The UMC: A “People-Centered” Church?

HiRho Park, Baltimore-Washington Annual Conferencewellsprings_editorialcircle

Many United Methodists came home from Florida feeling confused and disappointed about what happened during the 2012 General Conference.

Leaders of The United Methodist Church came from all around the world—988 delegates, the Council of Bishops, and agency staff—hoping for fruitful results from this gathering. Even though we did not all agree on a few critical issues, such as changing the structure of the church, removing security appointment of elders in good standing, divestment in support of Palestinian Christians, and the full participation of LGBT United Methodists into the life of the church, somehow we all knew that changes should happen related to those issues, because we all acknowledged that a living entity such as The United Methodist Church is always in the process of evolvement. However, I felt that when the time came to change the structure of the church, the questions were, How? and, Who is going to be a sacrificial lamb in the midst of unpredictable economic downturn?

According to my personal observation during the General Conference, United Methodists were so occupied with changing the structure for the sake of saving dollars that we lost the sense of what the church is all about. The church is about people; it is there as a gift from God for humanity. The church is not about what people believe in terms of its structure as an institution, but it is about how people experience it as a faith community. It is a place and a space that reminds people what it means to empower one another by touching each other’s souls through the grace of Jesus Christ; oftentimes, the spiritual connection of humanity is forgotten in the midst of the hustles and bustles of life.

Even though the decision has been in question regarding its constitutionality, the General Conference passed “no security appointment” for elders in good standing, which has been a major concern for clergywomen and racial-ethnic clergy, especially in the United States. The covenant of security appointment has been United Methodists’ expression of standing on the side of the marginalized to provide a vision of an alternative human community—especially in the U.S., where racism and sexism have been prevalent even in local churches. A few Central Conference delegates with whom I had conversations about the issue told me they did not understand racial-ethnic dynamics and women’s issues in the U.S. I was heartbroken for all women and men who have been so faithful in their ministries, and those who led this denomination to where we are on the cutting-edge issues related to women and racial-ethnic justice-related ministries, when the delegates did not even want to give an opportunity for the motion to reconsider the question of “no security appointment.” In the midst of the merging process of the General Commission on the Status and Role of Women and the General Commission on Religion and Race into the Committee on Inclusiveness, which was not finalized after all, due to the unconstitutionality of Plan UMC, I clearly heard the answer to the question, Who is going to be a sacrificial lamb in the midst of unpredictable economic downturn?

As members of a Christian denomination, we United Methodists pride ourselves on being an inclusive church, which is stated in article IV of our constitution. John Wesley’s sermon on the “Catholic Spirit” laid a foundation for being an inclusive church, the prerequisite of which is intentionality. Wesley acknowledged that diversity is a fact of life; therefore, his understanding of “unity” as a “catholic church” is not an ideology or “speculative or practical latitudinarianism,” but a Christian practice that requires the discipline of intentionality based on “the energy of love.”1Where was the intentionality with respect to keeping those who are outside of the norm enthused by “the energy of love” during the General Conference? Where was our intention to embrace the least and the lost, not because we feel sorry about them, but because we respect their dignity and honor life itself, which God has created?

As far as I know, no Christian denomination has a policy such as cross-racial and cross-cultural appointments other than the UMC. The UMC is also the leading denomination in ordaining women—we have close to 10,000 clergywomen in our denomination. The main missional focus of The United Methodist Church traditionally has been justice issues in reference to the Social Principles. The United Methodist Church has been a faith community that strives to be a space of empowerment for the marginalized rather than being a site of marginalization of racial-ethnic people and women, which traditional hierarchical religious institutions easily fall into. Have United Methodists taken seriously the oppressive economic structures of the marginalized, and power dynamics, in the restructuring process? When I reflect on General Conference 2012, I wonder whether United Methodists played the role of being a healing community and promoted redemptive hope for a new era of justice and peace. Is apathy so great within the UMC that we are losing a clear consciousness?

I think The United Methodist Church has been at a spiritual impasse; but I also believe that God has given extra time for us to figure out the path we need to take from here, as a church. In spite of being who we are, in spite of what we have done wrong, in spite of breaking each other’s hearts, we are still United Methodists; we are still believing in the same God, and this God loves us all. We have to move forward, and God is leading us through this impasse.

During General Conference, I wondered what United Methodists can do to make this church a “people-centered” church. What I mean by that is, how can we put a priority on being a church based on upholding the need and dignity of humanity? Of course, the tactical aspect of connectionalism in The United Methodist Church is represented by “high efficiency, productivity, and creativity” gained by “collaboration, structure, and procedure” as Russell Richey mentioned in his book Marks of Methodism.2 However, connectionalism is really about building a community of love, through openness and adaptability, marks of true connectionalism. The covenantal commitment to connectionalism allows the UMC to practice an “ethic of equity and proportionality,” which is well expressed through sharing apportionments, a kind of collective stewardship, which enables the UMC to provide worldwide mission and support clergy. 3 However, without building a community of people that meets the need of others—especially “the least of these”—with compassion and love, I doubt that United Methodists will be “salt of the earth” and “leaven of bread.”

How can a church connect different people so we may accentuate their religious, cultural, social, and political uniqueness under the lordship of Jesus? A church in a global context may need a new way of forming a Christian community by providing space for people to converge their differences without reservation. I believe that one possible way for a church to play this role successfully is to place people and their needs in the center of its ecclesiology, not within doctrines or policy of a church. Church doctrines demand people’s interpretation. But when a church puts people in the center of their concern, it is being a community; it cannot avoid paying attention to the importance of human experiences that contain suffering of humanity, the tragic experiences in life. One of those tragic experiences may be the result of being judged based on stereotypes, especially in the case of women and racial-ethnic people. As a contour of a global church, how can The United Methodist Church respect particularities of diverse leadership styles and cultural confluence within Christianity, while at the same time keeping its theological integrity and “catholic Spirit”? Perhaps we may want to ask, “Who is the church?” rather than “What is the church?” as feminist theologian Natalie K. Watson once asked. 4

Jesus said, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly” (John 10:10). According to this statement, the purpose of Jesus’ ministry was to bring “life” to people, no matter who they are. Jesus placed individuals and their need to live abundant lives in the center of his ministry. Jesus was willing to die for this reason, providing abundant life to people regardless of the unique societal positions that were imposed upon them by social and cultural norms related to gender, status, sexual orientation, and political association. What The United Methodist Church may need to learn is how to carry out the intentional practice of putting people’s needs in the center as a theological subject. The subjects of salvation, ethical living, Christology, and ecclesiology are all important for constructing theology. However, without people who need to know and learn about God’s grace, what is the use of theology?

Locating the people in the center of theology and the life of the church is a practice of faith because the very existence of humanity represents God’s love for them, and they hold the image of God within human vessels. The church affirms the embodiment of God’s grace upon humanity in baptism and confirms the image of God within each person as congregations share Holy Communion as a community. Moving the UMC forward may not be possible unless we realize that our faith is not alive until we learn to respond to human conditions of suffering with concrete actions taken with intentionality—an intentional concrete action can start with me today, from where I am.

1. John Wesley, “Catholic Spirit,” in The Works of John Wesley, Jackson ed. (CD-Rom), vol. 5, sermon 39, 492–504.

2. Russell E. Richey, United Methodism and American Culture, vol. 5, Marks of Methodism: Theology in Ecclesial Practice (Nashville: Abingdon Press, 2005), 18–19.

3. Ibid., 29, 30.

4. Natalie K. Watson, Introducing Feminist Ecclesiology (Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2002), 38.

2013
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2013