Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Unsolicited Theological Reflections about the UMC and IRD

Note that this is part of a double posting following one I just made. That posting summarizes my recent research on the IRD and the United Methodist Church.

Unsolicited Suggestions about the UMC and the IRD in Future

No one has asked me for these. I offer these unsolicited theological reflections as 1) someone with many autobiographical connections to Methodism (have I mentioned, in addition to all I’ve said previously, that my father graduated from a Methodist college?); 2) as a theologian; 3) as someone sympathetic and indebted to Wesleyanism; and 4) as someone who has had an insider’s chance to observe (and, in some cases, be deleteriously affected by) how business is done in United Methodist institutions.

In my view, contemporary Methodism has both weaknesses and strengths that have made it susceptible to IRD infiltration, and also capable—in theory, at least—of combating those influences, if it chooses to do so. Choosing to do so will require a willingness of Methodist leaders to welcome critical reflections on the part of those working within United Methodist institutions--including outsiders to Methodism--who have gained a feel for what is happening in the Methodist church at a concrete level, from their work in Methodist institutions.

The strengths/weaknesses on which I want to focus are as follows:

The Methodist tradition of seeking the “radical middle”;

Democratic polity, with the tradition of holy conferencing;

▪ A strong spirituality and tradition of practical social witness, coupled with a less-strong theological tradition, particularly in the area of ecclesiology.

Methodism is to be admired for its tradition of the radical middle. At best, this tradition discounts the wisdom and voice of no one. At best, it brings everyone to the table before decisions affecting the whole communion are made. Ideally, it fosters a discernment process in which all believers seek holy wisdom together, to guide church decision making as new challenges arrive at new points in history. Ideally, the tradition of the radical middle holds disparate groups together to allow the church to be authentically inclusive, authentically catholic—as church should be.

There are, however, some serious downsides to the tradition of the radical middle—as it is currently practiced by many Methodist institutions, at least. I saw and was adversely affected by those downsides in almost a decade of work in Methodist institutions of higher education.

When practiced in isolation from a theologically informed attempt to discern the path of holy wisdom within a Methodist institution, the tradition of the radical middle can easily become mere culture Christianity. When the radical middle is envisaged as some compromise between a bogus “truth” determined by right-wing operatives of the ilk of the IRD, and the Wesleyan tradition’s wisdom about social justice, it all too commonly turns into the path of least resistance—the path of cheap, rather than costly grace. The path of the radical middle can easily become plain conformity to culture.

I have made this argument in previous postings on this blog, citing my experiences in UMC institutions as well as other aspects of my life journey. I won’t try readers’ patience by belaboring those points again. What I would like to note here, though, is that, ironically, many of those now chiding the UMC to avoid becoming a church of culture rather than a countercultural church are, in their appeal to the radical middle, actually reflecting cultural norms.

Those norms make it easy to be a disciple of Jesus. They make us as followers of Christ comfortable. They do not require us to make hard decisions that set us at odds with our own cultural contexts—especially in the areas of gender and sexual orientation, or in the areas of fiscal stewardship and resistance to dirty money, insofar as our institutional purse strings are tied to holding the line on “traditional” teachings about gender and sexual orientation.

As I have said previously, my own thinking about these issues is highly influenced by my experience growing up in the American South during the Civil Rights struggle. This was a period in which I saw almost no white churches departing from the “radical middle” of Southern culture—and that consensus of the radical middle was racist. Instead of leading society at a time in which the church might have exercised prophetic countercultural leadership, the churches all too often merely mirrored social norms, citing scripture to justify their behavior.

I am therefore not conspicuously impressed by the professed repentance of these churches today for either their previous racism or misogyny. I cannot be impressed by this professed repentance when the leaders of these churches now behave towards LGBT members precisely the same way they did previously towards people of color and women.

Repentance means little when it costs nothing, now that cultural norms have made it easy to repent. Countercultural witness requires walking in costly grace in the here and now, within the cultural contexts in which we now live—and paying the price for such witness.

And when this repentance is attended by deceitful attempts on the part of these new defenders of people and color and women to promote token representatives of such groups--carefully tailored token representatives who do not rock the boat--I am even less impressed. This is a dishonest use of pretend-inclusivity and pretend-cultural sensitivity to combat the current outsider group, the LBGT children of God.

The Methodist emphasis on democratic polity and holy conferencing is admirable, an emphasis I would like very much to see adopted within my own Catholic tradition, with its tragically outmoded monarchical structures of leadership. At its best, gathering everyone around the table to discern the Spirit and make decisions together provides secular culture, in which bigger and better tables are always set for the rich and powerful, a powerful countercultural witness.

The tradition of democratic polity and holy conferencing can have a very strong downside, however—one of which I have had to become crucially aware in my work for United Methodist institutions. At its worst, rather than being a tool for holy consensus-building, democratic polity and holy conferencing can degenerate into a tool of control, in which those who have power over others abuse that power by suppressing alternative (and possibly prophetic) voices, and by playing one interest group against another with no consideration for competing claims of justice.

Some of the worst leadership I have ever witnessed in my entire life has been in UMC institutions. Those exercising this leadership were not merely terrible leaders. They were leaders who were well-schooled in UMC polity and the tradition of holy conferencing. And they were aided and abetted by Methodist bishops and Methodist ministers as they abused their leadership roles.

In the name of gathering everyone around the table and listening to every voice, some of these leaders practice outrageous, blatant triangulation. They abuse religious language and references to the Methodist way of doing business to pit one member of their team against another, claiming that only by setting one member against another can a true and truly comprehensive perspective be maintained.

I want to emphasize that this technique of triangulating managerialism within the United Methodist institutions in which I have worked is not an aberration of the UMC tradition of democratic polity and holy conferencing. Those practicing this blatant triangulation constantly reference the United Methodist tradition of democracy and holy conferencing, and their own training in that tradition (and in leadership) within the structures of the UMC.

In my experience working in United Methodist institutions, I have seen exceedingly ugly things done by leaders under the cover of this religious justification. I have seen leaders constantly dig for dirt on each person reporting to them, such that they could then use this negative data to try to keep team members in their place. When no dirt was to be found on some team members, I have seen leaders couple team members who were seriously trying to do their jobs with integrity to incompetent and unethical watchdog members of their teams. Those watchdogs, about whom the leader had damning information, were used to harass, report on, and try to rein in members seriously seeking to do their jobs with integrity.

I have seen leaders in United Methodist institutions, who claim that their goal in pitting one team member against another is to allow the full picture to be discerned, resort to top-down hierarchical models of leadership when their use of triangulation was challenged. In one institution, after proclaiming to her leadership team that her democratic style of leadership arose out of her experience working in the United Methodist Church, a leader immediately presented a flow chart of institutional authority depicting a triangle, with herself at the top. As she did so, she declared, “We are not a democracy.”

This experience has led me to conclude that leadership in the United Methodist Church actually often exercises top-down control techniques while talking the talk of democracy to cover over the lapses of democratic representation in leadership decisions. Effective leadership in any democratic institution requires who profess democratic ideals to hold these in creative tension with managerial goals.

In the Methodist context, church leaders and leaders of Methodist institutions need to be intentional and clear about how the Wesleyan tradition of democracy and holy conferencing informs their leadership style, even when they are adopting a managerial approach. Otherwise, not only can they betray the Wesleyan tradition in their leadership styles, but they can also end up committing the even worse sin of abusing religious language to justify leadership techniques that are imperious, insensitive, and in some cases, downright cruel and unethical.

Ultimately, the goal of managerial triangulation is always to maintain the status quo, in which those currently in leadership remain in leadership. Triangulating leaders have a vested interest in setting those they lead against each other, insofar as they want to retain their power. When the valuable Methodist tradition of democratic polity and holy conferencing is allowed to degenerate into managerial triangulation, and when such triangulation is attended by abuse of religious language, the institution remains stuck. It cannot move forward.

It cannot do so because the triangulation being practiced by its leaders disempowers those within the institution most capable of moving it forward. It disempowers prophetic voices—particularly those who speak from the margins—while lending credence to voices that do not have the best interest of the religious tradition and its institutions at heart, who should lack legitimacy in an institution that practices careful discernment. The triangulating technique of managerial leadership promotes carefully selected and sanitized examples of the disempowered to power, when it can be certain that these token representatives of the disempowered will behave in a way that does not call the status quo into question.

When the status quo is shaped by unequal distribution of power—and it always is—the church belongs unambiguously on the side of those with less power. Democracy-as-triangulation can become a smokescreen for serving the powerful of the world, when it refuses to give serious consideration to questions how power is justly to be distributed. Democracy-as-triangulation can be a smokescreen that legitimates the abuse of power (and enslavement to dirty money) when it treats the voices of mendacious apologists for unjust power as if they are just as compelling and deserving of attention as the voices of those delineating hard-earned critical truth from the margins—truth an institution needs in order to be faithful to its mission and to have a viable future.

These observations bring me to my final point: at its best, the warm-hearted Methodist spirituality derived from Wesley issues in a powerful tradition of practical social witness. At its worst, however, Methodism lacks carefully developed theological tools agreed on by the entire church to analyze and discuss its ecclesiology and whether its institutions mirror that ecclesiology authentically. Methodism at its worst often prescinds from much-needed critical questions about how Methodist institutions practice fidelity to and faithfully enact the Wesleyan tradition.

At its worst, such questions are dismissed in an anti-intellectual way as distractions from the warm-hearted piety that Methodism should really be all about, or as a critical breach with the radical middle. Methodists are strong on promoting justice. They are weak at talking about what justice actually is.

Methodists are good at listening to the voices of everyone. What the Methodist tradition often lacks, however, is a theological wisdom tradition to undergird its discernment process, so that the voices of impostors, opportunists, and poseurs can quickly be detected and will not distract the holy assembly from its deliberations.

And this makes Methodism susceptible to groups like the IRD, who know how to exploit these theological lacunae in the Methodist tradition very adroitly . . . .

Unfortunately--and more's the pity--some of the key members of the IRD are members of my own religious communion, whom I oppose as vociferously within the Catholic context as I do when they seek to meddle in the internal affairs of the United Methodist Church. For that reason, too, I feel it is important that Catholics concerned that Methodism be permitted to live its tradition authentically speak out against members of our communion who are trying to thwart the practice of authentic Wesleyan discipleship.

No comments: