At a meeting of the Clergy Orders for our Conference yesterday, the small group I was in talked about the many pressures that keep us from forming Covenant groups. We all admit such groups are helpful, even necessary, to living a life of ministry. Yet unending agendas, a need to be busy, distance and time factors, and personality and trust issues all conspire against making such groups a personal priority.
On reflection, I thought one way to describe the larger picture is that we don't have any sense of "Team Methodist." I realize the danger of using a sport's metaphor in a culture that basically worships sports of all types, but I think it works. We don't have a sense of being those "called out together" with a particular identity for a particular purpose.
A team is identified as a team. They wear the same uniform. We serve in a day when many churches, seeking to brand themselves in the church market, drop "United Methodist" from their signs, or bury it in the logo or text. Such churches see the success of community churches that have no denominational affiliation, and they read things like the recent Pew Institute report that shows interest/attendance in mainline churches still declining, so they take the uniform off.
A team works on developing a common strategy to achieve a shared goal. I played basketball. We drilled on particular plays and techniques to win basketball games. In the church, we find it hard to identify what our great variety of churches have in common. We acknowledge the overwhelming number of small membership churches we have, but what is the common strategy and goal of these churches. Honestly, in the communities here in the South, most UMC churches have little association with each other, hardly know each other, and would be hard pressed to identify goals they have in common. I wouldn't be surprised to find this"non-connectional" attitude true throughout the country.
Ministers are not the cause of this situation, but they are entwined in it. If the sense of "team" has disintegrated, why go to the trouble to know, pray with, support, or even built up other ministers? Too many feel as though they are in it for themselves, in their own "career path," responding to a personal call to ministry. No wonder District Superintendents get frustrated over the "optional" attitude many ministers take toward district gatherings - and no wonder the pastors are frustrated over district gatherings that achieve nothing. We are not a team when we gather, we are an aggregate of individual contractors.
At the risk of oversimplifying for an illustration, I look at the pastors who were in the prime of their ministries during the late 1960's (and the 1970's). Though many are now in retirement, they have always struck me as having a sense of cohesion with one another. Facing the social/political challenges of that period, such pastors formed a bond. They had a sense of "team" - identifying with one another as those called out to stand against structures of society. Those bonds continued through years of ministry.
The absence of a sense of "team Methodist," however, is caused by more factors than just whether the pastors cohere or not. And as long as we (churches and pastors alike) simply try to accommodate to the culture in which we live, we will find it nearly impossible to reclaim a shared sense of mission for which we give our lives.