Thursday, March 03, 2005

Loving Church Politics

John Wesley UMC is preparing to elect a Church Council on Sunday, after I preach and lead communion. I sat down with the pastors yesterday to walk them though this process, because they are rightfully a little nervous about it.

Church elections always sound so superficial, a sort of “necessary evil” that pastors dread. Non-Methodists often criticize the democratic processes of United Methodists. After all, it smells suspiciously like politics … why yes! It is politics!

But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. The word “politics” derives from the Greek word, polis, which means a social grouping of people. It refers not just to the people or the places they live, but to the orderly way in which they live together. Any grouping of human beings is political; there are always some set of rules that these humans agree to live by, in order to stay together.

It’s no different in the church. We must have an order, or in church terms, a “polity,” that keeps things in their proper place, and to keep things focused on the mission of the church. And this politics is a deeply spiritual process. If the Church is truly the Body of Christ on earth, then the form and shape of that Church is important.

This is the meaning of the Incarnation – the transcendent, sovereign God chose to take on the limitations of flesh and blood in order to express love and justice. The Church also is the Incarnation of God’s love, and so we try to express God’s love and justice through imperfect things, like church elections, committees, sermons, and soup kitchens.

It matters who the Church Council chairperson will be, and who the Treasurer will be. Just as it matters who the Pastor is.

And just because we use a flawed democratic process as our system of naming these persons doesn’t mean it can’t be a conduit of God’s guidance and direction. Heck, the apostles rolled dice when they needed to elect someone into the Inner 12. Our system has gotta be better than that! I’ll take Christian democracy over a benevolent dictatorship, or blind luck, any day of the week.

I have also been working on a process whereby local prayer groups may become “official” United Methodist Churches, then move toward status as self-supporting, self-sustaining churches that are no longer dependent on a Mission Office.

Again, this process is tedious, fraught with potential for serious human error. But … order is good. Organization and systems give us a framework within which good things can happen and God’s Spirit can move. Most of our pastors and people have been waiting for these boundaries to be drawn, and the “t’s” to be crossed, and the committees to start. These are all signs that something good is just around the corner.

This is why the Volunteers in Mission team visit was such a success. The team sponsored two planning conferences, and helped the pastors and churches articulate their hopes and dreams, anticipate obstacles, and create strategies to reach their goals. In the end, all the participants had a document which represented a clear direction and a plan of action for the future.

Sure, the process was “political.” But what else could it be?