© 2012 John Casimir O'Keefe

The UMC and Me: A Rant

  • Sumo

Over the past decade I have had several conversations with United Methodist Church (UMC) leaders. Every time that conversation starts with them emailing or calling me to start a dialog. I always call them back, and even though it is against my better judgment, I listen to what they have to say. You see, I like Wesleyan Theology, and because I attended a UMC Seminary and pastored with them for my first four years in ministry I guess I have a soft spot for the UMC. Unfortunately nothing ever comes of those conversations, no matter what they promise or say, they never live up to anything they seem to share. I don’t know if I am a glutton for punishment or if I am just too trusting – either way, I am the one who gets the business end of the stick. I know, some will say that I cannot judge an entire denomination or leadership of that denomination based on one conversation and I would say they were right. But my relationship with the UMC goes well beyond just one leader – like I mentioned in the opening of this rant, I have had several  conversations with District Superintends and Bishops and each one ended the same way.

The conversations always follow the same pattern. I get a message (mostly email, but I did receive a call once) to call a local District Superintendent or Bishop to talk about me coming over to the UMC – They are all excited about the possibilities and they spend hours talking with me about what they are doing and how I would be a great fit in their “different” District or Region. They talk with me about church planting and church rejuvenation. The conversation always ends on a promising note where they will be in touch and we can “get the ball rolling.” That evening I would receive a butt load of forms to fill out, and I would fill them out and send them back – even though I hate filling out forms.  A few weeks later, after hearing nothing from them, I call back to see what is happening. I always get the same answer, “We are working on finding you a place. My district is full at this time, but others in the Region are looking for a church for you. I will let you know.” I always wonder why they contacted me in the first place, if their Districts were full – either way, I wait.

The last Superintend that contacted me assured me that he was a very different kind of Superintend, and he was very excited that we could talk. He wanted to bring in new blood, new DNA, so changes could happen in the District. He told me that he had a number of different churches in his area that were dying and could use new ideas from new people to help change the downward clip of the churches in his District. He said that the District and Region too seriously the slogan “Rethink Church.” When I emailed him my resume he was even more excited and emailed me to tell me how excited he was and that he was looking for a place for me. He told me that he would be working with the other District Superintends in the area and he was certain they needed me, and he could find room. In fact, he told me that they needed to find room for me – because they needed me in their Region. Needless to say, that was just smoke going up the place that produces the stuff the stick is used for.

In the developing of a relationship I always do my part. If I do not hear from the District Superintend or Bishop for a while I reach out to them. I call at least once a month to speak with them, just to see what’s happening. Every time I do, they are in a meeting, so I leave a message – and they never call back – NEVER. Needless to say, I stop calling after two messages.

When I speak to my friends who are serving in the UMC about my feelings and frustrations I am usually consoled with one of the following:

District Superintends are required to appoint the UMC Elders in a church first: OK, if that is their rules, I am fine with that, but why try to bring new people in? Why take the time to reach out and bring new DNA into the District or Region if there is no place to put them? Why try to make a change if change is not possible to make? Why take the time to start a conversation with new people, if that conversation is to end with silence?

Relax; you never want to burn bridges. What bridges? There are no bridges. At best there is a small overgrown path leading to a cliff. The idea of a bridge is that there are people on both sides walking back and forth. If there is no movement on one end, there is no bridge. The idea of a bridge is that there is something on each side that the other needs, and to be honest I am not seeing bridges.

They are very busy people and it could take a while. Really? Keep in mind that busy does not excuse neglect or bad manners. Any person who claims they are too busy to return a phone call truly needs to think about what they are doing and reexamine how they are spending their day. I am always amazed at how they are willing to take the time to talk with me (and I am also busy) when they need me, but when I need to talk with them they are always in a meeting and never return my calls. Not returning my calls does not say “busy” it says “as a group, we are uncaring people.”

It could be that there is something wrong with you. I can see that, but I am not sure I would say “wrong.” I would say “different.” But that is why they contacted me in the first place, or the reason I was asked to contact them, because I am different from what they have now. My being different was exciting to them, and they saw possibilities with that difference. But, even if there was something “wrong” with me, or I did not fit, I think a phone call to let me know is much better than not showing the human respect of a returned call.

If God wanted you to serve in the UMC God would open the doors. I don’t buy this; I think it is bad theology. It tells me that I have to excuse the unprofessional, inconsiderate, rude nature of those in leadership of the UMC and put the blame on God – and I am not going there. I see no reason to blame God for the actions, or inactions, of the UMC leadership.

There is an old saying, “Fool me once shame on you; fool me twice shame on me.” I wonder what that saying says about a person (me) who has been fooled several times. Not too long ago I said I would not talk with the UMC ever again, and like a trained monkey I did – I will admit that the last few times are on me – I believed what they were saying and I trusted them. My bad.

It is unfortunate, but my trust level with the UMC is now at ZERO – and I am pretty sure that I will never have a conversation with them again. To be honest, it will take a great deal of action (not words) on the part of the UMC for me to change my mind. I have a hard time dealing with people who say one thing and do another, and every conversation I have had with a UMC leader has ended with that experience.

7 Comments

  1. ann gibert
    Posted 2012/01/11 at 2:29 pm | #

    As a United Methodist minister, I am deeply saddened by your experience. I don’t understand why a Bishop or a DS would seek you out, initiate discussions about an appointment, and then not follow through. Why Would they seek you unless they had something specific in mind. Pointless.

  2. Posted 2012/01/11 at 2:37 pm | #

    As a people, we like the idea of change, but are scared shitless of it. Even still, it is no excuse for rude behavior. They should at least own their decision to pass on the new wine.

  3. Pamela
    Posted 2012/01/11 at 2:42 pm | #

    I attend a UMC in Western New York State, and the very attitudes you discuss almost caused my church to implode two years ago. It was so ugly and the DS flat out lied to us about, well, pretty much everything. If it weren’t for the wonderful people sitting in the pews with us, my family would have left the church. I don’t blame you at all for being through with our denomination.

  4. Anon
    Posted 2012/01/11 at 2:48 pm | #

    Hey, I never comment anonymously, but this time I will. I’ve had similar taxing/vexing experiences with UMC. And when I went through them, I talked to another friend, a sought after emergent pastoral coach, and they echoed similar frustrations. The thing they said to me that I totally agreed with was this: “When it comes to the UMC, they sound like they understand what you are talking about when it comes to new/emergent style ideas – but they don’t actually”. Now, I know this whole thing sounds terrible to slam a whole denom with stereotyping, but boy did I feel a deja vu when I read her comment back to me…I had literally written others the same idea – that I would say something, explain it over the phone, repeat it in an email, and they would come back and it was obvious their understanding of it was miles off…even other continents off.

    Reading your experience and remembering mine, makes me think this – that UMC have a culture of “yes” saying, head shaking yes, smiling, getting excited…all the while it’s just them being nice to you. I think it’s a culture of niceness for the social veneer while not really engaging. I think maybe those regional guys called you because they had to feel they were doing something to try to freshen up the mess a bit, but really they had no intention of following through. They got all excited because that’s the nice thing to do. Whole groups can have cultural manifestations like this.

    I know. It sounds horrible. But it’s been a similar experience. I hope some of them are listening, which is the value of this seemingly horrible post and comment.

  5. taterman
    Posted 2012/01/11 at 4:05 pm | #

    Great Methodist theologian Albert Outler is reported to have said, back in the ’60s that the Methodist Bishops would rather preside over the death of the Church than make the changes necessary to save it! Sadly, loyalty to the “Method” and collecting Ministry Shares seems to be the primary function of the UM Church, along with trying to enact liberal social “justice.”

  6. Former UMC Pastor
    Posted 2012/01/11 at 5:40 pm | #

    Thank you for writing this. I was a candidate for Ordination as an Elder in the UMC. I was even Commissioned and I served one appointment in the system. People talked a lot about the new style of leadership the UMC needs but their actions ran contrary to their official statements. The UMC is filled with hypocrisy.

    Like you, I have chosen to have nothing more to do with the UMC. My advice for any missional, entrepreneurial, emergent, outside the box leaders – stay away! The UMC already has enough Elders and Pastors who are miserable and even abused by the hierarchy and the institution. Take a look at the dis-ease, or unwellness statistics about Elders who are currently trapped within the system.

    Making leadership deployment decisions almost exclusively through the absolute appointment power of Bishops is a system out of the industrial age. The District Superintendent’s are ‘promoted’ mostly based on their ability to kiss up to the hierarchy. The District Superintendent’s that are good are trapped – just like the older Elder’s – their career is completely vulnerable to the whims of the Bishop they serve under.

    I once told a UMC Bishop that John Wesley himself would not survive within the current UMC ordination and appointment process.

    The insanity of the UMC people you have encountered can be crazy-making. There is so much conversation going on about recruiting leaders like you, or me. What they do conflicts with what they say; classic hypocrisy.

    The reality is very complicated but two factors that contribute is that those with power are cowards interested mostly in avoiding conflict. Another factor is that there are no innovative visions (among the Bishops/leaders) for what the church can BE in our world today (not just rethink). You don’t get elected Bishop in the UMC for being a radical agent of change, or a transformational leader. You get elected because you work the existing power structure.

    The guarantee of appointment has been the trade-off that Elders get for giving up control over their ministry and agreeing to the system of being appointed by Bishops. It is true that the system has to find appointments for the existing Elders (whether before or after is irrelevant). With the rapid decline in the number of full time appointments, and the delays in Old Elders retiring, it has become a crisis for many Annual Conferences… no room for the people they want to recruit (like you and I).

    In 2008, the crisis was so severe in the Western Jurisdiction, that people like me (recruited out of seminary to serve in a cross conference appointment) got bounced out of the system, unemployed or underemployed without any recourse. The guarantee of appointment does not apply during the years you are a provisional member. If you were to join the UMC, your appointment/job as a Pastor would be vulnerable for a number of years.

    Again – my advice to anyone who is creative, innovative, results-oriented, an outside of the box leader – stay away from the UMC OR find an exit strategy and get out.

  7. Matt
    Posted 2012/05/15 at 1:12 am | #

    Hey John, I think we were seminary classmates.

    Stay away from The UMC. I have been a pastor in that denom since graduating seminary, first as a probationary Deacon and finally as an Elder. (Didn’t KISS release an album called The Elder back in the seventies.) The UMC talks about all of the organizational changes it needs to make, rethink church, making disciples, blah, blah, blah. Reality? In the UMC you are evaluated by the heirarchy on four major things. 1) turning in your forms and reports ontime and attending meetings. 2) Ability to work in a church without generating complaint calls to the District Superintendent. 3) Getting put on important conference committees. 4) Having your congregation pay apportionments in full. None of this is likely to change in the next twenty years. The UMC wants company men; managers in a suit and tie who carry a briefcase full of denominational programs, fill out reports and put posters on their church bulletin boards about all the great things the denomination is doing.

    The UMC has not changed since the days you served as a local pastor. It is just about 20 percent smaller with less resources. It is about twice as dysfunctional.

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