Growing up, I loved the choose your own adventure books. The books have a story laid out, but as you get further in the book, you are forced to make a choice. For instance, if you open this door, you turn to page 76 and continue reading. If you go down that path, you turn to page 83 and continue reading. The choices split again and again until your adventure ends in a terrible fate or you would save the day. Many times I would go down one path and then back pedal until I found out where I messed up. (After all, I always wanted to be alive by the end of the book!)
When I became a candidate for ordained ministry, my mentors explained polity to me time and time again. They told me about itineracy, submitting to the authority of the Bishop and the authority of our Book of Discipline. I had to take United Methodist Polity in seminary. (Taught by a Bishop!) I understand my place in our church system. One of the things that I agreed to in my ordination was Order (a responsibility of every Elder in the United Methodist Church). My Bishop asked me these (and other) questions before we were ordained:
- Have you studied our form of Church discipline and polity?
- Do you approve our Church government and polity?
- Will you support and maintain them?
Bishop William Hutchinson told us that these questions were very serious questions and not to be taken lightly. He said they represent the foundation of our church system.
It seems to me that, in some ways, we are playing a “choose your own authority” game in The United Methodist Church. I’ve heard a lot about networks and spider/starfish organisms instead of our current mode authority. What I really keep hearing from folks is that many people want a congregationalist polity instead of our current connectional one. My background is Southern Baptist, so I have a little bit of experience in the congregationalist polity. Basically, the congregationalist polity allows the local church to be the primary decision maker in everything. They get to decide who they hire as a pastor. They get to make the decisions on who they baptize and when. They get to make decisions on who gets married. It allows for a local church to decide what is best for themselves at this time. It is a good way to order the life of the church, but my concern is that this may not be the best way.
A congregationalist polity also serves to disconnect us from each other. We become silo churches more worried about our ministry here in this place. We lose sight of the church universal. We have a tendency to become echo chambers where we surround ourselves with folks that look like us, talk like us, and think like us. In my opinion, our church witness suffers because of this.
All the current suggestions I have seen presented for “saving The United Methodist Church” involve some sort of move towards a congregationalist or pseudo-congregationalist polity.
I am not saying this is necessarily a bad thing. I am just wondering if we can do better. There are two different movements our church can make in the future.
We can move to a loosely affiliated network, some sort of modified congregationalist system where churches get to pick and choose so to speak.
We can move to a stronger connectionalism where we empower our Council of Bishops to lead us with authority and order given to them through the Book of Discipline and the General Conference. This movement would require us to be more consistent in our approach to doctrine and polity across the connection.
This is the age old argument: do we want to be more like one company or more like a franchise business? It is a “choose your own authority” type moment in the life of The United Methodist Church. We can turn to page 148 and choose congregationalism or we can turn to page 237 and choose connectionalism. I just wonder which choice will lead us to a terrible fate and which one will save the day.