I never thought my first personal experience with Napa California would be by calling a United Methodist pastor, but the phone was ringing and I was a bit nervous. I am also sure that Rev. Lee Neish had no clue what to make of it when he saw an unidentified number pop up on his cell phone with the location "Saginaw, Texas", but he answered.
The course of the conversation moved from earthquakes, the hospitality of Seventh Day Adventist, ministry in California, Texas flooding and the Mars rover. You know just typical clergy meeting for the first time sort of conversation.
Rev. Neish shared a metaphor for his hope for the UMC as a church that is like the Mars rover.
He went on to say that the engineers did not know what sort of terrain the rover would encounter and so there was much talk about the different ways to design the wheels. The two axle and four wheel design was quickly ruled out because it was too unstable for an unknown terrain. Discarding wheels all together and using a track system like on a bulldozer was found to be inadequate since there would be no way to reset the track if it slipped off.
As you can see in the above picture, they agreed on an independent axle system each with a single wheel. These six wheels were all able to move the rover forward to complete the mission even if several of the individual wheels were unable to move for some reason.
The United Methodist Church is facing a series of decisions around homosexuality, biblical authority, role of the support agencies, function of the bishop and what it means to be an poly-context denomination. Many have been thinking about these decisions and seem to be influenced by the metaphor of a two axle four wheel vehicle which needs all four wheels moving in order to be effective. Others are thinking of the denomination as like having two tracks, liberal on one side and conservative on the other. The idea that we can only move forward if we split and everyone have their own track.
What the Mars rover metaphor offers is an alternative to these dominate ways of thinking. What if we approached the above problems and other unforeseen terrain, with the metaphor of independent structures that are bound together by mission and less by doctrine.
Is it possible to consider a denomination that can still continue in the mission even if some of the wheels are unable to move?