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January 29, 2012 - Of Kings and Fearful Things

Sermon Audio: 

“Of Kings and Fearful Things”

For more than half my life, I have been United Methodist. I love this denomination. I love our connectionalism, conferencing and Social Principles; our singing and our potlucks; our diversity; our quadrilateral and so much more that makes us uniquely United Methodist. In late April and early May this year, our denomination will be meeting for our General Conference. General Conference is comprised of elected delegates from all the annual and central conferences for a total of nearly 1000 people. These delegates are half clergy and half laity. General conference is the decision-making body for the denomination and the official voice of the denomination.

General conference established and continues to revise the book of discipline. Foundational to what it means to be United Methodist is the importance of both clergy and laity for leadership and decision-making. Administrative oversight is provided by the “general superintendency” – the bishops of our church. Bishops preside, facilitate at annual, jurisdictional and general conference – but they do not have vote at these conferences. Bishops appoint clergy to serve churches and the clergy in full membership of an annual conference vote on persons to be ordained and accepted into full membership. While every institution and every system has flaws and imperfections, the United Methodist Church has been able to maintain a fairly decent balance between the superintending responsibilities of the bishops and the authority of the laity and clergy of the conferences and denomination. There will be legislation before our General Conference which could dramatically shift that balance of power into the hands of the bishops. I fear that we may compromise some of the core values of United Methodism if all the proposed legislation is adopted

. As I read through some of the legislation and learned about the proposed changes to our United Methodist church, the Biblical text that wormed its way into my brain and refused to leave is the text we heard read from I Samuel (8:4-20). The story in I Samuel is the story of Israelites who were afraid. They had been in the promised land for several generations. They had a cultural system which shaped their identity. They had laws and regulations which shaped their communal life. In times of crisis, leaders emerged to lead them through the crisis and return to a place of stability (Joshua, Gideon, Deborah, etc). But the Israelites were a people in the midst of other cultures with other values that were a threat to the Israelites way of life. So the Israelites longed for a king. They wanted an identifiable leader that they could look to for protection and salvation. They looked at neighboring peoples and the Israelites wanted rulers like their neighbors had. Maybe they thought a king would give them more prestige in the world. Maybe they thought that if they had a king, the king would be a powerful enough figure to keep trouble at bay. Maybe they wanted the comfort of a tangible person to turn to in difficulty. Maybe they had forgotten that God was their defense and shield, a strong deliverer in times of trouble. Maybe they had forgotten the importance of trusting in God for guidance and salvation. So, the Israelites came to Samuel, the high priest, with their demands for a king. Samuel was appalled at the request because he understood that having a king would compromise the Israelites allegiance to God. Samuel knew that having a king would compromise the faith of the Israelites because they would turn more and more to the king to help than to God. Samuel recognized that the Israelites would lose the strength of the faith that bound them in community and would replace faith in God with citizenship and patriotism. Samuel also knew that corruption goes hand in hand with power and that establishing a monarchy was opening a door to misuse and abuse of power. Samuel does anoint a king for the Israelites and so the monarchy was established. Some of the successive kings were kind and benevolent, but many were corrupt and ineffective, many misused and abused their power – including the most famous of the Israelite kings, David.

One of the proposals that will be in front of General Conference this year, is legislation to have a “set-aside bishop”, a non-residential bishop to lead the denomination. In other words, the Council of Bishops would elect one of their members to serve as the leader of the denomination without any responsibilities for superintending an annual conference. Currently, active bishops serve one year terms as President of the Council of Bishops concurrent with their duties in their assigned annual conferences. The proposal before the general conference is to have a Bishop elected to four year terms to lead the denomination, to be the “Head of Communion” for the United Methodist Church. Additional legislation would grant this new leader a multi-million dollar budget to implement a program of the Council of Bishops known as the “Call to Action” – a program that has never been approved by General Conference, but is already being imposed by bishops on local congregations. Further, there is legislation to do away with guaranteed appointment for tenured clergy.

There is legislation to place in the hands of the bishop of an annual conference the authority to deny a pastor an appointment without going through the process that is currently in place to handle ineffective clergy involving the Board of Ordained Ministry and peer colleagues.

Additionally, legislation is being presented to remove decision making responsibility from the boards and agencies of our church and place that power in the hands of 15 people, one third of which would be bishops. I am deeply troubled by the legislation which will be before our General Conference.

I believe that the impetus for much of this legislation comes from a place of deep fear and concern for the future of our denomination. United Methodists are afraid because membership has been declining for decades. United Methodists are afraid because the economy is bad and it is affecting congregations. United Methodists are afraid because we do not see clearly how to fix all these problems. I share these worries. Some United Methodists have looked at the world around and seen our neighbors like the Catholics, Anglicans, Episcopalians, Presbyterians and decided – hey, they have a head of communion, we should have one, too. In those denominations, with their polity, a head of communion works for them. For United Methodists, we have always held that no one individual can speak for the denomination; that we value a corporate body as the head of our communion (our general conference).

As United Methodists, we strive to honor the voice of both clergy and laity in the decision-making of our churches. A set aside bishop shifts that balance of power. Some United Methodists have looked at the world around and seen our neighbors, like business and industry and decided that the church needs to be run as if it were a business. The council of bishops hired secular analysts to mine years’ worth of statistical reports to determine which congregations were vital congregations. However, the secular analysts asked the bishops to tell them the markers to look for and that is what they went hunting for in statistical reports that only measure head counts and dollar counts of local congregations. Based on the findings of these secular analysts, the council of bishops has developed a “Call to Action” plan that will implement business style practices for all local congregations.

Now let me say that there are some ideas in the Call to Action that are valuable and bear due consideration. Nevertheless, it is a plan that is built on business models with business values that calls for the United Methodist Church to be conformed to the business world of late 20th century United States. Are there things that the church can learn from secular businesses? Absolutely. However, churches are not franchises – as I have heard one bishop refer to congregations. And there is much in the life and health of a congregation that cannot be measured for entry into a statistical report.

I think of 2 little churches I served years ago – the district superintendent has suggested that maybe these churches needed to merge. I knew within weeks of ministry with these congregations, that a merger was not something they were interested in – each of these churches, on a regular basis had four generations of the same families in worship – there was value in that in the life of these little churches. I think of a church I served that had a significant intercessory prayer ministry – that ministry undergirded the life of that congregation in powerful ways. How does one measure the prayer life of a congregation for a statistical report? I think of churches in small towns across this country – small towns that may be shrinking themselves and the place the church has in the community to offer solace in times of trouble and celebration in good times. I think of Dumbarton – our congregation – how do we measure that strength of the community that is shared here? How do we measure the significance of our ministries for justice, peace, and human rights?

Taken together, the legislation before general conference threatens core values of United Methodism – the value of the inclusivity, the value of shared leadership and decision-making, the value of every voice, the value of being a Spirit-led denomination, the value of grassroots power, the value of a corporate body as the head of our denomination, the value of God being the one to whom we give allegiance.

I share this with you today, because I believe we all need to be informed about General Conference and the decisions that will need to be made there. There is other legislation that will be before General Conference that I am excited about and I hope is approved by General Conference – legislation to remove the exclusionary language against gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender persons, legislation calling for our Board of Pensions to Divest from corporations that make money from the occupation of Palestine, legislation that would grant pastors and congregations the right to perform weddings for all couples in the jurisdictions where Marriage Equality has become a legal.

I invite us all to keep informed about General Conference – read the blogs, follow MFSA on Facebook or Twitter, check out the General conference website – talk to folks who will be attending General Conference as delegates or staff or volunteers. And I invite us to pray – pray that fear will not lead us to rash decisions, pray that we will remain true to our values of shared leadership and power, pray that this will be the General conference where 40 years of discrimination against LGBT persons will be overturned.

Pray that the Holy Spirit will work through and in spite of the individuals gathered for General Conference to shape our beloved church for the common good. In Samuel’s day, the Israelites thought a king would save them and help them secure their place in the world – that plan did not work out so well. In this day, the United Methodist church will not be saved by a set aside bishop nor by giving away power to the bishops nor by trying to turn the church into a business. The church is not a little Christian producing factory nor is the church a sacrament franchise.

The church is the community of faith, the Body of Christ, the foretaste of the Beloved Community. We are flawed. We fail. We make mistakes. We sin and fall short of the glory of God and by grace, by GRACE we are saved. Mary Kay Totty January 29, 2012