Saturday, October 18, 2008


I attended a retreat near Ligonier, PA this week with other United Methodist pastors from Western Pennsylvania Conference. Entitled "The Great Escape", the leader of the retreat was Gil Rendle, a consultant from eastern Pennsylvania whom our Bishop praised as one of his ten biggest influences since entering the episcopacy. Rendle is author of several books, including Holy Conversations: Strategic Planning as a Spiritual Practice for Congregations and Leading Change in the Congregation, which I've read. Fellow retreat attendee Bob Zilhaver has accurately described the retreat in his own blog as, "...not as much a retreat as a workshop on systems theory led by Gil Rendle."

And, while it was wonderful reconnnecting with sisters and brothers in Christ, worshipping together, experiencing Eastern Orthodox vespers, communing together, enjoying the spectacular beauty of autumn in Appalachia, and being touched by the word as preached by the consistently inspiring Eric Park (whose own retreat reflections are detailed on his blog), I left feeling a bit of a spiritual vacuum. Perhaps I went to Ligonier with unrealistic expectations. I had hoped to find some holy time and space for directed spiritual renewal. Instead, I got advice about how to change my congregation. These are not unrelated results, of course, but they're not identical.

Systems theory itself is not something to be wholeheartedly rejected. This "study of complex systems and relationships", which originated as a philosophy of biological study sometime during the early twentieth century, has done well in pointing out many issues in church and society. It really became the "sexy choice" among analytical theories among church consultants around 1995, a few years (I believe) after it entered the business world. It's sleak, professional, and modern.

The problem is that we are in a postmodern era, and systems theory in this "new world" has limited ability to speak proficiently and prophetically, being so rooted in a twentieth century worldview. Gil Rendle's presentation pointed out the ways in which the world, the church, and ministry has changed, and for the most part, he was correct. But the information and approach is now quite dated. There was little that he shared that wasn't already well known by those if us under, say, 45 years of age. It was old news. It was modern in an age of postmodernity.

In postmodern Christianity, theological language and symbols have a powerful and important place. In systems theory, theology simply doesn't matter.

This - in my humble opinion - has become a mantra in The United Methodist Church, certainly in our own Conference. We can't agree on doctrine, how to interpret it, or how to incarnate it, so we find other ways of uniting and building the church. But while systems theory may help us build profitable businesses or stronger institutions, it can do little in helping build the Kingdom or even in helping pastors become more "relevant". "Pastor as CEO" 1985. And this is a model that is lifted up? In an age when CEOs are blamed for wrecking the nation and enjoying "golden parachute" escape packages? This gives new (unintended) meaning to the title of our retreat.

The notion that theology simply doesn't matter was reinforced for me in two instances in which Gil Rendle - whose theology I don't know and whose integrity I do not intend to question - discussed his consulting work with a large Unitarian congregation. Unitarians? Aren't those among the folks we're trying to convert? Why help them build stronger congregations? Why take their money for helping them? Well, if theology doesn't matter - then why not?

Theology matters. Inasmuch as our leaders ignore this, we will continue to stumble and decline as a denomination. Why are afraid to talk about salvation, or holiness, or perfection? Aren't these theological emphases among the reasons there is such a thing as Methodism? Are we so afraid of conflict and struggle, so eager for consensus, that we want to avoid issues which - important though they may be - might arouse the passions of folks in every corner of the theological spectrum?

As the perfect capper to the retreat, I learned near the end (over a meal) that our Rules Committee may suggest a new Conference Rule which may disallow campaigning or endorsement of any kind when it comes to electing delegates to General and Jurisdictional Conference. My prayer is that we defeat this sub-Christian idea. Why would we be so afraid of free, open, respectful debate that we actually ban it? Let's talk about the issues and deal with them, rather than ignoring them in the hopes that when we lift our heads up from the dirt, the danger will be gone.

I pray that in the future, we hold retreats which center on prayer, Scripture, spirituality, and renewal. Why not center on a theological theme at Annual Conference, encouraging respectful dialogue and, if necessary, teaching us how to do it in a faithful, loving manner? Why must we retreat from the theology which has birthed renewal movements throughout the history of the Church, including our own?


Charlotte said...

Great stuff, Keith. As a congregation member in United Methodism, I see the wishy washy way in which the really tough issues are handled, and frankly, I don't like it. We can't offend anyone. This has been something that has seriously bothered me about our denomination for quite a while. And now, it's festered enough that I'm seriously considering a move to a non-denominational church that isn't afraid to say what it believes, preach it in the pulpit, and is not afraid of affending those who don't believe their doctrine. I need true definition and the United Methodist Church just can't give that to me without being wishy washy about it. Sometime soon I will be sharing my thoughts and feelings about this on my blog. I'm doing some research on it so that I really know what I'm talking about. Thanks again!

UC Mimi said...

You hit the nail squarely on the head with: "Why are we afraid to talk about salvation, or holiness, or perfection?...Are we so afraid of conflict and struggle, so eager for consensus, that we want to avoid issues which - important though they may be - might arouse the passions of folks in every corner of the theological spectrum?" YES WE ARE!!! Because if you're going to talk about holiness you'll have to deal with the issue of sin. We've become so afraid of "being judgemental" that we no longer hold each other accountable. We're all "what somebody does is just between them and God and He'll tell them if they're wrong" but it seems like sometimes even God isn't allowed to tell us what He considers to be sin. We prefer the warm fuzziness of "God loves you just the way you are". While that may be true, it's also true that He wants us to become so much more than what we began our Christian walk as and that won't happen as long as we stubbornly cling to the idea that we can define sin to suit ourselves.

Chris said...

Keith, although I was unable to attend the retreat (due to a much needed vacation - the first since Sophia came along!) I appreciate the desire of our Bishop to lead us to a greater connectivity or to hold us to a higher standard.

I enjoyed reading your review and appreciate your willingness to say what needs to be said.

Greg Cox said...

I agree that much of what I heard was stuff I've been thinking about for quite some time, but did you happen to see all the pastors who would sigh as if to say this is "the first time I've heard this - now I have to rethink my entire ministry." It seemed to be a real blow for some people.

Brett Probert said...

3 Musketeers...YUM!

Ooops...wrong blog! Hey dude...I didn't go to the retreat. I chose not to go. Not because of my schedule or my vacation or anything, but because I did not want to go looking for some spiritual high that I was nearly certain would end in a low. I have found that a retreat, for me, is just that. It is getting away. Getting away from denominations and discussions and religion and shadow missions. A retreat is getting away...just me and God. To renew my love for Him and His words and listen to His still small voice...that HE speaks directly to us if we'll get away from the social dances and to fall into the arms of that's a retreat. That's the place where we find hope and renewal.

Thanks for the review and your honest dialogue. You helped to reinforce in me the reasonings why I did not attend, and you took away any remaining guilt that I didn't.

Keith H. McIlwain said...

Anytime, Brett. I know I shouldn't get my hopes up with these things. I believe in the power and possibilities of a communal retreat, at which the Spirit is sought and the Scriptures are studied (or at least pondered). I remain pretty naive in many ways when it comes to these things. Shame on me, I guess.

Brett Probert said...

Dude...I'm with you. I guess I've just become skeptical of when/where that can truly happen. Keep the faith brother, and give it away.