Jim Winkler delivered the following address to the Laity Session of the 2012 Pacific Northwest Annual Conference on June 21 in Pasco, Washington.
I am a layperson in the UMC. I looked at the PNW website last week and saw a reference to Rev. Jim Winkler, but that’s not me. As general secretary (the same title Stalin held), I have been referred to as bishop, reverend, doctor, idiot, and worse over these past dozen years.
There are plenty of preachers in my family—my great grandfather, father, uncle, brother—somebody had to listen to all those sermons! I didn’t feel the call to ordained ministry and have not regretted that because I have had a full and rich life in the church as a disciple of Jesus Christ and because I firmly believe all of us are ministers of the Gospel, ordained or not.
The church cannot function without us laity carrying out ministry every day. I have set up and taken down thousands of folding chairs and tables, slept many nights in rooms full of church youth, sat through many an administrative council and lay leader meeting, and taught confirmation and Sunday School. The ministry of the laity complements the ordained ministry.
I know the engineer who leads a group of youth and adults every year on a mission trip to the U.S.-Mexico border, the woman suffering from MS who showered love and attention on the confirmands in the midst of her pain and suffering, the widower who became the beloved junior high Sunday School teacher, the returned missionary who headed up the peace committee in his church. Like you, I could go on and on with stories of devotion and faith.
My great grandfather, Zeno Lincoln Petty, who was born a few months after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln, started out as saloon keeper and gambling impresario in Muncie, IN before he heard what he thought was God calling him to the ordained ministry. He tells his story in his self-published, non-bestselling autobiography, “From the Saloon to the Pulpit,” currently and permanently unavailable on amazon.com.
In his middle age, he uprooted his family so that he could attend the Garrett Biblical Institute in Evanston, IL. After graduating at the age of 47 as a second-career preacher, he was appointed to local churches in the old NW Nebraska Ann. Conf. Alas, Greatgrandpa Zeno never last more than 6 months in any congregation. Almost immediately, the local church would begin petitioning the bishop and D.S. to remove him. Not everyone is suited for ordained ministry!
In his final years, he was a rice farmer in DeWitt, Arkansas. Each Saturday, he would venture to the town square to rail against alcohol, WW I, and child labor. While Zeno may provide us with some laughs, my father reports that Zeno was a gentle soul who loved Jesus and his family and played a major role in my Dad’s decision to enter the ministry years later. And through Dad and my uncle and brother, many people have come to know Jesus and love justice, kindness, and mercy.
But many, maybe most, Christians come to know Jesus not through our preachers but through us laity. We are the ones who nurture our children, our families, our neighbors. We are the ones rooted in our congregations and communities.
Today, in the UMC though there is widespread disappointment and discouragement that many of our local churches are losing members. Indeed, I have been part of congregations that have grown and those that have shrunk and it’s been more exciting for me to be part of growing churches.
There are plenty of reasons for our membership decline including the fact we have fewer children than we once did and that we do a poor job of keeping our young people active in church once they reach their teens and college years.
There have been times when I have fallen prey to the idea that ‘if only we had a dynamic preacher,’ then our church would grow and there have been times when I have been grateful for a strong core of lay leaders who have carried churches forward whether the pastor was strong or weak.
My friend Dan Dick serves as the DCM of the Wisconsin Conf. Some time back, he wrote about two small churches in Wisconsin that faced decline. One of them had 63 members and the other one had 61 members. One of the churches told the D.S. all they needed was a good, young preacher to turn things around.
The other church concluded differently. 21 of the laity in that church met together and pledged to one another that they would each invite neighbors, people they worked with, friends, and family to attend a function at the church whether that was worship, Sunday School, a dinner, or some other event.
Two years later, the church that wanted and got their young preacher was down to 41 members and the church that decided to invite others to join them had more than 120 in worship and was planning to expand their facilities.
The central theme of our life as United Methodists is grace. Grace is the Holy Spirit at work in our life, initiating and sustaining us, assuring us of God’s forgiveness and giving us a spirit of obedience and faithful response. When we consider the theme of ‘encouraging theological and doctrinal discourse’ we must face the debate and potential divisions that pervade our discussions as well as our actions, the way we live out our faith.
Prevenient grace, the grace of God that goes before, that precedes us, is at the center of our theology. As the statement on “Our Doctrinal Heritage” puts it in the Book of Discipline, “This grace prompts our first wish to please God and our first glimmer of understanding concerning God’s will.” And that means that the people called Methodist are called, in Mr. Wesley’s admonition, “to reform the nation, particularly the church, and to spread scriptural holiness throughout the land.” As I understand that task, and as I think United Methodists have traditionally understood it, the three emphases are equal in importance: to reform the nation, to reform the church and to spread scriptural holiness.
Now, we United Methodists have over time developed what we call Social Principles. I believe one reason we as a church have done so is because we know we are constantly in danger of becoming captive to the predominant values and popular opinion of our culture and adopting Social Principles is one way we declare our hopes for it to be on earth as it is in heaven.
It is said one of the gifts John Wesley gave to the people of England was that of teaching them how to live in a rapidly changing industrial society. Through our Social Principles we encourage people not to drink, smoke or gamble not so as to deny them pleasure but because we believe it is unhealthy and denies God’s will for us. Beyond the personal temptations and dangers booze, tobacco, and gambling represent we recognize that entire industries based on death and addiction can and have taken root in order to destroy the ethic of a good life.
We urge people to avoid falling prey to consumerism and materialism not in order to deny people an abundant life with adequate shelter, food and clothing but because we understand that for a new creation to be a reality through God’s work in Jesus Christ, god’s true people are those who obey God’s will, not merely boast about themselves and their own goodness.
We oppose the death penalty not because we believe murderers should run free but because we believe in God’s redemptive power and know that violence begets violence. We express concern about the need for higher fuel economy standards and oppose drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife refuge not because we believe Sport Utility Vehicles are inherently sinful or because we support any political party but for the reason that we cannot focus solely on individual salvation when God’s very creation is in peril.
We have periodically supported boycotts of corporations not out of a desire to destroy them or a particular economic system or theory but because we support migrant laborers, healthy working conditions, and freedom from tyranny.
We witness to powers and principalities in state capitals, Washington, DC, and at the United Nations not because we seek special favor or legislation for the UMC or believe that salvation is derived from lobbying but because our faith in the risen Christ compels us to call institutions to accountability on behalf of the children, the widows, the weak, and the impoverished.
I believe we United Methodists want to live holy lives. We don’t want to buy clothes made in sweatshops that exploit their workers, or drink coffee grown on land that should feed its hungry people, or pump deadly toxins into our bodies and homes, but we do it every day. Our lives are intimately bound up in a moral-spiritual crisis of profound dimensions. We have the ability to feed, clothe, shelter, and educate every living person on God’s earth. We can fight major diseases and clean up the environment. This is not a fantasy; it is a fact.
Where is our outrage at war and poverty? Can we not see the human face on the receiving end? Do we not know these people? Can we not imagine Christ’s response? Do we not understand the implications of Christ’s teachings?
Are we Christ’s Church or does UMC really stand for Upper Middle Class? Faith without works is dead. As your own Garrison Keillor says, “You can become a Christian by going to church just about as easily as you can become an automobile by sleeping in a garage.”
Can we imagine a new future? Ours is the first generation with the ability to feed all the world’s people, provide housing and education and health care for everyone, combat disease, hunger, and poverty. The World Bank estimates it would cost $15 billion to provide universal primary education for children in the poorest 88 developing countries. The World Health Organization says it would cost $21 billion to provide basic health care in these countries. Giving school children lunch in 44 poor nations would cost $6 billion annually.
Why aren’t we providing primary education and school lunches and basic health care? Why aren’t we upset about it right here and now? St. Luke reminds us, “From everyone to whom much has been given, much will be required; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted, even more will be demanded.”
Our church has changed. Most of our people are no longer Methodist born and Methodist bred and when they die they’re Methodist dead. Can I get an ‘Amen’? People move across denominational boundaries much more freely than they used to. This means in the local church laity and clergy must be more intentional about explaining and teaching our theology, doctrine, history, polity, customs, traditions, and practices.
Many of our new members may not know much about the UMC, but by and large they feel comfortable in the broad Protestant middle. They like the fact we are a church concerned about the world in which we live. They know they are not in a Pentecostal or fundamentalist or Unitarian or Roman Catholic or Mormon church. We should never compromise our identity as United Methodists or water it down.
Let’s also remember, “The aim of the Methodist movement as conceived by Wesley was not to generate a prosperous and successful denomination, or even several of them,” Ted Jennings wrote in his book Good News to the Poor: John Wesley’s Evangelical Economics, “but ‘to spread scriptural holiness throughout the land’…The success or failure of this project depended not on increase in numbers and influence, but on an increase in faithfulness…By Wesley’s own standard, the Methodist movement must be reckoned a failure. Despite all that may and must be alleged to its credit, it has, as a movement, become a mirror and an instrument of the reign of mammon. In spite of the intentions of its founder, it has basked in the upward socioeconomic mobility of its members, making the middle class the object of its solicitous regard, the norm of the efficacy and relevance of its programs. It has made itself hostage to the dream of denominational success and influence, perverting stewardship into a temple tax and appropriating the management and organizational models of institutional maintenance and growth.”
Not only those terrible words speak to our present condition, as Mr. Wesley would say, but Jennings goes on: “The concern for the destitute and oppressed has not been silenced, but it has been marginalized, placed not at the center but at the periphery of institutional life and commitment.”
Couple those words with these of Bishop Ken Carder writing in Rethinking Wesley’s Theology for Contemporary Methodism: “The United Methodist Church, in particular, is permeated by a middle-class ethos. Its organizational structures, management procedures, programming activities, curriculum resources, facilities, remuneration of clergy, appointment and budgetary processes, and denominational agencies and gatherings are shaped by middle-class values and methodologies. The poor are absent from most local churches and denominational structures; and whenever they are visible, the poor tend to be treated as objects of charity more than as special friends of Jesus Christ and personal with whom God closely identifies.”
I myself am a descendant of the European tribes, now called nations, that have established political, military, and economic dominance over the world. I confess to my sin of privilege and my reluctance to forego the perks my race and class afford me.
It goes without saying—still, it must be said again—we do not separate ourselves from the world. If we are faithful followers of Jesus Christ, we live in love with the world because the most famous passage of the New Testament declares that “God so loved the world that God sent God’s only Son into the world.”
We seek God’s grace and human activity working together. God’s grace calls us to good works. God’s grace calls forth human response and obedience. Again from the Discipline’s statement: “We assert that God’s grace is manifest in all creation, even though suffering, violence, and evil are everywhere present…We insist that personal salvation always involves Christian mission and service to the world. By joining heart and hand, we assert that personal religion, evangelical witness, and Christian social action are reciprocal and mutually reinforcing.”
We need to change things. My father tells this story: “My Uncle John was a ‘shrewd saint.’ He owned the Gulf station one block south of the town square in DeWitt, AR when I was growing up in the 30s and 40s. But Uncle John was too ambitious to stay in a small town and run a service station. He launched out into one entrepreneurial enterprise after another and moved all over the south. In his last year, Uncle John owned hundreds of gumball machines, the kind you see in service stations, grocery stores, small shops and drug stores. He would load up his truck with many, many boxes of gum balls, travel around, unload the nickels, pennies, dimes, quarters from his machines, massage the egos of those small-town shopkeepers, and reload the glass balls with gum. He said, ‘Gene, you would be surprised how little the IRS knows about the money that is spent in gum ball machines.’ Uncle John used to say, ‘There are three kinds of people in the world: those who make things happen, those who watch things happen, and those who stand around and ask, ‘What happened?’ I intend to make things happen.’”
The central challenge facing us today is the same one that has faced Christians everywhere and always—how to make our faith real and thereby transform the world. If anyone is in Christ, St. Paul says, they are a new Creation. Let us be part of the New Creation.