The United Methodist Reporter is offering the latest headlines in the RSS format.
WESLEYAN WISDOM: How far can we go with ‘half-way covenanters’? Donald W. Haynes, Dec 7, 2011
By Donald W. Haynes UMR Columnist
All papers related to United Methodism are filled with references to the “Call to Action” plan now adopted by the Council of Bishops. However, we face a dilemma similar to that facing the Puritans in solemn assembly in Boston in 1662. Their dilemma was how to impose their demanding covenant theology upon grandchildren of the covenanters!
Out of the debate came the term, “half-way covenant” which allowed a pastor to baptize the children of parents who were not keeping the covenant.
Historian Shelton Smith wrote this commentary on that situation: “The adoption of the Half-Way Covenant in 1662 enabled the New England ministers to baptize more infants, but the decline of religious zeal apparently was not arrested. The lamentations increased.” Can United Methodism experience the emergence of vital congregations when we have so long been, in terms of keeping our covenants, “a mile wide and an inch deep” in knowing who we are and what it means to be discipled?
How much commitment can we expect from “half-way covenanters”?
One of our bishops, Richard Wilke, wrote on page one of his 1986 book, And Are We Yet Alive?, “Our sickness is more serious than we at first suspected. We are in trouble. . . . We thought we were just drifting. . . . Instead we are wasting away. . . . We are tired, listless, fueled only by the nostalgia of former days, walking with a droop, eyes on the ground, discouraged, putting one foot ahead of the other like a tired old man. . . . We sing ‘O for a Thousand Tongues to Sing our Great Redeemer’s Praise’ as an anthem instead of a testimony.”
Bishop Wilke opined that if a major corporation had the same stats that the United Methodist Church had, heads would roll from the CEO to the CFO to vice presidents. The stockholders might even require a major shakeup in the board of directors.
What response did Bishop Wilke’s trumpet call get? The answer: denial and rejection. The leadership of the church in 1986 in effect said, “No, thank you.” The 1984 General Conference, in a weak moment late on the last night, adopted a goal of having 20 million members by 2000.
Lyle Schaller’s 2004 book, The Ice Cube Is Melting, prophesied on this. A brilliant mind of EUB heritage, Dr. Schaller was perhaps the most prescient voice among us in the late 20th century. He asked the question no one ever wants to hear—“Is schism inevitable?”
He listed some of the threats in 1986: increases in apportionments for aging congregations in numerical and economic decline; refusal to build a better system of accountability with consequences for those who are not accountable; an almost cultic attachment to “How we’ve always done things in the UMC”; a level of detachment between people in the pews and the denominational leadership.
Added to this is the debate over divisive social justice and lifestyle issues. Perhaps unknowingly, Dr. Schaller spoke to this with his warning, that the original magnificent obsession of “spreading scriptural holiness throughout the land” has been replaced with today’s “quarrel over who will be the umpire to interpret the rulebook.”
Loss of loyalty
The upshot of connectionalism was once a strong sense of brother/sisterhood and polity uniformity which resulted in high denominational loyalty. Every United Brethren, Evangelical, and Methodist saw the local church as a stakeholder in the mission and welfare of the denomination.
Many of the Michigan Methodist churches were constituted or strengthened by emigrants from southern Appalachia. Hundreds of Texas Methodist churches were founded by pioneers from North Carolina. The Evangelical and United Brethren established churches from Pennsylvania, westward through Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Iowa and the Dakotas. California Methodism grew from those whose denominational loyalty was rooted “back east.”
Denominational loyalty has suffered an epidemic! The Millennials (young people ages 18-29) have very little denominational loyalty. Mid-life persons returning to churches have not returned to the church in which they were baptized. Mainline members have gone to parachurch campus movements and from there to neo-Fundamentalist churches. Even “cradle Catholics” have become Protestant in droves.
Since the 1960s those who have tracked membership transfers have seen fewer and fewer young adults remain in United Methodism when they left home, moved or had a spiritually life-changing experience. The impact of shrinking from almost 11 million to less than 8 million is a staggering loss.
Now, at long last, we all know this. So what?
You might see the next words you read as tampering with the soul of connectionalism. However, “new occasions teach new duties, time makes ancient good uncouth.”
Dr. Schaller calls for more local church autonomy. We must, we must, we must listen. We already allow this in polity. Paragraph 252 of the Book of Discipline reads, “The membership of the church council may consist of as few as eleven persons or as many as the charge conference deems appropriate.” Paragraph 247.2 allows much freedom: “The charge conference may, in consultation with and upon the approval of the district superintendent, modify the organizational plans. . . .”
We allow very little autonomy in the appointment of pastors. The role of the staff parish relations committee is limited to an “advisory” role. In real practice, except possibly for some of the largest churches, the cabinet meets in a very short time frame to make the appointments. If the projected appointee is resisted, modifications might be made, but the choice of the alternate is clearly in the hands of the bishop and cabinet. Profiles and missional statements can be presented, but naming names of projected pastors is not the ethos of United Methodist appointment making.
Reality is that everything in our culture is virtually demanding that stakeholders be given more voice in their own destiny. Only the Roman Catholic Church retains the authority over clergy placement that equals the hierarchical authority we know in United Methodism. We all know that the ethos of Catholicism is radically different than our own.
The diversity in our connection, and within each conference, is enormous. Megachurches need a global search when replacing high profile, visionary lead pastors. Our “old First Churches” across the connection have been our bellwether churches; most of them are very “gray” in age and almost frighteningly smaller in number than a generation ago. Our small rural and “urban community” churches have been sent more mediocre pastors than effective ones. The more effective have often stayed fewer years before they moved up the ladder. How we have treated our small membership churches is an ecclesiastical sin. Many feel that they have been left to die on the vine.
Many conferences simply do not have “the” pastor for a given church at a given moment in its missional history. How exciting it would be for churches and pastors to be able to search the web provided by the General Board of Higher Education and Ministry. Superintendents would be brokers and bishops would have veto power, but the courting stage would give the local church and the prospective pastor an avenue for exploring gifts, missional needs, doctrinal stance, leadership style and prioritization of parish work.
The bottom line is that our churches of all sizes and situations need the freedom to shop the connection for someone who can make it work with a longer pastorate, with more involvement in the community and gifts very different from other churches with slightly lower salaries.
For the thousands of churches of smaller membership, we need to set them free to find local pastors or local laity or retirees from other sections of the country who want to re-locate for retirement—again with superintendent counsel and the episcopal appointment. This is not a call for congregationalism; but for stakeholder ownership.
Ownership is a wonderful thing. Our present system does not encourage ownership on the part of the intinerating pastor or the church whose pastor was sent with no commitment by the laity to make it work, because they urged the pastor to come to serve them.
History has caught us short before and forced rather dramatic changes. We cannot meet the challenges of the future unless and until we learn from the past. Elton Trueblood, the great Quaker, in his autobiography pays tribute to Scot Presbyterian John Baille with this prayer from Baille’s posthumously published diary:
“. . . I thank Thee that this Christian way whereon I walk is no untried or uncharted road, but a road beaten hard by the footsteps of saints, apostles, prophets, and martyrs. I thank Thee for the finger-posts and danger-signals with which it is marked at every turning and which may be known to me through the study of the Bible, and of all history, and of all the great literature of the world.”
My mantra to ministry is II Corinthians 2:9: “God has prepared for those who love Him things that no eye has seen, or ear has heard, or that haven’t crossed the mind of any human being.” (CEB)
Dr. Haynes is a retired member of the Western North Carolina Conference. He is the author of On the Threshold of Grace: Methodist Fundamentals. Email: email@example.com.