Our Confoundedness: What Does Leadership Mean For The United Methodist Church?

People ordained in our denomination vow to commit to upholding our denomination’s doctrine and rules. But a vocally disruptive minority basically choose to dissemble their way through ordination. Future church historians will note how so much of United Methodism’s destructive turmoil today was driven not just by the lack of integrity of radicals like Talbert, but also by other bishops’ failure to stand up to them in a sustained way. – John Lomperis, UMAction Director, The Institute On Religion And Democracy, January 6, 2015

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Job leaves behind a behind a legacy of writing of more than 20 books including, “Three Simple Rules: A Wesleyan Way of Living” published in 2007 that has sold more than 300,000 copies worldwide.

“Thousands of churches and hundreds of thousands of individuals reclaimed the general rules of Do No Harm, Do Good and Stay in Love with God through the little brown book. He put the most foundational and profound into 10 words that we could understand and then spent a lifetime trying to achieve,” said Susan Salley, associate publisher of ministry resources at the United Methodist Publishing House. – Kathy Gilbert, United Methodist Insight, January 5, 2015

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Retired Bishop Hermann L. Sticher led United Methodists in Germany as western European culture was growing ever more secular. But he never lost faith in the church’s capacity to make more Christian disciples, say church leaders.

“I am deeply convinced that there is a tomorrow, a future for the church of Jesus Christ,” he said at the end of his service as active bishop in 1989. “The Lord of the church is also Lord of the future. His salvific will has not an end today. His mission to his people remains unchanged.” – Klaus Ulrich Ruof and Heather Hahn, “Bishop Sticher, German United Methodist Leader, Dead at 87,” United Methodist News Service, January 7, 2015

We are always in the midst of change.  A generation is passing, with prominent, powerful, faithful leaders no longer offering their experience, their solace, their faith, and their support even as so many in our denomination look around in something like desperation for what they could call “leadership”.  Yet, we have faithful leaders, prophetic and pastoral leaders, intelligent and thoughtful leaders, compassionate and strong leaders, from our current Bishops to our part-time local pastors.  Our problem is not a lack of leadership.  Our problem as a denomination is that we just aren’t sure in which direction we wish to be led.

The conclusion of legal action against retired Bishop Melvin Talbert for blessing a same-sex union demonstrates our confoundedness.  On the one hand, Bishop Talbert demonstrated both the courage of his convictions as well as the audacity of the Spirit in performing an act he knew very well could cost him his ordination.  He did it anyway, convinced that he was being faithful both to the Gospel as well as the vows he took at his ordination so many years ago.  That it was necessary for the Church to take legal action against him, even as it was clear, from precedents already set, that no real punishment would be meted out, demonstrates, again, our confoundedness.  Where do we wish to do?  Who are we as a People called United Methodist?

So many voices in our denomination cry out or demand our Bishops lead.  When they do lead, however, we mostly complain and insist that, whatever action they’ve taken, that isn’t what we wanted.  Our structure leaves us hamstrung for swift action from above; swift action from below only engenders confusion, controversy, and the appearance of drift and a lack of unity.  In many ways, as has been true throughout most of the history of the United States, the United Methodist Church mirrors our national confoundedness and confusion on what it is we want when we insist upon leadership.

When I say we have no lack of leaders, I think of the entire “Imagine No Malaria” campaign, in which we in the United Methodist Church along with our partners envision the eradication of this disease from sub-Saharan Africa.  It is a campaign that has already cut the death rate from malaria in half.  When I say we have no lack of leaders, I think of Bishop Sally Dyck, who accepted arrest on the streets of Chicago because of our country’s confusing and contradictory and Byzantine immigration policy and bureaucracy.

When I say we have no lack of leaders, I think of the clergyperson who holds “office hours” at a local restaurant every Tuesday night, inviting anyone and everyone to come and sit and talk about whatever they want.  This clergyperson will pay for the food.  I think of all the various experiments in online communities, small groups, various kinds of pastoral outreach such as offering Communion to Commuters in Chicago.  When I say we have no lack of leaders, I think of the Associate Pastor of my current church, a young man who has not let living with a disability slow him down or dampen his faith; indeed, his enthusiasm, his joy, all rooted in a deep and abiding faith are infectious.

We have leaders, from top to bottom.  These are leaders who live out our mission statement – making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  Our problem is not a lack of leadership.  Our problem is there are so many visions about what this transformed world might look like.  We have had those in the past, those we have lost just recently, such as Bishops Job and Sticher, whose vision, rooted in deep faith and the best of our traditions, who can no longer guide us through our current predicament.  We have our celebrity pastors like Adam Hamilton and Mike Slaughter and Frank Schaefer, who offer themselves a bit more than they offer leadership.  Yet, in offering themselves, they at least offer experience at successful ministry or prophetic action.

Our confoundedness as a denomination, like our confoundedness as Americans, comes from not being sure what it is we want, or how we want it.  And we live in the midst of changing times – we always live in the midst of changing times, but this particular historical moment just seems far more alive with change – and that confuses and scares us even more.  We would prefer reassurance when offered vision; we would prefer some kind of path through the murk when offered comfort and a reminder of the firmness of the status quo.  We want, in other words, someone to come along and tell us that things are going to be OK, that even as our numbers and our giving contracts that the United Methodist Church will continue to live in and through the Spirit as that part of the Body of Christ whose mission is discipleship and radical transformation, both personal and socially.  We want someone who comforts and challenges us; who reassures us and tests our ability to face change head on; who loves us and the world and does so by facing all the world has that denies our life and says, in answer to Charles Wesley’s hymned question, “Yes, we are still alive!”.

A generation of leaders is passing.  A generation of leaders is here among us.  We as the people called United Methodist need to become comfortable both with the change and the challenge, as well as those things that shall always abide – faith, hope, and love.  These last come from the God incarnate in Jesus Christ, whose death and resurrection took our fears and our confoundedness within the Divine Life and redeemed them, handing them back to us as the courage to stand and the willingness to continue moving forward in the midst of change and challenge to make of all discples, as the Great Commission states.  Our leaders, in whom we see that glimmer of the pastoral and prophetic, the comforting and the challenging, are so because they are merely vessels of our real leader – the Holy Spirit sent by the Son from the Father, to send us out, as the late Rev. Dr. William Holmes used to say in his benedictions, to be the scattered Body of Jesus Christ.  Our human leaders are those in and through whom the living presence of the resurrected Christ moves.  And they call us to a future overflowing with God’s prodigal love and grace, lived out in so many ways we are not so much confounded as joyfully celebrating all the ways God’s purposes are fulfilled

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About gksafford

I'm a middle-aged theologically educated clergy spouse, living in the Midwest. My children are the most important thing in my life. Right behind them and my wife is music. I'm most interested in teaching people to listen to contemporary music with ears of faith. Everything else you read on here is straw.
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