This is the topic that Jason chose (from Tony’s blog) for the Sunday Q&A session with our Scholar in Residence. When the topic was first presented to the congregation you can imagine the range of reactions. There were three reactions that I received and interestingly the reactions were evenly spread between the three.
“What do you mean we are inviting someone who would insult us? Is he coming here (Aldersgate UMC) to bash our denomination?”
“Well duh! We don’t need to pay someone to tell us the truth.”
“I’m confused, is he talking about us or the Methodist Church?”
We opened up the evening with a meal (provided by Sinplicity Catering), then quickly moved to some opening remarks by Tony, and then a conversation between Tony and the audience.
When I introduced Tony and the evenings topic, I referenced GC2012. I was shocked to find out that approximately 1/3 (hand pole) people in attendance knew what the General Conference did, and only 1/3 of those people knew how often the General Conference met! There were only a handful, maybe 8 (including myself, Jason, and DP) who actually knew what happened in Tampa this past May. Tony even recognized the lack of knowledge of the local congregation. He said, “It’s surprising to know how little of you know what happened at the United Methodist General Conference”.
With the backdrop of General Conference set and the context in which Tony made his statement about the UMC the conversation began (before Tony began his opening remarks he told those gathered that we would not be offended if they left, booed, threw rotten food, or even verified what he said online). Tony argued that everything a church does should be driven by the gospel. I do not think that any Christian out there would argue that point. However, Tony believes that denominations, due to their bureaucratic nature and love for committees, are in the business of self-preservation rather than sharing the message of reconciliation.
Tony drew a line of distinction between the relationship local congregations have with the large UMC and the relationship clergy have with the UMC. And it became clear that there was a large gap. The majority of those present that evening attend Aldersgate not because they feel a overwhelming allegiance to the UMC. No, they have been attending Aldersgate because they love the (local) church itself. Very few realized that because of the itinerant system that the UMC uses that clergy are more connected to UMC, and that the bishop holds ultimate power when appointment clergy to local churches (although, in many cases the local DS is consulted during this process). So in fact what is true for local congregant is now partially reversed for the clergy’s relationship with overall denomination.
For me, a seminary student and candidate for ordination, this relationship between the congregation and denomination was an eye-opening moment in the conversation. No wonder local congregations are not worried about paying their apportionments the same in which clergy are. For clergy it can be a “career move” and for the local congregation there is no penalty. Even appointments are based upon the overall success (or lack of) a pastor as they lead their congregation. If congregations are not as “attached” to the denomination as their clergy are required to be does the congregation really understand what is required of UMC clergy (elders)?
I asked Tony if there was any incentive for seminary students and younger clergy to stay with the denomination now that guaranteed appointments were taken away at GC2012 (pending Judicial review which is expected in October 2012). I should note that only the clergy in the room (and my wife, because as she proof-reads my work she too is earning a M.Div.) knew this change had occurred, which should not be surprising based on the initial survey from the beginning of the evening. Tony’s reaction to the question was what I had expected, “there is no carrot at the end of the stick anymore without guaranteed appointments”. So with that I will wait to come to a conclusion on this particular issue until the final judicial decision is made in October.
The conversation was brought to an end after almost 2 hours of discussion. Between hosting an unabashed theologian and having audience full of opinionated church members I knew that if we did not wrap the evening up we could have been there until early in the morning. The atmosphere as people were leaving was upbeat and optimistic. Tony had disarmed the group and in way by the end of the evening everyone was on the same page, most in agreement with Tony. “We need a system where laity and clergy are in reconciled relationships.” The local church should have the same vested interest in the larger denomination that clergy are required to have. This point was not argued by many, although there were a few who did not believe that reconciliation in this particular area would occur because allegiances were closer to the local congregation than the global denomination.
I want to thank Tony for his insights throughout the weekend, his patience and flexibility in discussion topics., and his family for allowing us to spend time with him while they were in D.C. on their family vacation. For a seminary student studying the emerging church this past weekend was a once in a lifetime opportunity to spend the amount of time that I was able to with a leader in the emerging church. This weekend highlighted the need for conversation between church outsiders and “insiders” to occur regularly to allow all parties to have a fresh perspective of the current condition of denominations and the global church.