Sacred Cows in Methodism

Yesterday, I commented on an excellent post called ‘Osteopath‘by my blogging friend and fellow Methodist minister, Dave Faulkner at Big Circumstances.  Dave discusses the issue of the initial length of ministerial appointments (currently 5 years) and how that is not enough time to get to know the church and establish vision.  I commented that the problem here is exacerbated by the circuit system in which a minister is only in her church for twice a month at the most, or those with more (or even many) smaller churches it can be once a month.  Not having grown up in the British Methodist system, I have struggled (and here, I will admit the cultural difference – it’s like trying to understand rugby having grown up with American football).  In part, the system makes no sense to me.  It prevents me from living week in and week out with my congregations, walking life with them.  It prevents me from preaching a sermon series (those who have been reading have seen my attempt at it – four sermons scattered over 4 months) and continually putting the vision and direction in front of my congregations mind.  (NB:  American ministers can have more than one church, but they will be at each one on a Sunday.)  When talking with my American friends, they find our system confusing and their help in how they have moved their churches would be difficult to fit in our system.

That’s when I commented on Dave’s blog that I was encroaching on the ‘sacred cow’ of Methodism:  local preaching.  I was perhaps a little glib about my comment calling it a ‘sacred cow’, and it has been an important part of Methodist identity in Britain.  Thankfully, other commenters, including a local preacher, have been kind.  Fat Prophet has responded on his website with sympathy for my thoughts.  Local Preaching is my anwer to my American friends on how the pulpits are filled when I am not there and because of that, many conclude that it is a necessary situation because we do not have enough ministers to fill each church.  Dave, in his comments on the post, responded to that:

It is exacerbated by at least two problems, in my opinion. One is that the decline in the number of congregations has been slower percentage-wise than the decline in the number of worshippers. Mathematically, that leads to ministers chasing around several small churches, rather than having one large church. Suggest mergers and try to escape with your life!

But that is linked to the second issue, which I’ve blogged about before, and that is the doctrine of presbyteral ministry. We still have a Constantinian Christendom mindset that what everyone needs is a pastor who will administer the sacraments. It’s not fit for a missionary situation. I hope to explore this more during my sabbatical next year.

I agree wholeheartedly on the first point, and somewhat on the second point (Dave and I have slightly different understandings of sacramental ministry, but likely we are closer than we are far apart – but that’s a different story!).  A colleague in my district talked about how Methodism grew when preachers would proclaim the gospel and then left the organisation of the churches (into the class system) to those already part of the movement.  Wesley’s strict system set up the people on the path to discipleship under well-trained leaders.  The preacher would then only come back to exhort (and as Dave points out, to administer the sacraments).  The situation is different now and I think the Methodist Church is struggling to understand how ministers are leaders.  And, as Dave says, we have yet to take the bull by the horns and truly discuss how many buildings we actually need.  Doubtless those are hard conversations, but at some point we need to have them.

Related to the second point, Dave does point to the clergy-lay divide.  We want to say we are in ministry together.  We want to say we believe in our lay leaders and not everything relies on the minister because he or she is not in a ‘class above the “second class” laity’.  Martyn Atkins cried out in his book that we need to let the laity loose from telling them that their job is to be there and then we start allowing them to minister.  I agree with all that.  But why do I talk to so many ministers who struggle to find those in their churches who are truly interested in discipleship?  Why do property committees have more folk than bible study?  Why is my church council agenda filled with practical matters (usually dealing with the building)?  Is this the fault of me and my ministerial colleagues?

Somehow, the discussion on the posts above has devolved into ‘Yes, you can do theme preaching.’  Fair enough, working with the local preachers, I likely could do some theme preaching (and I have met many great local preachers – I don’t want to discount them or their ministry).  But that doesn’t solve the problem I struggle with:  namely, if I am the leader who is there to enable the congregation to catch a vision for building the kingdom, how can I do that if I am not living life with the congregations?  With respect to the local preachers, how can I depend on them to know the vision if they do not see eye-to-eye with me, or even more important, are not a part of the congregation themselves?

I don’t believe in magic solutions.  I get some who point out look at the Anglicans and their ministers are there every Sunday and they are struggling, too.  Yes, and I point out that they have their own sacred cows they are dealing with and that might be a factor.  But, if God is calling us to change our system, will we be willing to listen?

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8 thoughts on “Sacred Cows in Methodism

  1. I think the issue is a Methodist taboo as they community do not wish to see or hear there is a problem.
    For myself and Tim they different preacher every week worked for us and was part of the reason I changed to methodist however how my views are changing as I get more involved within the church BUT I wonder how much of my change has to do with being friendly with you.

  2. It is probably true to say that the local preachers system can be a blessing and a curse. If you have a minister who is not everybody’s cup of tea the local preacher can be a welcome change although conversely if you have some local preachers who are past their ‘best before date’ that can be a problem too.
    I think that each preacher who occupies our pulpits should be assessed once a year on a similar basis to the on trial assessments for local preachers – it may well be an opportunity for us all to be challenged and be kept from becoming complacent about our preaching and leading or worship. I also think there should be an opening for preachers to feel they can ‘retire’ before they are forced to by age or infirmity. I sometimes think that preachers feel they have to preach until physically unable when in reality they may no longer be mentally or spiritually able and should be able to sit down without feeling in any way guilty.
    I have often said to my wife who incidentally is probably my fiercest critic, that when I become boring to tell me and I will stop preaching.

  3. Thanks for your comments, FP. I still don’t want to focus this on the actual preaching part. Most of my questions come from a leadership standpoint. If I am not at my churches but once a month, then what really is my role? Perhaps this is a separate post, or ultimately an issue outside of British Methodism.

    And my wife can be one of my fiercest critics as well! She is great to preach to because I know if I have stayed on target and not jumped around!

  4. Will, thanks for some insight on the British context. This is all new to me.

    When I was in training to be a part-time local pastor, they told me that I would always have the status of honored guest at my appointment. The laity view it as “their” church and the pastor comes in to help with the Sunday business.

    This creates an interesting leadership challenge to say the least. But I at least have the luxury of being in front of the same group of people every week. If they only saw me once a month – wow.

    I’m convinced that part of the problem everywhere is the notion it is our church.

    “We can’t change that. It has always been that way.” Well, not from God’s point of view. He’s been tending the vineyard a lot longer than any of us have been.

  5. John: that’s interesting. I do wonder if all churches in Methodism have that mindset since none of us stay very long (especially in small churches, 5 years would still be a long time).

    I agree that part of the problem is our notion of church – what it is and what our task is.

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