United Methodists should ‘Build Back Better’ too

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The familiar dome of the U.S. Capitol Building in Washington, D.C. was under construction during the inauguration of Abraham Lincoln in 1861. The previous dome had to be replaced as the building around it had increased in size to accommodate a growing government.

I must admit that I wasn’t a fan of the phrase Build Back Better when the Biden campaign began to use it last year. It doesn’t roll off my tongue and felt, well, somewhat unoriginal. 

Given the political context, I was not immediately aware of its use and resonance in disaster response circles. There, Build Back Better is an approach that sees the challenge of rebuilding as an opportunity to reduce future harm to people and communities by “integrating disaster risk reduction measures into the restoration” of social and physical infrastructure.

In short, one might think of Build(ing) Back Better as Smart Rebuilding. I think I like that better.

Like many of you, I took some time on Wednesday morning to pause and take in the inauguration of President Joseph R. Biden and Vice President Kamela D. Harris. It was not the first inauguration I have watched, but it was the first that I didn’t take for granted. The U.S. has experienced a fair amount of trauma over the last year. President Biden’s call to unity in facing “anger, resentment and hatred, extremism, lawlessness, violence, disease, joblessness and hopelessness” is one to which I hope we will respond. 

Caught up in a moment of optimism, I’d like to suggest that The United Methodist Church will also have opportunities to Build Back Better this year. As is our country’s case, it won’t happen by merely avoiding or evading differences and difficulties. It will require hard work, frank conversations, and new investments to reduce harm. 

Let’s consider together three such opportunities to Build Back Better.

Our Worship

In a practical sense, local churches that have been worshiping virtually for most of the last year will need to rebuild their liturgical practices while offering healing to communities that still need to grieve. To Build Back Better, churches will need to resist the temptation to return to ‘normal’ so quickly that they miss the critical opportunity to incorporate these past months’ learnings. 

  • What do we take back with us from our digital diaspora? 
  • Can we embrace a new hybrid model that allows us to elevate worship, introduces new voices and artistic expressions while including those separate from us by time, distance or health concern? 
  • Are there worship practices and other ‘sacred cows’ that we let go of out of necessity that we should not retrieve?

Our Identity

Building Back Better also demands that we consider the very identity of the communities we have formed. In her recent pastoral letter, Bishop Elaine Stanovsky called United Methodist Churches under her care to “overturn white privilege and supremacy in our hearts, our minds and in our communities and to build a beloved community of racial justice and equity.” She identifies ways in which we are “passive participants in racist systems” and shares that racism continues to impact churches’ ministry and the “respect, deference and trust” they confer to appointed pastoral leaders of color. To Build Back Better, churches will need to wrestle with both the overt and systemic racism that Bishop Stanovsky begins to identify for us so that we can become beloved community.

  • How can the laity work with their clergy leaders to create an open space for preaching and teaching about racial justice? 
  • How can preachers and teachers introduce difficult topics and new ideas with a balance of exhortation and grace so that they truly open ears, hearts and minds? 
  • Can we become accustomed again to a discipleship that makes us uncomfortable enough to be of real use and comfort to the communities in which God has placed us?

Our Denomination

Finally, 2021 may present The United Methodist Church with another opportunity to resolve its long-standing conflict over the full inclusion of LGBTQ+ persons in the life and ministry of the Church. While this conflict has long held the spotlight, an erosion of trust and divestment from a shared vision of an institutional church, mirroring the same in U.S. culture, are also driving forces. With a pandemic-delayed General Conference tentatively scheduled to start in late August, will we choose to Build Back Better? 

  • Will we find new ways to talk with each other and embrace new models for discernment?
  • Can we accept the reality of our current division and allow those who must leave to do so with grace and a blessing?
  • How can we recapture a denominational vision that is right-sized and appropriately adaptive for the day, built to channel resources for good efficiently and to do no harm? 
  • Can we purge the remnants of colonialism from our global church and (re)define relationships to support mutuality and equity?

Moving Forward Together

As the formal inauguration ceremony began to wrap up, national youth poet laureate Amanda Gorman became the youngest to write and recite a poem, following in the footsteps of Maya Angelou and Robert Frost. The powerful piece, perfectly crafted for the moment, included these words:

Scripture tells us to envision that everyone shall sit under their own vine and fig tree, and no one shall make them afraid. If we’re to live up to our own time, then victory won’t lie in the blade, but in all the bridges we’ve made.”

Whether in responding to the devastation left by a natural disaster or to the harm caused by human brokenness, a prerequisite to Build(ing) Back Better is enough unity and bridge-building to create the necessary momentum to get the hard work done. The new administration in Washington won’t get very far without some goodwill and cooperation from those in the opposing political party. The Biden Administration’s call upon Americans to mask up for the first 100 days of his administration displays its understanding that we all have a role to play.

Similarly, The United Methodist Church and its local churches and ministries are unlikely to progress on any of the opportunities listed above if clergy leaders alone shoulder the burden. To Build Back Better, laity need to embrace Jesus’ call to discipleship and all of the discomfort that it brings.

A Building Back Better renewal of discipleship will be challenging, but Jesus promises relief for our weary souls. He says:

“Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest. Put on my yoke, and learn from me. I’m gentle and humble. And you will find rest for yourselves. My yoke is easy to bear, and my burden is light.” – Matthew 11:28-30

May we each find new inspiration to approach the challenges ahead, always looking for opportunities to build bridges and rebuild what we share in ways that are both smart and generous.

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