An Evening with Bishop Whitaker
The following text transcribes the presentation made by Florida Conference Bishop Timothy Whitaker on the topic of “ChurchCraft" on Friday evening, June 3, at the 2011 Florida Annual Conference.. Video of the Bishop's presentation can be found at the end of this article.
You all know what I am, don’t you? I’m the filler between the voting! And nobody told me what I had to do tonight, so I planned to give you a synopsis of the teaching of the ancient church fathers. I’ll have to be brief, and I think I should finish in three or four hours. Then, the half-dozen of us who are still remaining will elect the rest of the delegates when this is over.
Since I'm in charge of the speaker tonight, I can control how long he talks. So I may have a lot up on the PowerPoint, but I'm going to move us through because I know we have had a long day.
I want to speak primarily to the laity this evening. I want to talk about something that has always been an important part of your life in the church. What I want to talk about is something that is very ordinary. In fact, some of you would probably say that it's mundane. Some of you may even say it's too mundane. In the church we would like to use high-flying rhetoric. In this day and age, we’re all visionaries. But there is also room for our looking at something that's more humble – that actually is essential to the life of the church. And what I want to talk to you about briefly is “churchcraft.”
In the old days, we had another word for it and many of you are familiar with this word. The word was “churchmanship,” but that's a patriarchal term. I struggled for a long time trying to figure out some word that would be an alternative to “churchmanship.” Rick Neal, who was the superintendent of the North East District, actually coined the term “churchcraft.” I think that's a great term, even though it’s a new word. It talks about something that’s very important – particularly to lay people in the church.
What is churchcraft? Churchcraft is a body of skills for building up the church as the body of Christ. Now that’s not really a very good definition because it leaves out a feeling element. It’s not only just the body of skills; it's also a certain sensibility. Or I might put it like this: a certain, reverent feeling about what the church is. I think that to talk about churchcraft as a certain sensibility and body of skills for building up the church, we have to first of all begin by reminding ourselves of what the church is.
The church is, first of all, God's creation following the death and resurrection of Jesus the Messiah of Israel and the Lord of the world and then the outpouring of the Holy Spirit. The church was created on earth in human history. So whatever else we think about the church, the church is the gift of God to the world. And the church is always what it is because of the presence and work of the Holy Spirit, who is the primary witness to the crucified and risen Jesus Christ.
But another thing that must be added about what the church is, is that it is a visible body. Sometimes when we think about the church being created by God, we think the church must be something very, very spiritual. And even though the church is constituted by the Holy Spirit, God has created the church to be visible – to be a visible body in the world. So this is why the church has an institutional form. Now I know that we are very quick today to criticize institutionalism. And we have reason to do so, because in a lot of cases we substituted concern for the institutional form of the church for its vital life and its real mission in the world. But let's not get too carried away with our rhetoric because God created the church to be a visible body. So it has to organize itself and move in the world just like anything else has to do that is a part of God's creation.
Another point is that it's a covenantal community. This visible body, which is made up of members, contains people who live in covenant. It's a two-fold covenant. It’s a covenant with Jesus Christ because we are to be living in a way that's faithful to him. But at the same time, we are bound to one another. That’s a real, concrete commitment that we make to one another and to Christ by being the church.
So is it really appropriate to talk about churchcraft when you think about the church as God's creation? Well, if you remember the apostle Paul writing to the church in Corinth, he spoke of himself as an apostle, as a skilled master builder. So the apostles acknowledge that it's God's will that – even though God gives the church to us as a gift – we are to be involved in building up the life of the church. And we are to give to that task the best skill that we can give to it.
Now, if you think about any kind of craft, there certain elements that are part of it. For example, think about someone who is a mason. I admire people who work with their hands and develop certain skills. I wish I could do a lot of the things that people who are able to build things do. But if you think about a mason or any other craftsman, they have these elements: First of all, they are very committed to what they do. Moreover, they study the manuals of instruction to learn how to do what they're supposed to do correctly, and over time they develop practical experience. They learn how to do the different tasks they have to perform. And whatever it is that they learn, they pass on to other people so that there is a tradition about masonry that is handed down from worker to worker.
You could say the same thing about churchcraft. To practice good churchcraft – that is, to have that sensibility and those skills for building up the church – first of all, you have the commitment to build up the body of the church as the body of Christ. And we do have manuals. Certainly the Bible is the beginning point, but we also have a Book of Discipline, don’t we? And as we practice our leadership in the church, we develop practical experience, and we should be mentoring other people and handing on what we learned to others.
Now, what I’ve noticed as I’ve been your Bishop for about a decade or more is that it seems like some of this tradition of churchcraft is broken down, and that's not too surprising here in Florida. We have people who come here from all over the world and so it's really hard to hand on a tradition about anything. But I don't think it's just people in Florida who have a hard time passing on the tradition of churchcraft. I just think generally in The United Methodist Church we began to take churchcraft for granted. We say: “Oh, we’re into Kingdom building. We’re not into this churchcraft or churchmanship.” We put it on the back burner, and I think it's been a mistake to neglect it.
One of the things I learned as I traveled around the world to places where the Methodist churches are really growing – where they are spiritually Biblical, where they are missionally effective – I’ve noticed that they take churchcraft very seriously. And I thought, well, they're really doing Kingdom work. We like to talk about it. They're doing it, and being effective at it. And yet, one of the elements of their life is that they take very seriously this ordinary – even mundane – business of churchcraft.
Now, I can’t talk about everything about churchcraft because that’s a whole book. But let me just point out a few things about membership. By the way, membership is the right term – not joining the church. “Joining” is attaching oneself to an organization. That’s not what happens when you become a member of the church. You’re not just attaching yourself to an organization. You are becoming a member of the body of Christ, so that you're in this covenantal relationship with Christ and with the other people who are part of the church.
Membership is a Christian term. Do you realize that the apostle Paul, when he was writing to the Christians in Corinth, invented the concept of membership? I think that's an absolute fact in etymology. We use the term membership now for all kinds of organizations but they stole it from us Christians, so let's don't denigrate membership. I know we’re emphasizing other things and we should, because we began to think of membership as not having any commitment. So it's appropriate for us to say discipleship, not membership. But membership is a profound theological and spiritual concept because it means belonging to Christ and to one another. Just like your hand is a part of your body, so you are a part of the church in an integral way. You're not just something extraneous that’s attached to it.
You see up on the screen … I put up the vows of membership from our ritual when persons become members of the United Methodist Church. I know that there are some pastors who don't use our vows when people become members of the church. That's a big mistake. Nobody gave them the freedom to do that. The reason it's a mistake is – notice that these vows are always made to the triune God, but they are vows we make to the universal church of Jesus Christ and then to the whole United Methodist Church and finally to this particular congregation that’s a part of United Methodist Church and part of the universal church of Jesus Christ – so if pastors don't use our ritual, and they just ask you: “Will you be faithful to this congregation,” you see how they messed up our understanding of the church. Because we don't want people just to be committed to the congregation, we want them also to realize they're part of a larger communion – The United Methodist Church. And The United Methodist Church only is justified in its existence if it is a faithful part of the universal church of Jesus Christ.
Right now I want to show you something I think is kind of fascinating. Now I know this is a mundane topic, but I think this is fascinating. Do you know the church that's closest to us? Do you know which one it is? It's the African Methodist Episcopal Church founded in 1790. It came out of the Methodist Episcopal Church. I don't think there's any church on earth closer to us than the AME. And the wonderful thing about the AME church is that it has preserved – particularly in its liturgy – more of the original American Methodist tradition than we have because we’ve united with other groups and gone through a lot of changes. But they've had more homogeneity and continuity in their life.
Now let me show you this – the ritual for becoming a member of the AME church. I’ll take you through all these questions. The reason I want to do this is because I think if we look at their questions, it will help us to understand what we're saying when we become members of United Methodist Church. Their questions and answers have more specific content in them. “Do you, here in the presence of God and of this congregation, renew the solemn promise contained in the baptismal covenant, ratifying and confirming the same, and acknowledging yourselves bound faithfully to discover and keep that covenant and all things contained therein?” You see how they began by reaffirming the vows of baptism. And then the next question is: “Have you saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ?” Again, that’s a baptismal question. Do you still have faith in Christ?
Then, I like this question, and I wonder how many of our people could give an answer to it if we used it when we gave people the vows of membership. Did you see that question? Oh boy, that’s a tough one. “Do you possess friendly feelings toward all members of this church?” Some of us might have to go through Lent before we can answer that question. That’s a fascinating question, but it reminds the people: You're making a commitment to be in a relationship with these folks. Now look at this one: “Do you believe in the doctrine of Holy Scriptures as set forth in the Articles of Religion of the African Methodist Episcopal Church?” My goodness, they brought up the Articles of Religion! Who would ever think doctrine matters? And then the next question is: “Will you be governed by the Discipline of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, hold sacred the ordinances of God, and try to do as much as possible to promote the welfare of fellow members and the advancement of the Kingdom of God?” When we become members it's implied that we’re going to be governed by our Discipline, but they made it concrete. And finally, the membership vows: they’re not so pretty and symmetrical as ours, but they really tell the truth. “Will you give of your time, talent, and money for the support of the gospel of the church, the poor, and various ministries of the church?” Aren’t those wonderful vows?
Well, I say to my AME sisters and brothers, we have something to learn from you. These are our vows when we take the vows: We now vow our prayers, our presence, our gifts, our service, and we added recently, witness. And do we pray for the church? We just heard an appeal to pray for the General Conference, but we should be praying for the life and mission of our congregation and The United Methodist Church and all of the other Christian communions in the world, as well as our presence in the worship service, our gifts of money, our talents, our service, and our witness. I think that's meant to direct us outside ourselves to the world.
Now here's something I've learned in the last ten years: it seems to me that sometimes when people become members of our churches, they’ve gotten the idea that their primary commitment is to some person who's a staff member or some program of the church. And when that staff member leaves for whatever reason or the program changes, they think it's time for them to leave too. Don’t you think something is broken down there? I thought that being a member was entering into a covenant, committing to this congregation – not to some person or to some program.
Now I'm not going to talk too much on polity, but if you read the New Testament you realize that Christians began organizing themselves right away. And the reason they did that is because we are a visible body. And we have a Book of Discipline that contains our polity. The Book of Discipline is not just a book of rules; it is the articulation of our covenant of how we live together. And I think we need to take time and teach people something about our polity – that is the way we are organized as a church. But let me give you a great example – and I choose the Staff-Parish Relations Committee. This is a committee elected at the Charge Conference, and the Book of Discipline gives it a certain authority. It has a lot of authority to hire people and to terminate people in accordance with the Book of Discipline and civil law, and its work is confidential. That committee knows things that the other members of the church don't know. People may, say, love a particular staff member. They've known this person for a long time, and they don't understand the problems that are behind the scenes. That Staff-Parish knows. And Staff-Parish cannot escape those problems because they see how it's harming the church, even though the rest of the congregation may not see it. They have to make decisions that are sometimes very unpopular.
Folks, I have seen people by the dozens, by the sanctuary, marching around the church protesting that the Staff-Parish Relations Committee has terminated a staff member. Is that right, district superintendents? It does happen. And you think: What's happening? Don’t we understand how we’re organized? We have people who are elected. They are given authority in accordance with the division of labor, and they have certain responsibilities that have to be respected. We have to give them the benefit of the doubt in good faith. In every experience I know of, they are. And what about our covenant – living together as a church?
So you see, it tells me that when people behave like that then we haven't been doing our churchcraft. We haven't been teaching people. Because I think in a lot of cases if people had been taught: “This is that committee’s responsibility, this is how we make decisions in the life of the church,” even though they might be upset when a decision is made, you know they would approach hearing that particular decision in the context of greater understanding.
Now, finally, let me just mention briefly something about how we communicate in the church. And I’m just going to go right to some directions for healthy communication that I think we need to practice if we’re going to live in peace in our congregations and be peacemakers in our congregations. Just six simple rules. First thing, we need to learn how to disagree agreeably. You know what that means. The other is that this is a primary principle: we ought to always speak directly to the individual or the group whenever we have a concern or question. And the third is: don't ask someone to deliver your message and also don't agree to deliver somebody else's message. Never do that. People come up to you at church and say: “You know I’d like for you to go to that so-and-so group and tell them, ‘don’t do it.’” That's a mistake. It's their responsibility if they have a concern to make arrangements to express that concern directly, rather than roping somebody else into it.
And, most importantly, don't create a triangle of communication. This is a term from counseling. People triangulate. They create a situation where someone plays the role of the victim – I've been hurt – and then they identify the person (who) hurt them – the persecutor – and then they find a third person to be the rescuer. And sometimes that’s the pastor, but often it's a leading lay person in church. The victim will come to somebody to rescue them from the persecutor and there is no way that that's going to work out in a healthy way. You have to avoid these triangles of communication. Then the last thing is, as you're able, we need to help people learn healthy ways of communicating with one another in the church. If somebody has a permanently negative attitude, for example, isn’t it time to hold a person accountable for that because that's not healthy for the body of Christ? Do it gently, but help raise the bar of healthy communications in the life of our congregation. And this kind of learning—the right or the healthy ways of communicating—is part churchcraft, isn’t it? But you have to teach one another. You have to be clear about what your rules are. And, then, we have to hold one another accountable for the way we think it's most healthy to communicate with one another.
Alright, well, thank you for listening to just a little bit about some churchcraft. The last thing I wanted to say is: this ordinary, mundane stuff actually serves the mission of the church. Because when we don't do churchcraft with care, what do we have? Confusion. We have disruption. We have distraction. So much energy is wasted and goes into negative forms. And it takes a long time to gather the pieces back together so that the church then can move forward with making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation the world. It’s something to think about. Thank you.
Note: Click here for the Powerpoint slides that accompanied Bishop Whitaker’s presentation.
Bishop Whitaker's Churchcraft presention: 27 minutes
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