An Open Letter to Tony Jones

Dear Tony,
We’ve been friends for a while, and I have learned over time to pretty much ignore your rants on denominationalism, recognizing a disconnect with those expressions of faith. But given the latest ramping up of attack with your new Ecclesialeak feature, especially given that you’ve attacked my tribe first, I feel I have to make some comments along the way.

First of all, I have to say that I find (as you did) the document regarding hosting of Bishop’s fairly ludicrous and outside the way I would operate if I were in that role (which is probably which I will never be a Bishop). There is no doubt that some of this document flies in the face of notions of servant leadership, humility, that the first shall be last, yada, yada, yada. I am sure that the person who wrote the document was trying to be helpful in facilitating the logistical concerns of Episcopal visits, but failed to recognize how this document sounds as a whole. At least this Bishop actually seems to be intentional about being in local congregations on a regular basis, something that isn’t always the case throughout the UM world.

Of course, one has to be careful in reading any document with little understanding of the underlying context (something I think we learn in our exegesis classes in seminary). Given what I am reading, I would not at all be surprised to learn that this comes from one of our ethnic bishops, men and women whose context for ministry is significantly different than yours and mine, and for whom issues of hierarchy and authority are more pronounced. I have experienced this especially in regards to our bishops from the Korean community, a context in which the Bishop’s spouses often speak of their spouses by title rather than by name. Do these expressions of authority and hierarchy make me cringe? Of course they do, but I am a white guy who grew up in the middle of a college campus in the 1960’s, a time when authority of any kind was being challenged . . . and I carry that baggage with me wherever I go, and that spills over into my interpretation of scripture as well.

Look, denominations like any institution, have their problems. Just as we will always have the poor with us, so too will we likewise have the push and pull that comes when any group of people forms an organization and tries to carry out some task in the world. Are we flawed and broken, influenced by culture in ways that seem antithetical to the scriptures? For sure. But find me ANY organization of people, even Solomon’s Porch, where issues of culture, human experience, and desire don’t find their way into the communal life. Check back with me in a couple of hundred years after Solomon’s Porch has been through several cycles of life and I would be shocked if issues of culture are running rampant through that place as well.

It’s easy to stand on the outside and point a finger from afar (which is, in fact, what your Ecclesialeak feature will do), and there are times when we need prophets from the outside to point out the flaws that we can’t see. All I ask is that you take care to recognize that there is no uniform United Methodist context, that there are cultural issues WITHIN large groups like denominations, and that you are willing to humbly admit to the places where will all fall short of living up to the ideals of Christ. As important, there must be a recognition of your contextual baggage – the discomfort with authority and hierarchy, your white, middle class Minnesotan upbringing, etc. – that informs how you respond to these concerns.

Are you right? Do denominations reflect modernism more than the gospel?

I suppose it depends on your context.

7 thoughts on “An Open Letter to Tony Jones

  1. Jay,
    Excellent response. Once upon a time, in my younger, prouder, more arrogant days, I would have thought of something like Ecclesialeak as a great idea. No more. I grew up as a Methodist and have much respect and gratitude for that foundation to this day. I am now a part of another denomination – one for which I am endlessly thankful. The larger church is a support and a counter-balance in time of need.
    You are right. This kind of thing will do only harm. It is not about community. It is about people standing on the outside, apart from covenant relationships, pointing fingers from afar.

  2. The problem with many people and organizations too is that they can’t see thier own faults.

    Yes Tony is reacting out of his own biases in pointing out these faults but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist.

    In my experience as a former staff member in a UM church, those in power in the church seemed to be the last to recognize the areas where their church and denomination were flawed and particularly where they were outdated and even rediculous.

  3. Two notes on my response:
    1. I was laid off from my church (that before this I thought of as family) in the middle of the recession, and I still believe they betrayed me and the body of Christ as a whole by putting organizational goals over being the family of God. This has only strengthened my internal discomfort with denominations.
    2. Yes Tony can be bombastic, strongly opinionated, and unfair in the way he portrays views he disagrees with. So can I, so can everyone.

    Now my challenge: go back and read the Emegent Response to Our Critics from a few years ago and tell me if you have EVER seen the UM church as an organization respond this way to criticism? With thanfulness and an openness to the possibility that they may be wrong and NEED outsiders to help them see this.

    One more thing, all Tony is doing is posting internal memos and documents. If these documents are hurtful to the church then those who wrote them are more at fault than someone who merely polishes them for the world to see and judge.

  4. Jay,

    After rereading the letter twice, I fail to find any major problems with the letter. What is tony’s beef about the request? It seems very mundane and typical.

    Also if anyone has a rider for what Tony Jones requires to speak at your conference please email it to
    /end sarcasm

  5. I’ll happily show my speaking memorandum of agreement to anyone who asks. In fact, I’m guessing Jay already has a copy attached to an old email somewhere.

    On the topic of the way the UMC is organized and run, Jay and I have had many offline conversations about it. He knows where I’m coming from. And most UMC pastors I speak with — and I speak with a lot of them — tend to agree with about 90% of my criticisms. So all this consternation about ecclesileaks seems to be more about what’s said publicly than about what people really believe.

  6. Stephen, this is the full extent of my contract, verbatim:

    • The honorarium is to be paid on-site, at the event. Check payable to Anthony Jones.
    • Cancellation of this contract will entail a 25% cancellation fee (plus any nonrefundable airline charges).
    • The hosting organization will arrange all travel, in consultation with Tony. Tony flies exclusively on Delta Airlines (#[redacted]; name on I.D.: “Anthony H. Jones”).
    • The hosting organization will reimburse all travel expenses within 30 days of the conclusion of the event, including but not limited to meals and snacks (or an appropriate per diem), hotel room(s), Minneapolis Airport overnight parking (currently $18/day), cab fares, etc.
    • The hosting organization will provide a self-addressed, stamped envelope and all necessary forms for reimbursement.
    The signatory below acknowledges that Anthony Jones is engaged in this contract for the purpose of acting as a minister of the gospel, teaching explicitly religious subjects.

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