Why the American UMC Is Dying a (Somewhat) Slow Death, and Concerned Leaders’ Best Response (Pt. II)

This is part 2 of my post about change in the UMC. See part 1 here.

Lessons for Leaders

For those of you who are exasperated with the system – who feel that you are fighting your best fight to see the slightest change, or worse, just to prevent things from getting worse – I pray that you won’t give up hope. I know there are many who have had enough and decided to give up. Some have remained in the system, conceded defeat, and continue to go about ministry with a cynical half-heartedness. Some have left altogether. I hope that many of our most passionate leaders will choose a third option. I hope you will dedicate yourselves to the ministry you envision and to encouraging like-minded leaders in the same pursuit. Invest yourselves fully in your own study and growth, aggressive personal evangelism, and intensive discipleship. By your actions, fight for the great ministry to which God has called you more passionately than you have ever fought for it in a boardroom. 

If the members of the failed task force mentioned in the previous post had spent just 50 hours on campuses and in dorm rooms, rather than the 500 hours we spent in meetings and planning, we would have had more contact with students  (and, I believe, much more effect) than some of the ministries we were evaluating. I believe this personal investment in ministry is the road to significant change, not only in an individual’s parish, but ultimately with broad, conference- and nation-wide effect.

My further encouragement for leaders who desire revival and change in the UMC may sound counter-intuitive. I think you need to quit and decline the committees you are being asked to serve. If you have proven to be a leader, you will continually be asked. But our system does not want, or will not allow, the change you desire. It perhaps wants to hear your suggestions so that it can choose a more moderate option and consider it movement in the right direction; it may openly reject your suggestions and be happy that all options were given a voice. But unless you have seen radical change take place already, you have no reason to expect it will come with your leadership. You simply do not have the power to accomplish it. I needed to hear this, and if you don’t already know it, I believe you need to hear it, too. Let people who love meetings go to the meetings while those who love ministry focus on ministry.

Quitting and avoiding committees is no boycott and no sour grapes, and we will do no favors to ourselves or the system by treating it as such. We do not need to be cynical about the system, but we do ourselves harm if we become idealistic and lose sight of the system’s inherent constraints. The committees themselves are not the problems. The problem is the distraction and the lost hours and energy on projects that will achieve minor change at best. The problem is that every hour you spend in a meeting is an hour not in a living room or knocking on doors. Every hour fighting to move larger structures in a slight direction one way or another is an hour not spent in study and personal growth. I am convinced that the minor change you may accomplish across the larger Church pales in comparison to the incredible change you will accomplish by actively doing ministry. I fear that those who continue accepting each committee invitation will look back in twenty years and realize that they have spent far too little time doing the ministry they believe in because they were fighting for the idea of that ministry in a meeting.

Some will say that they have a chance to achieve broad change in meetings, while their time in visitation will change only an individual. Our movement tells us something different. I don’t know whether the Church of England had committees, task forces, boards, and other strategic teams in John Wesley’s day. Whether they did or not, I am thankful that Wesley chose to spend his time doing the ministry he believed needed to happen rather than advocating for it in a Church of England boardroom.

Wesley transformed the Church of England more than any other pastor of his time, and yet we have no record of him achieving institutional change by working through the hierarchy. For idealistic leaders in the UMC who deeply desire a return to some of the great practices of the early Methodists, perhaps we should recognize that one of those practices was spending more time doing the ministry that needed to be done, even when the system made such ministry difficult, and less time trying to change the system from the top down.

I believe the UMC is dying, but I do not believe its diagnosis is yet terminal. I believe our greatest hope comes from those leaders who believe in renewing Wesleyan theology, aggressive apostolic evangelism, and intensive discipleship. I believe our best hope for change is from the bottom up, coming from these impassioned leaders doing what they believe in. To those leaders, I pray that you will not lose hope because of failures to change the system. I pray equally that you will not be distracted from the ministry by trying to change or manage the system. Devote yourselves to study, prayer, evangelism, and discipleship, and I believe this dying denomination still has hope for revival. Devote yourselves to the system – whether its management or its change – and I believe that system will soon be dead.

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