Friday, February 22, 2008

REPOST - "It's the 'How' That's the Problem - Or, R.I.P. Underwood"


With the transition between these two congregations having come and gone, and with a group of Underwood nomads wondering the Methodist congregations of Memphis looking for a place to call home, as well as a group content to never step foot inside a United Methodist Church again, I've decided to re-post this previously pulled article, complete with original comments - even the "anonymous" ones. I do this to keep before us the real pain suffered by this act of violence and the complicity of a system that let it happen. Oh, and I count myself as part of that system.
Some years ago, when Dr. Kervorkian's story was very active in the consciousness of the country, a poll was taken among United Methodists as to whether or not they believed that "euthanasia" was appropriate. Well, the "system" freaked out. Seemed that United Methodists, by something like 3 to 1 thought that euthanasia was an acceptable way to bring life to its close.

Missives emerged from the higher ups encouraging conversations that "death with dignity," which the Church affirms, cannot be confused with "mercy killing." Were theological hairs being split?

For the purposes of this post, I am not here to debate that issue. Rather, I want to report a case of euthanasia that has occurred in the city with a worshipping congregation. This congregation is a pivot point in my call to ministry.

Underwood is my home charge conference. I started the process for ministry from that church back in 1982. I stood before that charge conference, told of my call, and under Paul Douglass's superintendancy was voted upon as to whether or not Underwood would endorse me and send me on to the district. I still have that paper ballot stored away somewhere.

Those folks helped raise me. They are good, proud people who have cared for and loved each other well for 50 years. That congregation, no larger than it is, has spawned an extraordinary number of clergy into our conference -a fraternity of which I'm proud to be a part. And while my progressive leanings may not resonate with their worldview I've never doubted that they were proud to count me as one of their own.

At this point I want to be clear:

What I comment on is my understanding of what has recently transpired in the official actions of the legislative body of that congregation. It is not my intent nor perogative to interfere in the actions of another congregation - even one I love deeply.

But since official action has taken place, I do believe I am within my right to offer comment.

By action of a recent Charge Conference, Underwood's last service will be March 2 and they will be worshipping with Colonial Park UMC thereon - even though the merger is not official until Annual Conference in June.

Here's my problem:

Underwood has been in a state of flux for a few years. Like a number of churches in the city they are among those who have found it difficult to establish an enduring niche for ministry in their community beyond the legacy of their own story.

They didn't need to be told that. They have been very self-aware.

This issue is not whether or not they should close, merge, or do any of those things that a chartered congregation may do as it ponders its future. It is a matter of process. And this process is replete with manipulations and distortions that signal to any who observe it that the end justifies the means.

By any objective measure, to have an exploratory committee formed in Advent and be effectively closed before Easter - in a year when Easter is extraordinarily early, is a study in haste - it is pulling the plug on a congregation. It is neither merciful nor dignified.

To have questions of congregational ultimacy determined by the Charge Conference, rather than the Church Conference, while "legal," is not the way to make such decisions. Why not have the congregation "own" this decision in total?

So, congregants made a decision based upon a picture that had been painted, a "truth" that had been implied that's official sounding enough to leave the impression that it must be so and fuzzy enough to wiggle out of when people finally start waking up, albeit too late, to see what's happening to them.

It appears that some of the congregation were left with the impression that if they didn't vote for this merger measure they would be closed by June - that the annual conference would not appoint them another pastor. Did that come out of thin air?

How could anyone consider a 12-7 vote a win, when 2 of the 12 are automatic, and as many as 4 of the 12 voted believing they had no choice? The Church, when it wants to reach a particular conclusion in the face of divergent opinion, too often bows at the altars of Robert's Rules and The Book of Discipline than the altar of Christ Jesus.

This is about voter suppression, and the marginalization of choice. Choice of what to do with their last days as a worshipping congregation - choice of exploration of all options of what to do and where to go - even their choice of when to say goodbye.

March 2 may seem expedient to some. I call it violent - and that's what euthanasia is - and if, when it comes to something like this - the behavior of those on the "winning" side looks more like a conquest than a covenantal merger - you have your answer of what track this train was always going to take.

So, you've got a few who'll go along with the program. God bless them, and I trust they find what they're looking for in this new arrangement.

But you'll have a large group of folks, whose voices were silenced, who'll speak now by their exploration of other options - any option other than the mandated one. And, you'll have a congregation robbed of its chance to say farewell gracefully - something that any of us would pray for upon the hour of our deaths.

And the saddest truth is - a relationship with Colonial Park may well be the best choice for Underwood - but the way at which it was arrived will scar ministry's potential for years to come. If this is the way we're going to craft an urban strategy for ministry in Memphis, I don't want any part of it.

There is a way to do this, one that is difficult enough - but grace-full. To do violence to a congregation is not it.

Oh, and when the annual conference actually gets to vote on this merger, even though it will be perfunctory - there will be at least one "no" vote on the floor of the conference. Mine.

5 comments:

Marcia Law said...

Johnny,
As another who grew up at Underwood I also love the church and the wonderful people there, including of course my parents. Thank you for speaking out about the way the closing of the church was handled. I think many among the congregation feel betrayed. The closure of the facility does seem to have been so rushed that there really is no time for closure among the church family, some of whom have been members there for 50 years. While there is no way to backtrack and provide a more dignified end for a congregation that has loved and encouraged many over the years and been a faithful part of the conference, it may at least give some comfort to those who are grieving the loss to know that others outside the immediate congregation are grieving as well. Again, thank you for your comments.
Marcia Hill Law

Anonymous said...

I hope my funeral is given a little more consideration than this.

Anonymous said...

As a longtime member of Oakhaven UMC which recently merged with Emmanuel, I take exception. Our experience could not have been handeled with more sensitivity and the rich history of our church now lives on. The majority of the active Oakhaven members are now fully assimilated and many hold positions of leadership within the merged congregations.

I applaud the decision of the members of Underwood to choose to continue their ministery in partnership with Colonial Park. They have chosen life over death. Now their rich history will remain intact rather than be relageted to a box hidden in some closet at Lambuth.

The truth is the the United Methodist Church must wake up if we are to survive. We must find the courage to merge and close churches that are unable to support themselves. We must liquidate those assets and plant them in more fertile ground where we can rekindle the flame.

Finally, we must exibit brave new leadership, return to the Gospel of Jesus Christ and the teachings of John Wesley. We must examine our leaders carfully and find an exit strategy for those who are unwilling or unable to perform their duties. Guranteed appointments will strangle our church.

Rev'd Dr. Jonathan L. Jeffords said...

With respect, anonymous, the issue is "process" to achieve the larger goals that many of us are working on right now for the sake of United Methodism in the city. I'm thankful that you had the "grace-full" experience in your transition. Would that a good number of folks from Underwood could have experienced it, too.

Anonymous said...

Johnny when you say "as many as 4 of the 12 voted believing they had no choice" I do not see how that was possible.

I was at the meeting (were you?)and the District Superintendent made a statement at the beginning of the meeting clearing up the issue. He said -"you have been given wrong information and I want to clear it up. You were told if you do not vote FOR this merger - the confenence will close you and you will not receive a pastor in June. This information is absoutly incorrect. You DO NOT have to vote FOR this merger and you WILL receive a pastor in June......."

Regardless of how you feel in this case - You may want to get ALL the facts instead of just from one or two people. There are always 2 sides.