Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

When Structures Strangle Relationships

My post of 3/27 was a tad cryptic and vague, not to mention gloomy. It’s hard to write about matters involving people one counts as friends and colleagues, especially when they are on opposite sides. I don’t want to cast anyone in a bad light. Of course, I still have an opinion.

So, what was on my mind when I wrote about the death of a denomination? For one, I’m still pondering the GracePoint situation. I appreciated reading Shane Raynor’s investigative report. But I’m also thinking about the churches for which I am interim pastor, two small churches suffering from their own kind of split.

The folks at GracePoint left the UMC voluntarily, because of frustration with turf issues and perceived fickleness of annual conference leadership. In the case in which I am now involved, no church withdrew, although a bunch of people did. A popular pastor, seeking to continue as a licensed local pastor, was denied by the Board of Ordained Ministry. As a result, the pastor was removed from the charge, not exactly immediately, but also not at the usual time when UM pastors move. The announcement was made and the pastor had to vacate the charge quickly, without the possibility of any kind of satisfying explanation to the congregations.

Virtually all of one church’s members and about half of the other’s left in anger with the ousted pastor and formed a new congregation, in the same town. In a town of 12,000, where people see each other every day, this division of family and friends is shattering.

Put these two catastrophes together: the GracePoint departure and the Arkansas City tragedy. Toss in a couple of other frustrating conversations with denominational cohorts and I’m feeling something like vertigo, like being in a car wreck that you don’t see coming. One minute you’re cruising down the road and then the next you’re in the ditch with no idea how you got there. I’m looking at United Methodist wreckage and wondering what happened.

We all want to assign blame in these situations. Assigning blame is one way of coming up with at least a partially-satisfying explanation. I can’t assign blame. I know too many of the people involved. I know their love for God and desire to make a positive witness for Christ in the world. And they’re on opposite sides of the conflict.

But as I continue to try to make sense of these messes, I have come to one pretty solid conclusion, I think. Sometimes organizational strictures get in the way of relationships. People with structural responsibilities feel compelled to follow protocol. It’s their job. But protocols don’t take account of relationships very well. Relationships are too demanding, too, well…personal. At the same time, people who feel squelched by the structure forget, perhaps, that they’re actually connected to the people making unpopular decisions. Wisdom says that, in such times, we remember the relationships. We cherish and nurture them.

Sometimes organizational protocols must be honored above relationships. But sometimes…

March 29, 2009 Posted by | Ministry, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , | Leave a comment

Watching a Denomination Die

While a grand old institution slowly crumbles, the people who have invested their lives in it look for every glimmer of hope, every shred of evidence to sustain the belief that, really, “we’re doing fine.” Even when we acknowledge trouble, we have an odd way of tipping our hats to it while bolstering – in a form of whistling past the graveyard – our shaky feelings with positive-sounding language about hope and change.

I’ve been a United Methodist all my life. Being a preacher’s kid warped me, but not for the usual reasons; you know, the glass house, the resentments about “being watched,” being moved or just being different because of parents’ profession. I love The United Methodist Church. Pardon the gender specific reference: she has been like my mother.

I entered United Methodist ministry in 1984, the same year Bishop Richard Wilke’s book, And Are We Yet Alive? was published. That book was an eye-opener for many, but the press of institutional survival squashed its impact. We have been in critical institutional decline for 25 years! We go through periodic frenzies of corporate self-examination that turn out to be little more than posturing and hand-wringing. The more things change…

The Church needs leaders. We have some. We need more. I am speaking to my ilk: we pastors have to be more than goodhearted people who work hard and love our flocks. We have to lead. We have to teach! It takes transparency of faith and character. It takes courage. It takes perseverance. We had better figure out how to do our jobs – or we had better quit. It is far too holy a calling to occupy the place without doing the work. God is asking us, “Where is the fruit?” (And I don’t mean just numbers although I’m also not trying to avoid them!)

In “The Wisdom of God’s Counsels,” John Wesley’s lament over the decline of the Methodist movement (mainly because of love of wealth) carries on for several pages. After painting so bleak a picture he then asks, “But have all that have sunk under manifold temptations, so fallen that they can rise no more? Hath the Lord cast them all off for ever, and will he be no more entreated? Is his promise come utterly to an end for evermore? God forbid that we should affirm this! Surely He is able to heal all their backslidings: For with God no word is impossible.”

God can create something from nothing and bring the dead to life. This great truth we all know. God isn’t the problem. Our unwillingness to risk real repentance, our unwillingness to take up our cross daily and follow – that’s the problem.

Some reader(s) perhaps will take offense at my words, because she/he/they can think of the exceptions to my “negative” perspective. We have developed quite a perverse penchant for denying a generalization by finding a handful of exceptions. This defense is exactly part of the problem. We gag at a gnat and swallow camel. God is not fooled…or mocked.

March 27, 2009 Posted by | Ministry, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Church Split Revisited: The Demonic?

A couple of conversations recently have me thinking about the GracePoint situation again. I’m thinking about the supernatural…of the evil sort.

The story behind how the GracePoint folks decided to leave the United Methodist Church reminds me of conflict I witnessed years ago between a missionary couple and the trustees of their mission organization. The missionaries and the board members were all deeply committed disciples of Jesus. They all prayerfully sought God’s guidance for resolution. They tried diligently to communicate with each other over a period of several months. The more they tried, the more entangled and confusing the conversations became and the more heartsick everyone felt. Finally, the missionary couple resigned, with resentment smoldering in their hearts over their sense that the board had misunderstood and misjudged them. The board felt exactly the same about the missionaries’ view of them.

I remember, at the time, saying to Joni, “I have never seen a situation in which Christian brothers and sisters tried harder to resolve conflict and yet grew further apart than this one.” It was mystifying to watch. And then the thought came: “Perhaps we are witnessing the activity of the demonic.”

More than 30 years ago I read C.S. Lewis’ The Screwtape Letters. I don’t have a copy to hand right now, so I risk a bad paraphrase (somebody correct me). In order to sabotage the new Christian’s faith Screwtape suggested a two-edged tactic to Wormwood: he could accomplish the aim either by getting the subject to see the Devil everywhere or by enticing him to think that the Devil doesn’t exist at all.

As I have learned more about the GracePoint situation, I’ve thought of that missionary conflict several times: sincere, sensitive Christians simply unable to gain clarity in conversation and to stay together. Such a result is truly tragic and, I think, an example of the manifestation of the demonic. No villains. Good people trying hard while watching things go south.

Now, I’m not trying to get anyone off the hook by attributing cause to the Devil. We are always responsible to God and to one another, whatever role Lucifer may or may not play. That caution in place, what might we Christ-followers gain during a church fight by taking pause and asking, “OK, what else might be going on here besides mere human misunderstanding? Is there an invisible, malevolent third party in the mix?”

There is no better tool to cause people to doubt the truth of the Gospel than an ugly church fight. We target and blame each other (actually, I’ve heard no blaming from either side re: GracePoint, but I have heard plenty of misunderstanding and heartache). Talking about instead of to people becomes a beachhead for speculation and suspicion. And this is precisely where the demonic does its best work.

I believe in the demonic. Sometimes, when we are squared off against each other, if we could remember the common enemy and check to see if perhaps its influence is being felt, we might make progress in the church conflict. (“Our struggle is not against flesh and blood…”) And perhaps we could learn to be better witnesses thereby.

March 18, 2009 Posted by | General, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Everybody Has to Be Someplace, Or Why I Don’t Buy the Interfaith Perspective

Are Christians with an “exclusivist” view (a term used for the idea that Jesus is the only way to salvation) incapable of interfaith dialogue? I heard exactly this claim a few days ago at a conference of college professors and administrators and I’ve been stuck on it ever since.

The same man who made this claim also said that one needs an “interfaith perspective” to be able to engage in such dialogue. I pressed him, saying that he is simply privileging another opinion about religion over the exclusivist position, so he is actually making the same move as the exclusivists. He qualified: the “interfaith perspective” is a not a position but a “conversation tool” (his phrase) requiring openness of all parties to having their minds changed by the others’ viewpoints.

What we have here, folks, is an artful dodge. I am not saying anything about the man’s motive. I don’t know him. I am talking about the line of conversation itself, which has been repeated countless times in such settings. The interfaith perspective is popular on college campuses. It is profoundly misleading, though it sounds compellingly true to our culture of knee-jerk relativists.

First, even though the man said that the interfaith perspective is not a position but a conversation tool, he continued to use the word “perspective.” Doesn’t it imply a position, an opinion? If I have a perspective about something, then I have an opinion, no?

If I have an opinion, then I think my opinion is right. I privilege it over other opinions which I find, in some way, deficient. My opponent criticized exclusivism, ergo he likes his interfaith dialogue position better than exclusivism.

Lying behind the ostensible generosity of the interfaith perspective is the basic pluralist claim: no one religion is adequate to encompass legitimate, saving (to use a Christian word) forms of spirituality. Every major world religion is both right and wrong. If I’m convinced by the pluralist view, then I have two options: (1) I can try to live in a constant state of suspended belief. I can try to stay on a spirituality quest without ever identifying with one religion. (This position sounds familiarly American and Baby-Boomerish.) (2) I can settle for some kind of lowest common denominator “faith” – a set of attitudes (like loving one’s neighbor) that basically all the world religions affirm. In spite of how it seems, there is an identifiable theological position at work even here.

Thus, each of these two positions still say something about God, even if it’s a negative (i.e. we cannot really know God as God is). Now, if one prefers this opinion over the claim that Jesus fully reveals God, then preferring one over the other is the same as believing one is superior to the other, hence my contention that my opponent was actually doing the same thing for which he criticized exclusivists.

For people who have given sustained, careful thought to these questions, the notion that true dialogue requires a degree of open-mindedness that risks conversion is impossible. There is nothing new under the sun. If I have studied carefully and with humility, then I have come to some careful conclusions that elicit confidence in me about those conclusions. I cannot pretend as if I do not believe what I believe.

Thus, the “interfaith perspective” as I heard it last week, anyway, is incoherent. Everybody has to be someplace. My opponent has an interfaith perspective. I, on the other hand, believe in Jesus as the full revelation of God. This disagreement is the honest starting place for dialogue.

March 16, 2009 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, Doctrine/Theology, General, Higher and Theological Education, Pop Culture, Religion | , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

Another Church Split

I’m having a hard time writing this blog, because I have not yet talked to people involved in what I am about to cover. If you’re familiar with Kansas United Methodism, you’ve probably heard about the pastor, staff and bulk of the membership of a new church – GracePoint – leaving The UMC. The pastor turned in his credentials and took, according to Sunday’s Wichita Eagle, about 3/4 of the congregation to form a new church.

So, now there are two GracePoints: GracePoint Community Church and GracePoint United Methodist Church. There is a lot of hearsay about why the leaders and members did what they did. I have some ideas (that I think are pretty sound), but I’ll forgo that speculation and get to what I think needs attention.

I should also say that I have some extra-strong feelings about this matter because recently I have become interim pastor for two small congregations in Arkansas City, Kansas. Most of one congregation and about half of the other one left their UMC congregations in anger over perceived mistreatment of their pastor (who had been removed by official denominational action) and the annual conference’s lack of concern for these two congregations. I am witness to the fallout from church splits. That said, here are my thoughts:

1. Nobody wins in a church split. Nobody is helped. The Body of Christ is depleted and demoralized, period.

2. The people who leave think they’re leaving problems behind. They aren’t. Inevitably, every congregation has conflict and when that happens, the folks who left won’t be able to blame the United Methodist Church, the annual conference, the bishop, some board, or anybody else. I hope, when that moment comes, that the leavers will be able to look themselves in the eye and consider their ways. It is the only way they’ll grow.

3. When people leave, they leave behind wounded, confused friends. They leave their friends! How people leave makes all the difference in the world. If you’re going to leave, talk to your friends and authority figures before you do. Have some courage. Be honest. Take care for the Body of Christ, even if you think God is calling you to leave and especially if you think the other parties (including the bishop, the annual conference, et. al.) are at fault. Let me repeat: how people leave makes all the difference.

3.a. Years ago, while in graduate school, I was on staff of a UM Church in a Chicago suburb. Some of the younger leaders were having trouble with the senior pastor and one by one, couple by couple, they began leaving. I had poured my heart into some of those people. When one more of them threatened to leave, I shouted (yes, I shouted), “You’re not just leaving ______ (the pastor’s name and the object of their anger). You’re leaving us!” Do relationships matter any more?

3.b. People who think of themselves as biblical Christians better pay attention to the whole Bible when deciding whether or not to leave. Have I said this already? How you leave matters. My biggest concern right now, given the fact that the recent split made the front page of the Sunday Wichita Eagle, is that we Christians are offering a bad witness to the world. Our words about unity and love are hollow, hypocritical. Shame on us.

4. People who leave angry need to check, double-check and check again the status and condition of their hearts. Bitterness is self-destructive and will affect the quality of their spiritual lives, their lives in Christ. If they harbor anger, pride, arrogance or any other unholy affection, they will pay a spiritual price for the way they have handled this matter. God is not mocked.

Oh, Lord, by your mercy, heal the broken hearts.

March 11, 2009 Posted by | The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , | 3 Comments