United Methodists Still Have Time (but the clock is ticking)
I am a United Methodist and proud of it! This church has given me a context in which to live out my calling as an Ordained Elder and I am most grateful. Our historical roots are excellent. Our General Rules are golden. I have been graced to stay in one place and see my local congregation grow from just over 200 to over 2,200 over the past twenty years. Growing with this congregation has been the joy of a lifetime. God has been very, very good to me. The church has been very, very good to me.
However, it is increasingly difficult for me to get past our name: United Methodist. A fellow pastor was once asked by a Free Methodist colleague, “Are you really united?” He responded, “We are about as united as you are all free.” Seemed funnier back then. “United Methodist” seems a bit less like a moniker and more like an oxymoron these days. We are not united.
We are also not well. Clearly we are in decline. Have been for decades. It is no longer an insider secret and were it not for a handful of churches experiencing exponential growth, things would be even worse than they appear. There is serious debate around how many years of viability we have remaining. Some say three or four decades, others think no more than two. I don’t know anyone who believes things are going to turn around. No one. Regardless, when I look at our side view mirror, our institutional tipping point is “closer than it appears.”
For me, the primary challenge to the United Methodist Church is our collective failure in our mission to, “Make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” I know people interpret this statement of mission very differently but the bottom line is that we are failing even to make enough disciples to replace the ones who are dying and the world doesn’t particularly seem transformed. Are we making a difference? Sure. Are we transforming the world? We can’t even transform ourselves. But we do fight (at times dirty) and our fighting is costing us people in the pews, dollars in the plates and impact in the world. Every year it costs us more to accomplish less and our few effective churches are being asked to direct more and more resources (they need to keep growing) to uphold the weary institution. The cycle is shortsighted and unsustainable. For everyone. At every level.
I tried to simply ignore the division in the denomination but it didn’t work. No matter how tightly I closed my eyes, it never went away. Now those divisions are affecting my pastoral ministry and in the aftermath of the 2016 General Conference the luxury of standing on the sidelines is behind me. My silence was being mistaken for not having a position. I have a position. I told people for years I would hold the middle as long as I could and then I was jumping right. I jumped right. Not to enter the argument but to weigh in on why the argument must be ended…and not by knee jerk reaction but by our own processes.
Yes, our denomination has a procedure in place to lead us and I am content to trust that process. When the outcome has been revealed, pastors and churches may respond according to their own sense of call, conviction and conscience. In the meantime; I am going to preach Jesus from the pulpit. Within our tribal dialogue, I will clearly state where I stand on the issues before us, let people see my heart, refuse to vilify those who disagree with me and control my own impulses. Yes, I am an orthodox Christian but I refuse to let anyone to get me in a bad mood about it. They just don’t get that kind of power over me.
I am praying for the Commission on a Way Forward. I know some of those folks. They are awesome! I am praying for our Bishops. I know some of those folks. They are awesome! I am praying for the Judicial Council. Don’t know any of them but I am hoping they are awesome. Their tasks are daunting. We need to collectively simmer, pray and let things play out.
The end game for me is not preserving our structure, it is recovering our mission. We all very much need better weather in which to conduct ministry (regardless of where we stand on the theological or political spectrum). We simply can’t both “fight the devil” and one another. I have eighteen years left before mandatory retirement. Eighteen. I want to spend those precious years head over heels in love with Jesus, preaching the Gospel and swept up in a movement of the Holy Spirit.
I am being led by four core ideas:
My Core Four
- I do not wish to fight or fuss. With anyone.
- I can’t do effective ministry in a hurricane. None of us can.
- I will not compromise my beliefs. I can’t.
- I do not expect others to compromise their beliefs. I won’t.
Let’s stop “kicking the can down the road” and get things quickly and decisively settled in the United Methodist Church. And let’s trust our own processes, pray fervently God reignites our flame and focus every bit of energy we have into the accomplishment of our collective mission.
And let’s realize that with every month we wait, we are slightly less viable.
We still have time.
But the clock is ticking…
-Rev. Shane L. Bishop, A Distinguished Evangelist of the United Methodist Church, has been the Sr. Pastor of Christ Church in Fairview Heights, Illinois since 1997.