The following is a commentary by Bishop Coyner of the Indiana Annual Conference. Bishop Coyner will lead the 2012 Kentucky Conference Clergy School, being held September 17-18 at the Annual Conference Office in Crestwood. Reprinted with permission from www.inumc.org.
Sometimes I am a slow learner, and sometimes I miss the obvious signs. But when the same thing happens to me three times, I begin to catch on and to notice a trend.
Three times in the past two weeks I have heard pastors whom I deeply respect say something like this: “For the first time in my ministry, I am discouraged about our United Methodist Church.” For one it was about the dysfunction of General Conference this past spring. For another it was all about hearing too much cynicism from fellow clergy. And for another the “tipping point” as he called it was the declaration of the Western Jurisdiction that they will no longer obey or enforce the stance of our Book of Discipline related to homosexuality.
All three are persons of high integrity, fruitful and faithful ministry, and persons whose opinions I respect. All three told me, as one of them put it, “I have always been a company man, a supporter of our denomination, but I feel like I am going over to the dark side and joining those who have lost hope in our United Methodist structures.”
How do I respond to those three and to the many others they probably represent? My first response, almost a gut response, was to say, “I know what you mean, because I get discouraged by our structures and divisions, too.” My second response was to affirm that we have problems, and to ask for their suggestions about how to move forward (interestingly, none of them had any ideas about how to solve our issues – which probably reflected their own discouragement). My final response has been to pray: to pray for our United Methodist Church as a whole, for our United Methodist clergy in particular, and for God’s guidance to come upon all of us.
These are tough times, in many ways:
- Our U.S. culture is no longer “church friendly” and supportive of our Christian values. Our communities, even here in Indiana, do not automatically reserve a “church night” or make other spaces for our churches to operate. Trust of every institution is low. Trust of clergy has been damaged (and rightfully so) by the misconduct of some clergy who have besmirched the reputation of all clergy.
- Our United Methodist Church is in the midst of an identity crisis. We have always talked gladly about becoming a “global church” but now that the African branches of the UMC are out-pacing the U.S. branches, we are not sure how to handle that global shift. We celebrate their growth, but we are reluctant to let go of our own power to control decisions for the denomination.
- Our churches (all denominations) are aging, and we no longer have that sense of being “young and vibrant” like we once did. Even though having lots of senior adults means that we have lots of money and resources for today, we also know that every funeral of a long-time member means a financial loss that will not easily be made up by younger, less affluent members. Across the U.S., polls show that most Americans believe that the next generation or two will not be better off than the previous one, and that is a new phenomenon which also applies to the church.
- Our United Methodist Church seems hopelessly deadlocked over social issues like homosexuality, especially whenever we get into a legislative mode. On a local congregational level, those social issues are not a big deal. Most every congregation welcomes persons of all types and stripes, but once we move into legislative mode and start voting on issues, we get caught into the same kind of political strife which plagues Washington, D.C.
- Our United Methodist Church is a “connectional church” during a time in history when separatism, individualism, and privatism are the trend, which is ironic given all the attention we pay to networking, the internet, and social media (many scholars believe that the rise of the internet has made us less socially connected and more “locked into our cubicles”). It is not easy being an advocate for a church which is connectional in nature, when everyone else is separating.
- Our United Methodist Church has always been the church of the “both/and” – which is a hard stance to maintain when most movements today seek the simple answer, the bumper sticker approach, and the 15 second sound bite. It is hard to converse or preach from a balanced perspective, when so many are seeking a one-sided answer. In the midst of those demands, how do we maintain our hope for social and personal holiness, for evangelism and social action, for faith and works, for sacraments and freedom of the Spirit?
Given those difficult realities, it is easy to get discouraged, but I urge you: don’t go over to the dark side, don’t give up on our UMC, don’t give up on each other. This is a time for us to be honest with one another about our problems and issues. This is a time for us to work to find new solutions. Above all, this is a time to pray for God’s guidance and light. Don’t let the darkness overcome.