Are you so in debt as to embarrass yourself or your ministry?
Ten years ago when I began the process to become an ordained elder in the United Methodist Church the running joke among those about to be ordained at Annual Conference was to smile and say “yes” to the above question. Why? Because all of us carried student loans and other debts, and everyone knew it.
Ten years later I am about to be accepted as a provisional elder in the Holston Annual Conference and it’s not the debt question to which I’ll need to stifle a laugh but the question asking whether I will uphold the Discipline of the United Methodist Church.
My laughter will not be because I don’t intend to uphold the Discipline – I most certainly do – but because it doesn’t seem that anyone in charge really cares whether we do or not. The recent ruling by Bishop McLee regarding Rev. Ogletree officiating a same-sex wedding seems to declare that there is no one at the helm of the USS UMC, certainly not the rulings of the General Conference, at least.
I should be very excited about being recommended for provisional membership after working so hard to get here, but the truth is, I’m not. And I’m not really laughing about any of this. I’m actually quite sad over the state of our church and wonder if any real leadership will emerge from the wreckage being caused by a few rogue bishops and pastors. I wonder at times why I am jumping aboard what appears to be a sinking ship without a Captain. The commissioning questions to be asked of me this June, rather than being a solemn, holy, celebratory event feel more like being asked to buy stock in the RMS Titanic…after it struck an iceberg.
You would be right to ask why I even bother then, given my doubts about our future as a church. There are two reasons. First, the church I am presently blessed to serve is full of people who need me as their pastor and I need them. I am blessed beyond measure to be part of a vibrant, growing, Christ-centered, Bible-hungry congregation and I can’t imagine being anywhere else. I am hopeful to remain for many more years here as their pastor, Lord willing, and will do so under whatever title whoever is in charge wishes to bestow upon me.
Second, I believe in redemption. Up until 2 years ago I was a champion of the cause of the Frank Schaefer’s and Ogeltree’s in our church. Three years ago at Wild Goose I sat in a camper with Jennifer Knapp, Tony Jones and others to discuss how we could join together in an effort to support pastors who spoke out as allies for the LGBT cause. If God was able to turn my ship around and place Himself and His word at it’s helm then I have no reason to believe He cannot do it for anyone. There is no question in my mind that we as a church have lost our way, proclaiming “peace, peace” where there is no peace, treating the brokenness of God’s people superficially (Jer. 6:14). We have more faith in the power of our desires than we have in the power of God, trusting in the brokenness into which all of us have been born more than the wholeness offered by a resurrected Christ. We fear millennials leaving church more than the God who promises to return as Judge.
So I’ll press on until God directs me elsewhere, and answer the questions this June with a clean conscience, without a smile or a wink. There is this nagging question in the back of my head, however, over how I will answer my devout and loyal Christian church members when they ask me why so much of our church budget goes to support an institution that doesn’t seem to have a Captain at the helm and seems to follow another Jesus than the one we worship here in Dayton, TN. When I answer that it’s because our covenant as United Methodists matters, and that it’s our duty to uphold the polity and Discipline of our church, I wonder who will laugh first?