Early in the process of discerning my call to ministry, I came to the conviction that the call of a member of the clergy in the United Methodist Church was to preach the faith of the church.
This conviction is not an easy one to hold to in the UMC for a couple of reasons.
First, it is not easy to hold because a large number of fairly vocal clergy leaders in the UMC advocate something else. It is quite easy to find clergy arguing that the task of the preacher is to preach their own struggles, their own doubts, their own truth. Such advice is usually given the name of being “authentic.”
I understand the appeal. I was an English major in college. I have written and read poetry. I’ve written and read personal essays about doubt and struggle. I’ve read Hamlet. I can sing many pop songs. I once cried after watching Dead Poets Society.
I am not saying preachers never struggle or doubt, but I don’t think they are called to do that while leading worship on Sunday morning. I do not believe our ordination as elders authorizes us to read Scripture out loud from the lectern and then declare from the pulpit, “I’m not really sure if I agree with what the Bible says about God here.”
Again, please hear what I’m trying to say. I’m not saying the Bible is always easy to interpret. I’m not trying to deny the existence of differences of interpretation among various traditions within the church. I’m not saying there are no controversies within the church over the meaning of Scripture.
I am merely saying that while standing in the pulpit — or on the stage of a worship center — the task of the preacher is to preach the faith of the church. They are not there to present a lecture on the history of controversy over a passage. They are not there to give us a tour of their own emotional or intellectual struggles with Scripture. There are places to do both those things. Sunday morning is not that place. Elders are called and ordained by the church to preach the faith of the church.
Which brings me to the second problem.
An elder or local pastor who sets out in ministry with the intention of preaching the faith of the church quickly discovers in the UMC that it is difficult to identify what our faith is. I had this very problem as I was first discerning my call.
Early in my process of discernment, I turned to the Book of Discipline and found our doctrinal standards. As quickly as I read over the Articles of Religion and Confession of Faith, however, I noticed that a lot of things described there were openly questioned or dismissed by some of the preachers and leaders in the UMC.
In my search, I also began to read the sermons, journals, and letters of John Wesley. Doing so only deepened my sense of disconnect between what our Discipline claimed to be our doctrinal standards and what I heard preached and taught in United Methodist churches. When I spoke of this sense of disconnect with some elders, they made jokes about Wesley.
For better or worse, in my process of discernment of my call, I came to the conviction that if I were to be a Methodist preacher, I should preach Wesleyan Methodism. Conveniently for me, as I delved more deeply into Wesleyan theology, I found that I quite agreed with John Wesley that the movement the Holy Spirit stirred up around Wesley’s ministry was Scriptural Christianity. If I had come to the conclusion that Wesley was in error about the essentials of Christianity, I hope I would have had the integrity to say I am not called to be an elder in a church bearing the name Methodist.
Why do I share this?
I share this because being clear about my role as an elder in Methodism is the place where I can make a difference in the church in this age of struggle. As United Methodism goes through the wrenching process of division into two or more new churches, lots of decisions need to be made and will be made. Almost all of them will be made by people other than me.
I am not in those rooms or part of those conversations, nor do I expect to be. But I am in a pulpit. I’ve been given a yoke to do ministry. The best way I can contribute to the future vitality of this movement of the Holy Spirit called Methodism is to be a Methodist preacher. I see no other way to do that with integrity than to preach the faith of the church as set forth in our doctrinal standards. Yes, I will struggle and have questions, but on Sunday morning my job is to preach the faith as well as I can. May God give me the grace to never fail in this task.