Monday, April 06, 2009

Why "Why I Stay" ? - A Metho-blogo-trendo?

The first page of a Google search for "why i stay methodist" turns up these hits:

Jenny Smith (picked up by UM Portal)
Guy Williams
Matt Kelley
Andy Bartel
Paul Gravely
Ashle Alley
Paul G.
Jayson Dobney
Kevin O'Neill (a Beliefnet thread)
The Thief

These are each really good posts. There may be more on this theme. If you know of any off the top of your head, let me know in the comments.

The question on my mind has been, why are there so many blog posts on the subject of staying in the United Methodist Church? Of course, given that there are a whole heck of a lot of blogs in the world, I know that this represents a pretty small sampling. But the topic seems to have been on people's minds lately, to say the least.

The question has been around for a while, too. I remember my dad talking about the question years and years ago. (He's old.) Old school social justice people have answered the "why I stay" question among themselves with some variation of "because I want to change the system from within" for a couple of decades now.

To answer a question about why you stay in a group means that there is a reason one might leave. There may be anecdotal evidence, perhaps even statistical evidence that people ARE leaving. You may have good friends who have left, or know people who have made the decision to leave for one reason or another.

I do.
+ I know people who have left because of the way the denomination treats people who are homosexual, bisexual, or transgendered.
+I know people who have left because of the way the denominational ordination process had ground them up and left them behind.
+I know people who have left because a pastor has abused his or her power in a way that is demeaning, abusive, or disrespectful.
+I know people who have left because they believe the itenerancy to be outdated and unfair.
+I know people who have left because the church down the street has a cooler band (etc.).

And so it goes.

However, the anecdotes of people leaving and the statistics that show denominational decline are describing two different phenomena. The denomination is in numerical decline not primarily because people are leaving, but rather because people aren't coming in. It is, as Bishop Schnase says a lot, not a back door problem, but a front door problem.

Granted, there is a "given that..." inferred in a "why I stay" response. Given that the denomination is in decline .... or ... Given that the denomination does not marry people who are gay ... or ... Given that the ordination process is so long ... or ... Given that there aren't any young people in the church ... why do you stay? Or something.

But I do not think there is a correlation between the denomination-wide decline in membership and the individual stories of people leaving. The denomination is in decline because people in it are dying much more quickly that people are joining. (Not to put too fine a point on it.) Children of members are not joining the churches their parents belong to, but are looking for their own places to be. People with no church relationship are finding life meaning in other places. And they don't care if the place is Methodist or not.

And so here's what I'm thinking - the "Why I Stay" trend in the Methoblogosphere is another symptom of the panic that is setting in across the denomination. It is the same panic causing the whole "young clergy will save the day" attitude. It is the same panic causing us to define effective churches merely as those whose numbers are trending dramatically upward.

We seem to feel this urge to defend our decision to stay when in fact the question hasn't really come up. Except for other United Methodists, no one really cares why people stay. I'm not saying this to disrespect my fellow bloggers, because I myself have written and talked about it from my own perspective. So I include myself when I say that talking about "why I stay" is just a sophisticated form of navel gazing.

Instead, our response should be to claim the distinctive identity of the Methodist movement. I think this is what the "why I stay" posts are trying to do, but are coming at it from the flipside. I think we're all trying to describe the feeling of resonance that we sense when we read John Wesley or attend a connectional event or receive communion around an open table. But we somehow struggle to talk about it without seeming a bit defensive.

It's shouldn't be "why I stay," but rather "why I am." (Or maybe "why we are.")

I'd like for us to write articles and have conversations and design events that help us think about "Why I am a Methodist." (I know that Bishop Willimon has a book with that title, almost 20 years old, and I'd like to see us reclaim that kind of language.) I'd much rather think about church as a description of who we are rather than of what we do.

See, "staying in the church" doesn't make sense when church is more about identity than activity. The church is not a club we join, then decide to quit, or stay in, as if having our name on a list of members is all that "being the church" is comprised of. The church is who we are, and the denomination is a particular manifestation of that identity. Our congregation, then, is a local expression of that identity.

And as I've written before, if we as the church are faithful to being the church, if the church is the herald of the gospel it is called to be, if the church is the body of Christ, if the church is the realization of the reign of God in the world, then we'll have no need to write any more "why I stay" posts.


unknowntraveler said...

Ouch. and AMEN! Right on Andy. Maybe I should go back and rework my post to reflect the notion of "Why I am UM," because as you allude to, leaving isn't really an option for me. Thanks for the good word.

Kory Wilcox said...

God, I love this post. I've had plenty of experience in being young and seeking out my own place to "be." But the more I've gotten to know Wesley and studied our traditions and histories, the more I have come to think of Methodism as an identity rather than an affiliation.

And I've struggled with that, too, because I've been so intellectually against "denomination" for so long now. But I just can't deny it; I feel like Methodism is my story, and, to be hymnfully cliche, I'm learning that I love to tell it!

Helen said...

Andy, now be careful about calling your father "old" to me he is still young same age I am.

Now it is your Grandfather that I consider "old" with lots of respect

jenny said...

Good post! I agree with your assessment of the "Why I Stay" conversation. Thank you for challenging the fundamental reasons we wrote these. I'm on the same page with you, just named it in different ways I think. I certainly feel John Wesley's priorities are becoming part of my identity, not just a place I choose to hang out.

Mitch said...

To buck the trend I should post on why I became a United Methodist, (I didn't grow up in the church, but chose this way at the ripe old age of 29...still a young adult!)

akstigger said...

The Episcopal Church started a site on Ash Wednesday that allow people to upload a video that says why they choose to be an Episcopalian. The site: I Am Episcopalian

It's nice to hear people say why they are rather than they why they used to be.

John B said...

It seems to me that the reason that so many people have posted about "why I stay" is because so many people have contemplated leaving. It's almost like they have to explain their decision not to leave. And while I have not personally posted "why I stay" I have given it great deal of thought and I encountered many of the same ideas you wrote about.

One that you missed, however, and the main reason I have had people leave a congregation I have served is that "the UMC is becoming too liberal." If you think people are leaving because of the church's stance on homosexuality, (which I am sure they are) then stand back if the church ever changes it. The floodgates would open and people won't be able to get out quick enough and I'll be leading the way.

Spencer Smith said...

I've asked myself that question regularly. To be honest, I don't see my identity in the UMC. I see my identity in Christ, usually understood Wesleyan, but by no means UMC. To me, that kind of identity is institutional, which is not what I want to be a part of. The institution is a wineskin. The institution is a means to an end. If we are no longer effectively reaching people with the Good News and living in Christian community, then I don't stay.

Sally said...

I am a lifelong UMC and second year MDiv student who is finding being a part of the UMC more and more compelling. I recently posted on my blog regarding a discussion we had in my UM Doctrine and Polity class.
The professor gave a list of characteristics of churches that he had identified.
As you read through the list you might find yourself plugging in certain denominations (we did!) that seem to have gravitated toward one or more of these types. Keep a tally and I'll have some more to say afterward.

1) Experiential/revivalist - doesn't matter if you do right, believe right or must have the right experience to be saved.
Strengths - we are all emotional people and this type acknowledges & embraces that.
Weaknesses - can be individualistic emphasising "I" instead of "we". Often plays
down the role of reason.
2) Rationalist/liberal - don't care about feelings so much as reason. "Does it make sense" is the
key to this type.
Strengths - God gave us intelligence and intended for us to use it.
Weaknesses - Limited because our minds are puny in comparison to God.
3) Social Christianity - It's ok to be emotional or rational but what really matters is transforming
society. These are the people for whom the Kingdom Now is important.
Strengths - Missional is good. Part of Christ's model for us.
Weaknesses - The question the Kingdom Now all there is? What about
the Kingdom Come?
4)Churchly/Orthodox - What is important is liturgy, the sacraments, Christian education
Strengths - Deep connection to historical church
Weaknesses - Can become ritualistic and dry

Now, take a moment and go back over your list and review the denominations you have for each one. Our class of United Methodists is made up of 8 people who come from a variety of flavors of denominations before they ended up in the UMC and we didn't seem to have any trouble plugging in denominations to each of the four types. What we realized at the end, however, was that we didn't plug in the UMC. The professor asked us where we thought the UMC fit and almost as one we said..."we're all four!" It was exciting to see that what seems to matter in the UMC is balance.
Now don't misunderstand...I'm not saying that Christians in the UMC are better than Christians in any other denomination...FAR from it!! What I'm saying is that the UMC is set up INTENTIONALLY to target all of these areas without emphasising any of them all the time. This was an A-HA! moment for me...I love the UMC but till recently I couldn't tell you I can say that at least part of the reason is that it is set up to be balanced between the head, the heart, others and ourselves.
I'm sure that if you are part of another denomination you may find that you love your denom too and that is GREAT! It's just nice that, for once, I can point to something tangible that identifies some of the characteristics I find attractive in the UMC!

Anonymous said...

Enjoyed the food for thought--you make me think, and for that I am thankful.

guy m williams said...

Thanks, Andy, for bringing the assumptions behind my and other posts into a helpful light. You're right in saying that assuming the question form "why I stay" implies that there are also reasons to leave. And I appreciate your point about shifting the question form to "why I am."

That said, I would press back only in this regard: While I "am" a United Methodist (using the "to be" verb), more than that I "am" a Christian. Which means, in some respect, that "being" is first about being a Christian and a member of the Church Universal. Which then means that in some respect that "doing" happens in a particular branch/expression/tradition within the Church Universal. Leaving the UMC does not equal leaving the Church. Again, I think your point on the way our language structures our reality is a good one. And I agree that it applies on the denominational level in some important ways. But it cannot apply in the most expansive and robust way, because that use of language must be reserved for the Church Universal and not for any particular expression of it.

LaCreta Guy said...

Hello Andy,

I've been researching my Monks and, as I have learned, your Monks too! I imagine ole Francis Marion Monk and Alonzo Monk are quite proud of you and are beaming in Heaven. (As well as our common ancestor, Simeon Monk, even though he was a Primitive Baptist!)

I'm especially fascinated with Alonzo Monk. He would almost be reason enough "to stay".

I'd love to share what I've learned about our Monks with you.

John said...

And so here's what I'm thinking - the "Why I Stay" trend in the Methoblogosphere is another symptom of the panic that is setting in across the denomination.Probably. If the question is asked "Why I Stay"?, then it means that the default response is to leave. Some questions, if they are even asked in an institution, signify bad times.

Of course you know the reasons I left, Andy. Staying would have been masochistic.

If a man came home and found his wife in bed with another man, he would feel betrayed. But suppose the woman, having turned to see her husband, simply continued her adultery. And took a cigarette break, and went back at it again with her lover, while in full view of her husband. And then said, "I'm not doing anything that violates our marital vows."

If the husband simply clenched his eyes and said, "My wife is faithful to me. My wife is faithful to me. My wife is faithful to me", we would say that he is delusional. And that is why I simply couldn't go on being a Christian. I couldn't say, in the face of such overwhelming evidence to the contrary, that the Church was faithful.

Had the DCOM, the DSs, and the Bishops been less openly treacherous and contemptous of plain truth and the plain text of the Discipline, I might be writing a "Why I Stay" post.

Thank God that they weren't.

Anonymous said...

Not to be a compete nit picker here but you have key word in your post misspelled and it is misleading for the careful reader. you use the word ItEnerancy and you mean to type Itinerancy. you use it when you list a series of reasons that people have left the Methodist Church. I I know that the larger meaning of the word Itinerant is a nomadic person but the methodist idea or roatating ministers is also spelled the same way. At least according to Merriam-Webster dictionary. I am only being a nit picker so that another person who has come to your post and is enjoying it and then gets distracted as I did trying to parse the alternative meaning for the word you are using but misspelling. -- thanks for writing a thoughtful post I hope you can make the tiny typing and change and feel free to take my post down or never put it up.

franwood said...

I got to your blog by Googling "leaving the too liberal UMC". I have been part of my UMC all 63 years of my life. Last year our church council voted 10-8 not to allow a beautiful painting of the Apostles' Creed to be hung in our church because it would offend those members who don't believe in the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection. In my heart I ceased to be a member of that church at that point. My husband and I haven't left yet because we have had a weekly Bible study of 18 believers in our home for the past 3 years and our daughter and son-in-law are having some success with the work they are doing with their age group. However they send our 7 year old grandson to Awana at the Baptist Church on Sunday night to hear the Gospel and to "hide God's Word in his heart". (They do this at home but get no reinforcement at our church). Our liberal friends like to call people who believe the Bible as we do "intolerant, unloving, unintelligent,etc." HOWEVER we and our children sponsor children in Colombia and the Domican Republic, volunteer at a food and clothing mission, and have worked closely with an illegal immigrant family for 4 years with transportation, Dr. visits, "rescue" trips, food, rent, getting work permits, etc. so we really don't fit that mold. Thank you for letting me give my reasons for leaving the UMC as soon as we determine where God would have us to go.