Addicted to the Institution

April 30th, 2012

I remember when I was in seminary having a really strange conversation with another student. I remember him telling me that he saw the need for change in the United Methodist Church so much that his plan was to “sell-out,” to use his words, so that he could get himself in a position to implement the change he believed was needed to make the UMC faithful again (apparently, the assumption was that we aren’t faithful). When pushed as to whether “selling out” meant that he might have to say or do things he didn’t believe in so that he could attain the position of Bishop (which is what he said he wanted), he said he would, knowing full well what his goal was. Once he became a Bishop, he could then radically change the United Methodist Church. He just needed to be in a position of power and influence first. He needed a title.

I was so incredulous at his boldness. But I also knew what he meant. The fact is that we all love titles. We respect titles. I realized this years later when I came to hold the title I now have, Director of Civil and Human Rights of the General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church. Pretty stinkin’ impressive, huh?

What amazes me though is the legitimacy that this title gives me. The truth is that before I was the Director of Civil and Human Rights I was a stay-at-home dad, writing my dissertation, working at three part-time jobs (as a Missions Pastor, doing intakes for an inner-city pharmacy for poor people, and delivering the Lexington Herald-Leader every morning), and I was very active in the anti-war and other justice movements in Lexington, KY. I also was a hippie, I had long hair and an earring – man, I was so cool then! (OK, I was cool in my own mind.) Life was hectic, and I hated getting up so blasted early every morning, but I also loved it. I was doing exactly what I wanted to. I was a Kingdom activist! But admittedly, not a lot of people willingly listened to me – I had to make them listen (and I did!). I had to earn the right to be heard or to be able to speak to situations. I earned it by showing up, by caring for people and acting out of my passion, by building relationships and being faithful in moving people into missional engagement. I earned it.

Of course, everything changed when I became, ahem, the Director of Civil and Human Rights (for one thing, I got a hair cut!). Literally overnight, people who had once wanted very little to do with me were calling and emailing and “wanting to get together.” I went from having to show my passion to earn the right to be heard to simply having to flash my fancy business card. It was weird, it still is. I am still the hell-raiser who used to have to deliver the morning paper to make ends meet, but because I have this title, I get asked what I think about stuff.

What does it say about the institutional church structure when a person’s title means that he or she has something to say that has more meaning and carries greater significance than those who do not have the titles? Do we really believe that someone who has a title automatically carries the wisdom and passion needed to carry out the associating roles? What would happen if we dropped the titles entirely? Seriously. What if I was no longer the Director of Civil and Human Rights and I was Bill, the dude who used to deliver the morning paper in Lexington, KY. Or even more, what if I was the dude who is really passionate about building multi-generational movements among United Methodists to end mass incarceration, or to abolish the death penalty, or to enact just and humane immigration reform such as the DREAM Act? What if I had to show my passion to get heard? What if I had to build relationships and be faithful in what I said and did, in order to get heard?

Let’s be honest, titles help us navigate society, or in the case of the Church, they help us navigate the structures of the Church. But I will be the first person to say that all too often – and I mean really often – titles become something we collect along the way for our own enjoyment or our own ego, and those who hold the titles simply fail to fulfill the necessary and associated roles. The roles are the things, the actions, responsibilities, that are supposed to be done by people who hold titles like the Director of Civil and Human Rights. But if you are more about collecting the titles, or if you are in a position of leadership and all you need to make the bureaucracy continue to function smoothly is someone to occupy the position – to hold the title for a certain amount of time – then you become somewhat cavalier about the carrying out of the roles. In fact, the roles can, in fact, get in the way of the bureaucracy running smoothly. Pretty soon, we become more focused on the title, making sure it is filled, rather than ensuring that someone is actually carrying out the roles associated with the title. It’s the way structures and bureaucracies tend to work.

I think for my denomination, the United Methodist Church, that we are addicted to structures. We are addicted to titles, more than we are committed to living out the roles that were meant to be associated with those titles. Back to my earlier question, what would really happen if we dropped the titles and just found the people who would carry out the roles? What would happen if we quit mandating that someone be the Director of Justice Ministries for “such and such” conference, and instead, looked for the person who was so passionate about justice, and was passionate about building teams among those in their conference who also cared passionately about justice ministries, and we supported their work? You know what I think would happen? I think we would be talking about building movements in conferences to defend and support vulnerable people rather than top-down, staff-driven programs that get the attention of people with titles and portfolios, but all too often, fail to generate much excitement or movement among those people who do not know the people who have titles and frankly, who don’t care.

As with all addictions, I think we need to honestly admit that we have an addiction to titles, structures and bureaucracies. I think we can’t imagine life without titles, structures and bureaucracies. It’s hard for us to think about what to do unless we have titles. That is a sure sign of addiction. All the while, those in the Church who aren’t suffering from this addiction are doing the work of justice and would love the support from the rest of us spinning our own wheels.

We know we are addicted because though we United Methodists know we have not been as effective as we should be, we continue to do the same thing over and over. We continue to look to titles, structures, and bureaucracies to accomplish what we have never accomplished with titles, structures or bureaucracies. And then, realizing that we are not effective, we decide we need to rearrange the chairs on the deck of the Titanic and we tweak the titles, or the structures or the bureaucracies (and we call it the Call to Action!). But we never free ourselves from it and look to the only thing that has ever achieved anything of Kingdom significance – building movements based on incarnational relationships with people who are directly impacted by oppressive systems.

Our addiction has left us weak and impotent, but man, those titles, structures and bureaucracies make us feel good, don’t they? They are quick, they are efficient, but they also leave us feeling shallow and empty. I just cannot help but think that if we spent the same amount of time investing in people, hearing the stories of the vulnerable, listening to and sharing our passions with those who have similar passions, rather than fighting for titles that give us security within those structures, we might actually win justice for those who need it so desperately. Who knows, we might even be relevant again. But it all starts with honesty and the confession that we are addicted to titles, structures and bureaucracies. Confession is hard, but freedom is so good yet so scary too. I pray we will have the courage to confess and begin the walk towards freedom.

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