Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

The Double-Edged Nature of Denominational Control

So, here is how things stand in United Methodist world:

1.  People are still weighing in on the video wars between Bishop Scott Jones and Maxie Dunnam, et. al., on the “worldwide nature of the church” amendments.  Good News’ “Perspective” has provided the relevant links, including the Reconciling Ministries Network’s contribution.  Despite Jones’ plain assertion that homosexuality is not an issue that would be left to regional conferences, a significant number of commenters on these various sites are suspicious that it will.  

2.  The United Methodist Judicial Council has ruled recently (UM New Service, April 27) that clergy may not perform same gender marriages even in States where such marriages are now legal.   There was one dissenting voice on the Council.  The decision overturned a ruling from the California-Pacific Conference and Bishop Mary Ann Sweson, who argued that clergy have “pastoral and prophetic authority” in such matters.    

We are fighting for control of an organization, albeit an important and beloved one.  Americans are good at fighting for control.    

At the local level, long-time church members are paradoxically dependent on the pastor for some things and determined to control the pastor and the rest of the church in others.  Worship is still the biggest bone of contention, but there are others.  The people who give the money think they ought to get to call the shots.

At the general church level, well, we know what the control issues are.  

Control per se is not at all a bad thing.  I often tell people in ministry that there is a direct link between responsibility and authority.  If one is responsible for some program or task, then one needs proportional authority to make sure things are done well.  There’s almost nothing worse in ministry than being responsible for something that you don’t (and can’t) control.  

We fight for control because we feel strongly about and seek to uphold certain values.  Control is secondary, perhaps, to those values, but when the future of the organization is involved, people who love the organization will fight for control.  This is what is happening in United Methodism and there’s nothing new here, only the issues are different from earlier times.  

Whereas I understand that people who are invested in and committed to the organization are advocating for legitimate concerns in our control struggles, I’m worried about how often we wind up looking a lot more like the world than the Kingdom of God.  We need some collective self-awareness: while we are fighting about how to organize the UM Church, non-Christians are watching and, I think, surely wondering, “Why in the world would I want to join something like that?” 

Even if we are kind to one another in our denominational arguing, we are still fighting about control.  And people notice.  We are dealing with far more than “upholding biblical values” or “making sure that ‘all’ really means ‘all.'”  The struggle for control tempts us to reduce complex matters to quick, easy summaries (yes, “sound bites”).  Christians should never make decisions this way – about anything.

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May 8, 2009 Posted by | Ministry, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , | 2 Comments