The Shape of Our Lives

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I love the KPUMC sanctuary for many reasons, but my favorite feature of our worship space is its cruciform shape, meaning the ground plan is in the shape of a cross.

While it is common for Catholic and Anglican/Episcopalian churches to be built in this shape, it’s rare in the United Methodist denomination, particularly in the south.

The shape of our church is not just an architectural feature; it’s not only a nod to the most recognizable symbol of Christianity.

It also makes a statement about the shape of our lives together — the life of a Christian disciple is supposed to be cruciform.

What does that mean?

This is metaphorical language, of course. But it means that, in some sense, as we follow Jesus, we will also experience suffering and crucifixion. Our lives will mirror Jesus’ life; the contours of our faith journey will resemble the ebb and flow of Christ’s journey.

Jesus himself mentioned this when he said, “All who want to come after me must say no to themselves, take up their cross, and follow me.” Obviously, Jesus didn’t mean that we should all be dragging wooden crosses behind us everywhere we go; he meant instead that the experience of following him involved hard choices and difficult challenges. There is a necessary struggle that we must each embrace if we are going to be God’s people in the world.

I reflected on this truth as I walked the Stations of the Cross in our sanctuary this week. The Stations of the Cross are a cruciform spiritual discipline; not only do we literally walk in the shape of the cross while meditating and praying, but we read through the story of Jesus’ arrest, trial, torture, and crucifixion as we go.

We don’t do this only to commemorate or remember what Jesus went through; we do this because we are called to a life which will resemble his.

This doesn’t necessarily mean our individual lives will resemble each other’s, or that we are called to the same kind of choices in life. To paraphrase the opening lines of Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina, “Each cruciform disciple is cruciform in its own way.”

“Taking up the cross” will mean one thing for me, and another thing for you . “Saying no to yourself” will challenge my behavior in a certain way, but perhaps another way for you.

Lent is a season in which we must check ourselves and ask if our lives are actually cruciform, or whether they take a different shape. What about you?

Options Among the Ruins of the UMC

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The shockwaves from General Conference 2019 continue to reverberate across the church landscape. If you pay attention to social media, you have noticed that a number of churches and conferences across the country have issued statements of resistance to the Traditionalist Plan (see Jeremy Smith’s blog Hacking Christianity for a complete list of resisting churches, conferences, and regional bodies).

But the question that remains hanging in the air has to do with the future: What next for the United Methodists who can’t live in a Traditionalist denomination?

One significant possibility emerged in a Washington Post article that appeared March 29, centering on the activities of megachurch UM pastor Adam Hamilton, as well as North Texas’ own bishop. See the following relevant paragraphs:

The Rev. Adam Hamilton, who is the pastor of the largest Methodist church in the country, with 20,000 members in his Kansas City congregation, is organizing with Haupert-Johnson, Texas’s Bishop Michael McKee and a few others.

Their group has a methodical, political-organizing-style plan for drawing others into their fight: meetings this week and next week in Dallas and Atlanta, each with 30 handpicked clergy and leaders, including seven LGBT leaders. Then a meeting at Hamilton’s church in May for 500 leaders. Then another meeting in the fall, where they aim to draw 3,000 leaders of Methodist churches.

“I’ve been astounded at the number of emails, phone calls, text messages I’m receiving from churches across the country saying we can’t live like this,” Hamilton said. “These churches, they’re centrist. But they’re saying this doesn’t feel like the United Methodism that we have always known and loved. To be in a church that will be in the future led by the most conservative caucus in our denomination feels untenable for them.”

Hamilton said that before his group’s first meetings in Atlanta and Dallas, he envisions two possibly viable paths: splitting and resistance.

If the group opts for resistance, it would probably be financial, he said. Numerous large American churches like his would stop contributing their customary funds to the denomination, in the hope that delegates from Africa and Russia — who led the successful push at last month’s meeting to block same-sex marriage and gay clergy — would agree to a new vote at the 2020 meeting on LGBT issues, to preserve funding for their mission projects.

His second option would involve persuading all parts of the American church — both progressives and centrists who want same-sex marriage, as well as conservatives who want to separate and be done with the debate — to pool their voting power in favor of a split into separate denominations. American churches that favor same-sex marriage would opt into one denomination; most African and Russian churches as well as American churches that oppose same-sex marriage would be in the other one.

A vision for a new denomination will be a major topic at the under-the-radar meetings this week and next: both practical questions, like how a split church could share existing institutions such as schools and hospitals, and religious ones.

I don’t know anything more than what appears in this article. But I am heartened to see Bishop McKee’s name at the center of these happenings.

I disagree with Adam Hamilton’s suggestion that one option at the General Conference 2020 is sustained financial resistance. That’s a viable action in the meantime as a stopgap measure, but it’s cynical to think that the African and Russian delegates would change their votes “to preserve funding for their mission projects.” That’s just another form of bribery, of buying votes, which progressives have condemned conservatives for doing for years now.

Personally, I believe that the energy needs to be focused on the second option — separation. Since the conservative voting bloc will not decrease anytime soon, it’s best to concentrate on the opportunities that a church split would provide.

But there’s another problem looming in the discussions of what’s next. For one, Adam Hamilton himself has received the brunt of a great deal of criticism among progressives, because of what he himself represents. He’s white, male, middle-aged, heterosexual, and centrist. In other words, he’s pretty much UM status quo.

Lots of newly-energized progressives are raising the question, “Why should we listen to UM status quo? Where are the people of color, women, LGBTQ people, and why aren’t we following them instead of the same-old, same-old?”

To make things worse, the article suggests that Hamilton gathered together a small group of “handpicked” clergy and leaders. Lots of people want to know who they are; who hand-picked them? and on what basis? It sounds as if, once again, important decisions in the UMC are being made in a back room with cigar smoke lingering overhead.

In other words, there is an argument to be made that, as we struggle for the next Methodism, shouldn’t we try to do things differently? Shouldn’t we aim to build a more perfect institution, one that is not only LGBTQ-inclusive and affirming, but also racially-equitable, gender-equitable, more democratic, and less colonial?

Perhaps in the end, there will be three separate and distinct denominations that emerge from the ruins of the United Methodist Church: a conservative church that embraces the Traditionalist Plan, a centrist church that lives in a One Church Plan, and a progressive church that more energetically and actively pursues progressive values.

I would prefer the progressive denomination; but what about you?

Wish List for the Next Methodism

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Permit me to dream a little, or maybe a lot.

The debacle at last week’s General Conference was heartbreaking and tragic, yes, but it’s also an opportunity. Even though the United Methodist Church appears to be irretrievably broken, maybe something new is going to burst through the cracks of the old structure.

I mentioned that there is lots of talk going on at the moment about the possibility of creating a new Methodist movement, a brand-new denomination.

So while we’re talking about it, let’s sketch the contours of what might be ahead, first by considering what we could (finally) leave behind, and second, by dreaming of what we could actually incorporate in a new system.

What of United Methodism could we leave behind?

Obviously, my first answer is that we could leave our homophobia behind. We could leave behind the ridiculous statement that “homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.” But there are other things we could do without, or at least reconsider:

Our obsession with paperwork, forms, and counting things: Do I really need to say more?

Lifetime terms for bishops: I would propose that bishops be allowed to serve up to 12 years, then must return to an appointment in their Annual Conference. This would require a true sense of humility and servanthood among bishops, and would equalize their relationships with other clergy.

Legislating by Robert’s Rules of Order: There are other ways to run meetings besides voting, preferably something which favors spiritual discernment and consensus.

An appointment system which favors white males: There is an unspoken “ladder of success” in appointments; somehow only white guys end up with the biggest pulpits and biggest salaries.

Structural racism: See above, but also note that there is an amazing lack of UM resources devoted to south and west Dallas in our own conference.

Emphasis on buildings and properties: I’ve noticed that appointments in our conference congregate around already-existing buildings, instead of recognizing that the best evangelistic opportunities in our society require being outside of the walls of a physical church.

What should we include in a new Methodism?

Again, my first response would be that a new church must fully affirm and include LGBTQ people. This is a non-negotiable. But there are other things that we might consider:

Equalized clergy pay: In the Methodist Church of Great Britain, all pastors make the same salary, with only slight adjustments based on years served. This would completely eliminate the competition that pastors in the US feel about “moving up the appointment ladder.”

Greater flexibility in pastoral appointments, including those outside of traditional church settings: Over the last few years, younger clergy candidates are consistently opting out of ordination because they feel called to ministry outside of the local church. We must find a way to allow them to follow their call while supporting them with a network of accountability.

Greater flexibility in local church organization: If you’ve ever served on a church committee, you know that we are required to have a Board of Trustees, a Finance Committee, a Staff Parish Relations Committee, a Church Council, as well as a host of other committees or groups to effectively get things done. Small churches often have a difficult time filling all the positions required, so it makes sense to widen the options for organization.

Conferences to be gatherings for corporate prayer and worship primarily: Every year, our Annual Conference provides numerous experiences to worship together, and these are the moments we remember. We don’t go home with fond memories of the pension report. More worship, less reporting and voting, please.

Those are some of my dreams for something new. What about you? What would you propose we leave behind? What do you hope we could include?