Untied Methodist (John 11:44)

A working preacher in Washington, D.C., wrestles with Scripture, the (sigh) United Methodist Church and his soul.

Location: Washington, D.C., United States

Currently the pastor of Foundry UMC in Washington, DC, a wonderful and blessed reconciling congregation. Formerly a United Methodist communicator and editor. Formerly a campus minister. Formerly pastor in Philadelphia for 24 years. Graduate of Albright College and Boston University of Theology. Husband of Jane Malone and father of David, Nancy and Naomi. Resident of Capitol Hill, a wonderful place to live! Articles published in Zion's Herald, a must-read magazine for Methodists, a variety of United Methodist publications, the Christian Century, newspapers.


Laying Down our Methodist Swords -- A "thank you" to Kathryn Johnson

I have just ordered a copy of the Zion Herald magazine's new book Hardball on Holy Ground: The Religious Right v. the Mainline for the Church's Soul, edited by Stephen Swecker. Swecker is a smart and balanced guy, a thoughtful and skilled editor, so I will read the book. Still, the appearance of another book on this topic makes me nervous.

Like United Methodism @ Risk: A Wake Up Call written by Leon Howell, I worry its very existence will foment more heat than light. While the so-called "renewal" groups in the mainline churches need to be held accountable, as do we all, fighting fire with fire makes it likely we will burn down the whole village.

Publicity materials for Hardball include a quote by Bob Edgar, head of the National Council of Churches: "Methodists, Presbyterians, Episcopalians and others will be dismayed to learn that the churches they love are targets of a campaign of destabilization. We ignore this reality at our peril."

I suppose Edgar might be accurate about some of the players in the mainline church renewal movements: those professional fundraisers who raise money by playing on the anxiety of ordinary people confused by changes they don't understand. The fundraising letters, written I assume by some firm specializing in doing this, pander shamelessly to people's fears.

But I also know other members of the renewal movements whom I believe --even when we disagree on basic concerns and perspectives-- to be fully sincere, honorable, and in love with the United Methodist Church. They, like those of us working for a more inclusive church, are not conducting "a campaign of destabilization," but are trying to build a denomination consistent with their understanding of the Gospel.

In a review of United Methodism @ Risk, Swecker and Andrew Weaver likewise go too far in labeling the motives of people with whom we disagree: "... the political right seeks to gain top leadership positions in the church by spreading misleading information and incendiary allegations against organizations and individuals. These groups employ the propaganda method of 'wedge issues' like abortion and homosexuality to cause confusion, dissension and division. Mr. Howell persuasively demonstrates that the IRD [Institute for Religion and Democracy] and other self-proclaimed 'renewal groups' are uninterested in genuine dialogue, desiring only to impose their belief systems on the target churches."

I am afraid that this kind of polarizing weakens us. It gives us permission to be a tad baser and more extreme than we might otherwise be. They are so bad, we think, that we can --nay, must-- nail them back. We become more and more like what we suppose our enemy to be.

This is why I am mightily impressed by the address Kathryn Johnson, executive director of the Methodist Federation for Social Action (MFSA), delivered at the organization's Voices of Faith conference held last April in Los Angeles. I have thought about her speech often since I heard her deliver it. What she had to say was a powerful reminder of our self-definition as followers of Jesus Christ. Many of us in her audience last April have been so frustrated that, I suspect, we may have begun to forget who we are.

Entitled Lest We Lose Sight of the Vision: Laying Down Our Swords Within the United Methodist Church, Johnson's speech draws heavily on the work of Roger Conner of Search for Common Ground, an organization that mediates between warring parties on a global basis.

Johnson lays out four guidelines suggested by Conner about how to creatively engage those with whom we strongly disagree:

1. Be passionate. It is okay to be passionate about what we believe to be true, just, and beautiful.

2. Be honest about who we are. It is important that we state clearly and directly the positions we believe in and the positions we believe to be wrong. We don't need to fudge or apologize.

3. Be respectful. Here there are two sub-points: a) Call people by the name they want to be called. If my name is "pro-choice," don't call me "pro-abortion," Johnson says. If there are those who choose to call themselves a "renewal group," call them by their name and expect them to live up to it. b) Do not speculate on other's motives. If someone says they want the church to be more Christlike, do not assume they really are just interested in power. Accusing others of base motives is terribly divisive and often wrong.

4. Be truthful. Here there are four sub-points: a) No guilt by association. I find us doing this more and more. So-and-so, who was on the board of this-or-that group, was also a member of this-or-that awful organization, so the group we don't like must have the same horrible agenda. Johnson asks us to stop doing this. b) No caricature, exaggeration, or "straw-man" debate techniques. c) Hold people who disagree with us up to the standard of their highest values. d) Hold ourselves to the standards of our highest values. This is exactly what Johnson is doing in her speech; she is holding us to the standard we say we believe in.

Johnson adds one more guideline of her own. She says: "I believe that we also need to recognize the truth in one another. ... I believe, and I am aware that all present may not share this belief, that each of us, conservative or progressive, Good Newser or MFSAer, that each of us holds some truth."

This is a gutsy speech. A lot of us who were in the room to hear it were tired and frustrated. We have worked too long and too hard for too little progress. Johnson would have probably gotten a more enthusiastic response if she had chosen to go on the attack.

But I am convinced Johnson's speech is the word we need to hear at this point in the struggle. Not that we will stop working for the change that needs to come, and will come. But, in the process, it is critical that we remain graceful rather than accusatory, transparent rather than manipulative, assertive rather than reactive, direct rather than hostile.

Kathryn Johnson, thank you.


News from Zimbabwe

Friends report that Zimbabwe is peaceful despite a draconian government blitz that has destroyed "informal shelters" (wood shacks that people pieced together for housing in high density suburbs), food stands, and shops.

The operation, which began about three weeks ago, is being called "Operation Murambatsvina" or "Operation Restore Order." It has apparently displaced tens of thousands of people from their homes and livelihoods.

An editorial in the Herald, the government-operated newspaper, justifies the action by saying that the unlicensed structures and vendors had become havens for illegal activity and were not paying taxes. Tanzanian President Benjamin Mkapa strongly defends his friend, President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, by stating that the country's "secondary economy" and "parallel market" (sometimes called the black market) are ruining Zimbabwe's economy. Mkapa blames the secondary economy for Zimbabwe's run-away inflation. (See story here.)

Other reports, however, are suggesting that the blitz may be motivated by the fact that the high density suburbs are stronghold of support for the opposition party -- the Movement for Democratic Change-- that has been attempting to unseat the ruling Zanu (PF) party. It has similarly been suggested that the government is punishing the high density suburbs for their support of the opposition party in general elections held in March.

The United Methodist Church in Zimbabwe is 107 years old and has been a major presence in the nation. United Methodist schools are very highly regarded. Many of Zimbabwe's first generation of indigenous leaders who won the nation's independence were educated in United Methodist schools. The United Methodist Church has also been a primary provider of health care, care for orphans, and agricultural and economic development.

Zimbabwe is also the home of Africa University, a United Methodist school begun in 1992 that draws students from throughout the continent. The Zimbabwian UMC has over 100,000 members and is experiencing continuing rapid growth.

Jane and I have visited Zimbabwe numerous times, most recently during the 2002 presidential election. Foundry's Minister of Music and Worship Dr. Eileen Guenther has taught at Africa University. A Volunteer in Mission (VIM) team from Foundry is scheduled to travel to Zimbabwe this summer.

Apparently some VIM teams have begun to cancel their plans for fear of violence erupting but friends on the ground there report that there are no signs of violence. When ordered to do so, people living in the high density suburbs actually participated in tearing down their homes and dragging the wood into the streets where it was burned.

A friend advises Americans not to act like reporters --Zimbabwian officials are very hostile to the press-- but says that otherwise it feels completely safe in Zimbabwe.

I hope United Methodists will keep newly elected Bishop Eben K. Nhiwatiwa and all of our sisters and brothers of Zimbabwe in our prayers. Please request the prayers of your congregations.


The Best UMC Idea I Have Heard Lately

A group of United Methodist Church leaders want to discover what United Methodists are passionate about. What is our "main thing"?

A bishops' task force on unity and the new Connectional Table, a body established by the 2004 General Conference to coordinate the work of the general agencies, have begun an effort to discern "the main thing that we [United Methodists] are all so passionate about" so that "if we can move on the main thing, some unity will occur as we become more intentional in working together," according to Bishop John Hopkins, chair of the table. (Quoted in an UMNS story here.)

To do this, they are using a process called "Appreciative Inquiry" that is increasingly popular with major nonprofits, the military, and corporations as they plan their futures.

Wonderful idea. It deserves our support and applause. It is the only thing I have heard about lately that has the possibility of moving us past the several stand-offs we seem to be in -- what Lyle Schaller calls "a score of lines in the sand" that have been drawn in "our complicated intradenominational quarrel." (See his book "The Ice Cube is Melting: What Really Is At Risk in United Methodism?")

In the essay "Five Theories of Change Embedded in Appreciative Inquiry," Gervase R. Bushe describes Appreciative Inquiry as a way of helping to shape an organization's future by researching people's peak experiences and high points as a part of the movement or group.

"The key data collection innovation of appreciative inquiry," Bushe writes, "is the collection of people's stories of something at its best. If we are interested in team development, we collect stories of people's best team experiences. If we are interested in the development of an organization we ask about their peak experience in that organization. If enhanced leadership is our goal, we collect stories of leadership at its best. These stories are collectively discussed in order to create new, generative ideas or images that aid in developmental change of the collectivity discussing them."

The U.S. Navy has used Appreciative Inquiry. They interviewed Navy officers (find interview questions here) in order, as interview guidelines put it, "to discover what is happening when we are operating at our best. In particular, our goal is to locate, illuminate, and understand the distinctive values, practices, and skills which are in operation when the Navy is operating at its best."

Interview questions included ones like this: "As you look back over your entire career in the Navy, think of a moment when you felt particularly successful, a time you had an influence on the outcome of something that was important, a time when you were effective in making a difference that mattered. It could have been a creative idea you imagined or an action you initiated. Perhaps it was something that made a difference to one individual. Or perhaps it was something that impacted your unit's mission. What's important is that this is a moment in which you felt most alive, most involved, effective, impactful, in which you felt you made a difference. Tell the story of what happened."

The whole list of questions the Navy used is worth browsing.

What might we learn if we asked every United Methodist pastor and lay leader these kinds of questions? I suspect we would learn what it is, really, that makes us Methodists and it would not be about keeping categories of people out of ordained ministry or fighting for power in our annual conferences.

I wish the bishops' task force on unity and the Connectional Table well. I think they are on the right track. I am eager to find out what they learn.