The names of Bryson Butts and GracePoint were all over the church news circuit in the spring of 2009.
After planting GracePoint United Methodist Church as a new church start in Wichita, Kan., back in 2004, Mr. Butts eventually determined that the denominational structure was too constraining for his congregation. So with the blessing of the church’s lay leadership, he left the United Methodist Church and founded a non-denominational church.
He took the GracePoint name and most of the church’s 700 members with him. The new congregation was styled as “GracePoint Community Church.” With only 17 members left from the original GracePoint UMC, Bishop Scott Jones was soon forced to close the church.
At the time, opinions among United Methodists were divided. Some saw Bryson Butts as unfairly taking advantage of the resources of the Kansas West Conference, only to leave when he no longer needed the logistical support (and the money) the conference had provided and was unwilling to cooperate with the conference’s mission plan for the Wichita area. Others believed it was just another example of a creaky denominational structure getting in the way of a dynamic pastor with a vision whose ministry was clearly proving itself.
Two years later, the subsequent history of Mr. Butts and GracePoint provides a poignant lesson. And it shows just how much patience and cooperation are needed to sustain any kind of ministry that extends beyond bare congregationalism. Those of us—clergy and laity alike—who remain committed to our calling in the UMC should take notice.
At the beginning of this year, a letter to members of GracePoint from the church’s board of directors announced that Bryson Butts had been fired as pastor. It detailed allegations that Mr. Butts had improperly used staff members’ personal information to set up a “multi-level marketing program, more commonly known as a ‘pyramid scheme.’” The letter also alleged that Mr. Butts improperly used church funds for personal expenses.
An attempt in October 2010 to place Mr. Butts on personal leave had not been met with the board’s satisfaction, which eventually led to his termination. GracePoint Community Church has continued, and the website now lists a new senior pastor.
For United Methodists looking at what might have been, the issues that the GracePoint situation raises are significant.
There’s something of a culture of dissatisfaction within our denomination about how “out of touch” the various levels of the church hierarchy can be with the on-the-ground ministry that takes place at the congregational level. Our Book of Discipline states that the church’s mission is to make disciples for Jesus Christ and that the “local church provides the most significant arena through which disciple-making occurs” (¶201). So when bureaucracy seems to get in the way of what pastors and their congregations are trying to do in mission and evangelism, the tendency is to criticize the bureaucracy as a hindrance to what the church is supposed to be about.
I’ve made such criticisms, including in this column space. And when I read the Call to Action report produced by the CTA Steering Team late last year, I was encouraged. While particular aspects of that report are seen as debatable around the connection, the overarching claim that the hierarchy of the church needs to be more accountable and more in harmony in terms of mission appears to be something on which we can all agree.
But the legacy of Bryson Butts and GracePoint show how not all aspects of our organizational structure deserve the negative label of “bureaucracy.”
Bishop Jones and the leadership of the Kansas West Conference were clearly not trying to hamper GracePoint UMC’s attempts to reach people for Jesus Christ in the years prior to Mr. Butts’ departure from the denomination. They were not trying to keep the congregation from reaching out to the Wichita area. And they were not trying to protect pastors and congregations less “dynamic” than Mr. Butts as he sought to expand the reach of his church’s ministry.
What they were doing is simply what church leaders have done throughout Christian history: Organize the church of Jesus Christ in the area of their responsibility so that it could do its work effectively and so the gospel might be made manifest in that place.
At its best, the hierarchy of a denominational structure provides stability both for doctrine and for ministry. When we fall prey to the modern tendency to reject such institutions for the “easier” path of congregationalism, we lose the safeguards that an episcopal church polity provides.
It takes patience and a certain willingness to admit that the wisdom of the ages is greater than the wisdom of one man (or one congregation) to follow the path that a broader form of organization offers. But if Bryson Butts and GracePoint offer any lesson worth learning, it is that one.