Mismatched clergy and congregations

The Rev. James Howell wrote an interesting blog post about the harrowing future that might be facing clergy and congregations in the United Methodist Church if we split apart.

He raises several interesting points, but one section of his post in particular grabbed my attention. In discussing the position of clergy in his conference if we sundered into two denominations, Howell wrote:

We would also have a rash of mismatched clergy and congregations.  If congregations get to choose which denomination to go with, I’d imagine the clergy would get to pick too.  At least in my part of the world, and I suspect all across the United States, on average the clergy are far more progressive than their congregations.  In Western North Carolina, for instance, out of 1,000 clergy I’d estimate at least 500 would choose the new progressive institution; but no more than a few dozen churches would do the same. Where would the clergy work?  And who would pastor the conservative churches?

Among those who observe clergy, it has long been remarked that clergy are often more liberal than their congregations in the United Methodist Church. Howell is merely speculating about some of the numbers. What is interesting in his numbers is the assertion that no more than a few dozen churches in his entire conference would join a progressive or liberal denomination while hundreds — about half — of its clergy would.

For my part, I do not know where I would land in the fall out of a broken church. I am comforted to know, however, that theologically, at least, I do not have the struggles of so many of my colleagues. When I teach and preach the doctrine and discipline of the United Methodist Church and try to articulate the heart of Wesleyan theology, I do not have to hide my true theological beliefs or couch them in ways that disguise the fact that I secretly consider the faith of my church members somehow backward — or whatever the opposite of progressive is. I am too Democratic for many of the Republicans in my churches and too much a fan of Indiana University for the Purdue Boilermaker fans in my church, but I can pray for healing without crossing my fingers, speak of the resurrection without resorting to metaphors, warn of the devil’s works without feeling sheepish, and wrestle with holiness without trying to dispense with holiness itself. I am grateful for that.

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10 thoughts on “Mismatched clergy and congregations

  1. Don’t you fear that what happened in the Episcopal church might be a portend of what the United Methodist church is facing? In that case many parishoners simply drifted away from the denomination with its battles and confusion.

  2. Several years ago a bishop–I do not remember which one or where he is/was located– made a similar assessment about his conference being populated with predominately liberal/progressive pastors and predominately conservative congregations. He went on to make the comment that if a pastor participated in a same gender “wedding” he would immediately become unappointable. Reality is the United Methodist Church has been walking a tightrope for quite awhile. I can’t help but wonder if the “best” solution would be to get off the fence re sexuality, offer those that do not agree a way out and manage the fall-out. In my neck of the woods, my feeling is the conference leans progressive, but not by any huge majority. My local church is also a mixed bag. I shudder at the thought of going through the process of trying to “choose a faction” especially if the flash point is sexuality. I have already backed off from my local church because of a combination of personal and local church issues. Having spent 4 years learning what disarray the denomination is in–my sense after GC2012 was that something was going to have to give–I am in no rush to get any more involved than showing up for Sunday morning worship.

  3. Conservatives have produced the stronger arguments but have failed to produce a revolutionary leader. Our conservative leaders are splendid samples of the Wesleyan holiness ethos, but not one of them is a lightning rod like Wesley. They are mired in equivocation. Were it not so, there would be an uprising against the cloying apostasy that besets the church. Our conservative leaders plead patiently with the Council of Bishops, but the COB is unmoved. That’s just it: they cluck, they plead, they prophesy, but they do not declare against the apostates, “No, we will serve the Lord.”

  4. “When I teach and preach the doctrine and discipline of the United Methodist Church and try to articulate the heart of Wesleyan theology, I do not have to hide my true theological beliefs or couch them in ways that disguise the fact that I secretly consider the faith of my church members somehow backward — or whatever the opposite of progressive is.”

    This seems particularly smug. On the other side of the spectrum than you, I have absolute admiration for parishioners of many different political persuasions. What I do pity is clergy who have such homogeneity in their congregations that they cannot see the variety of spiritual experiences and wisdom that God has given. Navigating these real differences has humbled me on countless occasions and has made me both a better pastor and a better Christian.

    1. While we’re calling names, may I point out that “….has made me…. a better Christian” sounds a bit smug to me, as well as theologically shallow.

      Thanks.

    2. “Particularly smug” is such a clever phrase. Double the jab.

      Not intended as smug. Intended as a statement of gratefulness. I know clergy who feel the doctrines of our church, which they have vowed to preach and teach, are false or antiquated. I know if I believed that, I would find it difficult to preach without running the risk of losing my sense of integrity or sliding into a kind of paternalism toward the rank-and-file members who hold those same beliefs. I am grateful that this is not a struggle I have to wrestle with. I am not a perfect pastor by any means, just one trying to fulfill my vows to preach and teach the doctrines of our church.

  5. Where would progressive pastors work? Anywhere they like although some may have to take jobs at WalMart. The guaranteed appointment system will obviously no longer apply. We live in a free market society and the market will settle this. Where there is a need someone will fill it.
    I would estimate my church to be about 80/20 on the traditionalist side. Our current pastor has made it clear he is not progressive in his thinking. Life would go on.

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