One of the problems we face with describing ourselves as a “connectional “ is that it assumes that an actual connection has been made. Put another way, we describe an outcome as an objective reality (that we are connected) with little ability to either demonstrate or explain how that connection has been made, or the ultimate results of that connection.
Of course, some will argue the point, suggesting that the sign of our connection is the work of organizations like UMCOR (perhaps one of the best things United Methodists have ever done) or the system of ministerial deployment known as itineracy. However, while there are outcomes that arise from synergistic cooperation between congregations, none of these outcomes is dependent on a system or organization that is connectional. The Southern Baptists for many years (until they theologically beat each other into a bloody pulp) maintained a “cooperative program” that funded mission and ministry very effectively, even though that fellowship maintained a congregational polity. While itineracy comes the closest to representing the ideals of connectionalism, modern practices of itineracy often make the connectional reality less obvious, and the move toward longer tenures (something that most everyone agrees is beneficial for the health of local congregations) makes itineracy much less visible.
“But what about the trust clause,” I hear some saying. Isn’t the ultimate expression of connectionalism the fact that the congregation holds the property “in trust” for the annual conference, meaning that (according to the courts this week) that the denomination actually owns the property? It may be, and it is certainly the way that power over a congregation is maintained, but do we really want the defining characteristic of our polity and life together to be a restrictive provision that tells congregations to toe the line or that we will take the church and property that you paid for and built away from you?
What seems to be true is that we use the language of connection primarily because our tradition, those that have gone before us, have said that being a part of “the connection” is important. At best, we sometimes experience aspects of being connectional when clergy maintain a sense of covenantal responsibility to one another as “members” of the Annual Conference, but given the systemic pressures that often lead to competition and mistrust among colleagues, those warm fuzzy feelings are few and far between.
The main problem with experiencing a connected reality is that we are unable to describe a system or anatomy of things that bring connection into being. After all, connections don’t happen out of thin air. To be connected to something requires several steps, tools, and/or objects that make the connection happen.
Take a computer network connection for example. In the old days, prior to ubiquitous broadband connections,we could experience first hand the steps and equipment needed to connect two computers together (or to connect one to the Internet). In those days, computer connections involved modems, telephone lines, and software that would allow both ends of the connection to speak the same language. When I wanted to connect to AOL, I would plug the computer into the phone line, fire up the software, and tell the computer to dial out. Then I would hear the computer access the phone line (hopefully getting a dial tone) and dial the 800 number needed to reach the other computer. Then, once the line was answered, we would hear the squealing digital tones of both computers trying to talk to one another (known as a handshake). Once the handshake was completed and the computers worked out a few details with one another, then we were finally connected. It wasn’t until ALL those steps were completed that one could accomplish anything on the Internet, and when the connection was broken for some reason (like when a kid picked up a phone extension downstairs while you were online), then you had to go back to the beginning and start all over to re-connect. That method of connection continues today, it’s just a little less obvious in the world of broadband.
Or consider the human body. We all know that the thigh bone attaches to the hip bone, but that connection would be impossible without those elements known as connective tissue. These parts – ligaments, tendons, etc. – are the things that hold the body together, and when they are broken, torn, etc. the body simply doesn’t work. In fact, a torn ligament or tendon can hurt worse than a broken bone, and take much longer to heal.
The issue we face in the United Methodist Church is one of connectivity. In computer science terms, connectivity represents the system needed to connect one computer to another. In our realm our connectivity issue is a system that allows connections to be made between congregations, church leaders, and other resources so that disciples are made for the transformation of the world. We lack the connective tissue we need to bring two disparate parts together in a single connection, and until we can identify what that connective tissue is for us, we will never truly be a connectional church.
Next time, I want to play around with the computer network imagery as a means of thinking about new tools and protocols that would lead toward a connected church.