A commentary by the Rev. Deborah McLeod, senior pastor of Mandarin United Methodist Church in Jacksonville, Florida and a member of the Connectional Table.
Jeremiah is one of my go-to books when I get depressed about our beloved United Methodist Church. Jeremiah has a tough job. He tries to hold God’s people accountable but they do not want to listen.
There are days when we also find ourselves carrying in our hearts the failures and missed opportunities of our people. That’s when I find Jeremiah helpful. He is called to tell it to God’s people straight, no matter how unpopular the message. Sometimes we are called to the same tough task.
Our theme for General Conference 2008 was taken from Jeremiah 29: 11, “A Future with Hope.” Jeremiah tells us "For surely I know the plans I have for you, plans for your welfare and not for harm, to give you a future with hope…” We need to remember that these words were spoken to the well-off, better educated leaders of Judah who had been ripped from their homes and carried off into exile to Babylon. That future with hope was promised not to them, but to their descendents 70 years into the future. Jeremiah’s message was simple: repent. Stop worshipping other gods. Return to the Lord your God so that it may go well with you. If you do not stop worshipping other gods it will not go well with you. God will allow your enemy to carry you off into exile. See, I told you so. Then Jeremiah dies in exile.
The future with hope is not something Jeremiah or his hearers lived to see. It was for 70 years later, when they were all dead. Perhaps the same is true for us. There may be some repenting and unpopular things we can do that have the potential to make our church stronger, not for us but for the people out there in the world whom we will reach with the Gospel of Jesus Christ.
God tells Jeremiah, “Don’t even bother to pray for these people.” Why? They disobey God, they worship idols, they walk in their own counsel, and they look backward rather than forward. I am wondering if we United Methodists in 2012 are not a little like Judah in 627 BCE. We worship idols. We don’t call them idols, but anything we cherish more than God is an idol. Some of us practice idolatry of the church building. We love it. We elect a board of trustees to care for it and make policies about its use. We want to sit in it for an hour on Sunday morning. We want it to never change. Sometimes we want our sanctuaries to be memorials to the meaningful moments we had with God. One of my jobs, as pastor, is to remind people that our buildings are tools for ministry.
When I was a district superintendent in South Florida I tried to get a particular congregation to think about how they could serve their neighbors. The lay leader finally said to me, “Can’t you just go away and leave us alone? We just want to sit here for an hour on Sunday morning and not think about it.” There are too many United Methodist church buildings located in strategic places for mission and ministry with the doors locked most of the time. Some of our people are huddled up inside the church building for one hour on Sunday morning trying not to think about realities. We disobey God when, instead of going to make disciples of all peoples, we circle up to help those we already know feel better about our inability to cope with a rapidly changing world.
It is clear that the United Methodist Church in the United States can no longer sustain the number of pastors or buildings. Eighty-five percent of our United Methodist congregations have memberships that are stuck or declining. When a church spends a majority of its financial resources on the care and upkeep of pastor and building, then it has a problem. If we shift the burden for decline to the 15 percent of congregations that are vital we will kill them too.
At the 2004 General Conference I presented the legislation that brought the Connectional Table into being. During these past eight years we have witnessed a new thing. The General Commission on Finance and Administration and the Connectional Table have worked together to bring mission and money to the same table. Together, our General Secretaries led the church on four focus areas. The Connectional Table is an intermediate step. Now I am hoping that the organization I helped bring into being will die and that some workable form of a new, more effective and efficient structure will be adopted.
We disobey the mission and the ministry of the United Methodist Church when we resist change. How can a Center for Connectional Mission and Ministry and one board of 15 members possibly do all the meaningful work of our program agencies? Let’s vote against it. As we consider idols in our United Methodist Church, let us be careful not to worship our form, structure, buildings or benefits, lest we miss the kingdom’s goal.
The people of Judah “walked in their own counsel.” How many times have you and others at a United Methodist meeting looked at some disturbing facts and struggled with what to do? Sometimes we act like alcoholics who have not hit bottom. We deny the facts; we excuse our poor performance; we spiritualize the experience. We are nervous about accountability. Instead of fruitfulness, we claim faithfulness. We can be both fruitful and faithful.
We must pray for God to renew us and lead us. When we repent of our ways and change things radically, it may be easier for God’s spirit to move in and through us.
God’s kingdom is not in peril. Jesus’ purposes in the world cannot be thwarted by our greed, idolatry, and pride. The question is: Will the United Methodist Church be a part of God’s transformation of the world?
If not, God will use someone else—the Pentecostals in South America or the underground church in China. I do not fear for God’s kingdom. It cannot fail. I fear that the Methodist movement we love will become irrelevant.
In Jeremiah, God promises a future with hope, but between disobedience and hope lies suffering, exile, and death. Then, and only then, God will plant and build.
In Acts 4, when Peter and John have been admonished not to speak the name of Jesus, they go back to their friends and pray. They do not pray for a strategy. They do not pray for a structure. They do not pray for a world friendlier to their purposes. They pray for boldness. May we do likewise.
This commentary is adapted from a sermon Rev. McLeod preached at the Connectional Table meeting March 5-6, 2012 in Nashville, Tenn.