By Rev. Richenda Fairhurst
May 18, 2016 | Portland, Oregon
We who pastor at the local church level are by and large leading struggling churches. Today’s pastoral leaders are tasked to lead our churches either into renewal or through the process of closure. Yes, we are involved with a lot of ministry. But leading our local churches during this time of great shift puts renewal or closure right at the center of what we do.
What I have learned in coming to General Conference is that the global church is not all that different from the local church I know. If this were my first Sunday at a new church, I might say that the body as a whole doesn’t know if it wants to live or die. It leans toward life, but it stands on the edge of death. And it doesn’t know what to do about that.
Just as many of our own local Church Councils have struggled, and too often failed, to meet the demands of the neo-millennial age, so the global church has mirrored this struggle. In watching the process these two weeks it is clear that the legislative process at General Conference has failed. We have tried and failed and tried and failed to legislate ourselves out of our disagreements and into community. It isn’t working.
To be a healthy body, we must engage on-purpose strategies for learning and growing together, strategies that include crying, serving, talking, and hugging it out together. Strategies that allow for difference. Instead we have refused that path and as a result we have shattered into many different factions, some good, some not so good. We have shattered and then imagined ‘unity’ as loss. To be ‘unified’ in the dysfunctional climate of the church council is too often to experience authoritarian loud-mouthed winners who dictate that others follow them—or else.
We feel helpless. We feel frustrated. We get bossy. We get mean. We begin grasping to preserve whatever power we think we might have left, even dysfunctional power, just to stay afloat. It hurts to watch.
At this General Conference a cry sailed over the frustration of years of factional pain to declare no-confidence in the infighting systems on the legislative floor and demand the bishops stand and lead. And stand they did.
The truth is that we want unity. That was clear yesterday. And from the bishops to the delegates to the everyday folk who clustered in corners to converse, sing, and pray, that was our cry today. But. Even as we declare that we want unity we must grapple with the fact that we have spent twenty years in dissolution. And as the local church goes, so goes the global church. And we, in our local churches are mired in years of dissolution, too.
I suppose this should fill me with despair. But it does not. We got this. We of the local church—who are the church—began the work of renewal 20 plus years ago and our groundwork is showing. ‘Unity’ took on a new possibility today. Its call came from the congregation of the gathered, spilling onto the floor from all sides and daring to demand a voice in the legislative process. We have learned we want a renewed church. We know what the work of renewal looks like. And we are ready.
I await the next steps as we lean in to a new kind of unity for our church.
We can, we will be, and by God we are, a church in renewal. We praise God for the voices in the middle today who sought to love everyone at the edges in a call to find a way to bring us together again. We trust for God to bring us the resources and the courage that we need. We cling to the strengths of our roots and connections in Methodism. We keep our eyes firmly on the prize—we as Christian people called to live as the Kingdom of God. We need not be troubled. For that glorious city even now arises, and God will lead us to it.
Rev. Richenda Fairhurst has a passion for renewing churches at the local level. She understands that the relevance and vitality of the local church is directly relational to the ability of that church to live its call to discipleship by loving and serving its neighbors locally, intergenerationally, and cross culturally. She serves in southwest Washington state at the Camas United Methodist Church. Follow her at @pastorrichenda