on large scales will begin to take the place of bureaucracy. Just a small quibble. I like your points on polity and understanding the Methodist tradition from the inside.

    • Clayton Lassiter

      The United Methodist Church is on the decline in the U. S. 8.5 million members with an aging congregation. The average age in the South is over 60. UMC has simply looked at becoming modern with contempt because they lack an understanding of a changing America. I hear pastors talk about how sacred worship is making a comeback, without offering proof. The fastest growing US movement is planting life giving churches. We do not have a burden of social justice but one of living out the tenets of our faith.

  • If the denomination is irrelevant, why render to Caesar what is God’s? As to “necessary”, Jesus didn’t say “Blessed are the Well-Organized.” It seems to be impossible to get anything done at the national level these days, restoring local community will save us if anything does. Our Pastor walked away from the Church of God and it seems to have done him a world of good, and me too. Seems to me he (and we) are prospering because he is actually doing Kingdom work, but I know I know, prosperity gospel is just Childish.

    • Billy

      I believe your last statement is an offense to children everywhere, Marshall.

      • If you don’t think that God is willing to work in your life, or at least that orderly worship creates order, why do you come around here? … Just asking.

        • Billy

          Perhaps you and I are working with different definitions of prosperity theology, Marshall.

          • Billy

            I absolutely believe God is willing to work in our lives… toward God’s ends, not mine. If God is glorified in my prosperity, then so be it. If God is glorified in my poverty (as God has been glorified in the apparent poverty of a great many men and women through the ages), then so be it.

            And no, I don’t think orderly worship creates order. At the very least, this should not be our concern. I think orderly worship, or worship of any sort, should have no purpose other than to glorify God. If I worship God in order to gain some benefit of my own, then I am no longer worshipping God, but the benefit I hope to gain.

            Furthermore, I’m not sure what my position with regard to either of these issues has to do with my interaction with this blog.

      • You are obviously Childish

  • Pingback: A Letter to Tony Jones from a United Methodist « Only Wonder Understands()

  • jay

    “All bureaucracies are good at one thing: self-perpetuation. They may be good at other things, too, but the propagation of the gospel is not one of those. Bureaucracy is good at distributing drivers licenses. But bureaucracies are bad for the gospel.”

    Perhaps this should have been written in all CAPITALS. AMEN.

    • Bruce

      Well, through this dark thing called “bureaucracy”, we funded a group of women who feeds Aids victims thrown out in the streets in Nairobi, Kenya, distributed hundreds of thousands of mosquito nets, we support hundreds of Children’s Homes (one which is five miles from our church, and one place you’ll often find people from my church), and it has helped send missionaries, hold down seminary costs for those who are called into the ministry. These, to me, are better than Driver’s licenses, and non of these things had a thing in the world to do with self-preservation.

  • 4 things came to mind as I read this:

    1. I am a huge Will Willimon, both as a writer & a pastor. That said, in many bureaucracies his views would be muzzled or even excommunicated. Willimon is a prime example to me of what Jonny Baker called a “radical loyalist” – folks within submerging denoms who speak from within.

    2. Singling out the Methodist seems a bit strange. The Episcopalians – the tribe I have the most experience with – is almost pathological in its disfunction. While they may fund speakers & retreats, at the end of their conventions the pews of the Titanic have been re-arranged and the chapel doors closed shut.

    3. Having spent the last 10 years splitting time between emergent communities and more trad’l mainline churches, I have to say: communities of all stripes are capable of a bias to self-perpetuation. Frankly, the emergent communities were constantly trying to establish a self that could be perpetuated.

    4. There is an aspect of the media-church complex that fascinates me more than a bit. Books and posts and talks about demise “sell” – they get traffic, they sell some books, they get some speaking gigs. And yet – mainly they preach to a frightening and diminishing choir. At some point, I wonder if it will be a 1:1 ration – one pundit for every one remaining paid pastor.

    What to me is grace-drenched and hope-filled is the stuff that is truly emerging – off the stages and pages, outside even re-imagined formal communities. The creative Spirit is moving, truly emerging – even in places that are easy to dis.

    • Didn’t understand your meaning of this post. What did you say?

  • Billy


    You seem to have benefited greatly in your life from a denominational system or two. I expect you will shortly be calling on yourself to show the same temerity and terminate your employ with Augsburg and renounce your Princeton education, lest anyone think you interested in your own self-preservation. Please let your adoring public know when your CV has been thus amended. Or, to paraphrase Jack Nicholson, “Denominationalists have neither the time nor the inclination to explain themselves to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the financial security they provide, then questions the manner in which they provide it. Denominationalists prefer you said thank you, and went on your way.” Or to paraphrase another with whom I’m sure we’re all familiar, “Get the log out of your eye, friend.”

  • Jesus said, “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”

    Death brings new life. Organizations never voluntarily “die.” Never, ever. Individuals can die, do die, and should. If you’re not willing to die, then quit whining and just admit it.

    Peter said, “For you know that God redeemed you from the empty way of life you inherited from those who came before you.”

    Clergy need to be redeemed from the empty way of life and ministry passed down to them by their predecessors. All of you know that the ordained way of life and ministry is empty. It does not enhance your ability to minister, but sucks the life out of you with institutional maintenance.

    Lead by example. You can only lead others as far as you’ve traveled yourselves.

    Jesus said, “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.”

    These are Jesus’ words for would-be reformers. They were directed to people who wanted to remain Jews and “work from the inside for reform.” Same thing applies to y’all today. Stay, sew new cloth and pour new wine, and see your work destroy everything, including your good intentions.

    I posted a little story a while back.

    • Bruce

      “empty way of life”? and “the ordained way of life and ministry is empty”? I had no idea my last 16 years as an elder in the UMC church was so miserable. Thought I was having a really good time in this calling. Thanks for the insightful post, Ronald.

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  • Helen

    I just found this blog and all the comments.

    I am a life long Methodist, married to a man whose Grandfather was a Methodist minister, whose father was a Methodist minister in the 40s and 50s and 60s.
    I just have to comment on this because

    1. My husband is an archvist for one of the Methodist churches and we have just been to one of Commission on History and Archives conferences

    So that is the study of all the past of the church

    2. Our daughter is one of those young clergy who all are talking about.
    She will be ordained next year.

    At many many Annual conferences this year many of these young people with be commisioned and also many many will be ordained.

    My daughter along with all the others that we know have put 4 years of college 3 years of seminary and 3 years in a church to get to this point.

    They are ready and eager to continue the work of the church.

    They need all of our help, support, and prayers but they do not need

    our tearing down and telling them to leave.

    Also all of them have mentors that they look up to that are retiring or near retirement.

    In the conference I live in we have over 30 retiring so we need these young clergy to take over and follow in their footsteps and


    Also I watched about 90 percent of the GC. However, most people in churches did not know about it and they were just doing what they do in churches help people, etc. just like Susan Cox posted on here.

    • Helen

      oh, yes I do not care what you say about Bishops. My daughter has had 2 good Bishops

      Bishop Goodpaster who will ordain her next year and

      Bishop Schnase where she started out and who will be her Bishop after her transfer back here is final next year.

      I pray all the time for the Bishops, all the DSs and all ministers.

      That is what we all should do.

      • You should care what the Bishops say, some of them are not speaking with the Authority of God.

  • Death has to come before Resurrection. I’m a young UMC clergy-person, and I don’t get health insurance from the UMC (the plan sucks anyway). I feel called to hold fast through death so that I can be part of the Resurrection of something greater than our dreams and that our bureaucratic clusterfracking can’t destroy.

  • None of you seem to understand that the only real authority on this subject is Jesus. If you are trying to serve our Lord and Savior, the real truth is in the BIBLE and not in rules and laws made up by Conferences or Bishops. What the Methodist Church needs is to get back to the Bible and God’s laws and then everything will fall into place. The BIBLE and GOD are real and his words are not to be taken lightly. Whatever we sow, we will reap. Take care of your local church and local needs, there are enough liberals and pin heads out there to take care of the rest.

  • I know, right? Bishops are so uncool. Bureaucracies are lame. We need church by warm feelings and charismatic, Spirit-filled leaders. Like Jim Jones. As a young pastor in the UMC, I love my church, warts and all. I long for the day when my generation will wake up to the fiction that is non-denominationalism. There has never been a generic Christianity; the only question is whether one acknowledges their heritage or not. We have our problems – all families do – but please worry about your own house.

    • It is truly breathtaking how UMCers circle the wagons in the face of external criticism.

      • Tony, let’s be clear. Emergents circle the wagons in response to external criticism. Lutherans do, Episcopalians do – yes even Methodist do.

      • Susan Cox

        Maybe we are. One does that when under attack. One does not do that when participating in open dialogue and when one trusts the other with whom one engages. One tends to open the tight circle when the other speaks the truth in love, not spite. Since the UMC has becomeso ineffective. it is good that we can still take someone’s breath away. Enough already. We took the bait. I am sorry.

        • Susan Cox

          Oh, this and then I give up. I love all things Williomish. And he is my favorite UMC curmudgeon. I have admired and agreed with him for forty years. I told him last year at a preaching event that I was glad that I was alive and pastoring in the UMC when he was. I admired hugely his work at Duke as Dean of Chapel. Yes, I realize the article is quoting Willimon extensively. But he would never advocate for young clergy to leave the denomination. Never. This blog entry is not merely a quoting of Bishop Willimon. It is an isogesis of his words.

          • Helen

            Way to go Rev. Susan Cox.

            To the person to wrote that our BIshops are not speaking the word of God, or something like thst. I am sorry but I just a Bishop give a sermon this week in PA. SHE was sure preaching the word of GOD. I have heard Bishop Goodpaster preach in person 2 time; and I have heard my Bishop preach many times that last 8 years and I KNOW they are preaching the word of GOD to the ministers in the conferences and to all of us in the conferences. Oh, yes I have heard the Bishop of NE preach many times.

            Now, the best minister and Bishop of all times, and I am prejudice, I heard preach many many times died last year. He has a son and 2 grandsons following in his footsteps and they are very proud to do so. They call him PAPA MONK.

      • Clayton Lassiter

        I grew up outside of the UMC but have fallen in love with them. They are caring and compassionate at the local level. The churches I have been involved in all are in their communities trying to help people. I was recently studying some non-denominational church planting techniques there method has no real accountability at the local level. To them the local pastor is the only vision. Change takes time.

    • Gregory Bennett

      Laughably naive. Christianity has thrived without Methodists from Matthew 4:19 to the present day. As mainline denominations fall away from Scriptural teaching (Matthew 15:9, Revelation 3:16), independent, Bible-believing churches are growing. In particular, houses churches in China and North Korea are increasing in the face of persecution.

      Hell, folks get saved in spite of even the Catholic Church. No matter the size of the institution, the only thing that changes anything for the better is good, old-fashioned repentance (2 Chronicles 7:14, James 4:8), fom the janitor to the Pope.

  • Bruce

    On January 12 of last year, Sam Dixon, General Secretary of United Methodist Committee on Relief, was trapped between collapsed floors in Haiti. He was there before the earthquake because Haiti was already in desperate condition– the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. They were having meetings with other leaders from all traditions to plan through how the greater church might be more active and present in this crisis. Sam died. His last words through those walls? “See you at the feast!” I’ll be damned, Tony, if this guy was a “bureaucrat.” He was devoted to being places in the world where the church needed to be– shining light on situations that the Body needed to be aware of. He was from North Carolina, and the UM Church recognized his amazing gifts, and funded him to lead. Because of his initial work, thousands of UM mission teams have gone to places like Haiti. This “horrific” system has afforded lots of people like Sam the chance to give their lives to lead us into places all over the world. But you are not going to see much of this kind of thing on live-stream at GC. You won’t hear about stories like this from guru-wonks who write spicy articles promoting wholesale condemnation of flawed systems. You won’t hear that from snarky bishops who did not get their way at GC, either. I’m angry that you to pull two articles up and ask me to leave my post if I have the guts to. I’m angry that you call me naive. It’s fine if you want to be a “denominational critic.” No big deal if my tradition turns you off. But if you want to talk so boldly about the UM being a failure for the Kingdom, you’ll need more than two blog articles to do it. From one follower of Jesus to another, I think you owe an apology to many people for what you’ve written. This blog as written in poor taste. You’ve taken a partial truth and have rolled it up into your personal, biased gospel. No thanks.

    • Bruce, mainly what I did was repost what one of your bishops wrote, and I agreed with him.

      Bureaucracies are full of very good individuals — in fact, they naturally expel evil individuals. But then they play mindgames on the good individuals and convince them that the bureaucracy cares about them. It does not.

      This does not mitigate the heroism of Sam Dixon.

      • Bruce

        It’s not the UMB– it’s the UMC. I am part of something that is way more than a bureaucracy. The UMC, like other churches is full of quality Christians doing all kinds of good work for the Kingdom of God. What you did was to invite young UMC pastors, if they had temerity, to walk way. You end with a cute remark about health insurance. That is what raised the blood pressure of a few, including mine. Even where bureaucracy is a thorn, it’s not enough to block the many places in my particular tradition where the Spirit is moving. I guess we will have to disagree on this, and that’s ok. I believe churches with antiquated forms of governance can be reformed from within, and you don’t. There will be plenty of chaos in the next few years in my particular branch of the tree. God has a good track record with chaos, though. Newer expressions of the Christian Faith will inevitably face the same thing down the line, and that’s ok, too. It’s inevitable that some sort of governing system take effect in every new blossoming movement. And constant renewal from the inside is what, I think, all of us need to do. Asking people from another tradition to walk away– when you don’t fully understand where they are, the connections they have, the good work they are doing, strikes me as very presumptuous. I like a lot of what you write, and I resonate with what you write– even the challenging stuff. I take what you have to say seriously. Maybe that’s why this one got under my skin. I’ll get over it.

        • Even though I’m not a Republican, I regularly criticize that political party, even urging people to quit it.

          Is that off limits, too?

          • Bruce

            I criticize Republicans, as well, and I urge people to quit, too. I guess I’m being a hypocrite being so sensitive that you are doing the same thing to me and my colleagues. I don’t guess any of this is off limits. Good point.

          • ME

            Bruce, you aren’t being a hypocrite. It’s ok to tell people to quit the republican party and it’s ok for republicans to say you are being stupid to demand that. Likewise, it’s ok for Tony to tell preachers to leave the methodist church and it’s ok for you to say it’s stupid to demand that.

            I happen to agree with you. Leaving the republican party is a good thing. Tony’s post is far, far, far from compelling enough to end with recommending preachers to quit a particular denomination. There may be an argument there, I don’t know, but he sure as hell didn’t make it.

      • Rev. Run

        I am first-hand evidence that the bureaucracy does not care about individuals. It cares about perpetuating itself, and because of that, the possibility of leaving the denomination is always on the table.

        Oh, and I’ll echo the sentiments about our cruddy health care insurance. It’s not worth staying over.

  • Tony,

    I’m not going to resort to the same attacks that many on the comments have. Although I agree with some of the points they were trying to make, I’m not sure that resorting to sarcasm or direct attacks id going to change your mind at all. I do, however, want to say that I am a seminarian who hopes to soon be ordained in the United Methodist Church and although I was present at General Conference and am very upset with my denomination, it does not mean that I am simply going to walk away. It is not the pension or health insurance that attracts me to the denomination but our doctrine, polity, and history. Although I do not agree with all of it, I do agree with our Wesleyan heritage especially in relation to connectionalism and the historical Accountability groups primarily in the form of class and band meetings. I realize that much of that has been lost in recent history but it is in our heritage nonetheless. I have also been able to be a part of New Monastic and Emergent movements within Methodism under the direction of Elaine Heath. I respect the emergent movement but see the models working well within our Wesleyan DNA. Although I appreciate your concern for young clergy and think that the UMC will keep us from reaching our full potential to follow the Spirit, I do not see it that way. Maybe it is because I am not yet ordained and am still naive but I do not think that the case. I have been very active at different levels and have gotten to know many people in various levels of leadership that believe in the ministries I want to be a part of and ar willing to do what they can to make it happen within Methodism, not by convincing me to walk away.

  • alan hitt

    A bureaucracy grows and becomes counterproductive to its stated mission, now serving only its shadow mission.
    Prophetic and rebel voices protest the bureaucracy calling for it to change or die while others unite to protect it.
    Eventually it changes or dies.
    Those who abandoned or are disassociated from the bureaucracy begin to look of new associations.
    They find those associations and begin to organize and create a new kind of community.
    These communities create organizational structures that eventually give way to bureaucracies, because that’s what humans do, and here we go again.
    In an odd way, those prophets and rebels may themselves be cogs in the machine against which they rage, and actually help to makes sure that each emerging, new generation will have its own bureaucracies with which to contend.
    But I do get the feeling that those of us in the UMC who are trying to keep things going are just playing the roles of Larry and Richard to our denominational Bernie, and that this is turning into a really long weekend. Too obscure?

    • Except, Alan, there were no bureaucracies before the modern era. Bureaucracy is a modern phenomenon. So are we, the postmodernists, destined to continue them? I don’t think so.

      • Frank

        Actually bureaucracies were developed in China around 200 bc.

      • Bill Stillwell

        The term, “bureaucracy”, basically means “rule by office.” It derives from the French word “bureau”, meaning office or desk, and the Greek word “kratein”, meaning “to rule.” Many cultures had bureaucracies of sorts in place long before the term entered common parlance. The ancient Mesopotamians, the Eqyptians, the Chinese, the Mayans, the Incans, Greeks, and of course the Romans, all had systems of guilds and classes in place which were by definition, bureaucracies. This is not a “modern phenomenon”…only the term used today is modern. To think otherwise is uninformed and naive.

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  • Tony,

    When I look at your CV I see numerous examples of bureaucracies that you have and are participating in. Seminaries, publishers, denominational churches. It seems to me that they have formed you professionally and have and continue to support you financially (directly and indirectly).

    I’d argue that you aren’t against bureaucracies, just the ones that you aren’t a part of. And it feels disingenuous to counsel others to break free when you haven’t yourself.

  • At it’s upper levels, the UMC may remain dedicated to the principles of social justice that Wesley founded his movement on, but at the congregational level, they just don’t get it.

    Long, long ago in this comment thread someone wrote the above words.

    May I just say, for clarification, John Wesley did not found the Methodist movement on “principles of social justice.”

  • JMB

    Bureaucracies are indeed bad, and the UMC needs wholesale change to stay vital. But the big plan for “radical change” that was overturned at GC wasn’t going to do away with that bureaucracy. It was going to create another, smaller level of bureaucracy at the top that stood to benefit only those already in power, providing them even more power, and benefiting the denomination very little if at all. Willimon, Slaughter, Hamilton and others behind this plan are really just spitting out sour grapes that their side lost.

  • Man, I am tired of people cmmenting on stuff they do not know anything about. The Methodist Fiasco had much more to do with the total lack of vision of the various plans and those behind those plans for restructuring than it did have anything to do with the general boards. Blaming the general boards for the problems of the UMC has the become “prophetic voice” of the 2010’s. But it is so baseless and like most “prophetic voices” it is more about shielding oneself from responsibility or action than it is about truly hearing and living out God’s call for the Church. You want to sound prophetic? First quit whining. Second, get mssionally engaged. There is not a single general board that will stand in your way. And if you don’t do #2, then at least do #1. This post is baseless and ridiculous.

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  • ArmyAviator

    I was raised in the Methodist Church and my Uncle was a UMC Minister. I left the church due to it’s race to Leftist ideology, abandonment of the Bible and the embracing of Liberation Theology. Most UCM Ministers do NOT believe in a literal Second Coming of Christ, or that the TEN COMMANDMENTS are the foundation of Christianity. Methodists today, worship a FALSE Christ, one who NEVER existed. Jesus was NOT a “community organizer.” Jesus did NOT come to earth to “convert” everyone or to “save” anyone. The Methodists now worship a Socialist Christ who they claim, was out to re-distribute wealth to the “poor.” The Methodist Church supports and advances LIBERAL SOCIALISM by falsely claiming that it’s what Jesus would do. To that, I say: BULL SCHUMER!