Prone to Wander

January 20th, 2012
This article is featured in the Call to Action (Feb/Mar/Apr 2012) issue of Circuit Rider

"Have you experienced a ‘sense of distance’ among parts of the UM Connection?” My short answer to this question is a sad yet firm “Yes!”

The week after Easter 2011, I gathered with many of the pastors of the top 100 largest United Methodist churches in America (in terms of worship attendance) at Church of the Resurrection in Leawood, Kansas. Adam Hamilton had asked me to convene a discussion at my table. In response to a similar question posed by the leadership, I asked the seven pastors at the table with me this question: “In your entire ministry, not just at the church you are currently serving, beyond administrative assistance, how much help have you gotten for your day-to-day ministry from the General Church?” I was stunned as every one of these loyal United Methodist pastors said, “None.”

Now, I know that the resources and ministries of our denomination have helped many churches. But the sampling of leaders at my table on that day left me bewildered. The distances between the people and parts of our Connection are wide.

I’m not sure when I first heard the maxim “form follows function.” The concept is that our structures when they are at their best flow from purpose and intentionality. Teams that organize themselves to accomplish very specific goals and objectives do better than teams that are haphazard. Every one of us has been on a team that was carefully designed and led. We know the joy of accomplishing something lofty and ideal while on that team. And the opposite is also true. We know the frustration and agony of being on a team that is haphazardly planned and lackadaisically implemented.

One Methodist has described the early Methodists as those who were “organized to beat the devil.” Regardless of our tendency to romanticize the early Methodist movement, one thing cannot be denied. The first Methodists were an organized lot and they accomplished amazing ministry in a very difficult socio-economic and religious context.

I think this institutional memory is what pains so many of us who lead in twenty-first century American United Methodism. We have a faint remembrance of who we once were. Less than 5,000 of our more than 30,000 churches in the U.S. are “highly effective” in reaching and discipling the people they serve. This makes many of us shudder in light of our glorious past. The body of work in the Call to Action research put a crystal clear spotlight on our lack of vitality at the corner of Main and Church Street as well as our lack of institutional effectiveness at our judicatory headquarters.

It seems to me that our institutional forms have drifted from our missional functions. We no longer are “organized to beat the devil.” From the offices of our bishops to the basements in our rural churches, we have lost the institutional discipline to put our mission into forms that produce fruit.

How do we close the gap? After 25 years in the ministry and 15 years leading one congregation, I have discovered a fundamental premise that experience—in my own life, as well as in the lives of countless other church leaders—has proven to be true. It’s that spiritual leaders who live in community foster transformational cultures and establish fruitful processes! When both clergy and laity leaders live richly and deeply in Christian community, nurturing their relationship with Jesus and one another; when they cultivate environments that are life-giving and transformational; and when they are crystal clear about their processes of disciple-making, the result is vitality.

The older I get, the stronger my belief in the doctrine of original sin gets. Left to ourselves, even the most faithful follower of Jesus will drift. Left to ourselves, the most faithful local church will drift. Left to ourselves, the most finely tuned institution will drift. Eugene Peterson, in Under the Unpredictable Plant, reminds us that the institution of the Church is a sinner too! Whether it’s an individual, a church, or a denomination, left unchecked the drift is always south. The 18th century hymn writer Robert Robinson said it best in the classic hymn “Come Thou Fount of Every Blessing”:

O to grace how great a debtor
Daily I’m constrained to be!
Let Thy goodness, like a fetter,
Bind my wandering heart to Thee.
Prone to wander, Lord, I feel it,
Prone to leave the God I love;

Here’s my heart, O take and seal it,
Seal it for Thy courts above.

We wander individually and institutionally. Could it be that in the United Methodist Church, just as in the life of an individual follower of Jesus, change begins with confession and repentance?

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