A Ten-Point Epistle to the Bishops of the Methodist Church
by Walter W. Benjamin
“If I were the bishop . . . !” How many times have you heard this comment from a fellow clergy or church member? In more tranquil times, of course, our bishops might slough off the gratuitous advice that usually follows. But our church is, to use a medical term, in extremis, and new and strong medicine and new consultants may need to be used and heard.
I have been an ordained Methodist elder for 40 years and, while I have rarely attended annual conferences because of the conflict of summer-school teaching, I have tried to practice Yale’s Halford Luccock’s admonition—“Always have a lover’s quarrel with your Church.” It is out of this “creative estrangement” that I offer these ten principles for consideration by our bishops.
1. Restore Theological Boundaries
Since the patristic era the role of the bishop was as the teacher and defender of classical doctrine. Pastors historically have looked to bishops for doctrinal orthodoxy and pastoral norms. But today relativism, subjectivism, and false irenicism are rampant, and we are paying a high price for doctrinal promiscuity. While pastors can still be punished for disciplinary infractions, doctrinal boundaries have all but been erased. The result: we are all sail and no anchor. You must give greater attention to doctrinal centrism or Methodism will self-destruct.
An observer at the 1997 spring meeting of the Bishop’s Council found an inordinate amount of time devoted to racism, multiculturalism, and children. Evidently you were to envisage yourselves as little children since the back of the meeting room was filled with toys, kiddie books, and little tea cups and saucers. Do you eschew doctrine because pluralism is our only credo; because politics is more important than theological belief? Could you envisage Bishops Athanasius and Eusebius—or our own Asbury and Coke—engaged in such activity? “The collapse of theological integrity,” the reporter mused, “seems inevitably to foster the collapse of dignity.” Have we forgotten the warning of Origin in Against Celsus, that keeping the boundaries of faith undefined is a “demonic temptation”?
When Harvey Cox was a student minister in Berlin in 1962, a year after the erection of the Berlin Wall, he was able to travel back and forth between East and West because he held an American passport. He became a courier for pastors and Christian laypeople on both sides of that divide and was able to smuggle theological books into the East. What the people wanted most were copies of Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics. “To carry in something by Bultmann [I wonder whether those enamored of the ‘Jesus Seminar’ are listening?] would have been a wasted risk,” Cox said. “Let the bourgeois preachers in West Germany agonize about the disappearance of the three-decker universe and existentialism. We had weightier matters to confront” (Christianity Today, 2/9/98).
This is a parable for us today. A theology more enamored with novelty than fidelity is not worthy of smuggling, nor will it reinvigorate the people of God. G. K. Chesterton reputedly warned against liberal distortions of Christian truth by saying that if one wishes to draw a giraffe one can draw it many ways, but it has to have a long neck!
It is time to draw lines against our flirtation with neo-gnosticisms, neo-paganisms, heresies, and other heterodoxies of our era. Methodism should be a fundamentalist church in the classic, not post-Darwinism sense. “If there is no immune system to resist heresy,” states Dr. Thomas Oden of Drew Theological Seminary, “there will soon be nothing but the teeming infestation of heresy” (Christianity Today, 2/9/98). Historically understood, according to Vincent of Lerins, bishops by definition are the defenders of Christian truth—“What has always been believed by all Christians everywhere.”
2. Widen Your Perspective
The angle of vision determines what one sees. Most of us are captive to the perspectives and biases of the guild within which we work. When Ronald Reagan was first elected governor of California, a political scientist at Berkley stated, “I’m shocked. No one I know voted for him!” My suggestion? Have regular meetings with three successful individuals—a business man, a political office holder, and a systematic theologian. These individuals will extend your vision and help you make prudent decisions. Such an exercise might well be an application of Karl Barth’s aphorism that “a pastor should have one hand on the Bible and the other on a daily newspaper.”
A corporate executive can give you insight regarding the complexity of the business cycle, personnel management, the free enterprise system, etc. Research indicates that only one of five pastors has ever had a course in business or economics. There are lessons that our church can learn from entrepreneurs and others who have had success in business. A public office holder could explain the difficulties of legislation, compromise, and balancing the interests of a diverse constituency. Finally, a systematic theologian, one who is not under direct episcopal appointment, can give perspective on doctrinal issues. Catholic bishops invariably seek advice from experts in doctrine, medicine, and canon law.
Widen your reading beyond “house” organs. A wise professor once told me to subscribe to two or three journals with which I disagreed. In your case, this could mean serious consideration of Christianity Today, Good News, First Things, Touchstone, Policy Review, and others beyond the liberal party line of the Christian Century.
3. Monitor the Seminaries
Our twelve “official” seminaries bear heavy responsibility for our recent loss of four million members. Consider the conferences—areas where the hemorrhage of our membership has been the greatest—in our Western and Northeastern jurisdictions. Why haven’t the graduates of the seminaries that primarily serve those conferences performed better? If patients in a given area were dying at an alarming rate under the care of physicians who had mostly graduated from one particular medical school, there would be a prompt inquiry by health officials. The school would have to shape up or close.
Presently, the average age of our membership is 55. Why have we, unlike the Catholic and Evangelical churches, lost the baby boomers? Although our seminaries receive significant funding from the general church, are they following the German model of increasingly disconnecting the relationship between theological education and parish needs? Unlike Lutheran seminaries, our schools do not require professors to have served a minimum of three years in a parish before teaching in seminary. Are graduates wedded to ideologies that keep them from becoming effective pastors? Are seminaries’ admissions policies paralleling the Vietnam “body-count” syndrome?—i.e., taking weak students to increase their funding?
Recently the religion editor of The New York Times followed the careers of a dozen friends whom he met during a sabbatical spent in the divinity school of an Ivy League university. Five years after graduation none of them was in the pastoral ministry! It seemed they had used their seminary sojourn as a narcissistic voyage in the “discovery of self.”
For over twelve years I served on a district board of ministry. During an interview with a graduate seeking conference membership, I asked him to describe his Christology. The future pastor was mute. This happened more than once. I imagined the Wesleys weeping! How would a medical board view a medical graduate who didn’t know the diagnosis for appendicitis or diabetes?
A member of the Board of Ministry in the Nebraska Conference recently revealed that three Iliff graduates who applied for ordination could not “name one theologian who had influenced United Methodist clergy in the past 30 years. The subject was a blank to them,” he continued. “One told me that theology was just a ‘head trip’.” Their ordinations were deferred with the suggestion that they “didn’t get what they paid for” at the seminary (The Christian Century, 11/5/97). To accept persons into the Christian ministry who either cannot or will not affirm the normative Christian gospel is to inject an ideological and destructive virus into the corpus of our church.
Unfortunately there are outstanding theological schools “not approved” by our Board of Ministerial Education because of their violation of picky, “politically correct” gender and racial legalisms. For this reason, our largest but “unofficial” school, Asbury Theological Seminary, with 1,200 Master of Divinity candidates, receives no official church funds. Conversely, on the “approved” list is a United Church of Christ seminary where, in deference to the sensitivities of Unitarians, it is forbidden to use the term “Jesus the Christ” in class or in public.
4. Eschew Maladroit Statements on Social, Political & Economic Matters
American corporations get into trouble when they “don’t stick to their knitting,” i.e., constantly strive to improve the service or product that is the focus of their business. Likewise, churches too, can lose the focus of their mission.
Our church should faithfully state such social gospel principles as—“Poverty is an affront to divine justice,” “The Creation is the handiwork of God,” and “A fatherly God desires the health of all of his children.” But implementation of those principles requires a wealth of technical information beyond the competence of the Church. Bishops should be wary, therefore, of supporting specific legislation and becoming pawns of the special pleading of the welfare lobby. Recognize that the Law of Unintended Consequences has actually driven the poor into greater dependency. Case in point: New York City spends $10,000 per unwed girl on in-school day-care centers, thus communicating the message that illegitimacy is a normal and valued part of school life—simply another “choice” for which the government will foot the bill. “By making illegitimacy undemanding—mothers are not even required to see their children at lunchtime; did somebody say McDonald’s?—the centers make the ‘hassle’ (as one girl puts it) of a husband optional” (Newsweek, 1/19/98).
However superficially beneficent, much legislation has a “compassion that kills” quality about it that has exacerbated spiritual and moral poverty. Jesus always linked forgiveness with personal reformation and responsibility. Our church pronouncements should do the same.
Your primary task is to increase the moral and spiritual capital of our members. Moral poverty—poor work habits, drug use, alcoholism, dropping out of school, slovenly dress, promiscuity, disrespect for property, gambling, incivility, disrespect for law, fatherless families—is the leading cause of physical poverty. Required attendance at marriage seminars and a four-month waiting period has helped to reduce the divorce rate, too often the great destroyer of childhood well-being. Along with divorce, illegitimacy is the great scourge of our land and the fountainhead of most of our social problems. Bishops, both black and white, are remiss in not targeting this scourge. Let the liberals whine! But their mantra—“Don’t blame the victim!”—is tired and shopworn. You should know that the central issues of life are not decided in Washington. The state is not a redemptive community.
I recently spoke with an attorney who had left the Methodist church. “Since our firm does exit interviews with employees who leave,” he related, “I made an appointment to tell our pastor why our family left.” He discussed the poor youth program, doctrinal laxity, sexual and political radicalism. “I was shocked at the pastor’s denial. He didn’t want to hear bad news. His only response was—‘You’ll be back’—repeated several times.”
Releasing leftist-oriented sociopolitical pronouncements is not a substitute for “growing the Church”! I surmise that the conferences that show the greatest erosion of membership are those whose bishops and boards have a penchant for maladroit political pronouncements. But I doubt that the world is listening—not as it did when bishops like Asbury, Simpson, Oxnam, and Kennedy were in command. Our pronouncements are usually a Methodist monologue: too predictable, too liberal party-line. Thomas C. Reeves, author of The Empty Church: The Suicide of Liberal Christianity, has called the pronouncements of the mainline the “sanctimonious echo of National Public Radio or the left wing of the Democratic party.”
5. Put Your Own House in Order
Until the late 1950s, the quality of those entering seminary compared favorably to those going into medicine and law. Many were veterans, seasoned and tempered by service during World War II and the Korean conflict. No longer is that the case. As a professor of theology for almost 40 years, I am shocked at the generous seminary scholarships given to mediocre pre-theological students. Others often choose the pastorate after failing in teaching, marriage, or business. Ministry seems to be chosen out of weakness, not strength. Superintendents often have to play musical chairs with “in-and-out” appointments as new pastors, porpoise-like, surface into and then disappear from conference appointment.
By most estimates, 15 percent to 20 percent of our pastors are intellectually, emotionally, and/or personally unfitted for ministry. They leave spiritual and emotional wreckage in their wake and have to be moved every one or two years. Although most conferences have lost 30 percent of their members in the past three decades, numbers of clergy have increased since then. Some churches with less than 250 members have two full-time pastors. Is our tenure policy an episcopal application of Bonhoeffer’s paradigm of “cheap grace”? No wonder there is nothing left for missions or conference assessments.
You as bishops must help stem the increasing moral laxity of our clergy. The divorce rate among our clergy now equals that of our membership. Can adultery be far behind? Will the homilies of a morally flaccid clergy be taken seriously by our membership? “If golde rusts,” reflected John Wycliff, the “Morningstar” of the Reformation, “what will iron do?” Fifty years ago ministers who couldn’t hold their families together were required to give up their orders.
Intelligent and gifted potential candidates for the ministry will eschew the pastorate if they see a paucity of intellectual and spiritual attainment there. Weak pastors attract weak candidates. During my service as a member of a district board of ministry, we almost never rejected candidates who were deficient of “gifts and graces.” When such a person appeared before us, a board member would usually exclaim, “Somewhere in God’s kingdom there is a place for him!” But none of us would want him as the pastor for the church we would attend.
Creative corporations readily downsize to meet the challenges of the future. Pain in the short term, in business or in medicine, is acceptable to achieve long-term gain. Many statements of Jesus are an application of “tough love.” Bishops need to apply the Niebuhrian principle: “Love can only come after, never take the place of justice.” You must not let the sentimentalists and those who shovel guilt deter the church from becoming more efficient and effective.
6. Give Up Life-Long Tenure as Bishops
The Methodist episcopacy is clinging to a form of undemocratic status that is now being questioned in Congress and that applies in few other institutions. The President of the United States is limited to two 4-year terms. Since in Methodism the episcopacy is an office, not an order as in Catholicism, why is life-long tenure necessary? Was a prudent check on the abuse of episcopal power given up with the merger of the Evangelical and United Brethren Churches in 1968?
I question whether someone having been elected at a jurisdictional conference (sometimes as a result of highly politicized machinations and after 30 votes) in his forties should enjoy a lifetime of episcopal tenure. Life-long tenure tends to breeds sycophants. Who has not heard hyperbolic statements by members of a conference executive committee attesting to the “stimulating leadership” of bishops with mediocre ability?
Our church insulates itself against the consequences of mediocre leadership! As a church we do not have a mechanism to hold our top leadership accountable. We are paying a frightful price for life-long tenure. Year after year, four-fifths of our conferences lose members. Yet there is no accountability. Granted, it is difficult to “grow the church” in the inner city and in an agrarian heartland that demographically is regressing. Nonetheless, our mechanisms of reward need review. From football teams whose coaches are winless to CEOs whose companies lose market share, those in leadership who can’t “cut the mustard” are sent packing. Bishops should not be immune from quantitative performance standards that apply in other areas of American society.
7. Understand the Nature of Authority
Sociologically, authority is trinitarian—substitutionary, perfective, and unitive. Substitutionary authority is akin to that of a parent (i.e., the Pastoral epistles), where an authority figure (bishop, district superintendent, senior pastor) guides and helps the newly minted pastor. Your perfective role is that of “protector and defender” of the pastorate and community from attacks that would harm progress to the goal (sanctification and perfection in love) of Christian life. Finally, your unitive function of authority is a “binding together,” a centripetal force behind the motto e pluribus unum (“out of many, one”). From their appearance in the second century A.D., bishops have served as stimulants toward doctrinal and behavioral concord and harmony.
It is my opinion that the fifteen bishops who signed the pro-homosexuality statement and released it to the secular press without consultation with their colleagues, seriously violated the perfective and unitive functions of their office. They violated the spirit and law of The Discipline. Bishops who have a penchant for releasing sectarian, maladroit political pronouncements are increasing the centrifugal, rather than the centripetal, forces in the Church. They misunderstand the classical meaning of authority. Tragically, as things presently stand, our college of bishops has revealed itself to be a dysfunctional family rather than a collegium.
8. Break the Union Approach to Appointments
Many conferences operate under the union mentality. Methodism is not unlike the National Teachers Union, where time in rank elevates one, year by year, to a higher salary and closer to a “big church.” There are few surprises regarding conference appointments, for it is rare that a pastor can step up more than one rung at a time on the ecclesiastical staircase.
I know a number of creative young pastors who, having been left in a rural backwater for a decade, have left Methodism for a church based on the call system. Their cynicism grew as they waited for poorly functioning members of the old guard to retire. Of course, the trouble is that we are not creating enough new churches to break out of our survival mode. President Kennedy observed that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” In like fashion, if Methodism recaptured its evangelical message and “grew the Church” as in the past, the conflict over a diminishing number of pastoral “plums” would moderate.
9. Make Merit the Only Basis of Appointment
Whenever sex, race, or any other attribute unrelated to merit is used as a rationale for preferment, the Church becomes dysfunctional. In sociological jargon, it turns from a community into an association; that is, it changes from a family-collegium of persons bonded by agape to an eclectic alliance held together by law and force. Externals count more than productivity. This path leads to disaster, for you can never satisfy the bean counters.
Appointment on the basis of sex and race violates two ethical norms: (1) Every minister has the right to be judged solely on the basis of his pastoral excellence, not superficial and external characteristics; and (2) the Church has the right to expect that its personnel be employed for maximum effectiveness.
The plea that “We must have a woman, black, or whatever for this board or office” serves only to increase factionalism and perpetuate low morale. Moreover, how thinly does one slice the cheese? The list of the“marginalized”—Indian, Asian, homosexual, Latino, handicapped, obese, thin, Eskimo, Polish, the “episcopally abused,” etc.—is endless. Unless merit is the sole basis of evaluation, every group can claim underrepresentation. Martin Luther King hoped for the time when the character and not the skin color of a person would be the only basis for judgment. Alas, there are committees that are wondrously diverse and frightfully ineffective.
We should take our cue from metropolitan symphonies. When a position opens up, all candidates play behind a curtain so that the evaluators focus completely upon the issues of musicianship rather than inessentials.
10. Stop the Feminization of Methodism
The demise of Methodist Men (can you remember when tens of thousands of men met at Purdue University each summer for Methodist Men rallies?), the explosive growth of Promise Keepers, Robert Bly’s Iron John, and more indicate that the American male psyche is in bad shape. Victim status is claimed by every group except the white heterosexual male. Indeed, overtly or covertly, he is considered the villain responsible for the suppression of all “marginalized” groups. Male bashing has reached epidemic proportions in the mainline churches. Feminist theologians throw around words such as “patriarchy,” “sexist,” “heterosexism,” “elitism,” and “European dead male theology” with the abandon with which my grandchildren sprinkle cinnamon on hot buttered toast.
In the mainline the male bashing is usually subtle, sometimes harsh. To the extent that Methodism continues as a conduit for a radical, gender-feminist agenda, it will be party to the continued emasculation of the male, add to the number of fatherless families, and weaken male participation in the Church.
Instead of a demanding Father God whose dictates put a great many bodily and psychological pleasures off limits, our modern liturgies promote a soft, saccharine, and therapeutic religion. Radical feminists have excised all masculine words (supposedly they are “words that hurt”), and the word “God” is repeated ad nauseam (“God sent God’s Child to redeem God’s people”). The names for the persons of the Holy Trinity are changed to Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier. Those who subject the liturgy to such cultural fads indicate that, for them, Scripture and Tradition have minimal authority.
In an article for Commonweal (Nov. 22, 1996), Newsweek’s religion editor Kenneth Woodward pointed out the effects that feminist inroads have had on many American churches:
The church as a profession is not like the law, medicine, or finance. Women who enter these professions do not change them; they are changed by the professions, and if they do not perform well they are out. But religion is different. . . . [R]eligion is a symbol system and to change the symbols is to change the meaning that religion expresses. Surely there is need to incorporate . . . what is feminine in religion. But there are limits. . . . [I]n the exponents of post-Christian feminism, those limits have already been breached. My concern is not with theory or theology but with the atmosphere of ordinary American churches. . . . And what I find in them is the gradual disappearance of anything that might adequately be described as masculine, no matter who in the hierarchy is calling the shots (Woodward quoted by R. J. Neuhaus in “The Public Square,” First Things, May 1997).
Bishops need to remember that the radical feminists comprise but a very small percentage of Methodist women. Fewer than eight percent of American women who marry keep their own name. And that percentage is falling. If Methodism continues to follow the lead of the gender feminists (as set forth in the Re-Imagining Conferences), we will gradually assume sect-like characteristics. The overwhelming majority of Methodist women are happily married, love their children, and see their freedom, fulfillment, and goals in complementary, not adversarial, terms with their husbands and sons.
It is worth noting that within that horrid “bastion of patriarchy,” Roman Catholicism, the archdiocese of St. Paul has increased its membership by over 100,000 in the past decade. Bishops should sympathetically consider the seven promises that legions of Christian men have made as members of Promise Keepers. This explosive movement, truly led by the Holy Spirit, has the possibility of enriching, not impoverishing, our church. The “manly men” of PK are a threat only to those feminists still operating from the sixties’ slogan—“A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.”
A Tough Job
This epistle is written with compassion and concern. As bishops you have a tough job. “Victory has many fathers,” Winston Churchill said, “while defeat is an orphan.” But it is clear that our church has been on the wrong track for 30 years. Our secular culture took some wrong turns in the sixties. We baptized those trends and thought they were permanent. Sadly, our church tended to become a thermometer, not a thermostat. It is now clear that many of those shifts in our moral culture have been destructive or ephemeral. Our liberal elites followed them; our membership for the most part did not. It is also clear that the evangelical and mega-church movement is “eating our lunch.” Our rations are almost gone. A wag has stated that our church reminds him of the AARP at prayer!
Clearly, it is time to draw tighter lines, doctrinally, morally, and administratively. As part of the mainline, it is time to switch back to our historic centrist track and cease whoring after the stylish sideline. Our church should be the ecclesiastical parallel of the Burlington Line or the Union Pacific, not the trendy “Toonerville Trolly.” The former carry the heavy freight while the latter just makes a lot of noise.
Walter W. Benjamin is professor emeritus of religion and applied ethics at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minnesota. Dr. Benjamin has written for national medical and business publications such as the Wall Street Journal, The New England Journal of Medicine, and Humane Medicine, as well as Newsweek, the Washington Post, and the Chicago Tribune. He has lectured at U.S., British, and Canadian medical schools and is a member of the Ethics Committee of the Park Nicollet Medical Center. He has served on committees of the Minnesota Board of Medical Examiners, the National Institutes of Health, and the Biomedical Ethics Center of the University of Minnesota.
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