Divided and Broken

I have a confession to make. As I am reading my fellow United Methodists reactions to the trial and verdict of Reverend Frank Shaefer, I feel lost.

I sat at my desk today and cried because I don’t know what to feel. I read Reverend Becca Girell’s moving words on the Courage of Couples and wept for the many men and women and their families who are torn apart. I wept because we are a broken people and our brokeness has come down to hurting each other.

I have to confess that I am struggling. I have prayed, thought and read scripture as well as people on both sides of the issue trying to understand where I should stand. I do not know.

I do not know if a similarly-gendered couple came to me and asked me to marry them, if I would have the ability to say yes. I do not know if I would have the ability to say no.

I do not know if our church law changes, if I would be able to change with it. I do not know if I would stand up to my congregation and champion it.

I do not know if I would ever be able to give a sermon that included a definition of love as including marriage for everyone. I do not know if I would ever be able to give a sermon about marriage as being between one man and one woman alone.

I sincerely do not know.

Because I am basically a coward, I really just want to focus on taking care of the people in the Philippians and Illinois who are dealing with the devastation of natural disasters, or the kids in our town who need the support and care of adults who are healthy, or the families who will not have much of a Thanksgiving feast next week.

Because I am a coward and some of the people I love and respect most as colleagues and friends feel passionately about this, I am afraid in this church and in this time to say that I don’t know but I don’t. I cannot take sides. I cannot speak out one way or another. I want to be able to, but I am not convicted one way or another.

What I do know is that I made a commitment to this church and the people who call themselves United Methodist because this is where God has called me. There is so much I want to see changed in our church. There is so much that breaks my heart.

What I do know is that there seems to be very little love outpouring or grace being shown. We are divided without the ability to have conversation or to make changes. (Please, please, please among other things, the language of the Book of Discipline around homosexuality needs to be changed even if the position of the church on marriage does not.I am ashamed of it, even as I am uncertain of the issue.) People, people who God loves deeply, are being hurt.

Maybe there is no other way. Maybe the only way to make fruitful change is to actively go against church law as it stands and change it by force. After watching General Conference proceedings last April, I can see this as a valid argument. Certainly, we have at least one Bishop who feels like it is the only way. Maybe there is no way to change our broken church and giving up credentials to move on to new ministry outside of the church is the better way to live out God’s call.

It seems that there is no room for us doubters. (I can’t be the only one!)

It strikes me that the church should be about filling the world with love. We should be about promoting the things that bring love into the world. There is so much hate. There is so much division. There are so many people who feel rejected by what they believe or don’t believe, by who they are and who they are not.

When we cannot muster up enough love for each other in the church; when we are so busy being right that we cannot find a way to listen to each other and find a way forward, imperfect though it may be; when we are bogged down by a system that requires us to choose sides with no room for confusion or questioning or uncertainty; when we are causing our own people to weep, we are not able to witness to the love of Christ who came to point the way to a place where all our tears are wiped away.

One day, I am sure I will have no choice but to stand on one side or another. I will have to stop being a coward. Maybe it will be my child that stands in front of me asking me to chose love for them over the law of the church. I can only pray that the conviction of the Holy Spirit will help me to stand where I should. For now I am committed to speaking for loving one another to the best of our abilities. I am committed to loving my brothers and sisters who are hurting.  Sometimes love means pushing but sometimes it means respecting where boundaries are. Sometimes it means being committed to showing grace in words and actions to those whose life you could not or would not want to live.

John Wesley did not really think women should be ordained. He wrestled with women’s place in the leadership of the church. And yet, in 1761 he licensed Sarah Crosby to preach. I am not sure how he would feel about all the female clergy in our church today but I am so thankful that he was willing to open the doors. I am thankful that his witness was to God’s grace even when scripture and the prevailing wisdom of the world said it was better to keep women’s mouths shut in church. We are all better for the leadership of women in the church.

I suspect that anytime we err on the side of love, the church becomes stronger and fuller and the Gospel is heard more clearly. My heart hurts because it feels like some of us in our church believe that love is only genuine when it is presented the way we want it to be. It took many churches (and annual conferences) many years before they would allow women to truly live out their calling. In some places, women’s leadership is still not accepted. Changing what is is a hard and long and painful battle. Even though we know the attitude is still there today, no one in the church leadership would question a woman’s ability to be ordained simply because she is a women.

In the hardest things, we have to walk gently with love and care especially for those who passionately see differently than we do. We have to know that withholding our love and grace until the changes we want made, will only make the change harder and the brokeness deeper.

I do not know on which side to stand with regards to the church performing similar-gendered marriage services. My heart hurts because many I love and respect are feeling rejected and discouraged. I weep for a witness that is not of love and compassion. I can only pray that God will choose to step into the divide we have created and somehow bring us healing.  I am not yet ready to grieve for the church I love and have pledged to serve. I have hope that we can find ways to minister with and to people for whom love comes in different forms and ways. I have assurance that grace and love will make a way even where there does not seem to be a way.

As I came home …

As I came home from my ordinand retreat, I sat in the Chicago O’Hare Airport pondering on this long journey towards ordination and the church I am committing my life to. Jeff Mickles, the chair of the Virginia Conference Broad of Ordained Ministry, reminded the 32 of us who will be ordained that ordination is the next step in our call. We are moving from disciples to apostles, from people who are learning to those who are sent out. We move from being the students to becoming the teachers. Ordained persons in the United Methodist Church live into a different call from local pastors and even provisional members.

As I sat in the airport I pondered on my life in the church up to this point and why I so deeply love such a broken and flawed denomination.

I remember sitting in Lew Parks UM Doctrine and Polity class, learning for the first time that ordained elders had a security of appointments. I remember being shocked that after I was ordained I would always be given a church to serve if I wanted to serve. It seemed strange to know that the only job I would ever do, ever qualify to do, was a job I could not lose. I remember feeling uncomfortable with the weight of that knowledge.

I also remembered the clergy women’s consultation I attended two years into my first appointment. I was shocked to come out into the lobby and find doors lined up, with a silent witness from the LGBT community. As I listened to one of the Bishops (I don’t recall who now) preach about people standing outside the doors and knocking, it was the first glimpse I had really had of the pain our church has caused some.

I remember my first time as an Annual Conference delegate. I was a district young adult representative and had never been before. I poured over my Book of Resolutions for weeks trying to understand what all this meant and how I was supposed to figure out how to vote.

This process has been hard. I have at times wondered why I was doing it, if the church really wanted me, if I was meant to be here. I faced hard questioning about my abilities and my knowledge. I faced my learning disabilities and what they meant as I serve a church. There were times I raged against the hoops, that I sobbed because of the hurts, that I tried to speak for change. There are also the friends I have made, the hurts that have been healed, the hope I have found because of this process.

I face a church that no longer has security of appointments (although in fairness I have to say the process to be unappointed is one that is both fair and thoughtful to both the church and the pastor…read the legislation). It is a church where there are still those outside the doors. It is a church that still under-equips both pastors and small churches.

It is the church who has helped shaped me to be who I am since I answered my call at the age of 14.

It is the church I will try to faithfully serve.

It is the church in which God will shape me to become whoever He needs me to be.

Together, we will walk, struggling and striving to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.

Hope and Resurrection

I have been in ministry for eight years. I chose and still choose not to have gone the associate member route that is so often encouraged with younger clergy and so that means I have served a total of four churches (two charges) that are the face of the churches statistics reflect in the Call to Action Report.  On paper, these churches are not vital. On conference reports, these churches have more outflows that inflows. More people leave than come in, more money is spent than is collected. On paper, they have little to offer. When you walk through their tiny buildings with their outdated decor and their sanctuary that looks full at 70 worshipers, they don’t seem to have any thing to offer.

And yet I have this sense that it is not the churches or these church members who have failed.

It is the conference leadership, who only defines them by statistics on a page.

It is the District Superintendents, who see the statistics and the scared, hopeless faces around the table put them into the “non-vital” category.

It is the pastors who are bullied, who are busy trying to change the past, who don’t know how to offer a dream to a people who seem to be heading at a break neck speed towards death, who aren’t courageous enough to stand up to the woe-is-us attitude and offer hope.

The small (and I mean small…think 20-50 on a Sunday morning) churches I serve, went from booming 50 years ago to bust ten years ago. They have made excuses and been given excuses. They have clung for way too long to what was. They have given into fear. They have landed at hopelessness. Some of it IS their own doing. Some of it is because they have bought what they were told by well meaning pastors and conference reports.

We live in a big culture. The bigger the better. When something fails you just throw it away and buy a new one. These small rural churches know they have failed. They are put up against the large mega churches near-by that they keep losing members to and they know they are no longer vital. They understand they are part of a church that is dying. They (and I as their pastor) don’t need to be scared into believing the statistics because we live the statistics with every letter of transfer we sign and every loyal church member we bury. What we need is someone who is in a position of authority, someone who “knows church” to look at those death statistics and preach resurrection.

My sorrowful reaction to the General Conference Call to Action report comes not because I don’t want to face reality. I live this church reality every day. It is sorrow because when I read the report several months ago, I found so much to be hopeful for out of the report. When I presented the report to two small rural churches that know they are not vital, I saw hope in their eyes and heard it in their conversation. “The General Church has finally given us something that offers hope!” was our response. We are building a dream and a future out of the Call to Action report and it is already changing our churches.

My sorrow was that the report given seems to try to take the power of resurrection out this report, especially for a small church. Of course I was not at General Conference, I know only what I saw and what I am reading and I was not a part of the conversation that took place afterwards with the young delegates and Adam Hamilton.

I only know that when I speak words of hope and resurrection to these small churches they begin to dream about what God might do with them yet. When I take the time to cast a vision with them of the future God desires them to have, they become engaged in God’s work. It may not be big and flashy. It may not lead to needing a bigger building and more classrooms but it will lead to lives transformed in the name of Jesus.

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I won’t share with my churches the report given at General Conference. I was hoping to, as encouragement in this journey, but we don’t need a reality check. We will keep moving forward with the hope that IS found in this report, with  areas that were lifted up that we can make healthy changes and thus build a more vital future. I suspect it will take a few years before we move completely out of hopelessness. I suspect it will take a few years after that for the reports to trickle up to show we are “vital”. But I believe that God is working to resurrect two small rural churches in Iowa because he is not done with them yet. And I am thankful for a General Church that has given is a good word that encourage’s us in this journey, even if they sometimes forget that “perfect love casts out fear” and instilling fear is not necessary to speak hard truth.