By Justin Coleman
*This is a repost of an article that I posted before General Conference 2012. I am interested in your reflections on this piece post General Conference now that we have had time to reflect and think about what will be required for General Church leadership today and for all church leaders in preparation for General Conference 2016.
I don’t claim any special expertise as an arborist, but the metaphor of the church as a forest may be useful as we consider the needs of the United Methodist Church. When I consider the state of the UMC, I begin to wonder, has the canopy of United Methodism become too thick? In a forest, if a canopy becomes too thick there is a domino effect that begins to damage the whole life of the forest. At first glance a thick canopy may appear to be a sign of health and flourishing. It says that the trees are old and have spread their branches – that they have filled up and occupied the space given them. Upon closer examination, a thick canopy begins to eliminate possibility of new life. First the canopy forbids the sunlight to penetrate and provide nutrients to the plants on the ground. When the plants on the ground do not have the nutrients they need, the animals that eat their leaves or their fruit are starved of the nutrients they need. When the animals become weaker from a kind of starvation, their numbers thin. Slowly the forest becomes barren and all that is left are the tall, uninhabited trees.
The United Methodist Church threatens to be a set of tall uninhabited trees unless we do something. We have options. A forest can be set aright in a variety of ways…some more naturally occurring than others. We could go about a massive pruning effort. Trimming here and there. This is an exhausting process…Our forest, after all, is very big, but at the end of the day we would likely see some positive results. Another option would be to cut trees down and reshape the forest in a more systematic way. We could plant a tree farm. Tree farms are filled with row after row of neat and nicely spaced trees. They are arranged in a fairly controlled environment so that you basically know what you are going to get – controlled, steady growth. Both of these options are completely viable. The Methodist Church could be pruned or it could be reshaped in a more controlled and methodical way, but there is another way.
Nature has a good old fashioned way of making sure that forests have new life – the forest fire. Forest fires that are allowed to occur regularly rarely burn out of control and serve to diminish over vegetation and make room for new growth that is vital to the life of a forest. Interestingly, these fires often kill disease and infestation that threaten the health of the trees. The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection says: “Change is important to a healthy forest. Some species of trees and plants are actually fire dependent. They must have fire every 3-25 years in order for life to continue. Some trees have fire resistant bark and cones that require heat to open and release seeds for regeneration.”
Maybe the United Methodist Church needs a Holy Spirit driven fire. Maybe we need to be heated up so that seeds of regeneration will be released for the transformation of the world. In the eyes of many young and diverse men and women as well as in the eyes of our more senior members of the church and society, I see a longing for the fire of the Spirit to sweep through the church. We could prune or we could control the tree farm, but the warmth of something new blowing through the church might be just what we need.
What would you say are the key attributes of a new movement leader in the UMC?
What kind of movement/vision clarity would be required for a new movement in the UMC?
What are the aspects of the UMC that you would hope to preserve? Which ones do you hope would be made new by a Holy Spirit driven change?