It is discouraging to be a United Methodist pastor right now. Not only are we suffering from the same trends affecting all of Mainline Protestantism related to a decline in participation, but we have the added anxiety of a the failed special general conference which promised to produce a way forward, but instead produced nothing but pain and frustration. So in a reality where the vast majority of our churches are declining in attendance, membership, and funding, there are more UM pastors doubting their call than ever before.
And who can blame us? We got into this because following Jesus introduced us to a way of living that is a gift we wanted to share with those who are enslaved to our anxious, selfish, hopeless culture. And when we look at our ministry and are unable to see God using us to find the lost, heal the sick, and feed the hungry... well, it's natural to ask if we are still called to serve in this way.
And some have argued that everything will get better when we just rip off the bandaid and split the church. And I think there is some truth to this sentiment. Part of the difficulty is a lack of identity. In a world where people are looking for reasons not to participate instead of reason to participate, the large tent approach has made it so everyone has a good reason not to be United Methodist. If you are progressive, the evangelicalism of UM doctrine is enough to push you away. If you are conservative, the Bishops refusing to defend the faith from public disobedience is enough to push you away. If you don't like conflict... well, you get the picture.
So I do think it will be beneficial when we tear the big tent at the seams, but its not going to be a magic bullet for the problems affecting our local churches. Nor is it a miracle drug for the depression that is gripping a large group of my colleagues.
Now, this would be the point where if I was smarter I would propose a solution. Or if I was really smart I would tell you that the solution is in my new book which will be released next month. No, I don't have a simple solution or even a complex one. And my sense is that it is going to get worse before it gets better.
So pray for your pastor. Chances are they feel like they are failing you and failing God.
If you are going to criticize them, make sure it is missional criticism. You have no idea the breath of fresh air it would be for your pastor to hear you go to them and say, "Pastor, I got a bone to pick with you. We need to make new disciples." Understand that the vast majority of what gets to us is petty. So to hear someone voice a problem that is related to the mission instead of one's preference is better than ten compliments.
Because we see the hurt and anger and anxiety and hopelessness of so many people around us, and in our bones we know that following Jesus radically transforms a person's life. And our hearts are breaking and for many of us, it feels like we are alone. Because it is rare to hear someone ask what Jesus or the church can do for their neighbor who just lost a child to a heroine overdose. It is rare to hear someone ask what Jesus or the church can do for the son who is angry and being shaped by supremacist voices. It is rare to hear someone ask what Jesus or the church can do for the sister who lives with the shame of abuse.
But this is why we are here. We are here to be the instrument by which God finds the lost, heals the sick, feeds the hungry, frees the captive, and reconciles the rebellious.
The world has changed. The way your pastor was trained is not very effective anymore. But, we are doing our best to be faithful in this new reality, and most of us feel like we are failing. Methodism as we have known it is dying.
And if it is to be saved, it will be by lay people whose hearts are broken for the brokenness of their community. Men and women who believe, in their bones, that the gift of God is not to be hoarded by those who reside within the church, but is rightly received when it is being given away. Children and Seniors who know the power of new life offered to those who trust in Jesus and are filled by the Holy Spirit.
We are missionaries of life in a land of death. May we not grow weary in our mission.