By Walter B. Fenton
“Pastor, I’m honored you’d ask . . .,” and then the word every pastor of a small congregation dreads: but.
It was nominations season at a church I served, and I was looking for a chairperson to lead the pastor-parish relations committee. The woman I called was faithful, had extensive professional experience in human resources, and had the respect of other church members. But, she said, “I’ve never served on the pastor-parish relations committee, let alone served as the chairperson of any church committee, and [there’s often an “and,” too] I worry about the time commitment – church committee meetings seem to last forever.”
I had good answers to allay her concerns. My confidence stemmed from my familiarity with The United Methodist Church’s Book of Discipline. A dedicated seminary professor and pastor who loved teaching, respected the Discipline, and wanted the best for the future pastors in his charge taught my UM Church polity course. He helped us understand that the Discipline was, in some sense, a tool, and if we used it wisely, it would facilitate the good order of the local churches we would serve.
Fortunately, at that juncture, I had just enough experience using it that I could respond to the reticent PPRC nominee, “Given your experience and the guidance of our Book of Discipline, I think you’ll do a great job. The book clearly outlines for you the chairperson’s duties and the committee’s responsibilities. If you follow it, you’ll discover that only on rare occasions will a meeting need to exceed an hour.” After mulling things over for a day or two, she accepted the position. And as those of us on the nominations committee believed she would, she became an excellent PPRC chairperson. She owned her own copy of the Discipline, and while she was never officious in her use of it, she used it skillfully and wisely.
One of the casualties of the late dissension among Methodists has been a wary regard and, in some pockets, even an outright disdain and disregard for church books with the word “discipline” in their titles. Given all that has transpired, we can certainly understand the reasons for the wariness, but we Global Methodists need such a book now more than ever. And thankfully we do have one, the Transitional Book of Doctrines and Discipline.
In the Methodist tradition a discipline’s great purpose is for the good order of the church. It’s a multifaceted book setting forth our core confessions of faith and our shared understanding of what it means to be the church. And then it spells out “methodical” and practical ways we are to organize ourselves to fulfill the church’s mission. If we are to be a healthy and vibrant branch of Christ’s Church, a discipline deserves our respect, our regular study, and even our allegiance.
But no, it’s not our Bible. It’s not infallible, and it’s certainly not a closed canon of church discipline never to be added to or subtracted from (although fittingly, some parts of it having to do with the Bible and the core confessions of our faith are purposefully very hard to change). By and large, it’s always a work in progress, a necessarily adaptable document so it remains serviceable to fulfilling the mission of the church in all times and places. And when changes are made, they are made according to fair and open procedures outlined in the discipline. The process calls duly elected delegates to a time of prayerful discernment as they deliberate and cast votes.
Like all Methodist disciplines at their best (and most Methodist denominations do have some kind of “book of discipline”), the Global Methodist Church’s Transitional Book of Doctrines and Discipline is an invitation to all its members to fully participate in the life of the church, serving alongside others and so sharing the responsibility and the joy of being the church in the world.
And to do that well, we need good order, which among other things implies at least the following: gratefully holding to time honored ways of doing things so we don’t get bogged down reinventing the wheel; practicing habits and routines that are respectful of one another’s time, talent, and resources; and, adhering to fair procedures that give all our brothers and sisters the opportunity to offer ideas, freely comment on others, and so discern and decide together how the church should fulfill its mission.
When the people of the church adhere to a shared discipline, and do so with grace, humility and patience, they are engaging in the great work of being the body of Christ in the world. It’s not showy, glamorous work; in fact, as Bishop Mark Webb said in a recent Eucharist devotion, being the church is often messy. It is the daily discipline of sinners in need of God’s redeeming, asking themselves, “How can we most effectively, most lovingly and graciously, share the Truth and grace that transformed our sorry souls, with those who also need the hope of the Light that always shines in the darkness?” That’s one of the main questions a good discipline is always trying to answer.
All the people who have had a hand in the creation of the Global Methodist Church’s Transitional Book of Doctrines and Discipline – and in one way or another, thousands have had a hand in it – know the best parts of the book are an inheritance, graciously handed on to us. It will serve the church best to the extent it creates the conditions for the worship of God, the proclamation of Gospel, the celebration of the sacraments, and the shaping of a people who are dedicated to making disciples of Jesus Christ who worship passionately, love extravagantly, and witness boldly.
No local church member needs to be an expert in all parts of the Transitional Book of Doctrines and Discipline, but all members should read and study at least Parts One through Three, and then other sections as he or she assume various roles in the life of the church. To read and search the online version of the Transitional Book of Doctrines and Discipline or to download a copy of it click here.
You can learn more about the Global Methodist Church by exploring its website.
The Rev. Walter Fenton is the Global Methodist Church’s Deputy Connectional Officer.