A few weeks ago, a friend, Rob Rynders, posted a rousing call to innovation in the United Methodist Church. Along with the other members of the Missional Wisdom Foundation, I co-wrote a response to Rob’s call on our own website.
We wanted to let him know that we were doing precisely what he called for. We are innovating within the church; we are doing some exciting new forms of ministry. In particular, I wrote a paragraph about New Day, the missional micro-communities which I have the privilege of helping to form and nurture.
However, if I am completely honest, I will admit that something bothers me about Rob’s article and my follow-up.
I think we may be a little over-optimistic about the UMC’s capacity to handle all this forthcoming innovation.
The problem is that Rob’s argument assumes the continuation of a permission-giving institution. But innovators can’t work in places where they have to get permission for every little thing. The UMC is currently structured to require permission from pastors, from boards, from committees. That’s what kills creativity. That’s what keeps good ideas from getting traction. There is always somebody above you to say, “No, that’s not good.”
Innovators simply cannot — and will not — thrive in that kind of system. It may happen in rare circumstances. It might pop out in various places. But as soon as a bishop changes, or a supportive cabinet member rotates off, then all bets are off.
I am very skeptical about the possibility of large segments of the denomination actually embracing an era of innovation, of creating positions like Chief Innovation Officer, or changing systems of training.
Perhaps I once believed change was possible. As a young clergy, I believed that we were on the cusp of something big, on the verge of turning the denomination around. I thought that, if we worked hard enough, then something new would happen.
It didn’t. So here I am getting closer and closer to middle-age, and all I have seen in my experience of ordained ministry is good, creative folks getting their heads smashed against the walls of hierarchy. Eventually, they wise up and decide not to do it any more. Thus, they either leave the ministry and/or denomination altogether, or they reluctantly accept that appointment to Grumpy Old White Folks UMC.
Towards the end of the article, Rob drops this line: “We must then work within the system we have.”
But the truth is … we don’t.
We don’t have to work within the system if we don’t want to. We can work without it. We can go outside of it. We can leave it if it continues to stifle us.
The idea that we have to remain constrained by old DNA, creaky polity, and most of all, stubborn people in leadership, is ludicrous. The option of leaving the denomination is always before us, even if it makes us uncomfortable, and even if we really don’t want to leave. If God calls us into the desert places, then we have to follow.
Sometimes I think the system works to produce people like Charles Wesley, instead of John.
Charles worked as a restrictive influence on John, begging him to keep his radical ideas to himself, lest there be a break with the Church of England. Charles worked as hard as he could to keep the Methodist movement firmly within the church — but how’d that work out?
It’s as simple as this: John Wesley was an innovator. He tried to innovate within the status-quo Church of England. Some of the folks in the CofE were friendly to John’s innovations, but most weren’t. It didn’t work. Finally, the Methodists had to leave and do their own thing. End of story.
While it would be wonderful if everybody in the UMC read Rob’s blog and said, “Oh, what a great idea; let’s do it!” I know they won’t. We have not produced the kinds of leaders, clergy or lay, who can do what Rob says we need to do.
This is the blast of cold, hard reality that all of us clergy — and motivated, inspired laypeople — need to face.
God’s future, whatever it looks like, might lay completely outside of the UMC. Or any other denomination for that matter. The future might very well be out there, not in here.
The important thing is to find oneself in God’s future, not to keep propping up the skeletons of the past.
I have written before that, up to this point, I have felt called to remain in the UMC; that’s the only reason any of us should stay. But one’s call can change.
The simple question should always be, “What does God want me to be doing right now?” We have a responsibility to discern where God is at work in the world, and to participate in it.
In the end, if you can’t do the innovative work that God wants you to do within the structure of a denomination, then you must leave.
Go, innovate. No matter what.