Where does the UMC exist?
I think this question has been at the center of our exploration of mission and purpose for a number of years. It has been central to our Annual Conference through structural change, leadership change, and focus of vision. It has been, and still is, a center of our current struggles as a denomination. The issue of existence relates to identity, structures, priorities, and connection to one another as United Methodists.
Four things come to mind:
- Does the UMC exist as local congregations that are resourced by a structure and system?
- Does the UMC exist as a structure that is resourced by local congregations?
- Is it regional entities that are connected to a global fellowship?
- Is it a global system that is made up of diverse (and disparate, contrary) units?
I have been pastor to congregations that did not see themselves as United Methodist. Yet they received pastors appointed to them by the Bishop. They contributed to ministries that were important to them that were possible only through the Annual Conference. They occupied property that was not theirs (even though they chafed at this). They represented a desire to be more congregational in operation, yet they could not stand without the support of the structure and system they were part of.
I have been a member of the Annual Conference and have had to remind structural representatives that what works for some churches doesn't fit every church. Representatives of Annual Conference agencies have shown expectation of every local church to react the same way. But sometimes there are not the resources. The expectations we have on a local church for ministry or outreach or full connectional giving are unrealistic when there are 4 people who attend regularly. The expectations that are laid on a congregation to use technology or media resources to do the administrative work when there isn't a computer, technological resource center, or even reliable technological infrastructure ignores the fact that Oklahoma is behind the times and that parts of Oklahoma are barely into the 1980's when it comes to technology and communication media. The conceit that we have in saying that every church should shoulder its fair share of the ministry, while not paying adequate attention to the deficits of the local congregation in financial resource is to be blind to our current reality.
I have been part of a history and tradition that has said that we have boundaries that unite us. There is a Discipline and order to how we work. But there has been a lot of talk of doing things differently because we think differently. We in the USofA do things much differently (and I have heard some ego saying "better") than other parts of our fellowship around the world. I have heard plenty of voices saying, "Hey, if they want to act that way, then they should leave and find their own way instead of disrupting our way."
And I have spoken in multiple places of the division that exists within the UMC. It is contrarian at its extremes. All 4 sides are pulling against one another. They all want a UMC that is defined by their own definition, their own view of identity. I don't think that I'm too far off base when I say that those who lie closer to the middle are being broken as much as the denomination is being stress. And by middle I mean people like myself who are related to persons in all 4 camps. There are some of us who know what each side is saying and are empathetic to what they are wanting to accomplish.
Until we determine what the UMC is, and all agree that is what the UMC is, it may all be a series of running debates.