Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Form vs. Function in the Worldwide Nature of the Church

Earlier this year, two great pieces about the worldwide nature of the United Methodist Church appeared on the Connectional Table's "About the Connection" blog.  The first, from August, is written by Judi Kenaston, Chair of the Commission on General Conference.  In it, she reflects on what has made her United Methodist before moving on to comment on the challenges of thinking about the UMC as a worldwide church.  She concludes, "We may need to let go to create a new vision for the World Wide church."  Among the things that United Methodists may need to let go of are "our U.S. centric world view" and "personal priorities."

The second post, from September, is by Thomas Kemper, General Secretary of GBGM.  He analyzes the language we use to talk about the UMC and makes a distinction among global, worldwide, and international and a distinction among ministry, vision, and structure.  He concludes that the UMC's vision and ministries are worldwide in scope, if not quite truly global in the sense of extending to every corner of the world, but our structures are international, in that they extend to many countries, but not nearly the whole world. Secretary Kemper's distinctions in terms are helpful.  Though this blog discusses questions related to structure, we also try to feature conversations about vision and ministry around the world and hopefully thereby earn our title of "UM & Global."

It is further illuminating to combine Mr. Kemper's and Mrs. Kenaston's reflections.  Questions of structure are often what cause the most conflict in the UMC.  Yet Kenaston's suggestions for letting go deal not with structures, but with questions of vision and ministry.  She calls for a change in how we view the world and how we set priorities for our work in the world.  Largely her calls are a challenge for American United Methodists to undergo a process of self-abnegation and self-limiting to make space for what the Spirit is originating elsewhere.  That process of self-abnegation must apply to liberals, evangelicals, and all other factions in the American UMC, who are all guilty of seeing and using our fellow United Methodists as pawns or players in American debates (as this blog has previously highlighted).

Moreover, unless we can open ourselves up to being led by the Spirit on questions of global or worldwide vision and ministry, it is unlikely that we'll be able to adequately solve questions of international structure.  As the architect Frank Lloyd Wright famously said, "Form follows function."  That dictum is as true in building organizations as it is in building houses.  If we try to solve our problems of structure without first addressing questions of vision and ministry on a worldwide scale, we are likely to get the process backwards and let our form dictate our function.  If we let our organizational structures or budgets or institutional policies determine our mission, then we're not letting the Spirit lead us in the missio Dei.  We'll be left building factions, defending privilege and power, and playing political games.

Form follows function.  What functions is the Spirit calling us to perform as a global UMC?

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