Doubt, error, and pastoral ministry

The first time I attended a United Methodist Church, I was not in doubt about the truth of Christianity. I was sure it was a made up human religion from a superstitious age when people did not have better ways to understand the universe and their place in it. I had no doubt. It was wrong.

But this woman I really liked attended the church and she had invited me to join her.

Thirteen years later, I was baptized. Over that time I moved from certainty to doubt to certainty – not certainty about all things. I still had doubts about the ways some people read and understood the Bible. I still had doubts about many things people believed about God and Christian living. But I had certainty that God in Jesus Christ had done something for me that I could not do for myself. I had certainty that baptism was the way to become a part of the body of Christ.

When I felt my call to pastoral ministry, it was quite a troubling thing for me. With all the areas that I had few firm answers, I was concerned I’d be a hypocrite every day. With all the places in my life where I do not model holiness, I felt unworthy. But I kept going because among the few prayers in my life that I’ve heard a  verbal answer to was: “Jesus, do you really want me to do this?”

“Yes.” He said.

One of the many reasons I am an fond of Will Willimon is something he wrote that helped me. He said that the job of the pastor is not to offer his own personal faith, but to teach the faith of the church. The pastor is a creature of the church. She is not self-created or self-authorizing.

Among the many reasons I write so frequently here about doctrine and ask questions about essential United Methodist teachings is because I am striving to understand the faith of the church I have been charged to teach. One of the reasons I read John Wesley is because in my Book of Discipline it tells me that his standard sermons are a guide to the faith of the denomination.

I frequently find myself wondering where Wesley got it wrong or went too far. I frequently wonder if his early or later writings are the better guide for us today. But I have no doubt that he is a trustworthy guide to this “heart religion” that is known as Methodism and that he has much to teach us and to teach me about holiness of heart and life.

If I ever came not just to doubt but to truly believe Wesley was categorically wrong about something at the heart of what he taught, I’d leave the United Methodist Church, even though most of my lay and clergy brothers and sisters find Wesley barely relevant to today’s UMC.

If I ever came not just to doubt but to truly disbelieve the core affirmations of the Christian faith, I’d quit the ministry and leave the church altogether. My understanding of the core affirmations of the faith are reflected in the Trinitarian formulations in the prayer of Great Thanksgiving in our service of Holy Communion and the creeds contained in the UM Hymnal.

And if I ever came to doubt these things – to truly be uncertain whether I believed and trusted in them as truth – then I would have to examine my fitness to preach. At the very least, I think I would find myself taking the advice that Peter Bohler gave John Wesley: Preach faith until you have it.

I would seek out pastoral support and guidance. I would pray. But I – at least – would feel I was betraying the pastoral office to which I had been called and commissioned if I used it as a platform to say that it does not matter if you believe Christ was raised from the dead or it does not matter if you believe God as described in Scripture does not exist.

This is not to say a pastor does not offer guidance and support to those who doubt. But part of that support is seeking clarity about what the church affirms without doubt.

Kathleen Norris in her book Amazing Grace describes an encounter between a struggling believer and a priest. The one says that it is difficult to speak the words of the Apostles Creed because the person is not sure it is all true. The priest says that is not the point. The creed is the creed of the church, not the individual believer. Say the creed until you believe it.

The first time it came home to me that the office of pastor is about more than me and my personal sense of integrity, I was quite uncomfortable. You mean, I asked, every where I go, I’m always going to be wearing this sign on my chest that says “pastor”? I’m not going to be just John.

Sorry, no. And when people see you as pastor, they are going to see you as a representative of the entire church.

I am no longer mine, but thine, the prayer goes.

This is where I stand. May God give me wisdom where I am in error and give me faith in all things.

11 thoughts on “Doubt, error, and pastoral ministry

  1. There is an exquisite tension between what we believe and what we find we have to question. During my years of theological training, I found many critical questions about things I had hitherto believed. They weren’t big enough to make me reject the beliefs I held, but they did raise questions in my mind which wouldn’t go away. I left college, served as a probationer minister, and eventually stepped up before Synod to face the questions which every British Methodist minister must answer in order to go forward to ordination, about believing our doctrines and accepting and administering our discipline. The third one is “Are you as convinced of your call to ministry as when you first set out?” The answer is supposed to be “Yes” and that was what I said – but there was such a rush of affirmation from deep within, that I knew this was true: in my heart of hearts I know I am called and equipped by God to be a Methodist minister. Three decades later I am still critical, still questioning, but in order to clarify, focus, and understand the faith we share. I still call myself evangelical, but having that secure foundation means I can lean out a very long way into non-orthodox ways of thinking and exploring in order to help people find ways of articulating faith which works for them.

    The Church is like a wagon train – it needs scouts and outriders to explore the way ahead, and discover which valleys are blind and which will become a route through the hills. The point about outriders is that they need to go a long way out, but never lose touch with the convoy, or the general direction in which we travel.

    Thanks, John. I think we’re riding the same route.

    1. Thank you, Tony. I love the wagon train image. I hope I’m more like John Wayne than the crazy cook.

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