A Letter to Tony Jones from a United Methodist

This morning emergent guru and bomb-thrower Tony Jones used Bishop Willimon’s latest UMR commentary as a justification for shutting down the United Methodist Church. He suggested that all young clergy should get out while the getting is good:

I just hope that enough of you young UMC clergy have the temerity to stand up and walk out of that system. Trust me, what you’re putting up with is not worth the health insurance — you’re getting the raw end of that deal.

I’ve known Tony for some ten years now, and he has repeatedly suggested I should bail too. I appreciate his perspective, but this morning, in the light of all the other emotions swirling through our church right now, I found myself less appreciative at an outsider suggesting we should simply give up. Thus, I wrote him an  e-mail this morning, which (with his permission) I share with you:

Dear Tony,

I’ve tried several times to think about how I could come up with an appropriate response to this morning’s post, but haven’t figured out a way to say what I really want to say without using profanities. [Author’s note — In point of fact, I did use profanity in my e-mail to Tony, a sign of my brokenness, but since this is generally a PG rated blog, I am editing myself to sound better than I really am.]

Yes, we are a very broken institution, composed of very broken people. One might even say that we are completely dead. And yet, I continue to hold on to the belief that God takes dead and broken things and transforms them into new and living things. Be careful about proclaiming the death of the UMC, for the possibility of new life arising from the ashes is always a possibility.

Should I bolt? Probably. Do I want to bolt? Very much at times.

And yet, I continue to hold on to and offer the grace that I believe that God offers us — a grace that never gives up. As a Methodist, I am an Arminian, not a Calvinist, believing that God’s grace is unlimited and while resistible, always present even when we can’t see, hear, or taste it.

Yes, our institution is a mess and may indeed be irredeemable.

But that was the same things some folks said about me at points in my life.

Take care, and know that I love ya even when you dis on my people.


Tony responded later with the following promise:

Thanks, Jay. What doesn’t kill us makes us stronger.


10 thoughts on “A Letter to Tony Jones from a United Methodist

  1. I’ve been mulling over what my own reply to Tony would be, if I knew him. He’s right about several things: our agencies (and our denominational system as a whole) are bureaucracies, and bureaucracies continue to serve some who hold power within them, no matter what.

    But come on: how would you even begin to argue whether the UMC is the most screwed up system out there? And does that sort of jab really provoke anyone to improve?

    As an insider to the UM system and one of its pastors for 13 years now, I have the benefit of seeing the bureaucracy up close, and that’s helped me remember that, in addition to being a bureaucracy, our agencies are also filled with talented, faithful people doing phenomenal work. I think of Bob Williams, who heads the General Commission on Archives and History, who takes seriously his charge to perform a “ministry of memory” on behalf of the denomination so that our actions may be better informed historically. I think of Craig Miller at GBOD, who has been faithfully traveling to Shelbyville for the last year and a half to meet monthly with a group of pastors in my district as we seek to think critically about how to engage in more vital, vibrant, life-giving ministry. Because of Craig’s work, I feel more hopeful about the future of my own pastoral ministry than I have at any other point in my tenure.

    Bureaucracies are systems–messed-up systems, to be sure, a lot of the time. But they are also people, people who (in this case) do bear fruit for God and for our UM churches. If Bishop Willimon or other of our leaders can’t see that fruit, then I will continue to pray for their eyes to be opened to what God is doing among us.

  2. Jesus said, “Very truly I tell you, unless a kernel of wheat falls to the ground and dies, it remains only a single seed. But if it dies, it produces many seeds.”

    Death brings new life. Organizations never voluntarily “die.” Never, ever. Individuals can die, do die, and should. If you’re not willing to die, then quit whining and just admit it.

    Peter said, “For you know that God redeemed you from the empty way of life you inherited from those who came before you.”

    Clergy need to be redeemed from the empty way of life and ministry passed down to them by their predecessors. All of you know that the ordained way of life and ministry is empty. It does not enhance your ability to minister, but sucks the life out of you with institutional maintenance.

    Lead by example. You can only lead others as far as you’ve traveled yourselves.

    Jesus said, “No one sews a patch of unshrunk cloth on an old garment, for the patch will pull away from the garment, making the tear worse. Neither do people pour new wine into old wineskins. If they do, the skins will burst; the wine will run out and the wineskins will be ruined. No, they pour new wine into new wineskins, and both are preserved.”

    These are Jesus’ words for would-be reformers. They were directed to people who wanted to remain Jews and “work from the inside for reform.” Same thing applies to y’all today. Stay, sew new cloth and pour new wine, and see your work destroy everything, including your good intentions.

    I posted a little story a while back. http://biblethumpingliberal.com/2011/08/11/the-hermit-crab-2/

  3. Tony is a destructive ass who has nothing left but self promotion to feed his family. He hasn’t ministered the good news to another human being in, well, God only knows. Ignore him and he’ll go away.

  4. Jay, you are generous and loving here. You are also prophetic:

    God takes dead and broken things and transforms them into new and living thing

    Tribes are messy things – be they a youth group, a publishing house or a church. We humans are built to live with mess and often yearn for order. We break things, we are broken, we are messy – and we are God’s beloved, we walk hand with our brother and Savior Jesus, we dance with a creative Spirit.

    Transformation is a brutal business – Lazarus knew the tomb that Jesus sat in. Did not know it intellectually, he knew the stink.

    I am 48 years old – my time is to live thru the unraveling. My daughters may not in their old age see the “new thing”.

    As Oscar Romero, the transformed bishop of the Catholic Church in El Salvador, wrote:

    We plant seeds that one day will grow.
    We water seeds already planted, knowing that they hold future promise.
    We lay foundations that will need further development.
    We provide yeast that produces effects beyond our capabilities.

    We cannot do everything
    and there is a sense of liberation in realizing that.
    This enables us to do something,
    and to do it very well.
    It may be incomplete, but it is a beginning, a step along the way,
    an opportunity for God’s grace to enter and do the rest.

    We may never see the end results,
    but that is the difference between the master builder and the worker.
    We are workers, not master builders,
    ministers, not messiahs.
    We are prophets of a future not our own.

  5. Not long ago, I came across a perspective of Jesus’ ministry I resonate with very well. The author, whose name I cannot remember, suggested the majority of Jesus’ ministry happened only as he met people along the road. No structure. No massive organization. No beaurocracies. His ministry was truly relational. If you were receptive, you were healed. You experienced, first hand, the love of God. Perhaps we make sharing the love of God in Christ far too complicated. Much of my ministry is seemingly capricious in that the Holy Spirit makes holy encounters happen at the grocery store, the gas station, the athletic field, even through text messages. Yes, great things can be accomplished through institutional structure. Not convinced that was God’s’ primary intent in sending the Holy Spirit, though. Institutions don’t love, people do. In spite of our organized impotence, the power of God is alive and well in countless, faithful United Methodists. Thank God for that.

  6. Death is always a precursor to Resurrection. As I recall, those who stuck by Jesus through his death (all women, in the synoptics) got to be the first to experience Resurrection. Sounds worth sticking around to me.

  7. Jay, I was an outsider and running into folks like you, Kay, Michael, Tom Laney, and others in the church, helped me to feel embraced. There IS a place and purpose for you in this church just like you guys have shown me there’s a place for me.

  8. I think we’ve brought on criticism ourselves, and even though I might not have been as blunt as he was, I look at the following…General Conference…
    …eliminated guaranteed appointments…
    …cut ministerial pensions….
    …cut the ministerial education fund.

    What message *does* that send?

    It’s not good. And we should not be surprised by the critique.

  9. I left ( I used to say I divorced) the United Methodist Church when I asked that my orders be returned. I did that because I believed that my bishop, fellow ministers and conference had no desire to work with me toward reconciliation and a mutually beneficial ministry. I have continued to work, mostly as a volunteer, through Methodist churches in Texas and Arizona for 30 years. My wife is a Deacon. I had a bishop (now deceased) known for appointing pastors he didn’t like to congregations most likely to be upset by the appointment. I have heard this from many others and it was my experience. Finally I decided that I would not let the future of my family be determined by a person for whom I had no respect or trust. I have always found United Methodists doing good work and willing to allow me to be a part of it despite my baggage. But I have not found a bishop or DS that I would trust. If you have, I congratulate you. My wife has spent the past 26 years on staff at two churches (one ten years, currently 14 years). She has ceased to involve herself in the conference except for mandated meetings. Our conference is sinking fast. Down from 45,000 members to 37,000 mostly older folk. I found it easier to be a follower of Jesus working for state agencies and CBOs. I did not expect the leadership to act on Christian principles but often found the rules and regulations gave me more recourse than the UMC provides.FYI, I was involved in a successful environmental lawsuit against the Pantex nuclear weapons plant, a major employer in my old AC. I was denounced by my DS.

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