Ever since I became a United Methodist about twenty years ago, I’ve been told repeatedly that one of the best – and most unique — things about the church is our “connection.” We are a “connectional people,” I am repeatedly told.
But I confess that, twenty years on, I still don’t fully understand the concept, and I certainly can’t understand why this makes us unique.
According to our Book of Discipline, our “connectionalism” is evident in four particular ways: our tradition of faith and doctrine, constitutional polity, mission, and ethos (para. 130).
However, if being connectional means sharing a common tradition of faith and doctrine, then there’s not much that divides Methodists from Presbyterians, Disciples of Christ, or any other mainline Protestant group for that matter. Our articles of faith are similar to their articles of faith.
If being connectional refers to our polity (organizational structure) which involves a bishop exercising authority over a geographical area, then we are very similar to Catholics and Episcopalians. We also have general boards and agencies, but so do other denominations.
If being connectional refers to having a “common mission,” then we are just like any other non-profit organization which has a mission, vision, and values statement.
And every organization has a “common ethos that characterizes (a) distinctive way of doing things” (para. 130). We’re certainly not unique there.
Surely being “connectional” means something deeper and more significant than this.
Last week, I attended our annual clergy retreat, with over two hundred pastors gathered for a couple of days of relaxation, worship (led by the Connections Band!), and stimulating lectures by Brian McLaren. As usual, I thought to myself, “I don’t spend nearly enough time with my friends and colleagues in ministry.” It occurred to me, then, that “connection,” mostly has to do with pastors.
Hear me out, all you laypersons who are crying foul just about now. I would like to argue that, yes, the “connection” primarily refers to the way that we Methodist pastors are supposed to be organized and go about our work – but not because I want to short-circuit the work of non-pastors.
Furthermore, I would argue that we simply are not “connectional” at this moment in our history. At least not in the sense that we ought to be.
In his book, Marks of Methodism, Russell Richey argues that true Methodist “connectionalism” has eight primary meanings, the most important of which, I believe, are “covenantal commitment” and “missional principle.” Historian Richard Heitzenrater confirms this idea when he describes early Methodist connectionalism as “the covenantal association of preachers committed to a united mission to spread scriptural holiness under the direction of John Wesley and the conference.”
In other words, the connection is a group of preachers who have pledged to be accountable to each other and be in mission to the world.
I would like to suggest that we pastors ought to view ourselves in this way, to imagine that we are an intentional, covenantal community ordered for the mission of God in a particular geographical area. This means that we should be primarily accountable to each other, worshiping together, and gaining strength from our fellowship together. We know that our membership is in the Conference, not in any local church, but this is only a technical reality. What if it became a living reality? What if pastors met weekly in covenant groups, and discipled each other? What if appointments were viewed as missional engagements, and were freed from a place on the salary ladder? What if the bishop forsook the rest of his or her duties to do nothing but pastor all the pastors?
This is not how we currently live out our connectedness. Right now, being connectional means simply that we pay apportionments; we share resources within the conference and from the general boards and agencies; we gather once a year for Annual Conference and do our business; we are held accountable for actual measurable results in our appointments; the bishop and cabinet strategize and order the overall work; and we preachers are lucky if we see each other more than twice a year.
What if being connectional, instead, meant that each pastor were required to be in a covenant group with other pastors; that each pastor viewed the entire conference as his own appointment; that each pastor viewed herself primarily as a missionary, sent into a particular mission context; and that no particular appointment or context was viewed as more “valuable,” “lucrative,” or “vital” than another?
Being connectional means being committed to the whole forest, not just the individual trees. I’m as guilty as any other pastor of not being able to see the forest for my own personal tree. In fact, I take pride in caring for my own tree; I spend all my time trying to make my tree bigger and taller.
But the point is that we’re all in this together. The mission of God is common, because it is shared by all of us, pastors as well as laypersons, preachers as well as Sunday School teachers.
Somewhere along the way, the mission of the church got delegated to “professionals” who have made a career out of impressive sermons, top-notch counseling, and chairing committees. And in the process, the connection was weakened, made brittle, and shattered.
It’s time to become truly connectional again. If not, let’s stop using the word.