And the gates of hell remain unshaken.
The Judicial Council of the United Methodist Church has issued a ruling that has been much anticipated by absolutely no one outside of the United Methodist hierarchy. (FYI: Basically, they overturned a change made at General Conference this year. The change had been to eliminate the idea of a “guaranteed appointment” for United Methodist pastors. The motivation for the change was to increase accountability for excellence in pastoral leadership.)
So this means that the one shred of reform that was left in place after General Conference has been itself shredded. All the work to de-tangle the hairball has been nullified, most of it at General Conference and now the remainder, by the Judicial Council.
A hairball that is tangled tends to remained tangled. It’s organizational entropy. Or something.
With that said, I am not in the least bit discouraged by this decision, any more than I was when the reform efforts all but failed at General Conference. The motivations are there, the principles are there, the mission is there. The picture has been painted in stark reality. Anybody in United Methodist leadership who cannot see the impending Weemsian wave “death tsunami” and appreciate its implications to the church hasn’t been paying attention.
(And by the way, I call dibs on the term “Weemsian Wave.”)
The allusion above to the gates of hell is from a letter John Wesley wrote to Alexander Mather in 1777. I wrote about it here. His point then, and mine today, was/is that the focus of Methodism has been diffused. Our denominational attention is focused on so many different things, many of them internal, that our energy is sapped, our mission is compromised, and our priorities are unclear at best.
In response to the ethos present in his day, John Wesley asked for “one hundred preachers,” clergy or laity, who had an intense focus on God, and they would do no less than “shake the gates of hell and set up the kingdom of God on earth.”
Whether or not the ordained itinerant clergy of the United Methodist Church are guaranteed an appointment is one of the navel-gazing questions that diffuses our denominational focus and takes it away from God, where it needs to be. And by the way, it is a change that I’m all in favor of trying, knowing that we either have to change intentionally and proactively or we will be changed by the circumstances around us. I’m in favor of all of those “Call to Action” changes that were first resisted, then rejected, and now reversed by the status quo.
Because in the meantime, people and communities and congregations already are changing, in spite of the hairball. Or they might be orbiting around the hairball, drawing on its gravity in order to sustain forward momentum. This is why I’m not discouraged by the Judicial Council’s decision this week. They are going to do what they are going to do, functioning in a system exactly as it is designed. You cannot blame them; they are bound by the system in which they exist.
However, congregations that innovate and change, ministries that are flexible and responsive to community needs, communities of faith who are creative and passionate, individual disciples who fear nothing but sin and desire nothing but God - these will be surfing on the leading edge of the Weemsian Wave, even as old systems and unchanging structures are drowning in the flood.
The change starts locally, and percolates outward from there. It must. Neither the General Conference nor the Judicial Council are change agents. The local church is. The changes that need to take place must take place at the local level and eventually the General Conference will catch up.
The gates of hell remain unshaken, and the kingdom yet awaits realization.