Systems and Humility

Every system has wheels within wheels

I find that when I step back from my ministry and look at the church as a whole, I am always humbled. All United Methodist clergy persons do their daily tasks within the boundaries of a parish to which they are duly appointed. We are never free agents. This field of service lies within a particular district and annual conference. It is within these three concentric circles (parish, district, conference), that you must demonstrate your promise and fealty to the United Methodist Church. For some period of your career, you may be asked or elected to serve the general church and/or to engage in mission work beyond the borders of your parish. This work is always secondary to your appointed task and context. Our movement from parish to parish is the product of a peculiar and complex clockwork of wesleyan tradition and current adjustments. Sometimes the overhead over our head makes us feel powerless. None of this prevents you from complaining about the appointment process or your most recent experience of it. Just remember, that you are like a goldfish complaining about its bowl.

    Each of us was born into a family system that had some degree of dysfunction. We were confirmed as teens into a local church, that was itself a family system with its own set of oddities and inefficiencies. We may not have been aware of the dynamics of these first two systems that nurtured our faith. When we made the transition from laity to clergy, we lost that innocence that enabled us to simply go with the flow of a church provided to us by others. We now have tools for changing the local church, as well as, an obligation to conference together with other United Methodists and perfect our system. 

    As Pogo says, the enemy is us.

    Much prayer is required to remain sane in any system. Those who move from church to church, need to intentionally offer forgiveness to those who made their move happen. Bitterness against the Bishop and/or cabinet will sabotage your spirit and sow seeds of conflict in your ministry to those within your care. It’s amazing how often those clergy who rant about not getting the church they deserve are the ones who have a hard time getting their parish to pay its mission apportionments. This is a spiritual issue. Deal with it early. Deal with it honestly.

    Pray also, to understand and be compassionate towards the new congregational system that you find yourself working within. Tolstoy begins Anna Karenina with, “Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” As the key change agent in this parish, you must differentiate yourself from those who have a particular form of unhappiness that they want the church to walk in. You should also be clear about the four things that all happy congregations share:

    •    Prayer marked by a spirit of expectation

    •    Scripture that’s viewed as relevant and life changing

    •    A Witness to Christ that is joyful

    •    Worship that is inspiring

    Keep your focus on these things. But also, take time to understand the particular problems that afflict this congregation. Nothing will be as simple as it first appears, Peal the onion. Don’t be surprised if key issues have deep roots. You will need to do twice as much listening as talking. As you find new problems and you will need new solutions.