The Call to Justification, Methodist Style

If you have ever read this blog (and there doesn’t seem much of a reason to do so anymore since I’ve been so scattered in writing) you will likely know that I have been a critic of the United Methodist Bishops Call to Action, and the subsequent flurry of activity to restructure the church into success. My skepticism has little to do with the “drivers of vitality” which are prominently mentioned and have become the focus of accountability, but rather is based in what I believe is a flawed process which determined solutions based on predetermined biases and failed to do the difficult and time consuming work of defining values (both theological and communal) which is required of dealing with adaptive challenges. I will be writing more on this later, but ultimately I fear that we are repeating past mistakes of attempting change based in poorly understood business leadership fads of the day which may undermine our work due to a basic inconsistency between our values and our practices.

However, regardless of my feelings about the specifics of the general church’s Call to Action, I am not surprised to see a second wave of leadership decisions made using the Call to Action as a justification for difficult decisions while having only the most tenuous connection to the findings of that document. The two most prominent for me arose this week in the statement by the Southeast Jurisdictional College of Bishops calling for the merger of the Tennessee and Memphis Annual Conferences, and a document being shared by some members of the cabinet here in Tennessee outlining a new procedure for congregational accountability which directly and overtly links clergy deployment with the full payment of apportionments.

In both cases, the writers of these document make a case for their proposals based in the justification that somehow they are driven by the Call to Action proposal and will contribute to making vital congregations without ever directly demonstrating or describing how these initiatives will serve the purpose of helping congregations or church leaders. In both cases, the ultimate concerns are in fact financial, not missional, and while at least one of the proposals represents a change in structure that could have missional roots, in the end the concerns are with improving efficiencies without evaluating the impact on ministry. I will be writing more about the specifics of these proposals in a later post.

What concerns me is that it feels like the Call to Action has quickly become the point of justification for pretty much ANY structural change that a Bishop has wanted to implement in the past regardless of whether these changes truly enhance the ability of local congregations to become vital. Yes, I would agree that many structures need to be changed, but those changes should be based in their own justifications, not brought forth in some sort of vague appeal to adaptive challenges and the Call to Action. There are likely good reasons for the merger of the two annual conferences (although they aren’t yet clear to me) but those reasons likely have little to do with our efforts to create vital congregations. Congregational accountability for paying apportionments is needed (and a long time coming in our annual conference) but the concerns there are the effectiveness of our connectional system, not the five drivers of vitality. The Call to Action isn’t some sort of miracle drug that can be pulled out in every situation. And yet, our leaders have made it into a shibboleth to define who is in and who is out, what is right and what is wrong, and whether one is “on board” or not.

When will we as a church be honest about our actions and intentions rather than drawing on some sort of outside justification for what we do?

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