A stressful week in the workplace has led to a lot of soul searching for Arkansas United Methodists. Last week, the pastor of a growing congregation left the UMC and encouraged his people to go with him. It’s a common problem in denominational circles, akin to divorce.
It’s just another statistic until it happens to you. But when it hits home, it hurts.
As we sift through the broken promises and misunderstandings that inevitably come with such a separation, I’m conscious of how the different reactions I’ve heard reflect a division made worse by our language and our practices. Some fault the pastor who left as an opportunist who used the ARUMC’s church planting resources as a springboard for his career. Others place at least equal blame on the Conference’s hierarchy for being such a hindrance as to thwart spiritual entrepreneurs, possibly including even the Holy Spirit himself.
It’s enough to make me seriously contemplate Revolution. As in, the American Revolution of 1776.
During those times that tried men’s souls (a la Thomas Paine), the American leaders were learning the hard way how difficult it was for such a young democracy to run a war. Congress tried to dictate battle plans directly to George Washington, whose trial by fire as executor of Congress’ defense plan was not going well by any standards.
In stepped Nathanael Greene, one of Washington’s generals. He helped form a compromise in which Washington was given full authority in military matters, but was still answerable to Congress for his actions and his methods. Within days of his authorization as commander in chief, Washington had crossed the Delaware River to attack Trenton and dramatically improved the fortunes of the Revolution.
It seems to me that the parties involved could agree on the nature of the situation and on the principles to be applied to it. They also admitted limitations to their own ability and authority. They agreed to share power through mutual accountability.
Too often—even in church life—we treat power and accountability like commodities, constantly bartering for more of the one and less of the other. We waste precious energy trying to loosen constraints on our own decision making while increasing the accountability owed to us.
But what if we viewed power and accountability as the Founders did: not as commodities, but as instruments. Could we fix our eyes on common purpose and principles while allowing those at ground level freedom to operate? Could both those with the power of position allow for accountability that includes honesty without retribution? Could we all share just enough power that accountability becomes something built into our processes rather than something continually imposed upon it?
I am not entirely sure what the answers to these questions are. Perhaps they are far afield from the situation at Mt. Olive UMC. But my hunch is that they are not.
I have a feeling that the most important question facing the UMC today revolves around our concept and use of power. I’ll be exploring questions of power and accountability more in the weeks ahead. I’d welcome your input.