Why I Doubt the UMC Can Handle Innovation

Innovate.001A 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.

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25 comments

  1. hilaryanngolden

    Thanks for this, Wes. You speak to some of the frustrations I have as a young person seeking ordination with the UMC. I recently met with my DS only to be told that because of my non-tradition education at The Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, a highly innovative seminary, I would either have to redo my MDiv, be ordained in another denomination and transfer, or do the “Course of Study” without knowing how much of my education would be accepted/transferred. To me these are not options of hospitality or innovation. No regard was given to the fact that I was baptized & confirmed in the UMC, have been a member for 15+ years, and have worked in numerous UMC churches. To me this speaks of fear (of what is different) and an inability to see the system as permeable. Unfortunately, this kind of rigidity isn’t just in the ordination process.

    • wesmagruder

      Exactly — that’s precisely the kind of thing I’m talking about, Hilary. Innovation in seminary and theological/biblical education is another big area which the UMC seems unwilling to accommodate.

    • Nathan Hollifield (@nbhollifield)

      I couldn’t agree more Hilary. I just completed my first semester at Garrett after already completing a Master of Christian Studies at The Seattle School in 2010. I appreciate the fact that Garrett is providing me with a free education due in part to my status as a certified candidate for ordination but I lament the fact that I am not learning anything new. If anything, I’m being turned off by the UMC. The pedagogy is old-fashioned and it is clear that I’m being trained as an institutional “leader” rather than an innovator. Plus, I’m sacrificing my early 30s in seminary getting “trained” for a vocation that I’ve already been prepared to perform at another institution that the UMC is scared to recognize. I also just spent the past year working at one of the general agencies where innovation seems to be a four-letter word. Wes has articulated well my lack of faith in the UMC’s ability to encourage & foster innovation. Many questions about my future in the UMC remain…

  2. Chuck Coulter

    This is why I finally had enough and left the UMC. You get tired of trying and trying to work and take the ministry to the next level when all you get is “This is not how we do things.” Yet the “way we do things” is killing the church. How will the UMC effectively bring the Gospel to a a generation who can communicate an intelligent thought in 240 characters or less??? I don’t see it.

  3. AntiSyncrotist

    The problem is not innovation, it is a lack of revelation. John Wesley stated, “I am not afraid that the people called Methodists should ever cease to exist either in Europe or America. But I am afraid lest they should only exist as a dead sect, having the form of religion without the power. And this undoubtedly will be the case unless they hold fast both the doctrine, spirit, and discipline with which they first set out.”

    Wes, John Wesley would not recognize the book of discipline today, nor would he support it. Dont get me wrong, innovation is not a bad thing, but the UMC has rejected her foundation. It is like the parable of either building a house on sand or a rock given by Jesus. The UMC as well as many other denominations are centered around their current doctrine, but not God. Innovation must be birthed in the labratory of intimacy with God, by recieving revelation.

    • wesmagruder

      It depends on what you mean by “revelation.” I agree that direct experience with God is vital to anyone’s spiritual wellbeing. But I don’t really have a problem with UMC doctrine; I think there is a solid theological foundation centered in grace, discipleship, and mission. However, much that has been erected on the foundation has had the unfortunate effect of stifling, restricting, and snuffing out real and vibrant ministry.

      • AntiSyncrotist

        Ephesians 1:17 ” that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give to you the spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him,”

        II Timothy 3:16-17 “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God, and is profitable for doctrine, for reproof, for correction, for instruction in righteousness, that the man of God may be complete, thoroughly equipped for every good work.”

        Proverbs 2:1-5 “My son, if you receive my words ,And treasure my commands within you, So that you incline your ear to wisdom,And apply your heart to understanding;
        Yes, if you cry out for discernment, And lift up your voice for understanding, If you seek her as silver, And search for her as for hidden treasures; Then you will understand the fear of the Lord,And find the knowledge of God.

        I stand by my statement that John Wesley would not recognize nor condone the current book of discipline, nor would E.M Bounds. If a doctrinal statement is redefined over time by buzzwords that can be relative, and not in the God-Man Messiah Jesus, who is the Word made flesh, anything and everything goes, truth is irrelavent.

        A king only shares his secrets with those he is intimate with. When one is intimate with the King in His word, and all of life, they will get revelation,

        The majority of us in the laity are in the rat race 40-80 hours a week, and hunger for a tme at the end of our week where we can get refueled and taught how to fuel ourselves. If it is merely “innovation” based upon someone’s thesis and opinion to get a good grade and have an original thought to impress collegues that may not necessarily be based in absolute truth, it is the same rat-race that we deal with in the corporate world. If it is ‘innovation” because the clergy and laity got revelation by being intimate with God, well…….. your possibilites are endless.

  4. Page Nelson

    Well, I am no theological wizard, nor am I versed in all aspects of Methodism, however I will share a thought. It appears to me that we have all gone astray with regard to the major “take aways” of Jesus’ mission. Paul was constantly having to re-direct the early churches due to incorrect theology. One of the earliest church splits ocurred around 400 AD with Coptic Christian’s belief in the nature of Christ. Today we have a multitude of Christian or quasi-Christian denominations. If I were to venture an hypothesis regarding why:

    We like to do our own thing. We have an inherint desire for independence
    Having an intimate relationship with Jesus is not necessarily a function of organized religion
    There’s more than one road to heaven
    We all have different personalites – God-given traits and talents. For some of us, a structured organization with a preponderance of rules and regulations is a natural fit. Others would consider that a prison.

    So there’s room for all of us here. I will add one additional comment. The information we have about Jesus while he was here on earth included deragatory comments to and/or about the Pharisees, and Sadducees regarding the “holier than thou” approach to life. The message that I get is for us to “go to all corners of the earth and share the good news.” Seems like a good plan me irregardless of our denominational persuasion.

    • AntiSyncrotist

      Paige, to say there are many roads to heaven, totally ignores the words of Jesus in the Gospel of John 14:6. Your assertion is panthiestic and agnostic in nature and would not hold water in a test of the “Law of non-contradiction”.

      As for Pharisees and Saducees, they were “religious leaders” who were famous for their robes and desire to be seen in their robes publically, and seen as they performed acts of piety in public. I dont believe anyone present in this discussion is a pharisee or saduccee. I dont question their motives. I do question their method. .

      What I am saying is that one cannot possibly walk out the “Great Commision” unless foundationally they are tapped into God through regular encounters with Him. There are those who are foundationally evangelistic in nature and regularly go out to share the gospel, but their heart is far from God. They only have a knowlege of an idea, concept,, theology, doctrine, and or scripture They have never pursued the knowning of God, because they didnt know any better, or were never taught.

      As for me and you Paige, our sins are equally reprehensible before God. Yet He is passionate for you and me. I can see why He is passionate for you. I have no clue why He is passionate for me. .

      • Page Nelson

        I appreciate your response, AntiSyncrotist. I will clarify my response regarding “more than one road to heaven” . I do believe the way to salvation that really aren’t necessary for our salvation. Secondly, I believe we are given every opportunity to choose Jesus Christ. We literally have to walk or turn away from Him for us to lose salvation. “A God who pursues us all the days of our lives” (Psalm 23) will do nothing less for our salvation. For those who do not know Jesus, we are all designed with a homing device. Eventually we are all drawn to a Higher Power. We can choose to ignore Him. Francis Collins refers to this in his book, The Language of God. He mentions that if there is no God, where do we come up with a moral code? Interesting fodder for a later discussion.

        I mentioned Pharisees and Sadducees because of their propensity to stick to the letter of the law and not the spiritual aspects. I related that to some our made-made rules we establish. These rules tend to be black and white in nature – and as Wes stated – might limit creatvity.

        I would agree that we are better equiped to “walk out The Great Commission” if we are “tapped into God.” I believe these regular encounters can happen if we follow Charles Stanley’s advice. In our society we are way too busy. We simply do not make or take time for those encounters. We have to learn to quiet our minds. The way Dr. Stanley does that is by getting alone in his closet with his Bible and lights off. He can’t train his eyes on anything, so his attention is focused on listening – to God.

        God is passionate for all His children…you and I are no exception!

        Page

  5. John Meunier

    Well written and powerful argument, Wes.

    I’m curious how you discern the will of God to call you away from the UMC. Wasn’t it God that called you to it in the first place? And how do you square your ordination vow with the sense of call pulling you away?

    • Rev_Jackson

      John, if you can be called into one walk of life, could you also be called into another walk of life? Perhaps it is not discerning a call to leave UMC, but a call to do ministry beyond the pulpit in ways that are not currently structured within the UMC. Just a thought.

      I wonder if sometimes we answer one call and forget to discern new calls in our life, including calls beyond the original constructs of ordination in a denomination. If we are to embrace the Priesthood of all Believers, we can embrace that ordained clergy in an organized religion are not the only ministers in this world. Thusly, we may be called beyond the local church and pulpit someday, but we must listen and discern that call.

      • John Meunier

        Rev. Jack, thank you for the response.

        I suppose we need to think about what “call” really is. What was the call of Abraham or Moses or the disciples? Perhaps I am confusing things here. Are we called to an institutional role (clergy in the UMC) or to something defined in other terms that finds expression in the clergy role? If it is the latter, then our rhetoric of call in the UMC (and maybe all denominations) is corrupted in some ways.

        For me, at least, a second important issue is the nature of ordination vows. In my mind, I compare them (perhaps wrongly) to marriage vows. Such vows are for life. In one sense, they are vows that no one can take with full knowledge. We don’t know what life will bring, but we make vows nonetheless.

        I do not say any of this by way of authoritative pronouncement. It is an exploration of questions. Thanks for the conversation.

    • wesmagruder

      John, I had a powerful initial call to preach and proclaim the Gospel. It was clearly from God, and I pursued it to the best of my knowledge and experience. This led me to seminary and into ordination in the UMC. I consider those to be secondary to the initial call, however, which was to be a communicator of the Gospel. In my understanding, if I am led by God to communicate in a particular way, and the institution does not allow me to do that, then I have to make a decision.

      Perhaps I don’t take my ordination vows quite as seriously — or as permanent — as you, John. That is possible, and it may very well be due to my own background in a nondenominational setting. Sometimes I am quite surprised by colleagues who put so much importance in those vows. The ordination vows seem quite impersonal to me. I feel closer to colleagues who are in the covenant with me, and to persons who actually act as if the covenant means something. But it’s harder for me to say that I am committed to the institution or to the Book of Discipline.

      This whole conversation has been a fascinating one for me, and I am still thinking through what it all means.

  6. Jack

    Change happens within and it takes those who never give up to make it happen. Change doesn’t happen overnight and there may be failures along the way. I say stay in there and fight the good fight. I’ve seen some movement toward a new and innovative UMC in the years I have been involved in my local church, my conference, annual conference and maybe a smidge in the general conference. It may take a generation, but I think it can happen if it is God’s will.

  7. revsandybrown

    Often by “innovation” people seem to mean “I want to do my own thing while someone else pays for it.” So it’s true, the UMC isn’t equipped for that kind of innovation. However, if a person can figure out a mission model that is self-sustaining, the UMC has very little supervision beyond “are you paying your apportionments.” I’ve never once had a UM bishop, D.S. or conference board tell me “no” on an idea. More often it has been the local church that’s been unwilling to allow innovation. But that same hesitancy is present in any existing congregational structure and is not unique to the UMC.

    • Rev.MCC

      @revsandybrown – “often by “innovation” people seem to mean…” Yeah I’d say your right. Innovators are always looking for investors/partners for their ideas… That is how it works and it is a really really good thing… everywhere but mainline denominations who adopt exactly the attitude you do. Read the Harvard Business Review and you’ll see again and again story after story about “investing” in failure in order to achieve success. And this almost always means allowing people with ideas to fail and learn…. In this sense you have made the authors original point all to clearly we are not ready to innovate because we are not ready to empower others to try things… Unless they can guarantee success…
      And it is worth noting not a single thing you own from your stove to your TV to your phone to the computer and software you used to type your note was actually brought into being that way…. Not even your church…

  8. Rev.MCC

    The UMC is way behind the curve on innovation and while change is possible (I suppose) and it is impossible to argue otherwise…. I think the UMC as it presently exists will largely die. My conference is already well on the way and is very busy re-arranging deck chairs and mistakenly calling that innovation/renewal/vitality.
    While I would not presume to speak for other conferences or even my own.. Let me say as a former (successful) entrepreneur that our leadership is neither equipped nor suited to the work of entrepreneurial thinking nor inovation and real creativity. And while they may not say “no” per se… They are often hostile in too many ways to count. That hostility leaves no room for innovation which will by it’s very nature include risk taking and failure. If you don’t succeed then those hostile leaders will be first (right after the naysayers in your local church) to label you as a failure and punish you by appointment.
    No the best thing to do is move beyond the circle of the UMC, stay under the radar, and above all never ever let the “leaders” in on what you are doing… They will be all to quick to claim the success and jump on the bandwagon when the time comes… until then innovate and pretend they don’t exist because if they notice they’ll burn you.

  9. Pingback: The UMC and Innovation: A Response to the Responses and Next Steps
  10. J. Floyd

    I am the Sunday School Superintendent at a small, semi-rural UMC in Virginia. Recently my adult class, which I lead, decided that we wanted to study the Book of Discipline to see how it actually “works.” What I found, in gathering resources, is that there are no off-the-shelf curriculum which cover the Discipline. There are many reference books, but no one-stop-shop. So, I have been developing the class as we go along. In many ways this approach has been eye-opening and has made clear to me that the UMC could be a better organization if we reflected on our history and the required innovation of the 18th century and up to 1968 when the UMC, as a consolidated organization, was formed. In many ways, our Methodist heritage, if we actually claim it, should encourage us to not accept the “this is the way we’ve always done things” mentality. It also serves as a cautionary example that if people don’t like the way an organization is being run, they can leave. And have. And have started other churches.

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