Friday, March 13, 2009

Why I Stay in the UMC

Jennifer Smith started a conversation on her blog where she gave her reasons for staying in the UMC. Like most young clergy, I have spent a significant amount of time wrestling with the question of whether to stay in a declining mainline denomination that has as many problems as we do. Ultimately I have decided to stick around, and a few of the reasons are listed below.

1. The UMC in my home. I mean this in several senses. I was baptized, raised, and confirmed in the UMC, and my parents have been active members of the same congregation for nearly twenty years. But theologically I also find myself at home in the UMC because our doctrinal standards always fall back on a very broad sense of God's grace.

2. The UMC is a big tent. United Methodists inhabit the entire spectrum of Protestant Christian theology. We have gung-ho environmentalists, crusaders for all kinds of social justice issues, people who openly wrestle with the divinity of Christ, and people who believe Adam and Eve rode their dinosaurs to church. While we don't agree on much, we do continue to create space for transformational dialogue, and we're the better for it.

3. Connectionalism. This one is a bit of a double edged sword. One of the downsides of a connectional system is an itenerant system that is unsustainable in its present form. But the upside is that pooling our money and other resources together allows us to accomplish more good than any individual church could do. Whenever a disaster occurs, churches are able to put together relief supplies and put them on a truck, knowing they will get to those who are most in need. About a third of every dollar we put in the collection plate goes around the world for various ministries. The whole is truly greater than the sum of its parts.

4. We're always trying hard to do better. Some folks wonder why I stick around in a denomination that has such regressive policies toward people of differing sexual orientations. But I can see how far we've come in empowering women in ministry (we still have a very long way to go on that one, though), and I see the changing attitudes in my generation, so I have faith that during my career we will be able to truly be welcoming to all of God's children, and stop discriminating based on traits we can't choose.

These are a few very broad reasons why I stay in the UMC. We're in some very tough days right now, but I believe our best days are ahead of us. God never stops speaking, and I'm hopeful that we'll listen and follow.

Agree? Disagree? Think of some things I left out? Discuss...

update- I got good news today. I will be commissioned as a Provisional Elder at Annual Conference in June. I was turned down two years ago, so being accepted feels very good. More details later.


Jenny said...

great post! so glad you're continuing the conversation...

Anonymous said...


Thanks for your open and honest reflections. I think #2 is a deficiency, rather than a benefit, so we would disagree there. On the one hand, the fact we have people who cannot affirm the creeds without difficulty is a problem, and on the other those who adopt fundamentalism do not do us much better.

It appears that you're more exited that there are environmentalists and justice crusaders in Methodism, and could do without those who believe Adam and Eve rode their dinosaurs to church. Between the theological types that you've chosen to portray, I'm not sure there is a space within United Methodism for transformational dialogue, only coexistence fostered by connectionalism and the pension fund. Bishop Scott Jones has asserted that liberals need conservatives and conservatives need liberals, and are the worse off without one another, and I agree. But that does not mean that the two currently interact in meaningful partnerships. Rather, they each tend their respective pastures, come together at annual conference, sing a few hymns, and exchange a few pleasantries. Every once and a while things look unified, but being united with the same mind as Christ Jesus (Phil 2) requires some hard conversations on doctrine, which United Methodists appear reluctant to have.

I'll also be plain in saying your characterization of conservatives on homosexuality as unwelcoming on the basis of "traits we can't choose" is far too simplistic. You didn't choose to be born into a family committed to The United Methodist Church, and though you can say that you are choosing to stay, your choice is influenced greatly by forces largely outside your control. I agree with you that the United Methodist Church will likely change the Discipline in the future to be affirming of gay and lesbian persons, but believe that will be more a reflection of Methodism's relationship to American culture than it will be the result of an internal shift among those other than the clerical elites. I would also argue that the degree to which those in our generation are formed by the narrative of political liberalism over against the Christian story will play a large part in the coming change. I could be wrong about this projection, and if I am, I will be surprised.

Congratulations on word of your commissioning. That must be exciting for you. Keep working hard, and God bless.

Sean said...

Re: #3 - why do you way that the itinerancy system is unsustainable in it's present form? I'm currently living in it, and don't see any major flaws.