New membership vows for the United Methodist Church took effect on Jan. 1, 2009. Formerly, incoming members pledged “to be loyal to the United Methodist Church” and “to faithfully participate in its ministries by their prayers, their presence, their gifts, and their service.”
Now, new members will pledge loyalty “to Christ through the United Methodist Church.” And to the list of “prayers, presence, gifts, and service,” one more word has been added: “witness.”
Lyn Powell, former president of the Southeastern Jurisdiction Association of Annual Conference Lay Leaders, explained how these changes came about in a recent column in the Wesleyan Christian Advocate, the newspaper of the North and South Georgia Conferences.
Witness? Who submitted the petition to add “witness” to the vows? I am happy to share with you that it came from the Association of Annual Conference Lay Leaders at their 2006 spring meeting in Minneapolis.
Forty of the 50 conference lay leaders were in the room when we experienced an epiphany of sorts — first acknowledging the decline of the UMC in the U.S., then naming the role of the laity in the decline, and finally covenanting to do something about it as lay leaders of our conferences.
In that meeting, we agreed that the biggest shift in the profile of the laity over the last 60 years came with our disengagement from appropriate, effective witness in the community.
Our early faith communities built strong churches by understanding that every baptized member is a minister. Every baptized member is charged with the responsibility of sharing the joy found in the household of faith with persons outside the faith.
Unfortunately, as the denomination matured the laity gradually withdrew from that understanding of themselves as ministers of witness, and unfairly began to give that responsibility to one individual: the pastor.
As the witness efforts of whole congregations declined, so began the decline of the denomination.
Of course, witness in today’s community will have a different look from that of times past. Our Association hopes that with the addition of “witness” to the membership vows, our congregations will begin to examine what effective witness might look like in their own communities.
What efforts would be winsome to their friends, relatives and even to strangers? And, just as importantly, what efforts would be counterproductive — even if they “feel good” to us insiders?
Our Association is convinced that as our congregations identify, teach, and practice modern effective witness, future generations may identify this addition to the [membership vows and baptismal covenants] as one of the most significant actions of the 2008 General Conference.
One additional note: As our Organization presented the “witness” legislation to the General Board of Discipleship to pass on to the General Conference, a Board member suggested a second change… which we supported and subsequently was passed. The [former] vows ask the incoming member “…will you be loyal to the United Methodist Church…”
[Now,] the incoming member shall be asked, “Will you be loyal to Christ through the United Methodist Church…”
During the affirmation of this addition, all of us agreed that our first loyalty is to Christ, and that living out that loyalty through the United Methodist Church is a great joy and unparalleled privilege.
The change in membership vows (¶217.5 and ¶217.6 in the UM Book of Discipline) also affects Baptismal Covenant rituals I, II, and IV in the United Methodist Hymnal (specifics here—PDF). (NOTE: Baptismal Covenant III was discontinued in 2004 as a result of previous changes in the Discipline.)
Lyn Powell, former lay leader of the North Georgia Conference, delivered the 2008 Laity Address, “Disciples Transforming the World,” at last year’s General Conference in Fort Worth, Texas.
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