Watching Dinosaurs Mate…Or Just Maybe…

I’ve often said that watching churches merge is like watching dinosaurs mate…it isn’t pretty and there is no future in it.  We tend to take two dying churches, put them together and hope they can give birth to something, but often it’s more like hopice care than it is a maternity ward. Back in the heyday of the ecumenical movement, dying denominations came together in multiple mergers, like the Methodists and EUB’s in 1968.  We hoped for something new, but we’ve been on a steady decline ever since. Last week it was announced that the Detroit and West Michigan Conferences overwhelmingly approved merging…opps, I am supposed to say “creating a new conference in the state of Michigan”.  It’s the third time we tried in one way or another to come together and this time it worked, in large part due to the careful and grace-filled leadership of Bishop Deborah Kiesey. So it is fair to ask,”Are we just watching dinosaurs mate, or is there the possibility of new birth and a new future?”  Of course we all know that reorganization does not necessarily create revival–we’ve tried that a hundred times in the form of new mission statements, new initiative, restructuring, down-sizing and right-sizing to little avail.  It would be easy to be a skeptic, or just maybe….

…Maybe the process of coming together will mean a complete rethinking of who we are and how we function.  It will mean literally throwing everything up in the air and then putting it back together again.  When systems like annual conferences have been around for so long, there are so many things that have become galvanized and sanctified, formalized and baptized it is just really tough to bring about change.  However, in the days ahead we should be able to ask all the tough questions about why we do things the way we do and whether or not it is the best way going forward.  Sacred cows can be demystified and new ways can be tried.  I really do believe that in the process of reordering our live together there is an opening for God’s Spirit to do something new and for us to find new ways of living as the Methodist Connection in the State of Michigan.

In my recently published book “Do Not Be Afraid”, two of the chapters were written by Bishops who have led their conferences through similar mergers.  Bishop Scott Jones, in the Great Plains Conference writes, “Most of the local congregations and Annual Conferences of the UMC have accumulated a kind of baggage.  We have traditions and practices that weigh us down. Eventually, it is time to clean out the basement. The cleaning process makes us distinguish between what is junk to be discarded and what is usable and should be brought upstairs into the new house.” And Bishop Mark Webb of the Upper New York Conference says what we need is “a spirit-led imagination”.  He says, “God’s reality is what we must begin to imagine. God has chosen us!  God has called us!  God will use  us!” 

So at the risk of watching dinosaurs mate, I am hopeful that this merger really will “create a new conference in the State of Michigan” and that through it all, we can discover a new future for Methodist in the Great Lakes State.  And maybe, just maybe something of it will sift down to local churches, the only place where the church can actually grow, to spawn new life and new birth.

Next Sunday is Father’s Day and I will be preaching at St. Andrew’s Presbyterian Church in Beulah, MI at 10:30am.  If you are up north, we would love to have you worship with us.

Jack Harnish

PS:  The new book is entitled “Do Not Be Afraid: Bishops and Young Clergy Share Signs of Resurrection and Words of Hope” and is available at http://www.ccpublishinghouse.org or Amazon.

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2 thoughts on “Watching Dinosaurs Mate…Or Just Maybe…

  1. Donald W. Haynes

    Lyle Schaller, may his tribe increase, used different language for mergers than the procreation of dinosaurs. He called merger “leaning two tombstones against each other.” There are many corporate mergers when two cultures must negotiate values and priorities. We in the south watched with apprehension the merger of Wells Fargo from California and Wachovia from the Moravian town of Salem in North Carollna. In that merge, the Wachovia culture was obliterated. The same was true years ago when a local ailine called “:Piedmont” merged with US Air out of Pittsburgh. But those examples come from “the aegis of mammon” and certainly Methodist mergers are in the “God-sphere.” But wait, what about turf protection? What about the plums to be picked? What about the more conservative theology of West Michigan and the more liberal theology of Detroit? What about support of Camps and colleges and retirement villages and children’s homes? What about unfunded pensions? Many of the church issues have a “mammon-like” nature, do they not?

    Mr. Wesley said that our mission was “to save souls.” That phrase has been caricatured and stereotyped and mocked ad nauseum, but truth to tell, there is no other way for the church to thrive. We are 19 years older than the general population,. We have shrunk from nearly 11,000,000 to well under 8,000,000. Much of t he numbers and ethos of the EUB church has been gobbled up to the loss of family religious heritage, local church vitality, and loss of some clergy’s identity.

    We can go on and on and on for a while. But sooner or later we will look like The former Methodist Protestant Church who, by the way, never had one of its ranks elected to the episcopacy after the two they elected to accommodate their merger in 1939. The Central Jurisdiction had t o go because of it represented systemic racism, but the sad reali ty is that we have less United Me thodists of African American heritage than we did when the Central Jurisdiction was evangelizing African Americans and placing them in leadership.

    Back to the corporate world when weakness and market loss was remedied with mergers. Where is Packard, Nash, Studebaker, Hudson. One prognosticator, Donald House, is warning that by 2030 we cannot support our present paradigm of connectional structure and that by 2050, we will have one church per town. Let us not forget that in colonoial America 70% of all church members were either Congregational or Anglican. By 1840 34% of all church members were Methodists and the Congregationalists and Anglicans had diminished severely. Also by that date, the Methodists had brought more Native Americans to Christ in 60 years than had the Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Congregationalists from the days of the Pilgrims.

    I have a friend, from Michigan, who taught this old Southerner a new phrase a few years back–“reality check.” Let’s be brave enough to cut the Titanic mentality and do a reality check. If we, Peter Drucker’s words, “continue to do business like we are now doing business, we will cease doing business at all.

    Donald Haynes
    Western North Carolina

    Reply
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