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The lifeblood of the United Methodist is passion rather than organizational neatness, entrepreneurial freedom rather than denominational restraint, and agility rather than staid institutional dependence. But if United Methodists want to change and be the church we say we want to be, what must we risk and how can we challenge current practices?
At the heart of becoming a spiritual movement once again is the requirement that we develop a new understanding of connection as Christians and as United Methodists. We are currently at a time in which United Methodists are reinventing denominational connectionalism. One way of framing the issue is to distinguish between members and disciples, or consumers (those who wait for the institution to care for their needs) and citizens (those who are willing to commit themselves to and be held accountable for the whole of the community).
United Methodism has nurtured generations of leaders and congregations that see themselves as consumers of the resources and attention of the denomination. The impulse toward movement is challenging spiritually purposeful leaders and congregations to risk becoming citizens who fully expect to make a difference in the lives of individuals and also in the world through an encounter with Christ.
About the Author
In training workshops and conferences, Rendle has led numerous large and small groups in practical learning that directly impacts participants’ decisions and practice in their leadership roles. He is the author of six books, a contributor to four books, and the author of numerous articles and monographs. His most recent book is Journey in the Wilderness:New Life for Mainline Churches (Abingdon Press, 2010). Gil is a resident of Pennsylvania where he lives with his wife, Lynne.
Read an Excerpt
Back to Zero
The Search to Rediscover the Methodist Movement
By Gil Rendle
Abingdon PressCopyright © 2011 Abingdon Press
All rights reserved.
WE'VE ALL GOT SKIN IN THE GAME
This book is written for everyone within The United Methodist Church: members, clergy, district superintendents, bishops, and denominational, seminary, and agency staff—even people who are in sister mainline denominations—because we've all got some skin in the game. Having skin in the game means being invested, having something to lose. To have some skin in the game means that your own future depends upon the outcome. That pretty much describes all of us who are part of the mainline church in North America in a time of great and deep change. Some of us committed ourselves to be participants or members in a local church because we sought change and health in our lives, families, and communities. Some of us answered more formal calls to ordained ministry because of how our own lives were challenged and changed in ways we also hope for others. Some of us prepared for or were elected to specialized positions that we intended would help the church and therefore the people of the church. We've all got skin in the game.
When faced with great and deep change, we are all suddenly part of the same story. As a member or participant, I can no longer think only of my own personal questions and hopes. I am part of a larger community. As a clergyperson, I can no longer wait for my district superintendent or bishop to make things right, or at least better and more secure for me. As a bishop or denominational leader, I cannot wait for polity to be changed, for local church clergy and leaders to step up to new missional risk. The change in the mission field has already happened and is all around us in a postmodern world which is now global, deeply diverse, and rife with competing beliefs and value systems. As part of the same story, the same bigger picture, we all need to be in the conversation to address overall change and the need for a missional future within our established denominations and established congregations, despite the constraints of current rules and past practices that have until now allowed us to neglect responsibility for new ways.
One of the first responses to baffling constraint, complex change, and dwindling resources is for us to shrink back into the part of the system where we have most control. Members and local church clergy find it increasingly tempting to become isolated, weakening the connection with the denomination, waiting for district superintendents and bishops or the general church to get it right for them. Bishops and conference staff find it tempting to shrink back into institutional problem solving and creating programs for local church development so that the local church can get it right and get more people involved. Meanwhile, national and global assemblies such as the upcoming 2012 General Conference take on a life of their own, shrinking back into political strategizing to elect the right delegates (for instance, those who will forward a particular agenda) and focusing on legislation with the hope that more rules will make it right.
A good deal of my consulting work over the past years has been with a fair number of our American bishops. I am struck by the regularity with which other leaders in congregations, conferences, and interest groups conclude their meetings with bishops by telling them that, as bishops, they should just "bish." In other words, bishops should just lead. It is a standard reaction in any organization or institution that when folks get uncomfortable or dissatisfied they go to the leader and demand leadership. Just lead. Just "bish." Make this thing better.
We all quite naturally want the leader to do what is necessary to remove the discomfort and the insecurity so we can go about doing what we know. But this is the same system that has built a full range of constraints that limit and restrict the ability of a bishop to actually lead. We can no longer point to any one group of leaders and instruct them to change things on behalf of all and then either dismiss, or even enjoy, the ways in which it is impossible for them to do so.
Instead, we need conversation and conversational places across all levels of the denominational church where we can all talk about our shared situation. We all need to understand more and to talk more with one another about what is happening at the various levels of the local church, the annual conference, and the denominational church. We especially need to sit with one another across all of the parts of our denomination to discern and discuss what is happening in the mission field. As a leader, no one can any longer focus on his or her own part of the system, waiting and hoping that some "other" will address the larger issues. We are all in it together. We all have skin in the game.
Not the least of our challenges connected to moving into a fruitful future will be learning to break our own rules. I will say a good bit about rule breaking. Many of us like to think of ourselves as rule breakers, as creative people with spirits of independence. Others see ourselves as rule followers, knowing that stability and order lie in conformity. We watch over the shoulders of others and want to enforce compliance. The reality is that a revitalized future will require us to break our own rules. However, we will need to learn to do so purposefully and appropriately so that we do not dismiss the mission of our denomination or put parts of our community and connection unduly against one another. We need to learn how to honor the inheritance of our highly structured denomination and yet set ourselves free from the constraints of being so highly structured.
This book is about The United Methodist Church wanting to be a movement once again. If we are once again, as in the original spiritual movement that birthed The United Methodist denomination, to "spread scriptural holiness over the land," then we all need to be in this together. In fact, the essence of a movement is to commit to work toward a change that we all address together. If we are to be a movement we will need to claim a common spiritual task and connection that supersedes our differences. We've all got skin in the game, but that's not the same as all being committed to the mission of the movement. When it comes to the movement, there is still the question of who is in and who is out.
A Beginning Based in Scripture
If we are to talk about reclaiming ourselves as a movement it is appropriate to begin the conversation by grounding our considerations in Scripture. Movements need to be clear about who is in the movement and who is not. Movements need to be clear about their purpose and their wanted outcome. A helpful place to start is with the Gospel of Mark.
As a book, Mark appeals to me because of the pared-down logic with which the writer presents the story of Jesus. Not the richest in narrative detail, Mark is much more to the point. It is clear that Mark presents an argument about Jesus to the reader, an argument meant to lead to conclusions. I understand that experience is not always logical and linear. I have made much about our current time in the mainline church as a wilderness journey that requires wandering. This is not a logical or sequential moment in the church. Nonetheless, I can still appreciate a good straightforward telling of the story of Jesus that leads from the way the story is told to a conclusion—even if the conclusion is a difficult lesson to hear.
The conclusion is Mark 3:33-35: "[Jesus] replied, 'Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?' Looking around at those seated around him in a circle, he said, 'Look, here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does God's will is my brother, sister, and mother.'"
Surely this was not an easy lesson for Jesus' family to hear. And surely they had a right to think of themselves as family—brother, sister, and mother. There is also a hard reality offered here that severely tests assumptions of relationships within the family of faith.
For our purpose in talking about Methodism as a movement, difficult questions about assumed relationships in the church may be the most appropriate place to begin. A movement is a group of people who intentionally, at their own risk, join together to make a change in the status quo. Being part of a movement is a choice. One has to choose to be in. We must each choose the relationship that any of us as individuals have to the purpose of The United Methodist Church. As the Gospel story makes clear, it is connection to purpose that allows us to claim relationship or membership. So we turn to Mark's compressed Gospel and the logical argument that leads us to the teaching of who's in and who's out.
Mark begins with a section on the identity of Jesus that he tells through two stories of healing: the cleansing of the leper (Mark 1:40-45) and the healing of the paralytic (Mark 2:1-12). The argument here is that this Jesus is a different order of person and leader. Able to perceive the spirit, able to forgive sins, indeed able to heal the incurable, this Jesus is the Son of God. If the conclusion is about who is and who is not related to Jesus, it is important to first tell who Jesus is. It is fitting that this section of the story concludes with the exclamation "We've never seen anything like this!" (2:12).
Mark moves on to the section on embarrassments prompted by Jesus in the call of Levi and the eating with tax collectors and sinners (Mark 2:13-17). This part of the story underscores that in the eyes of others, this unusual man who comes from God pays attention to the wrong people. Leaders should speak to leaders; the god-like should address the godly. Jesus' chosen audience is an embarrassment. "I didn't come to call righteous people, but sinners" (2:17). Already, the question of relationships is being pushed and assumptions about those who are of God's kingdom is tested.
Then comes the section on breaking norms and rules (Mark 2:18-22). Jesus' disciples don't follow the practice of John's disciples and the Pharisees by fasting, and Jesus approves the difference. Jesus' disciples break the Sabbath by plucking grain to feed their hunger. The Pharisees remind Jesus about working on the Sabbath, but Jesus approves the law breaking of the disciples (Mark 2:2328). Knowing that he was being watched, Jesus healed the man with the withered hand on the Sabbath (Mark 3:1-6). Jesus willingly broke the law, forcing the hand of the Pharisees to take a stand against him. It was as if he were trying to make people choose.
Then Mark comes to the section on relationships, which is where the text begins to focus our own consideration of the church that would be a movement (Mark 3:7-35). Mark moves through a series of relationships that people claim to Jesus and that Jesus claims to people.
The great multitude (Mark 3:7-12)
By this time Jesus had attracted a great crowd of people. I suspect that these people fell into a rather long continuum, from those who saw him as a simple curiosity to those who saw him as the new hope for Israel. But clearly it was not about the crowd for Jesus. There is no need to have a clear counting of how many members are in the church or how many friends are on Facebook. Indeed, when tired or when needing to regain focus, Jesus regularly withdrew from the crowd.
The calling of the twelve (Mark 3:13-19)
Here, Mark recalls the appointing of the disciples. From the great multitude, there was a small group invited into a much deeper and more purposeful relationship.
The family (Mark 3:20-30)
Neither multitude nor disciples, the family of Jesus now comes into the story with their own assumptions of relationship. Apparently operating out of worry for Jesus or concerns about itself, the family assumes its right to make a claim upon Jesus to stop his foolishness. "When his family heard what was happening, they came to take control of him. They were saying, 'He's out of his mind!'" (3:21). Perhaps they felt he needed to be protected from himself.
The true kindred (Mark 3:31-35)
Here now is the context in which we need to hear the difficult teaching about who's in and who's out. Jesus was sitting with the crowd, teaching, when the family came again to call him away from danger and embarrassment. They were family behaving like family, assuming that they had claim on him. "He replied, 'Who is my mother? Who are my brothers?' Looking around at those seated around him in a circle, he said, 'Look, here are my mother and my brothers. Whoever does God's will is my brother, sister, and mother'" (3:33-35).
Crowds, disciples, blood relatives—who's in and who's out? Who is related and who is not? This Gospel teaching tests our assumptions. Those who are most related and connected to Jesus are those who share his purpose. This is where we need to begin our discussion of The United Methodist Church as a movement. People become part of a movement by choice, not by relationship or by assumption. It is more than by being one of the great multitude, more than being part of a small group called out from the crowd. In the case of a denomination that would be a movement, this suggests that those who are "in" the movement are not there by denominational membership, by role in organizational leadership, by ordination, or by appointment. A movement is a group of people who intentionally, at their own risk, join together to make a change in the status quo. To be "in" the movement is a conscious choice. It has to do with purpose, not with position.CHAPTER 2
WHAT HOLDS US TOGETHER
It is time to move ahead.
Don't remember the prior things;
Don't ponder ancient history.
Look! I'm doing a new thing;
now it sprouts up;
don't you recognize it?
These words come from the prophet during the time of the Babylonian captivity. The prophet announced that God was about to destroy Babylon and a new era was about to be introduced that would change God's people yet another time. It wasn't God just solving old problems for Israel and returning Israel to its former ways. It was God about to do what had not been done before—and Israel would be different because of it. Yes, God had done great things in the past. At the risk of trivializing holy text, the spirit of the prophet's claim might be stated as, "You ain't seen nothing yet!" The warning was not to rehearse old history as if what was known from the past was going to, or should, happen again. Do not remember former things. Instead, expect the unexpected.
These are curious words for a people who constantly rehearsed what God did for them, and to them, in the past. Beginning by recalling the past was a formulaic need for a people whose continual effort was to gain perspective and to muster courage for their present moment. I wonder what the psalmist might write about if not permitted to preface all with a recounting of what has already been, with what God has already done. But here in Isaiah is the caution not to remember former things because something new will happen.
When something new is happening, we must let go of the old. This is the situation of The United Methodist Church and of all mainline denominational churches in North America. It is time to move ahead. We cannot recapture or relive old strengths or rehearse old ways. God is about to do something new and it is, in fact, already beginning. "Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?" For more than four decades the mainline church in North America has been trying to turn around its shrinking membership and loss of vitality. It has been a wilderness experience. In my earlier book Journey in the Wilderness, I recount the history of that experience and argue that the wandering in the mainline wilderness has been creative and important. We have learned more and more about what it takes to be Christian witness and Christian community in a changed culture. But the wandering of the past several decades has been a way not of recapturing what was lost but of teaching us how to be in the future. The new is already happening. There is already evidence to point to. Hope is already blooming.
The Rhetoric of Movement
One piece of the evidence of the new is the way in which references to The United Methodist denomination as a "movement" have increased over the past few years. The rhetoric of a Wesleyan movement is gaining traction in people's speech. References to being a movement in people's conversation seem to capture what we would like to be as a denomination rather than what we have been. Yet the reality is that, despite our change in language, The United Methodist Church and its congregations are still long-established, large, bureaucratic institutions that live close to the traditional practices of earlier generations and lumber slowly to make critical decisions. The use of movement language suggests what many leaders would prefer to see rather than the institutionalism and traditionalism that still continue. We would prefer passion where there is organizational neatness, spiritual or entrepreneurial freedom where there are constraints and regulations, agility and experimentation where there is a staid culture of institutional dependency.
Excerpted from Back to Zero by Gil Rendle. Copyright © 2011 Abingdon Press. Excerpted by permission of Abingdon Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
Contents1 We've All Got Skin in the Game,
2 What Holds Us Together,
3 Breaking Rules,
4 It's Time to Testify,
5 Citizenship in the Movement: Voting Against One's Self-Interest,
6 Can David Live with Goliath? Can a Movement Live Inside an Institution?,
7 The New Wesleyan Movement,
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