Comments in a recent article by Dan Busby, president of the Evangelical Council for Financial Accountability, caught my attention.
Trust is difficult to earn, easy to lose, and even more difficult to regain. It has been said, “Trust leaves on horseback and returns on foot.”
The Call to Action task force identified a lack of trust as one of the key problems besetting United Methodism today. As we all know, actions speak much louder than words in building trust or losing trust.
United Methodists lose trust in their denomination when:
• A retired bishop travels around the country advocating that United Methodists disobey the Book of Discipline, and there are no public reprimands from the Council of Bishops, or any sign of negative repercussions for that retired bishop.
• The Council of Bishops goes 18 months between open meetings, having two meetings closed to the public at which actions took place that were not reported to the church membership.
• Clergy think that they can disregard their promise to abide by the requirements of the Discipline and perform same-sex weddings or unions, while still availing themselves of the benefits of being United Methodist clergy. What business in the world allows its managerial employees to violate company policies and even advocate for such violation, while still remaining employees in good standing in the company?
• Bishops and district superintendents fail to follow the Book of Discipline’s requirement for consultation with congregations before making a pastoral change.
• A general board of the church engages in partisan politics and advocates positions that are at odds with the church’s positions as adopted by General Conference.
• Annual and jurisdictional conferences pass resolutions advocating disobedience to the Book of Discipline.
• Leaders manipulate the process of General Conference to prevent legislation to which they are personally opposed from coming up for a vote.
• Pastors preach a message at odds with the doctrinal standards established by our church.
The list could go on. This erosion of trust causes some to throw up their hands in despair and leave The United Methodist Church. It causes others to withhold or reduce their financial support for the church, since they cannot trust that the money will be used in agreement with their Christian principles. It causes the morale of clergy and laity to suffer, leading to a marked loss of enthusiasm for expanding the ministry of their local church. I have had people tell me they are reluctant to invite their friends to visit their UM congregation because they might lead their friends to support an organization in which they no longer have confidence.
Trust is being rebuilt when:
• A United Methodist bishop brings a complaint through one of his superintendents) against a pastor who openly acknowledges disobeying the Discipline, rather than pretending to be “neutral” and insisting that the complaint come from some other source. Such an action restores confidence that the Discipline means something and is to be taken seriously as more than just flowery words.
• The Judicial Council voids resolutions and actions that are plainly contrary to the Book of Discipline.
• The Judicial Council, Board of Global Ministries, and Council on Finance and Administration impose financial accountability when there is evidence of misspending of designated funds given for mission projects.
We need more of the latter actions and fewer of the former. Trust-building actions need to outweigh trust-eroding actions by at least three to one over a period of several years before trust can begin to be rebuilt in our church. Unfortunately, it often seems the ratio is going the other direction.
When a family, business, or government gets in extreme debt, it takes a while to dig out of it. Of course the first rule when you’re in a hole is “stop digging!” Unfortunately, our church leaders keep digging the hole of mistrust deeper and deeper. Even when we stop digging, it will take a long time to get out of debt. In the same way, it will take a long time for UM Church leaders to restore trust that has been eroded and broken.
If the people cannot trust their church leaders, how can we expect them to participate enthusiastically in support of our church—and in the gospel ministry which is supposedly at the heart of our church’s purpose?