Review: Back to Zero

January 10th, 2012

People across the United Methodist Church are voicing both a desire to reclaim the best of our heritage and a deep dissatisfaction with the institutional church as it currently exists. With Back to Zero: The Search to Rediscover the Methodist Movement (Abingdon, 2012), Gil Rendle suggests that within this chaos are the seeds for a vital new Wesleyan movement.

Rendle, a well-known consultant and author of Journey in the Wilderness, believes that the initial center of Methodism in America existed around theology, polity, location, ethnicity, and history. Regardless of merit, these were threads that held Methodist identity together.

As the United Methodist Church has developed into an institution, however, the center has shifted. Members of the UMC are now joined by health insurance, pensions, regulatory restrictions that manage competition by enforcing rules, appointments, and mission that goes beyond the capacity of the local church.

Increasingly, the UMC is living in the tensions between the movement she hopes for and the institution she is saddled with. In such a setting, the temptation for leaders at every level is to shrink back into the safest parts of the system.

What Rendle calls for, however, is leaders who will be willing to break the rules of the institution for the sake of the institution. Although he notes the need for accountability to the larger missional goals of the UMC, he emphasizes the necessity of leaders willing to forego established processes in order to move the church forward in ministry.

If a new Wesleyan movement is to gain traction, Rendle asserts, its constituents will have to renounce the consumerism fostered by years of assimilation to American culture. Instead, they will have to become citizens of the church, willing to set aside individual agendas for the greater good. Similarly, they will have to shift from self-interest to missional purpose.

Such a shift will not come naturally nor easily, of course. In particular, Rendle cites three major challenges to a new Wesleyan movement. Citizens must break their dependency on the institution to solve problems for them, claim a shared identity despite significant differences in affiliation and conviction, and build trust across the entire organization.

Although Rendle writes with clarity and conviction, Back to Zero has some significant inconsistencies. It is a call to spiritual leadership, for example, yet draws much more heavily from leadership gurus like Jim Collins than from scripture or even interpreters of scripture. It also calls for leadership changes at every level, but offers little practical advice for those who are not in places of positional authority (e.g., bishop or district superintendent).

Also, Rendle uses scripture to illustrate his argument, but not to inform it. In particular, he cites Jesus’ rule breaking in the early chapters of Mark as a way to describe how a new movement challenges assumed relationships. Rather than ask how these events shape our understanding of our shared identity as followers of Jesus, however, Rendle uses the scripture to draw boundaries: not every member of the UMC will be “in” the movement. By citing the scripture in such a way, Rendle makes those who object to his ideas easy to dismiss.

The good news for Rendle’s readers is that they will be able to judge his arguments based on real-time results. Several annual conferences across the country are implementing much of what he advocates, and their progress will be relatively easy to track.

The bad news is that, despite his expertise in leadership and organizational development—or perhaps because of it—Back to Zero will be of limited use to those not in positions of authority within the church. This wide section of pastors, lay leaders, and passionate citizens may find value in his premises, but will have to work out the practical implications on their own.

 

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Back to Zero is part of the Adaptive Leadership Series, a collection of books providing provocative assessments of The United Methodist Church's Call to Action. Coming February 2012 from Abingdon Press.  See ministrymatters.com/adaptiveleadership for free excerpts from all five books.

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