The other day a United Methodist pastor asked me how I can carry on serving in a denomination that is heading in the wrong direction. I want to offer my reasons, not to convince anyone one way or the other (we each need to answer that question for ourselves), but hopefully to help someone who might be struggling – as I have been – to answer.
The very recent overturning of Frank Schaefer’s defrocking for performing a same-sex marriage (and stating he has no intention of abiding by our shared covenant) is sure to drum up even more calls for schism. I’m sympathetic to those calls and believe they have every right – biblically or otherwise – to do it. God is not glorified by outright rebellion to our shared way of life (to say nothing of the biblical witness) or by the factions that make it obvious we are not of “one mind” any less or more than when a remnant stands up for truth and decides to leave. But laying aside for the moment the question “Should we leave?” what I want to do here is answer the question, “How can I stay?” if not for you, then at least for myself.
- I can stay because on the ground, where the rubber meets the road, this issue which threatens to tear our denomination apart is not affecting my ministry. When I look at my local church, where I am charged to serve and shepherd, no one really cares what some pastor in Pennsylvania did last year or what some judicial committee made up of people none of us know decided about his credentials. We are far too busy trying to figure out how to find additional space for the 62 kids who showed up for VBS last night (and we expect even more tonight!), or how to turn our social events into evangelistic outreach opportunities, or figure out when and where we will launch a new recovery ministry for our county or how we can best shelter the homeless in our city or, most importantly, how we can cultivate a culture in our church where there is the expectation that every week someone will be introduced to Jesus and accept him as their Lord and Savior.
- I can stay because when I take my focus off the internet and blogs and news around the crazy world of Methodism and put my focus on my sheep, I see I have work to do. This is holy work, and I know I have been called and fitted for the task. I can stay because the covenant I entered into had less to do with promising to remain faithful to my colleagues and far more to do with staying faithful to God and the flock He has entrusted to my care. When I was a Hospital Corpsman in the Navy I took the Hippocratic Oath, like all medical professionals do. I know very well that many of my fellow corpsman (including myself) did not always live up to that oath, and in many cases were committing malpractice. But it never occurred to me to leave the Navy or the Corps because some doctor in Japan abused his or her position. I wish I could say the negligence of others only invigorated me to shine even brighter so that the darkness might be less noticed, but back then I was drinking or looking at pornography to much to care.
- I can stay because having been a Nazarene, a Lutheran, a Non-denominational something-or-other, and a semi-Pentecostal all before becoming a Methodist I know there are no perfect Churches. In every denomination there are leaders who have lost sight of the prize or who are no longer living into a calling but just doing a job or who won’t think or act the way I think they should think or act and will make decisions that I feel violate God’s law. If I focus on what others (godless or otherwise) are always doing or not doing then I, too, will fall. I need to take my eyes of them and put them on Jesus. Every day. I cannot make anyone keep the commitments they have made – to God or to the church or to me. I can only keep my own. Granted, I hope and pray that those in charge (our bishops, for example) will keep their commitments, and I pray for them daily that they will have the courage and strength to do so, but in the end, I can only strive to keep my plate clean as I seek to faithfully point those in my care to Jesus, the one who died for me, and us, while still in our sins.
- I can stay because I live in a fallen world where I see it as my duty to be a light shining in the darkness. Why should I be surprised that my mission field won’t also include the Church at Large in which I am committed? I can stay because so long as my conscience can abide by the rules which govern us (and as of now they still do, even though they are not upheld in all places (but they are upheld in most!)), then I can see myself as an ambassador for Jesus Christ, who came to “save that which was lost.” He was a Jew who came to show the wayward covenant people of God the way to the Father, which they had missed through centuries of atrophy and delusion. I can stay because I wish to show them the same mercy Christ showed to me when I was lost and deluded myself, exchanging the truth of God’s word for the lies of this world. If God can break through this hardened liberal’s heart and free me from the bondage of cynicism and skepticism (not to mention gross immorality) then He can do it for anyone.
- I can stay because something breaks my heart far more than a pastor who marries two people of the same sex: It’s a pastor in bondage to sexual sin such as pornography and self-gratification. Having been delivered from that bondage myself, and having been addicted while a pastor, I know the shame it brings and the ways it twists and warps one’s thinking, particularly as it relates to sexuality and sin and holiness. Since my wife and I began our blog DesireMercy, I have received numerous private responses from pastors and leaders within churches who confess their addiction to sex and their struggle to find the God they preach about each Sunday, albeit with timidity. I am convinced that the reason we fail to have meaningful dialog about sexuality in our churches today is because many of the people who would be responsible to lead such dialog have skeletons in their closet they are too ashamed to admit. For fear of being called a hypocrite they choose instead to never talk about pornography or lust or what a healthy, monogamous sexual ethic entails. You can’t lead people where you are not yourself. And thus, I can stay because I want to be part of that voice, by the grace of God, which declares the power of God to set captives free, including my fellow pastors, and hopefully, Lord willing, bring healthy dialog about sex which honors God back to the pulpit.
These are five of the reasons I can stay. None of it is perfect, and I am well aware of the chaos that is out there, at least if you are only reading the inter-webs. My advice: take a 4 week fast from the internet and throw yourself into the shepherding work of your local church. Watch how God shows up as you, and I, go about our business of being faithful with the little or lot we’ve been given.
A passage you know well comes to mind. At the end of Jesus’ earthly ministry, Peter wants to know what is going to become of John, one of his colleagues. Jesus’ command is one I am trying to take to heart and live by each day: What’s it to you what happens to him? You follow me! (John 21:22).
Lord Jesus, help me keep on keeping on.