The Rev. Dr. Jennifer Browne offers “three insights that should be motivating us to dream up new ways of living our values and carrying out our purposes as United Methodist congregations.”
Clergy Assistant to the Bishop, Michigan Conference
I was recently struck by the remarkable timeliness of a line from Edwin Friedman’s Failure of Nerve, a book first published posthumously in 1997, one year after the author’s death. Friedman was a rabbi and therapist, known for his application of Family Systems theory to religious congregations and congregational leadership. The line that seems to me to speak to our time reads “the colossal misunderstanding of our time is the assumption that insight will work with people who are unmotivated to change.”
Parents and caregivers know the truth of Friedman’s wisdom. I just spent a delightful weekend with my 15-month old grandson. His less-than-delightful habit of deliberately dropping his cup on the floor after each sip will only change when he’s motivated to keep it because no one picks it up and gives it back to him. His parents are more motivated than his grandmother to offer him that lesson.
Friedman’s wisdom is evident on a much larger scale when it comes to COVID-19 vaccines. While there is more than one reason for refusing to be vaccinated, a big one is lack of motivation. For many of the unvaccinated, the motivations not to be vaccinated are more compelling. It’s becoming increasingly clear that no amount of insight or information is going to catalyze change among the resolute anti-vaxxers. Sadly, we read repeatedly about those whose motivation to be vaccinated emerges only when they’re hospitalized or put on a ventilator.
Some United Methodist congregations possess the motivation to change. They’re clear on their own values and purpose, and they’re able to pivot quickly when circumstances call for it, in order to continue living by those values and carrying out their purpose. In my experience, those congregations are the exception. Most find it very difficult, even in the face of insight that tells them change is necessary.
- American culture has shifted away from a default presumption of church attendance, membership, and support.
- COVID-19 has exacerbated the decline in church attendance, membership, and support.
- The United Methodist denomination is getting closer to the type of split that has already occurred in many other mainline Protestant denominations. Both the specter of the split, and the delay in its actual occurrence, also contribute to a decline in attendance, membership, and support.
These are three insights that should be motivating us to dream up new ways of living our values and carrying out our purposes as United Methodist congregations. And again, there are some congregations doing exactly that. But there are many whose reaction is to keep doing things in the ways that used to work … and blame their experience of declining attendance, membership, and support on the outside world.
I had the chance to visit a Michigan Conference church for worship on a recent Sunday morning. It’s been a while since I was a brand new visitor to an in-person worship service. I was surprised to find myself a little anxious! Driving there, I wondered how someone who had never been to a United Methodist (much less a Christian) worship service, and had no idea what to expect, summoned the courage to give it a try.
Walking from the parking lot to the church building, a kind person engaged me in a conversation about the good weather. The pastor warmly greeted me before and after the worship service. And that was it. I sat by myself among people who knew and enjoyed each other’s presence, but not one greeted me, not even the person who spoke with me earlier about the weather. Many wouldn’t even return my eye contact. I was so glad to be able to escape the feeling of being the unwelcome stranger that I left through the closest door and had a long walk around the building before I found the right parking lot.
What will it take before we – all of us! – are motivated sufficiently to change how we do things? Culture doesn’t pick up our “dropped cups” any longer. If we keep dropping them, our mission will no longer be “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” It will be mopping up the messes and closing the doors.
May God give us the wisdom and imagination to change the ways we live our values and carry out our missions, not so that we can return to the glories of the past, but to live into God’s glorious future.