Sunday, June 4, 2023 | Trey Comstock
If you want to be able to become a United Methodist pastor, one has to be able to answer this question, “what is the nature of United Methodist polity?” Now, to normal human ears, this question sounds arcane. People with socially acceptable lives don’t use the word, “polity,” in polite conversation. To translate from church-ese, “how is the United Methodist Church structured?” Over the years, I’ve had the opportunity to serve on a couple of District Committees on Ordained Ministry (DCOM). These teams serve as the midpoint in evaluating someone for pastoral ministry. Whenever a candidate comes forward to be commissioned and must answer the polity question, I make sure they answer it correctly in sentence one. The fundamental organizing principle of UMC polity is connectionalism.
That word is obscure enough that the spell checker wants me to change it, yet, it’s at the core of who we are as Methodist. Over this past week, I attended the regular session of the Texas Annual Conference. As the name implies, we meet annually. This year, I got asked to serve on the media team, so I went to every session, camera in hand, looking to capture the story. This might have led me to pay more attention than I typically would. So, I was all ears, when Dr. Ashley Boggan, the head of the United Methodist Archives, spoke and said that, “We should not think of the United Methodist Church as a denomination, as something to divide up and categorize. We should think of it as, what it’s always meant to have been, a connection.” John Wesley envisioned an interconnected series of small groups tied together via a small group of traveling preachers, who themselves were tied together by meeting annually. John Welsey had a keen theological mind, but he was also one heck of an organizer. He knew the strength in connection and built his movement on that power.
That power comes from connection sitting at the heart of who God is. 1 John 4:8 gives us the neat summation of “God is love.” In the mysterious interconnection of the Trinity, God lives, 3 in 1, as a prototypical example of love at work. One cannot love in isolation. Love needs an object of affection. We can certainly love ourselves, but that is only the beginning of love. As within the Trinity so beyond to humanity more broadly, to know love means forming connections. Love and connection sit at the core of the divine identity. To connect to others, opens us up to share and receive God’s love.
Most of our time with Matthew 28 focuses on the mission part, “Go and make disciples.” Track my preaching over the last decade, and I fall neatly into this. We do need to be on a mission. Jesus instructs us to make disciples, and despite the fact that most adult, American Christians don’t actually heed this command, we definitely should. Yet, Christ doesn’t issue this instruction arbitrarily to give us something to do. To connect with others, to help other be open to the love of God means that more folks will connect with God, be loved, and love neighbor. Going and making disciples fills the world with more connection and more love.
What gets called the Methodist connection can end up being merely a nice way of say structure, if one is being nice, or bureaucracy, if one is not. We talk about big things and call it connection – regional and global conferences, global missions organizations, disaster relief, colleges, and endless meetings in hotel ballrooms. Navigating it can feel wildly distant from connection being a core truth about who God is.
In reality, none of these structures are the connection. They are how the connection accomplishes things together. Individual believers and churches coming together around the world to do things that we could not do alone that is the connection and that is the love of God moving in big ways. God exists in connection and calls upon God’s followers promulgate connection. At our best, we, as Methodist, recognize this fundamental truth. No one, not even God, works alone. So, we lean into togetherness.
We don’t always get it right. We can build things together that feel cumbersome, immovable, and merely self-perpetuating. Ten years of pastoral ministry, a graduate level class in church structure, experience working in the global church, and a lifetime in the UMC have not fully prepared me to comprehend our structure. We get really bogged down in conflict sometimes too.
Maybe, we got lost in it all and forget the real purpose. God lives in connection. God charges us with sharing connection. We connect to do that in big ways and experience God’s love for ourselves.