Ministry Musings: Preventing Identity Theft

Several experiences in the past week have revived my awareness of how difficult it is to pastor a congregation today.  I have friends under the gun for things that are antithetical to the Gospel–things which bespeak congregational sickness, not health. Their experiences reveal the damage partisanship (and its related power plays) does to the Body of Christ. 

We are being hijacked by partisanship in the larger culture and larger Church, but in this blog I will keep the focus on the local congregation and the pastors called to serve there.  And rather than waste space rehashing the ugly underbelly of partisanship, I will offer two possible ways to rise above it.  As a United Methodist, I will speak to this problem in that context, although any church can do what I am proposing.

First, when partisan groups of any kind attempt to hijack a congregation, it is time for the leaders (assuming the are not part of the hijackers) to gather and ask, “What kind of Church do we want to be?”  That is not a decision to be handed over to the hijackers; it is a decision to be forged by the elected leadership.  It is a decision about mission, but it a decision that crafts mission as a hedge of protection, so that critics cannot subvert it.

Pastors are not intended to be fire-fighters, but sometimes they have to be because the congregational leadership creates a vacuum of vision, leaving both pastor and people subject to the most dysfunctional people in the church.  In a partisan-driven culture and church, pastors are left vulnerable and discouraged when a congregation fails to say, “This is who we are” and leaves that statement up to any ego-driven person or rump group to decide. 

Giving in to partisanship is not a solution, for partisan people and groups thrive on “smelling fear” on the part of those they are attacking.  Failing to say “This is who we are” guarantees that the subversion will continue.  Partisanship increases as clarity,  conviction, and courage decrease.

Second, In the Wesleyan tradition, we have three documents to assist congregations in identifying themselves–three resources to help a congregation declare its identity–all three created by John Wesley himself.  The first is ‘The Character of a Methodist,’ the second is “The General Rules,’ and the third is ‘The Covenant Renewal Service.’ The first two lay the foundation for saying, “This is who we are, and the third affords a congregation an annual opportunity to renew its commitment to that identity.

Happily,  Abingdon Press has contemporary resources for this recovery of identity.  My book, ‘Five Marks of a Methodist’ re-presents ‘The Character of a Methodist’, and Rueben Job’s book. ‘Three Simple Rules’ re-presents ‘The General Rules.’  Videos, study guides, and leaders’ guides are available for those who want to make this exploration more intentional and interactive (see note below).  A congregation that explores the ‘Five Marks’ and then the ‘Simple Rules’ will place themselves on the good foundation of identity that can withstand a hostile takeover.

The ‘Covenant Renewal Service’ is in the United Methodist Book of Worship, and ready for good use in the congregation.  This is a worshipful means of remembering who we are and re-committing to our core identity for the coming year.

So, here is the point of this blog: no congregation should allow itself to be vulnerable to the soul-wearying effects of partisanship, criticism, and power grabs.  And…the good news is that we have resources to address the debilitating effects that partisanship creates.

I write with great concern for pastors and congregations who are under the never-ending scrutiny of self-appointed pirates, and I pray that congregations will protect themselves and their clergy from being plundered by those who have no right to do so–by finding a congregational identity and mission in the things that make for Life and Light.

(Note:  Videos and guides for ‘Five Marks of a Methodist’ will be available in January 2016.  You might consider this as a Lenten study, and then follow it with a study of ‘Three Simple Rules.’

About jstevenharper

Retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 31 books.
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2 Responses to Ministry Musings: Preventing Identity Theft

  1. sprackle says:

    Well said, Steve. Kindly allow me to share my family’s specific personal experiences with this ‘piracy’.

    We have been members of two Central Florida UMC congregations. Both pastors (each exceptional IMO) were involuntarily itinerated at the request of a tiny committee. Neither congregation was informed of anything until after the committee wrote a letter to the DS and the deed was done. Both cases were the result of a less than a half-dozen entrenched committee leaders working in secrecy.

    The first time it happened my family changed churches. The second time we changed denominations, because the problem is in the polity of the UMC.

    Many church by-laws have a system of regular rotation of chairmanships and of committee members between committees coupled with rest periods of sitting prayerfully in the pews to prevent egotism and encourage new leadership. The result is the natural development of well-rounded Christian leadership and fresh ideas, and I recommend it.

  2. Tim Machtel says:

    Thank you, Steve! I have appreciated your guidance, wisdom, and friendship over the years. This is a timely and encouraging read. Thank you my friend.

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