Thursday, March 22, 2012

Are we really empowering the voiceless, or pushing them out

(Today's post comes from Will Ed Green a seminarian, local pastor, and young adult leader in the UMC)

Several years ago, I was elected by a body of young people to serve as one of the co-chairs of the Division on Ministries with Young People (DMYP).  I want to be clear that, though I realize no one can be completely separated from the roles in which they function, the words I am writing are not written on behalf of the DMYP.  They are written from the heart of a committed and concerned United Methodist pastor and young person.  

Because of my work in the church and my presence in seminary, I have had a unique opportunity to observe the Call to Action from beginning to end.  Like the good Metho-geek (this word SHOULD be in the Merriam-Webster) I am, I have reviewed all the legislation being offered by different organizations and individuals to re-structure the church.  And, as a member of the DMYP, I have had the chance to prayerfully and critically reflect on all of these things.

The alphabet soup of the Church aside (because we certainly love our letters, i.e. DMYP of the GBOD of the UMC, etc.), the Call to Action and subsequent legislation have raised a few flags in my own reflection.  So, in an attempt to be faithful to the connection, I offer them for your consideration.

Though the theology, and I would argue the Adaptive Challenge, adopted by the Call to Action make perfect sense, it is unclear to me how those things informed the creation of the legislation being offered to the General Conference.  For instance, the Call to Action clearly emphasizes the role of connectional theology, yet the proposals were not considered by the majority of the connection.  Outside the Connectional Table and the Council of Bishops (who were not given the opportunity to discuss or debate the legislation in their meetings), the boards and agencies of our denomination, let alone conference leaders and many voices from outside the United States, went unheard.  This, to me, seems to indicate a process that was hurried and not given the necessary time (as an earlier post on this blog discusses) for people to ‘chew’ on what was being offered. 

One of the responses offered for the way the process was handled is the need for a sense of urgency in re-structuring the church.  Now, don’t get me wrong, if my alphabet soup comment wasn’t heard with sarcasm earlier, that’s how it was intended.  We have one of the most complicated and confusing structures of any denominational system I’ve studied.  Yet I’d caution us on this sense of ‘urgency’, which without careful consideration is a slightly more comfortable word for ‘anxiety.’  Truth of the matter is that when our denomination was created out of the merger of 1968, the structure was formed in back room meetings on the undersides of napkins in what was, understandably, a highly anxious atmosphere.  And we’ve been trying to clean up the mess for the last 44 years.  So tell me, how is a structure, rushed through consideration in large part due to falling global church giving and atrophying congregations, supposed to be ‘urgent’ but non-anxious?  I’d caution us, as I have my own congregation, against responding to anxious times with anxious measures lest we leave for our successors the same mess we’re trying to fix.

            Another one of the arguments I’ve heard specifically for the Call to Action is the flexibility and the adaptability it offers the church related to structure, programming, and function.  What I understand this to mean is that by not mandating certain disciplinary responsibilities, procedures, or expectations, we can be more flexible in what we do in the future. In my local church, I’m known for being more likely to ‘bend over backwards’ than stand up straight when it comes to liturgy and strategy for ministry, so I can appreciate the power that flexibility and adaptability offer.  However, I also realize after three years of ministry in a multi-cultural, multi-ethnic congregation that there’s a thin line between adaptability and marginalization.  Let me explain.  Experience teaches us that, for folk who are traditionally marginalized, there is a greater chance for marginalization when expectation, practices, and policies aren’t clearly outlined.  Example:  when expectations for diversity and representation aren’t named, groups selected for participation tend to be silenced.  Here’s a specific example from the legislation:

Page 948 of the Advance Daily Christian Advocate establishes a body called the Advisory Committee for Young People’s Ministry.  At this point, I realize I’m toeing a thin line between speaking and sounding territorial... I suppose I’ll just have to apologize.  Anyway, this body is established with no purpose or function other than annual reporting to the body called the General Council for Oversight and Strategy and the Council of Bishops.  And here’s the crazy thing, they’re given no budget for meeting, no work to accomplish (unlike current Disciplinary language for the DMYP), and no staffing.  Now, I know we live in a world of Harry Potter, but I’ve yet to discover the magic that can miraculously get 68 people (that the size of the Advisory Committee) from all over the world together for a meeting when they have no a) no budget, b) no staffing to help arrange travel, and c) have no real reason for gathering in the first place.  Was your youth group ever sent to the Church basement?  Sound familiar?  And I’ve been assured by individuals involved in writing the legislation that, under their watch, there will be no more boards, agencies, or autonomous structures created. 

My point is simply that this argument for flexibility doesn’t account or hold accountable the governance bodies of our church to ensure the diversity of age, race, experience, opinion, or age when it comes to our common work of helping create disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  

Speaking of marginalization, can we talk about our Central Conference brothers and sisters for a moment?  Now, I don’t presume to speak for anyone other than Will Green.  And I give thanks for the witness from my fellow believers in Africa.  But I am more than slightly concerned that, on the only representative body of our denomination in the Call to Action legislation, there are 21 representatives from the United States and 7 from the Central Conferences.  Certain social and theological differences aside, I think the fact that the United Methodist Church outside the United States is one of the fastest growing Christian bodies might indicate that our fellow followers from places like Africa and the Philippines, might actually have something to teach us about ministry.  

Almost finished, I promise!  And this is where I know I’m going to sound territorial.  Given the complete lack of input from young people and the argument I made in point 3, I fail to see how the Call to Action legislation legitimately empowers the church for ministry with and to youth and young people.  Does that mean our current structure has always succeeded in this arena?  Certainly not.  But what I can say is that this new structure offers, as the only intentional body for young people’s ministry, an impotent structure that has no real function and that actually lessens the impact that young people can have on a General Church level with things like Grants for Ministries with Young People, the Youth Service Fund, the Global Young People’s Convocation, or Youth 2011 (or future events).  And while it’s great that this new body doesn’t have an oversight organization that can keep it from speaking or sending legislation to the General Conference, it doesn’t even have the structure it needs (or the identified body to provide that structure) to meet.  

I share all of this not because I don’t want change to happen, and not because I have a specific alternative in mind (though I’ve thought through a couple and would love to hear what other young people are thinking we might do differently), but because I am committed to the cause of Christ and the work of the people called United Methodists.  I hope only to spur conversation.  If you’d like to have some directed conversation, feel free to comment, let me know, and I’d be glad to visit with you.   

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