UMC: The Power Arena

The ego gravitates toward control and the exertion of power. This is not all bad. Without ego, we would have no will-power, and on our best day, that would neither be a good thing nor a God-thing.

Trouble is, we have bad days as well as good days.  And with respect to ego, our bad day is when our will-power deteriorates into self-will (when ego becomes egotism) and our God-created self (true self) becomes a fallen (false) self.

When applied to institutional religion, there is no more formidable “power arena” than polity and the conferences which legislate it.  Egotism ratchets up its power, creating polity that produces “control.”  Unless we recognize how vulnerable we are to temptation in the making of our polity, we will not see how pervasively egotism gums up the gears.

The temptation exists across the theological spectrum because, as a human enterprise, doing theology is a powerful act of will of every human being. It is when will crosses the line and becomes willfulness–that is, the attempt to “control” and/or “win” that theology can be deformative.  None of us is exempt from this temptation; that’s why we must recognize it for the evil it is and remain vigilant about it.

This is all the more important as we approach General Conference.  Already we see groups planning to hold “briefings,” running the risk of behaving like secular political lobbyists who operate without the context of faith in their work, making the end-game trying to “get the votes” their group needs to “win.”  My friends who have been delegates to past General Conferences do not hesitate to tell me how pervasive these tactics are–and the media that reports General Conference sometime provides stories of “power plays” for all to see, leaving everyone to wonder why the church (who claims to know God, worship God, and serve God) is unable to operate differently than some who make no claim to faith.

I am not writing this post to criticize the necessary legislative process that attends institutional religion in general and the UMC General Conference in particular.  But I am calling for the recognition of how dangerous this process is when ego becomes egotism, when will becomes self-will, etc.  I am asking we understand that General Conference and the production of polity therein is a time to be approached with fear and trembling.

I believe that Walter Brueggemann offers us light to carry to Portland (through intercession and delegation)–it is his notion of “neighborly holiness.”  If our egos can see the “neighborliness” of the global UMC constituencies, we will relate differently than if we allow egotism to frame the experience in “un-neighborly” ways–ways that create and justify partisanship, lobbying, back-room deal making, and the creation of a “good guy/bad guy” mentality–ways akin to the false self, not the true self.

Polity is always the enacting of a prior and deeper mindset.  General Conference will legislate a polity that not only prescribes actions, but reveals attitudes. Polity is always a reflection of the deeper heart which makes the Church what it is.  General Conference will enact polity which not only tells us what we will be doing until we meet again, but more profoundly tell us who we will BE until we meet again.

If we recognize General Conference as the “power arena” that it is, and pray for grace to check egotism (personal and collective)–that is, to keep “neighborly holiness” alive and paramount–we have a chance to be a denomination God will bless.  But if we allow will to become self-will, creating a polity of winners and losers, then we will leave Portland (literally and figuratively) as a denomination God must judge.

About Steve Harper

Dr. Steve Harper is retired seminary professor, who taught for 32 years in the disciplines of Spiritual Formation and Wesley Studies. Author and co-author of 45 books. He is also a retired Elder in The Florida Annual Conference of The United Methodist Church.
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1 Response to UMC: The Power Arena

  1. Jeff Blake says:

    So well stated. May neighborlinesss prevail.

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