When it's safe to ignore the Book of Discipline

February 26th, 2015

It is tempting to list all the ways the Book of Discipline is “wrong,” to delineate the places of incongruence, and to question its relevancy for today’s world. It is very tempting. As United Methodists, we are steeped in a tradition of questioning, which is a part of following faithfully. We frequently compare tradition and experience, scripture and historical/literary/textual criticism, faith and intellectual reason. We know how to look at these contrasts, and we are trained to be comfortable with the disparities, the questions, and the mysteries. We lay much at the feet of God, hoping that someday we will understand fully, while knowing that our task on this given day is to love fully even without understanding.

So while we are very tempted to pitch our answers to tough questions, I hesitate a moment before I speak out. (Internal five-second pause.) I could address incongruities. For example:

  • Our mission to “save persons, heal relationships, transform social structures, and spread scriptural holiness, thereby changing the world” (¶ 121) while we exclude whole groups of people and ignore unjust systems.
  • Serving in ministry while being “in debt so as to embarrass you in your work” (¶ 336, Historic Questions for Admission into Full Connection) while we put pastors-to-be through a huge debt process called “seminary.”
  • “Fighting, quarreling” (¶ 104, General Rules) is listed as not a trait of Methodists, yet we support fighting congregations whose witness to Christ is questionable.
  • “Singing songs and reading books not tending to the love of God” (¶ 104, General Rules) while we (myself included) read mystery and romance novels and sing along with the Top 40 on the radio.

Oops! I just succumbed to my temptation.

But it is true that sometimes we neglect these difficult conversations about what is wrong with the Discipline/scripture/tradition because we fear reprisal and/or focus on the mundane. No one in ministry wants to argue any longer about how many angels fit on the head of a pin (check out Thomas Aquinas). And no one wants to be the first to break a long-stated “rule” when the “rules” are what provide a paycheck. We neglect to dig deep because of the consequences of change and transformation. If only resurrection could happen without death.

I propose that it is never safe to ignore the Book of Discipline. Just as it is never safe to ignore our scripture and our tradition and our current reality. Typically we do just that: we pretend that the Discipline is a fairy-tale view through rose-colored glasses because we don’t have energy for the deep talk and deep love needed to address change within and without.

Susan Scott, in Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work & in Life, One Conversation at a Time, could teach us a few things about our tradition of “holy conferencing.” She says, “When you think of a fierce conversation, think passion, integrity, authenticity, collaboration. Think cultural transformation. Think of leadership” ([Berkley Books: New York, 2002], xvii).

Susan Scott believes that fierce conversations are for “improving human connectivity” (xvii) and that “leaders must have conversations that interrogate reality, provoke learning, tackle tough challenges and enrich relationships” (xix). While she focuses on human engagement and its potential to change structures and families, I would add that fierce conversations also help us to engage God and change our understanding of connecting to God’s world. Scott gives seven (a perfect number) principles about fierce conversations that could lead us forward into transformation instead of relying on our temptations to ignore, placate, or succumb. Instead, courage to engage our Discipline, our tradition, and our scripture is what could bring real, and much needed, transformation.

We are headed into General Conference 2016, and already we have a major discussion going on. Will our church divide or choose a new way forward that pushes difficult decisions to the local church and the annual conference? Is there a better way that has not yet been imagined? The choices we make will set our future, whether we like it or not. But more importantly, the courageous conversations we have will make the most change. We converse to learn, to grow, to change, to engage, and to love. May we never ignore what needs growth, and may we never forget to love like our Christ loved.

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