One Professor’s Letter to a UMC Bishop

The Old Main Building of Hamline University, alma mater and teaching home of Professor Walter Benjamin.

The Old Main Building of Hamline University, alma mater and teaching home of Professor Walter Benjamin.

The following is a letter written by ordained United Methodist minister and Hamline University Professor Emeritus of Religion Walter Benjamin to a sitting United Methodist bishopProfessor Benjamin received his BA from the United Methodist-affiliated Hamline in 1950, before receiving his BD at Garrett Theological Seminary and his PhD from Duke.

October 7, 2013

Dear [Bishop]:

Unlike you, as a retired professor, I have a lot of time on my hands. Moreover, even though I eschewed the difficult “trenches” of the pastoral ministry, I think I have accumulated a bit of wisdom (ha!) as to the pathologies of our church. After all, unlike our Pepsi Generation, traditional cultures believe that wisdom comes with age. Ergo: at 87, I am brimming over with sagacity!

At our breakfast “get-to-know-each-other” meeting, we did not discuss any substantial issues that plague United Methodism. I hope, however, that you have taken seriously my “If I Were The Bishop… ”essay written some 15 years ago. I still stand by that essay (one of your bishop colleagues told me he agreed with 7 or 8 of the 10 recommendations but declined to tell me which ones!). Perhaps, you can up his score by one or two! Seriously, bear with me as I set forth some of my ideas regarding our ecclesiastical problems

Losing the Culture: Catholic Archbishop George of Chicago recently stated, “I will die peacefully in my bed My successor will die in prison and his successor will be martyred in a Chicago public park!” Overstated, perhaps, but there is a modicum of truth to his warning. By every social index the Christian influence upon our American culture is waning. The religious “nones” are at 20%, including 6% who profess to be atheist or agnostic. Marriage, the institution that literally “drove” couples to join a church “for help” (especially when they had their first child), now is simply ignored by couples who simply see nothing wrong with the custom of “shacking up.” To believe that heterosexual marriage is the norm is to be labeled a homophobe by the media. The weakness of the mainline churches is pervasive and all of the classic Protestant churches are now in a “survival mode.” Need I go on?

It is a tragedy of monumental proportions that the influence of the church that used to serve as the spiritual and moral foundation of American society is now weak and waning. Social pathologies, literally unknown during my youth, are now legion. Let me cite but one: “Illegitimacy” is now a verboten word but 41% of American babies are now born out-of-wedlock and that percentage is going up. Increasingly, the family no longer serves as the central organizing feature of American society!

Sixty years ago, Daniel Moynihan, Assistant Labor Secretary in Lyndon Johnson’s Administration, indicated that the black family was “chaotic” because of illegitimacy (now at 72%). Alas, white families are following black pathology and our governmental policies encourage the practice. Many black female teenagers are making what for them is a rational decision; that is, Uncle Sam is a far better provider than any black men they know.

You are undoubtedly aware of H. Richard Niebuhr’s seminal work and his five-fold paradigm set forth in Christ & Culture. Of the five, “Christ Transforming Culture” was the classic Protestant typology. But that was during the heyday of our growth. Now, because American culture is increasingly adversarial, I recommend that we return to the stance — “Christ vs Culture” — of the first three centuries. No, we don’t have to enter the catacombs or join the Amish or Hutterite communities, but we must realize that our culture is becoming perverse and inimical to Christian virtue. The weakness of our church is such that we can have little effect on changing the demonic aspects of our culture. If the predominant culture is undermines moral virtue, Christian witness should be adversarial to its values. Consequently, our task is to psychologically, morally, and spiritually immunize ourselves and our loved ones against it. The continued growth of home-schooling is but one indication that millions of Americans feel this is the only solution to protect their children from the sick viruses of American popular culture.

Churches, like individuals, get sclerotic, feeble, and can even die. In England in the 1700s and in America in the 1800s, Methodism was young, dynamic, and growing. Now we are behaving like the moribund Anglicans that Wesley challenged in his era. And who are the Wesleyans of today? The Pentecostals (world-wide, they are growing at 20 million a year!), Assemblies of God, the Cornerstone Church, and many other evangelical groups who don’t have a burdensome bureaucracy that is hampering Christian mission.

Seminaries: We have too many seminaries and some of them are marginal at best. Frankly, if 13 seminaries were adequate when our membership was 11 million in the U.S., we certainly have too many now that we have slipped to 7.3 million. I taught summer school at two of them and I was not impressed with the students.

Moreover, for 12 years, I served as the academic member of what then was known as the Metro East District Board of Ministry. Frankly, I was appalled at the mediocre candidates we interviewed for Methodist ministry! Sixty plus years ago those heading into the ministry compared favorably with those entering medicine and law. This is no longer the case.

I would recommend that seminarians attend Duke, Emory, or Perkins. Why? They are respected graduate theological schools linked to prestigious universities and therefore have the resources that the others do not have. Their faculty is better paid and their scholarship is far superior to those at our free-standing seminaries.

This fall Duke had an entering M.Div. class of 265 students. Compare that to the paltry class of Garrett. Note well: most of their graduates of the three theological schools serve the South. Perhaps that is one reason why the southern two jurisdictions are doing better than the other three.

I would also add Asbury to this list. It is shameful that not a single dollar of Methodist money goes to the seminary that produces more Methodist pastors than any other school. As you indicated, Asbury graduates have evangelistic zeal, an emotional drive lacking in the graduates of more liberal schools. I have known three graduates of Asbury who served the Cambridge UM Church. Under each of them, the church grew and prospered. Alas, all three are no longer in our Conference.

Frankly, our Conference is plagued by the fact that too many of our pastors have gone to the United Church of Christ’s United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. Why there? Geographical convenience, especially for those entering the ministry after an initial career or two. Financially, the UTS [not to be confused with United Methodism’s United Theological Seminary in Dayton, Ohio] has been and probably still is, in severe difficulty. Twenty years ago, it asked Hamline to “take it over” in order to solve its budgetary problems. When we declined, it sold off valuable residential properties surrounding the seminary in order to erase some of their red ink. Facing over a million dollar bill of repairs to its beautiful Gothic but aging edifice, Hamline United Methodist Church also asked the University to assume its ownership. Hamline could have used additional space but not at the cost of owning the property.

Each of our two sons, one in business and the other an attorney, took classes at Bethel Seminary and UTS respectively. Steve took three classes at the Baptist School and raved about the quality of his classes (he ceased taking courses because of the demands of nurturing his three young sons). Mark, our son who is an attorney, was disappointed with UTS and stopped after two classes. Both are active in their churches today of which neither is United Methodist.

The institutional hubris (they get UM financial support based on their enrollment) of our seminaries is evident in the fact that they fight against allowing Methodist seminarians to go to non-Methodist schools. It is shameful that such institutional self-serving prevents our seminarians from attending Bethel, which along with Luther, is a superior local seminary. And we believe in “diversity?” Give me a break!

We allow our future pastors to attend UTS, a mediocre seminary at best because it meets the precious liberal criteria on gender and other superficial aspects. The United Church of Christ, with its calamitous decline in membership, has nothing to teach us. We can learn much more from the Southern Baptists. As you know they doubled their membership in the last 60 years to 16 million members.

Ministry: I was in 9th grade when I was confirmed in the Pipestone Methodist Church. Confirmation class was from September to Palm Sunday. We stood in front of the congregation and answered questions on the Bible (we were told the questions and answers earlier by the pastor). At the time I was pleased that my Methodist church membership came “on the cheap!” My best friend, a Missouri Synod Lutheran, had to endure a three-year ordeal of confirmation. Later I realized Methodists did not take church membership as seriously as the more doctrinally focused churches do. For decades, we have been paying the price for “easy come, easy go” attendance musical chairs! Note this: Lutheran pastors were instructed that they should pick out the most intelligent and personable confirmation graduate and urge him to consider the Christian ministry.

Put me down as a “geezer crank” but I have a special dislike for “OPEN MINDS, OPEN HEARTS, OPEN DOORS” as our motto for church growth. Isn’t the only reason for having an open mind to close it on some good idea when it comes along? Conservative evangelical churches are growing today because they are proclaiming that, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “Grace is costly!” Another bugbear of mine is the 2012 Conference theme: “Healthy Lives, Healthy World.” Lordy, Lordy! Are we a H.M.O.? Another Conference goal was “Spiritual Maturity.” All fine and good, of course, but spiritual pablum when compared to the radical claim that Christ makes upon his followers to take up His cross and follow Him to Golgotha.

Ministry: Females/Males: The issue that is verboten (it is never raised) among Mainline Protestant observers is “What effect is the increasing numbers of women pastors in ministry and as bishops, having upon men considering the ministry and upon membership growth? (I think in our “heart of hearts”, we know what is happening but the canons of “political correctness” mitigate us from honestly airing the issue). We may be in a zero-sum situation here; that is, as more females choose the ministry, that vocational choice will increasingly be rejected by men.

Frankly, I would never consider becoming a Methodist minister today. Those entering the ministry not only “look up” but “look sideways” to see whether they will bond with those they admire. When I was at Hamline and considering going to seminary a significant road-block for me were the cadre of “girly-men” whose lack of a proper level of masculinity (now a “sexist no-no?”) and athleticism was repugnant to me. My pastoral role model was a Pipestone pastor, who earned 9 athletic letters at Hamline!

Why do you think the Marines have no trouble building an elite fighting cadre? Note well: accepting and tolerating mediocre candidates in the ministry is to forfeit gaining outstanding seminarians or pastors! In this, I am not alone. One of my best students at Hamline who served some of the outstanding churches in our conference told me that “I would have sought ordination in a church other that the United Methodist Church if I had it to do over!” How sad.

The issue is far deeper than charging me as guilty of “chauvinism.” (Time out for a moment of humor: The French have an aphorism: “There are three sexes: Male, Female, and Clergy! ‘‘)

I was at Garrett from 1950-53. There were 750 of us, all World War II veterans. We were thoroughly masculine (not a negative attribute then!), one half of us had experienced combat. We knew evil was deep and deadly and knew the Gospel of Jesus Christ was the answer to our personal and worldly wounds. I have kept in contact with 12 of my fellow graduates. All went on to serve large churches, one half became district superintendents and their families had 3, 4, or 5 children. No one had a divorce nor seduced their organist or choir director.

Male bonding, whether in the Marines, Navy Seals, the Masons, and in the ministry, is important for selecting a career. Radical feminists are increasingly pushing our culture to eradicate gender differences (the feminists having won combat status for women, now want their acceptance into the Navy Seals!)

While I agree that women should be encouraged to enter the ministry, you know better than I do, that they often present problems in appointment because ours is an itinerant system. Those who are married are reluctant to serve rural charges if their husbands have city employment. I have two female relatives who entered the ministry at about 40 years of age, stuck it out for 10 years, and then left. A former female student of mine who is an excellent Presbyterian pastor (a “lifer!) in Arizona believes that many female ministers treat ministry as a “hobby.”

As I indicated in “If I Were the Bishop… ” Christianity is a symbol system and a pervasive feminism has changed the symbols so that there is a concentration of the “soft virtues (passivity, meekness, forgiveness, abasement, turn the other cheek, etc.) to the detriment of the “strong virtues” (courage, bravery, fortitude, etc.) so that a normative and positive masculinity is rarely experienced in church liturgy. Catholicism has a good balance here by incorporating the Virgin Mary’s chaste feminism with a male priesthood.

All sociological studies indicate that when an institution “gets the man/husband,” the women and children follow. If we continue down the road we are heading Christianity will take on the character of that of Europe, i.e. church attendance will decline sharply and be made up of women and children.

Merit Applied to Our Pastors & Episcopacy: I’m sure you have existential knowledge of the fact that between 15 and 20 percent of our Methodist pastors are emotionally, spiritually, and psychologically unfit for the ministry. Alas, the Christian ministry is one of the most demanding of all the professions and yet one whose financial compensation is but modest. Like you, I wished that the General Conference had eliminated the life-long tenure that Methodist elders now enjoy. Unlike American corporations, we have no method by which to “prune” our poorly functioning pastors. Tragically, they often are ineffective and leave wounded parishes in their wake (I often think of the parade of ineffective pastors that took my home church at Pipestone from a membership of 650 in the 1960′s to today’s attendance at worship of but 30).

But let us apply the merit paradigm to our bishops as well. Am I right to observe a significant disconnect between the election of male and female bishops? Male bishops are elected after having successfully served large churches with multiple ministries while our female bishops have been elected after having served as district superintendents. Is it possible that some female district superintendents receive their appointment due to affirmative action criteria? I know of no Protestant mega-church in America that has a female senior pastor. What does this data tell us?

Unlike public corporations, we have no mechanism to shift poorly functioning bishops back into the parish ministry. If mistakes are made by our Jurisdictional Conferences, our church may suffer for many years. Moreover, lifelong tenure feeds itself. This end or goal (Aristotle’s “final cause”) is partially definitive of what is good for squirrels, even if an occasional squirrel has for whatever reason (genetic defect) no desire to gather seeds and nuts. Human beings too need to realize the ends of their sexual capacities. These ends are both procreative and unitive; that is, our sexual facilities are by nature aimed at getting us to mate, and bond emotionally, with the person of the opposite sex. That some people’s sexual desires are distorted in various ways does not change their natural end, any more than a squirrel that is missing a leg due to an accident of birth fails to be the sort of a creature that by nature is four-legged. Our church and state should always be pro-family and natalist.

Moreover, each sex in a traditional, Biblical family, contributes the unique gifts of their gender in the education and nurture of children. While married couples sometimes wish to birth a male or a female baby, I know of none who knowingly wants to give birth and raise a child which will later develop a homosexual orientation. That fact in itself indicates that a Biblical and traditional norm or expectation has not been achieved. Alas, sentimental ethics erodes a time-honored and Biblical norm in the attempt via law to mitigate this fundamental difference.

With our culture going pellmell toward normalizing homosexuality (remember it was only 15 years ago that Clinton signed the “Defense of Marriage Law”) I see no reason why Methodists should give ground on this issue. There may be significant damage to the bedrock of our social institutions in the long term by giving equal marital status to homosexual unions. For those who state we should “get up to date” the appropriate answer is: The Church should serve as a thermostat, not as a cultural thermometer. The medical profession is bound by the moral norm – Primum non nocere (“first of all, do no harm”). Our Church too, should be faithful to the Biblical norm of heterosexual marriage.

Reform Organizations: Sound administrators realize that critics are invaluable. Why? Because they care enough to criticize. When consumers stop buying their products, good corporations are zealous to find out the reasons. Churches should do the same. The Confessing Movement, The Institution on Religion and Democracy, and other critics have come into being due to the failures of our church in the last half century. I know individuals in both those organizations and their criticisms are often relevant. Sensitive administrators, clerical or lay, should never attribute sordid motives to those with whom they differ. Do you want to silence the critics? Grow the church!

As you know better than I, our pastors are poorly deployed. They are serving in dying rural communities with a paucity of population. What would we think of an army general who had the bulk of his soldiers facing near empty trenches when the enemy crushed his army with a “double envelopment” around his left and right flank which were lightly defended? Years ago a colleague suggested a novel approach to me: the conference should appoint pastors to enter population centers that are “church and gospel poor.” They would be domestic missionaries supported by conference monies for three years. After that, they would have to “fish and cut bait” and be on their own. A radical step? Yes, but perhaps analogous to Whitfield and Wesley’s preaching in the fields and coal mines in the 18th century. Methinks, Coke, and Asbury would agree.

I know you bring administrative talent, experience, enthusiasm, and spiritual zeal to your task. It is my prayer and hope that under your guidance, [your] Conference can be a “turn-around” leader in the Jurisdiction. Forgive me for any misjudgments or errors that might be in the above critique. You have given yeoman service in the “ministerial trenches” which I have not experienced. You certainly know our weaknesses better than I do. Nevertheless, I hope the above is helpful.

I wish you well!
Walter W. Benjamin, Ph.D.
Professor Emeritus: Hamline University

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