““From Which Direction Does The Ministry Grow?”


Meditation for August 24, 2014, the 11th Sunday after Pentecost (Year A)

Exodus 1: 8 – 2: 10, Romans 12: 1- 8, Matthew 16: 13 – 20

This is for this coming Sunday.  I am trying to get back into a writing mode.

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In 1970, while I was a student at Northeast Missouri State College (now Truman State University), there was a transfer of power in the office of the President. But this was more than simply a change in the person who was in charge; it marked the beginning of a change in the attitude and perhaps the intellectual direction the college was taking.

When I began classes at Kirksville, it was known as Northeast Missouri State Teachers College and its primary goal was the preparation of teachers. In 1968, the “Teachers” part was dropped, though I suspect that the purpose and goal of the college remained the same. Ultimately, the goal changed and the name changed to reflect that change. I think this all began when Charles McClain became President of the college in 1970.

Now, during the first four years that I was at Kirksville, three individuals served as President. I knew who each of them were but I had never met them and the odds were very good that I would never actually meet them.

Each one of those three gentlemen operated on the theory of an “imperial presidency”. They may be on the campus but they, to the best of my knowledge, never interacted with the students and with only limited interaction with the faculty. The only time that they may have interacted with the students was on those occasions when they ate in the private dining room off the student dining room in one of the dormitories.

So, for some reason, when Charles McClain became the new President of the college, I decided that I would invite him to be my guest for dinner in the dormitory one evening. And with this in mind, I went over to his office one afternoon, found that he was free for a few moments, and offered the invitation for him to be my guest that evening for dinner. Much to my surprise, he agreed.

As I recall, I went about my business for the rest of the afternoon and then came back to his office around 6 or so to meet him and walk across the campus to the dormitory cafeteria. I do not recall what we talked about that evening though it was probably about college life. What I do remember is that no one recognized him as the new President of the college and assumed that he was my father.

Even the cafeteria workers, employees of the college, did not recognize their new boss. And quite honestly, that would have been expected. The overall “bosses” of the college never interacted with the staff and the only adults that came to dinner with the students were the parents. So it would have been reasonable for them to think that this gentleman in the suit accompanying me to dinner was my father and not the President of the college.

I cannot say how much change happened after that evening. The college would become a university in a couple of years and then ultimately drop the direction from its name when its mission and direction were more clearly defined. But something had to change when the new President did something that none of his predecessors (or the ones that I knew) had ever done.

In the 1980s we would see changes in the business world that spoke of new management ideas, one of which was the involvement of the top level managers in the day-to-day operations of the organization.

Now, I have written about this before (I told the dinner story in “What I See” and the nature of change in “To Search For Excellence”) but it bears repeating, especially in light of the situation that the Israelites face in the Old Testament reading for today. When the upper levels of an organization do not know what is going on, that organization is really in trouble.

And what studies on excellence have shown time and time again is that the best change comes from the bottom up, not from the top down. And if upper level management is going to embrace change in the organization, then they must be actively involved in the process. They cannot simply make a decision that change will occur and then expect it to take place.

The United Methodist Church is faced today with perhaps two problems. But being an aging church is, in my opinion, not one of the problems, provided you see age as a number on the calendar and not a state of mind. You can be young according to the calendar but have a relatively old state of mind. And this is evident in how they view the world.

Too many people in positions of management and/or power hold onto a world view that is outdated and limited. These individuals view the Bible as a fixed and unchanging law book. Theirs is a view of a world some two thousand years ago, when knowledge of the world was limited.

The second problem is that the size of the United Methodist Church makes it impossible to facilitate change and almost encourages a top-down model of operation.

But such models very seldom work and by the time the instructions are delivered from the top to the bottom, the meaning behind the instructions is lost. Now, I am fully aware that the only way the Israelites, wandering in the wilderness, could receive the Ten Commandments was from the top down. But later on, when it came time to implement laws based on the Ten Commandments, then things got confusing.

Second, I also recognize that not much can be done about the present structure of the United Methodist Church. But we can either be bound by the structure, in which case, we lose, or we can, at the lower levels, where all the fun is, take it upon ourselves to do what it is that must be done, remembering the wonderful quasi-biblical phrase that is is better to seek forgiveness than ask for permission. And as I was writing this, it occurred to me that if any one of the Bishops of the United Methodist Church were to wander into my church on some Sunday, I probably wouldn’t know who he or she was. But that wouldn’t stop me from introducing myself and finding out if they needed anything or information about the church.

When you read the Old Testament reading for this Sunday, you can quite easily get the impression that the Pharaoh had no clue why the Israelites were even in Egypt. And because he did not know why they were there, he had ever reason to fear them. What happens when change is occurring at the lower levels of the organization and the upper levels of management don’t know what is going on?

The same is true for the United Methodist Church today. We still hold to a view that everyone should be in church on Sunday and when they are somewhere else, we get worried and scared. But we have forgotten the mission of the original church and what it is that we are supposed to be doing as people who have chosen to follow Christ.

All the talk about splitting the church over sexuality only amplifies the one problem that I mentioned above; an outdated and limited world-view. And as long as we think that limiting who can be a part of our church, we are showing our age and that we don’t know the mission of the church.

We can, if we want, wonder who the next Peter might be. Who will be the person upon which we can build, or in this case, rebuild the church? Quite honestly, I don’t see another Wesley, Whitfield, Boehm, Otterbein, Asbury, or any one of the many founding fathers and mothers of our denomination stepping forward.

I think it would be folly to look for one person to revitalize and/or change our church. But this isn’t a call for one individual; it is a call for many individuals. It has always struck me that as this denomination has gotten older and bigger, it has forgotten from which the strength of the church came, the laity. And maybe it is time for the laity, individually and collectively to step forward and do what they should have been doing all along.

What was it that Paul wrote to the Romans? Use the skills and talents that God has given each of you to the fullest possible extent? I wouldn’t wait around for someone at the top of the organizational pyramid to come up with an idea and hope that it will somehow work in our environment.

What works well for one church often times will fail in another. It isn’t about the lack of people or the lack of motivation; it is how well one mission idea fits within the scheme of each church. A plan that calls for 1000 people will not work in a church with only 10 members. But the church with 10 members can do a lot if it works with other churches, providing talents and skills that the other churches don’t have.

Not everyone can go on a mission trip but everyone can support a mission trip. But for this to work, the people who go have to meet the people who are supporting the trip. We need to start putting faces on the people that make up the church and not simply put a statement in the bulletin. We really need to get back to our roots, to that which helped the church grow.

Any organization that forgets where it came from is bound to fail. The church grew from the bottom up, with its roots in the soil of its community. Each community is different so each ministry is different. But the results of each ministry, unique and different, is the opening of the doors to the Kingdom for all the people.

So take the words that Jesus spoke to Peter so many years ago and put them in your heart. Each one of us is the rock upon which the church will grow and as it grows from our hearts, with all of our love and care, we can see the direction the ministry will take.

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