May 1, 2012 Tom Berlin

Some Days We Can’t Agree on Anything

Lots of United Methodists hoped that this General Conference would produce some real changes in the way we conduct our mission and ministry. The facts that I shared in an earlier post would indicate that things are not going that well for us as a denomination. The church in the U.S. continues to shrink. Those numbers are not nearly as difficult to consider as the projections for our future, based on the average age of our members, which is nearly 60. All of this will have a dramatic impact on the human and economic resources that make ministry happen: who we have serve in their church or in mission in the world, and the money that buys things like malaria bed nets or Sunday School curriculum for children. It’s not just the bad news that led us to think that change was possible. It is also the good news. We really are doing wonderful things throughout the globe. Sunday night there was a ministry celebration that was supposed to end at 9:30 p.m. Stalwart delegates who lasted throughout the presentation did not leave until 10:45 p.m. Talk about a group of people who deserve jewels in their heavenly crowns! It took that long because there really is a lot to celebrate. So we thought, with data this overwhelming, and opportunities this great, certainly we will be able make some real changes!

Changes would include a restructuring of our ponderous board and agency organization. We have huge boards in our ministry areas and the staff leaders have no executive oversight. The group that gives them direction meets for two weeks every four years and then cuts them loose to do their best with their budgets. I can’t imagine running anything like this: a college, a non-profit, a business, or a chain of lemonade stands.  The problem it creates is a lack of alignment and focus on the vitality of the local church, which is where the news is not good at all. While the Book of Discipline says that the local church is the primary place of ministry for the UMC, we all know that it serves the denominational structure more than the structure serves the local church. Just ask yourself how the general church helped your local church become more vital last year. After you get past, appointed us a pastor, it will get hard to find other answers.

Despite our hopes and our obvious need for transformation, there was no wind of change in the convention center Monday. We voted down everything from term limits for Bishops (one way to exit ineffective episcopal leaders), to a set apart Bishop (executive oversight), to most petitions in between. And the plan for reorganization? It never even got out of committee. Last time we checked, there was a small group huddled around it with oxygen and IV bags hoping for the best. We are waiting to see if they can bring Lazarus back to life later in the week. Even if they do, it may be declared DBA by Friday. That reads: Death By Amendment.

The reason change is not coming is that change requires trust, and that is something we are low on at the denominational level of the UMC. Liberals don’t trust conservatives. The central conference delegates don’t know what to trust from the U.S. jurisdictions. The west doesn’t trust the east. The south doesn’t trust the north. We have people counting what racial groups and genders talk and for how long because we don’t trust that time will be shared at the microphone. You get the idea. In this environment, conspiracy theories abound about what is happening and what is really behind what is happening.

Today I continue my earnest prayers for the UMC. We have four days left to get through a boatload of petitions. What a shame if we came all this way to leave everything the way it is. Our hope is that some fresh wind will blow through the Tampa Convention Center, allowing us to so trust in the Lord, that we can begin to trust each other, and agree on things that might be a blessing for our future together.


Tom Berlin

Rev. Tom Berlin is the Lead Pastor of Floris United Methodist Church. Tom was raised in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley and has lived in Virginia most of his life. He is a graduate of Virginia Tech and his Master of Divinity is from the Candler School of Theology at Emory University. He has co-authored three books and is the author of several small group studies. Tom and his wife Karen have four daughters.

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