What’s ahead for the United Methodist Church?

Will Willimon will attempt to tackle that question in a half-day course at the Perkins Summit for Faith and Learning (formerly the Perkins Theological School for the Laity) on March 26-28 on the Perkins campus at SMU. It’s the headline course for the three-day, multicourse event, themed “Boundless Learning, Bountiful Living.” The program is open to laypeople as well as clergy; online registration is available through March 21.

Perkins Perspective interviewed Willimon, a former United Methodist Bishop and Professor of the Practice of Christian Ministry at Duke Divinity School, for a preview of his course. Here are excerpts of his remarks.

 

1. Who should attend this course?

Willimon: If people are looking to my workshop for encouragement and support and aid in division, then I hope to disappoint them. My course will be a plea: “Let’s stay together at the table. Let’s keep arguing.”

I’m from South Carolina. I thank God that when my church, South Carolina Methodism, resisted racial integration, and participated in segregation, other Methodists didn’t force us out, but kept talking to us and witnessing to us. I think a lot of good was done because of that. That’s the perspective from which I look at the present conflict.

A lot of the talk I hear now is saying, “We’ve argued about this enough. We’re losing so much energy in these unproductive arguments. Let’s just split so we can move on.” My word is, there is no moving on. No matter how you split things up, the church will continue to grapple with these questions. I don’t think separation among Christians is ever the answer to anything.

 

2. Is the present moment a time of disillusion or a time of opportunity? Many people feel completely frustrated.

Willimon: Some are saying, “It’s time to leave the United Methodist Church.” Others are saying not so much to leave the church but to reform it. The debate now is, “Is separation and declension inevitable? And if it happens, how can we manage that in such a way that it happens with as little damage to the body of Christ?”

I think in times of crisis, whether in church or in life, Christians can see this as an opportunity to turn toward Christ. This time of crisis, which has so many sad components to it, can also be an opportunity to ask ourselves questions like “What would Jesus do? What might Christ want for us in the present moment? How can I conduct myself, and my church, so that we are Christlike in our disagreements and divisions?”

When you’re a Christian, part of the challenge is, when you come to a crisis in life and you think, “Am I standing at something like Good Friday, or am I standing somewhere like Easter? Is this a time of death or a time of resurrection? A time of ending or a time of beginning?” I don’t know the answer. But I do know that those are appropriate questions to ask in the present moment. I think it’s good for us as United Methodists to say, “What good might God work out of our divisions and separations? On the other hand, in what way are our divisions and separations God’s judgements of our unfaithfulness as a church?” We can dare to ask those questions.

 

3. Are church members who aren’t involved in General Conference or in church polity likely to benefit from this course?

Willimon: I think one could argue that we’re at this juncture because of General Conference. The mismanagement of General Conference, the dysfunction of General Conference, has caused discomfort for United Methodists in the local church that they shouldn’t be having to go through. Maybe this is an opportunity to say, maybe General Conference as a mode of governing the church is now outmoded. Can we find a better way to have arguments, to make decisions, to move forward in the name of Christ, than General Conference?

The response to the dysfunction of General Conference ought not to be, “Wow, we can’t agree, we’re splitting apart, so let’s divide.” I think the response is that General Conference is part of the brokenness of our church.

I want to say, “Stay focused on the mission of Jesus Christ in your local church. Stay focused upon the presence and the work of Christ. Maybe the way forward is a way that puts General Conference and its decisions in perspective.

 

4. How can local United Methodist congregations stay focused on the most important work of the church today?

Willimon: That is the challenge – not to get distracted by General Conference. Don’t give General Conference inappropriate authority over the mission and ministries that Jesus Christ gives our local churches. We’re to preach, to teach, to heal, to serve, to be part of Jesus Christ’s mission in the world.

Part of the particular sadness of the present moment is that it feels like we’re allowing what are, biblically speaking and theologically speaking, relatively minor matters to become major reasons for the disintegration of the church. I’m glad to argue that position.

This is an opportunity to get back to basics, for us to say, “What does the Lord require?” Does the Lord require agreement of everybody in our church? Well, that’s not going to happen. Much of the New Testament is dealing with the issue of what you do with a divided church, when there are deep differences of beliefs and opinions. And one thing you do is, you keep being the church. You keep arguing, you keep talking, you keep having communion. That’s what I hope to encourage people to do.