The Case for Connectionalism


My friend Wes Magruder, pastor of the Kessler Park UMC in Dallas, shared some thoughts this week about how progressive United Methodist congregations might move forward in relation to the “Way Forward” decisions in the UMC. His thoughts were generally positive and worthy of thinking about, but one phrase in the post jumped out at me because it seems to resonate with the things that I am seeing from folks on the “other side:”

And yes, this explicitly takes the form of a congregational polity. But what else can there be in a post-February 2019 world? Does anyone really want to spend time re-creating the administrative structure of 20th-century United Methodism?

https://wesmagruder.com/thoughts/2018/11/14/a-new-society-of-methodists?fbclid=IwAR3u_EPk1Py16BU4trLpcJSBYsnBmak7G9ECQhrxs6dUSWyCYgjYlMMI2w8

Wes’s assumption seems to be moving more and more to the mainstream among folks thinking about the future of the church — be they progressives or traditionalists. The structure of the UMC is too unwieldy for our world today, is insensitive to the contextual realities our congregations face today, and simply outdated for the instant gratification world we face today. And, according to Wes, rebuilding the administrative structure of 20th century Methodism seems unworthy of our attention given our calling to respond to the needs of the world (although, the WCA seems to be having no problem in creating their own alternative structure). 

While I understand Wes’s arguments and can affirm some of them myself, I fear that we are conflating our current administrative structure with the philosophical belief we call connectionalism. Yes, there are lots of problems with our current “top-down” structure, some of which we tried to address in Tampa in 2014 only to have the Judicial Council rule those attempts out of order based on the constitutional precepts created in 1968 at the time of formation of the UMC. Connectionalism is broken in many ways, and it’s worthy of looking at how that ideal needs to be reformed.

The response (reflected in Wes’s comment) is similar to those that I’ve often heard congregations throughout the years: “We tried something hard and it didn’t work so I guess we need to give up, declare it a failure, and do what everyone else is doing.”

The problem for me, though, is that leaving aside connectionalism due to the failures of our expressions of it today fails to represents a failure of understanding the underlying philosophy of what we are claiming as a “connectional church.” Moving to a congregational polity ignores the prophetic witness we are making as a community stating that Christ calls us to a life of mutuality, not individualism. To move to a congregational structure is a capitulation to the forces of radical individualism that have infected our society and stand in stark opposition to the values of God’s Kingdom. 

From the beginning of this Christian experiment there has been an understanding that the teachings and witness of Jesus were ones in which the community of faith was always more concerned with the common good rather than the rights of the individual:

Everyone around was in awe—all those wonders and signs done through the apostles! And all the believers lived in a wonderful harmony, holding everything in common. They sold whatever they owned and pooled their resources so that each person’s need was met.

Acts 2:43-45, The Message

Our connectedness has always seemed to be at the root of understandings of Christian community. Paul would reflect this in the image of the church as the “Body of Christ,” laying out the understanding that all are mutually connected to one another and that my own well being is intimately connected to your well being. 

Dr. King said it this way:

“All I’m saying is simply this: that all mankind is tied together; all life is interrelated, and we are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of identity. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what I ought to be until I am what I ought to be – this is the interrelated structure of reality.”

Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. 

For King, this belief in connectedness was at the heart of Christian community, ordained by God and the goal of his work to be about the creation of the “beloved community.” The interconnectedness of humanity is the value at the heart of the creation story and the call to love our neighbors. I believe that without an understanding of that connection Christian faith can easily slide into a self-absorbed method of avoiding punishment without any concern for others in the world. 

Now I know that when Wesley and Asbury moved the Methodist movement into a connectional structure they were more concerned with practicalities than any sort of philosophical statement. Yet, at the same time the early class meetings and bands were focused on mutual accountability in love, recognizing that Christians need one another in their goal of becoming disciples of Jesus Christ. While their organizational structure was likely more about control of this spreading movement, there was still an underlying assumption that we are connected and that connection should be reflected in how we understanding ourselves as a movement, and later as a church. 

Zoom forward a couple of hundred years. Yes, we now find ourselves in a very different time and place. We’ve lived through the 1960’s and ’70’s, which challenged the traditional societal institutions, laying open their authoritarianism and colonialism. We were challenged to “do your own thing,” and given the belief that we could each live out our own dream. The rise of a consumeristic culture gave us a “designer lifestyle,” in which we could each go our own way and follow our bliss without concern for the other. 

In the seats of government, we see our leaders lift up the philosophy of Ayn Rand as the ideal:

Civilization is the progress toward a society of privacy. The savage’s whole existence is public, ruled by the laws of his tribe. Civilization is the process of setting man free from men.

Achievement of your happiness is the only moral purpose of your life, and that happiness, not pain or mindless self-indulgence, is the proof of your moral integrity since it is the proof and the result of your loyalty to the achievement of your values.

Ayn Rand

Ours is a society in which radical individualism is seen as the norm and the ideal. And unfortunately, the Americanized church has tended to embrace this norm as well in our proclamation of Jesus as a “personal” savior, and our belief that functioning as congregational islands unto ourselves with little connection to the church universal is the ideal. 

Connectionalism as an ideal says that we have a different understanding, one in which we recognize our connectedness and don’t try to eschew it. For me, being in a connectional system is a prophetic witness in a world which wants to claim that the will of the individual (or the family system at the most) is more important than the common good. As someone for whom submission to authority is not a natural state (dang those 60’s liberals that raised me!) it is an important discipline for me personally to voluntarily submit to a system in which covenant partners in faith walk with me and hold me accountable to Christ’s call in my life and my witness in the church. Connectionalism, in the best sense, is a proclamation that we believe we are in relationship with, and responsible to, a broader community than simply the one that I’m a part of. It connects me to God, others, and the world in profound ways.

Likewise, connectionalism speaks in the face of tribalism, something that is becoming more and more prevalent today. Tribalism is a corporate expression on individualism in that it suggests that I can only be joined with people who think like me, look like me, or believe what I believe. On the other hand connectionalism says that while be may differ in all sorts of ways, we are STILL connected, STILL responsible to one another, and that our well being is STILL connected to the well being of others. 

A new connectional system would ultimately be focused less on structure and more on connection. It would be designed about facilitating relationship, encouraging conversation, and discovering the things that unify us rather than the things that divide us. It would focus less on institutional efficiency, and instead create spaces where congregations and their leaders could come together to gain a fuller picture of God’s desires. It would understand that there are no winners and losers in God’s kingdom (something that is part and parcel of the legislative approach to discernment we currently embrace) but rather brothers and sisters with whom we are intimately connected and whose well being is or concern. 

Yes, it’s a idealistic goal and vision. But didn’t Jesus drop into the world to bring forth a new thing? Can’t the Holy Spirit drop into our world today to bring a new thing as well?

Let’s not give up the vision of the “inescapable network of mutuality.”  We are connected . . . whether we want to be or not. Let’s live out that connectedness as church together. 

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