Commentary: A Time to Die

Rev. Jim Harnish

None of us really wants to die. The desire for life is planted so deeply with us that we naturally resist the threat of death. We rebel against it, fight with it, and use all of our power of human wisdom to attempt to defeat it. Our instinct for self-preservation bears witness to the power of life that God breathed into our human creation.
But there comes a time to die. Although our natural tendency is to resist it, the writer of Ecclesiastes got it right in saying that “for every matter under heaven” there is “a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up that which is planted”  (Ecclesiastes 3:1-2).
Sooner or later, all leaders of organizations have to die to their leadership so a new generation of leadership can emerge. That’s the way it came to Moses: “The LORD said to Moses, ‘Your time to die is near; call Joshua and present yourselves in the tent of meeting, so that I may commission him’” (Deuteronomy 31:14).
And at the heart of the gospel is Jesus’ word and example that “unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains just a single grain; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12.24).

But we don’t want to believe it. We resist the death/resurrection in our leadership and institutional life just the way we resist it in our natural human life. None of us really wants to see the structures to which we have given our labor, faithfulness, and energy die. The instinct for self-preservation is just as powerful in our institutions as it is in our bodies.
But for everything under heaven, there comes a time to die so new life can be born.
I’ve become convinced that time is now for the current organizational structures of The United Methodist Church. There are ways in which our largely autonomous, widely representative boards and agencies have served us well since the time they were born. They reflected a time when we needed widely shared participation by large groups of representative people.

But as James Russell Lowell reminds us, “new occasions teach new duties/Time makes ancient good uncouth (“Once to Every Man and Nation,” The Book of Hymns, p. 242). It’s time for that structure to die so new life can be born.

The Call to Action process has used all of the best available resources to assess the realities of the time in which we live. Not having been a part of that process, I’ve watched it from a distance and am convinced that the results of the research clearly confront the realities that we have attempted to deny for a number of years. The diagnosis of our current dysfunction is right on target.

The prescription for change is radical. It may or may not be perfect.  But it is the best option we have for realigning our denominational resources around our mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” It puts into action the Disciplinary conviction that the local church is the primary location in which disciples are formed.
The fundamental decision before the delegates to General Conference will be whether they are willing to allow our old structures to die so that new life can be born. My conviction is that the time has come.

[Jim Harnish is Senior Pastor at Hyde Park United Methodist in Tampa, Florida.  He has been a delegate to each General Conference since 1980, served on the General Board of Discipleship and serves on the Commission on General Conference.]


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