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.
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.