A recent article has piqued attention across the United Methodist connection. Written by a pastor who left The United Methodist Church in order to remain serving in the community to which he felt called, many I’m sure are mourning the loss of a congregation and a faithful pastor who felt the need to make such a decision.
However, in the midst of the article, this departing pastor said, “I lost hope in the UMC making changes to its structure in a helpful way after the last General Conference. If Mike Slaughter and Adam Hamilton can’t work out a way to bring a systemic or structural change to the UMC, who can?”
A friend of many years emailed me about that statement with this critique: “I wanted to shout: What about organizing? What about education?”
My friend is right. It seems the pastor forgot that two charismatic faces of United Methodism cannot bring about lasting, systemic change. I give Slaughter and Hamilton credit: they are engaging discipleship in new and transformative ways; they are admirable and important leaders, but neither would suggest Church of the Resurrection or Ginghamsburg were built by alone. They too would agree that building relationships, education, and organizing to effect change are community work. Indeed, it takes a village.
Here’s a glimpse of what that village looks like:
Hundreds of General Conference delegates who hold committee meetings late into the night as they hash out complex details to a newly structured UMC pension plan – a major change which protects individual clergy families AND helps move our denomination toward enduring financial sustainability.
Thousands of United Methodists who wake up early on Sunday morning and, rather than read a newspaper or cuddle into bed, get up and turn on the furnace (or air conditioning) in the church so that when the congregation arrives, they are welcomed into a hospitable worship space.
Pastors who set alarms for 4:30am this morning so they could sit with a family during a double bypass or holding vigil next to a hospital bed during someone’s last few breaths?
I’m sure the politicos among us (or as one of my friends calls us “Methodistas”) objecting: that’s not systemic change. That is important ministry, but it is not change. Except it is. Systemic, structural change can only happens when a multitude of factors are working for the same purpose. Those factors must include building relationships and living faithful Christian lives, modeling what a transformed world looks like.
When we depend upon any single leader, powerful position, or charismatic figure to solve our problems, we are abdicating our responsibility and ability to change the church. Change comes not when a single genius says “here is how the world can be” and everyone falls in line, but when consistent pressure and long term education combine with policy shifts and new institutional practices to transform both the legal and cultural aspects of the Church.
Change happens when thousands of Methodists gather at a state capitol to march against privatizing prisons.
Change happens when Methodists raise millions of dollars for nets, education and treatment to end Malaria.
Change happens when organizations like the Methodist Federation for Social Action and Reconciling Ministries Network and the General Board of Church and Society regularly publish educational materials and studies and handouts and information about upcoming legislative opportunities. When volunteers share that information and organize trips to visit senators or state representative about immigration reform, structural change is happening.
Change happens when the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women trains a few dozen folks to operate more effectively in conferences by introducing them to Roberts rules. When those few dozen members take that knowledge to shift a budget line or pass a new resolution, the change is already among us.
Change happens when the General Commission on Religion and Race educates district superintendents on cross cultural appointment making practices, and multicultural churches thrive because their leaders understand their unique gifts and challenges.
So whatever change we hope to see – whether it is the eradication of malaria, immigration reform, end of human trafficking, or a new global structure within The United Methodist Church – does not depend upon find the one right charismatic and powerful leader.
It depends upon you – have you told your story about the urgency for action? Have you volunteered to attend annual conference? Have you shared the information you have about your passion with a Small group or Sunday School Class? Have you taken part in trainings or participated in a meeting with a representative or church official?
Changing the Church isn’t Adam Hamilton or Mike Slaughter’s responsibility. It’s the responsibility of the Holy Spirit, and her favorite way of working is through many people gathered together. Indeed, it takes a village to change a Church.
Chett Pritchett is Executive Director of the Methodist Federation for Social Action. He is a graduate of West Virginia Wesleyan College and Wesley Theological Seminary, and is a member at Dumbarton UMC in Washington, DC.