Closed Systems of Discipleship & Accountability

One of the basic tenets of hacking is that nothing is impenetrable.

  • No matter how closed the system becomes, there is still a chance for breaking into it.
  • The more closed a system becomes, the more restrictions are placed on the insiders of the system.
  • Thus, a proper balance must be made between closed doors and openness for a system to breathe and properly run.
As the United Methodist Church limps away from General Conference 2008, there is one unresolved question: how closed will our system be for the next four years? How closed will our ordination process be? How closed will our doctrines be? How closed will our church membership be? How closed will our interfaith dialogue be?

The question of "how closed will our system be?" is one asked in many areas of life, and the most consistent answer may surprise you.
  • The more closed that systems become, the more harmful they become to insiders of that system.

Music & movie security hurts consumersWe see this in the world of music and movies. With the creation of Digital Rights Management (DRM), there are more layers of security on music and videos to keep people from copying them. However, people who bought legitimate downloaded MLB videos were eventually unable to play them or obtain refunds. Sony CDs often won't play in your computer, and even if they do, Sony installed rootkits in them to compromise your computer. Even supposedly DRM-free iTunes music has your account info embedded in it. In short, even though DRM is easily surpassed by hackers, people who legitimately bought the media get hurt.

How closed should the system be?

We see this in the world of public policy. My home state of Oklahoma has some of the most stringent anti-immigration laws on the books. A recent op-ed in USA Today has this to say:
Oklahoma, which has one of the toughest new laws, now bars illegal immigrants from receiving state services, requires employers to verify that new workers are legal, gives people a way to sue companies that hire illegal immigrants, and makes it a felony to transport, harbor or conceal an illegal immigrant. It was meant to be harsh, and it is.

It's also undeniably effective. Oklahoma Hispanic groups estimate that as many as 25,000 left the state after the law was approved last year. School attendance dropped, workers disappeared, church attendance shrank and Latino businesses lost customers.

...By intent, the laws have also hit businesses, which have scrambled to replace lost workers. Employers say they're being asked to become immigration police with imperfect tools. A study in Oklahoma predicted that the law could cost the state's economy more than $1 billion a year, and a firm that specializes in finding new locations for businesses said some companies have crossed Oklahoma off their lists.

Harsh immigration policies destroy legal ethnic communitiesThe more closed a system gets, the more people inside the system it hurts. The legitimate Hispanic-serving businesses close up shop, my pastor friend's Hispanic UM church closed, and yet illegal immigrants still live in Oklahoma or simply move one state over. The system is closed, but who is truly paying the price?

How closed should the system be?

We see this in the church. General Conference failed to address church membership in a meaningful way, so in the meantime the Judicial Councils' JC1032 decision regarding pastoral authority in determining church membership stands:
As part of these administrative responsibilities the pastor in charge of a United Methodist church or charge is solely responsible for making the determination of a person's readiness to receive the vows of membership.
By all accounts, and including the dissenting opinions, this decision renders that pastors have sole authority to determine church membership readiness. By giving pastors the gateway, without accountability to a DS or the laity, pastors can, in the words of Jon Capen:
Because of the majority’s ruling, pastors across our great connection will not only enjoy the rights and privileges of ordination, they will also enjoy the additional power, discretion and authority that are now ordained by judicial fiat. Pastors will be able to screen out persons seeking membership to safeguard our churches against all varieties of sinners. While churches without sinners may be a precursor of heaven, the decision to pursue such a path must, under our system of church governance be made by the General Conference after the idea has been debated, tested and refined in the legislative processes of our church.

Lack of diversity in congregations hurt its mission and ministryWhen the gateways of a church (click for bible study) are not accountable to the church, then the system is closed, the gate guarded by one entity who has discretion to keep out potential disciples of Christ from the merits and privileges of membership because of whatever fatal flaw they have.

How closed should the system be?

Like DRM which tries to keep pirates from stealing music, and public policies which try to keep immigrants from stealing jobs, our membership policies are put into place to keep thieves from our churches.
  • Thieves who would join a church just to get a discount on weddings and funerals (see my post here: Top-down polity v. bottom-up policy)
  • Thieves with different theological backgrounds who will try to steal our church's long-standing (and thus...correct) identity.
  • Thieves who are just here to worship and not get involved with any disciple-making opportunities.
  • Thieves who would join a church to try to remove the pastor by gaining church membership en masse.
It is human nature to despise thieves and keep them from circles of trust, and that is reflected in JC1032 and the debates on the floor. However, is that really a human nature that we want reflected in our polity and practice in the church...fear of thieves?

Our church leadership has failed us in guiding us to better standards of membership that are not based on fear. It's time for us to do something about it. Following the local policy is better than upper polity model, local church policies can be put in place that render a pastor's decision accountable to the church in some manner.
  • Maybe submit a petition or policy to your local Charge Conference to get a report from the pastor why they denied membership to someone. Not restricting pastoral authority, that's against the Discipline, but ensuring pastoral accoutability. Because if any pastor makes a cookie-cutter church and allows in only those who would keep the system closed, that pastor should be accountable.
  • If you are a pastor or layperson in leadership, sponsor a round-table discussion on standards of membership. If you have education in that background or get some resources, it can be enlightening to your membership.
Church polity such as unaccountable pastoral authority in membership are satisfying for those who want to keep out thieves. But they worsen a polarized atmosphere that ill-serves our great denomination and breeds mistrust and fear.

In short, closed systems of discipleship hurt the church if there is not accountability. There must be grace in discerning membership readiness. And ultimately there must be more trust in God to change a person's heart than we can judge. Maybe some stronger and more articulate local church policies on membership can help our congregations come to stronger understandings of what membership looks like.

We are the ones who are being hurt by pastors who make cookie-cutter churches, and by laity who are silent and only friendly to those who look like them. By basing membership on suspicion, we are further from the kingdom of God.

Your turn: what do you make of this? What policies or standards would help us embrace one another not out of fear, but out of a shared sense of mission? What very real situations should we be aware of to guide us to a balance of accountability and accessibility?

Just so there's no take? Love them all. Let God sort them out.



Becca Clark May 13, 2008 at 7:11 AM  

I think that if people are trying to steal something from church by becoming members then we haven't placed enough responsibility on our members. We ask our members to give faithfully of the church of their prayers, presence, gifts, and service (and now witness or something, right?). What is there to steal? You save a mere $50 cleaning fee if you get married in my church as a member of it. You'll still pay for my time and leadership in the wedding and the months leading up to it.

I have been tempted to bar people from membership because they were too conservative, but the temptation passed quickly! Maybe membership in this inclusive body will be what opens them up to greater knowledge of God's all-inclusive grace. We never know.

The talk of theives actually reminds me of the Bishop from Les Miserables, who is one of my inspirations as a clergy person. After Bishop Bienvenue (welcome) harbors the fugitive Valjean, the latter steals the silver on his way out the door. Captured and returned to the Bishop, Valjean faces re-imprisonment, but the Bishop instead gives him two candlesticks as well, telling him not to forget the rest of his gift.

So my take? Are people trying to steal things from our churches? Good. Give 'em even more. Something about offering your cloak too.

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