Imagine with me, if you will, a scene from the Chaplain’s office:
A young couple walks into my office, and I can immediately tell that there is trouble—you can cut the tension in the air with the proverbial knife. I ask them to sit down, and as they do so, I think I catch a glimpse of one of the two glaring at the other. Perhaps I imagine it, or perhaps it is a reminder from one to another of some prior slight, or an argument that had taken place earlier in the morning.
“What’s up?” I ask. (This is my usual opening line in such situations—it allows the other a chance to define the topic of conversation, even when I know exactly why they are in my office.)
“You tell him,” one says. “You’re the one who dragged me in here.” (I can tell already that this is going to be a fun session!)
“We’re having some problems,” the other says. “We’ve been fighting pretty much since we got together, and it just seems to get worse. We pick up on the little, irritating things, but also on the bigger issues. We don’t seem to agree on much, and even when we do agree, we fight over how to express it. Sometimes, we realize that we’re saying the same thing, but using different language or worse yet, we’ll use the same language, but each of us has a different meaning for the words! It’s hopeless, isn’t it?”
(Well, that’s a loaded question, if I’ve ever heard one! They seem to both be sure that there is no saving this relationship, no matter what I have to say. To be honest, I’ve been wondering for some time now why they’re still together, and I’m not really surprised that it’s come to this.)
“Well, is that an accurate portrayal of what’s going on?” I ask the one who has been quiet so far, who doesn’t seem to want to be here at all.”
“Yeah, I guess so. We just don’t seem to understand each other, you know? I try, but I don’t think I’m ever heard. I have needs and issues that I want to discuss, but I’m never allowed to speak my mind…”
“That’s not true!” says the other. “I always give you a chance to speak! I just feel like I need to let you know when you’ve done or said something wrong! I do it to make you a better person, you know.”
As I lean over to get my mug of tea, which I prepared beforehand, knowing this would be a long session, I realize that the issues being discussed by these two are not going to be solved in one session with the Chaplain. Neither of these two will be able to reach a point where they can feel genuine love toward the other again unless we address some of the underlying issues that each brings to the relationship. And of course, there is the issue of whether or not staying in this relationship is the best course for either of them, or for the potential children they may have down the road.
If you are a pastor, a counselor, or a concerned friend or parent, you might recognize a situation like the one I’ve just described. It is not uncommon for people who love one another very deeply to find themselves at a place where they just can’t communicate anymore, and the relationship just isn’t working out like they thought it would. All of us probably have a few words of advice for this couple, and would be willing to offer it, especially if it was a couple whom we knew and loved personally.
What if I told you that this couple is really a representation of The United Methodist Church?
Those of us who know and love that venerable movement of “the people called Methodist” are increasingly frustrated and fearful as we hear more of our colleagues, friends, and family talk about the possibility of schism within the denomination. Issues such as abortion and homosexuality (but mostly homosexuality) have long divided our dear church. In many ways, the problems we have as a denomination are very much like those of the couple described above, and they go back to the very foundations of our young fellowship, which turned 46 this April. Like the couple in my scenario above, we will not be able to move on or thrive as a covenantal community unless we begin to get at the underlying issues within our various factions and cliques. Only by re-discovering our love for one another, which is based on the love of God through Jesus Christ, will we be able to truly mend our brokenness and repair the breach that exists across political and ecclesiastical lines.
As a concerned member of The United Methodist Church, as an ordained elder, and as a person serving as an extension of the church into the world of academia, I offer a few thoughts about all the talk around schism. I pray that they may be one small part of the greater movement to plot a bold new direction for our church in the future, as we make disciples for Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. As I see it, our problems are four-fold: First, we need to deal with the issues that are unresolved from our founding as a denomination in 1968. Second, we need to examine our spiritual health. Third, we must grapple with what it means to be connectional in the global church of the 21st century. Finally, we as a denomination and as a movement need to reinterpret our Wesleyan heritage and theology so that both are relevant for ministry in Methodism’s third century. Over the next several blog posts, I plan to address each of these issues in turn, and I encourage those of you who read this blog to post your comments (respect all opinions, but be clear of where you stand), and interact as I propose a way forward.
Consider it a group spiritual direction session for a troubled church. Come on into the office, grab a mug, and let’s chat. What’s up?