Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them.Acts 16:6-10
Isn’t this a wonderful story about how ministry works?
We are surrounded these days by book, videos, seminars, and workshops that instruct us how to establish clear priorities, align resources, and communicate effectively to mobilize the church.
It all sounds great.
I’ve never been able to do these things. I’ve always found church work to be extremely messy.
But it sounds great to imagine a church in lock-step unison, rallying around a common vision, and executing the work of ministry with the precision of marching band at half-time.
The churches I have served as pastor more often look like a little league soccer game — swarms of kids running wildly out of position and after the ball, some standing idly off in some corner of the field, some wandering over to the sidelines to demand treats from their parents or potty breaks, and the goal keepers day dreaming or forgetting their jobs and dashing out onto the field because that is what everyone else is doing.
My failure to lead this kind of church, perhaps, is why I find the passage from Acts above so comforting.
It is worth noting as we read the words above, that in Acts 15 we saw the first great council of the Church, where they were attempting to squash division over important matters of doctrine and practice. This glorious council was followed by Paul and Barnabas having a sharp disagreement and agreeing to go their separate ways. Unity lasted about a verse and a half.
And so we come to Acts 16.
Here are Paul and his companions wandering around Anatolia, preaching the gospel, but with no real idea where they might end up next. They plan to preach in Asia, and the Holy Spirit puts up a road block. They set out to go another way, and Jesus says, “Nope.” Finally, in a dream they are called into Macedonia.
This is how ministry often feels to me. How did Jesus put it to Peter? You will be led around, often where you do not want to go.
As I write this, large numbers of my colleagues and a large number of congregations in the United Methodist Church are deciding to leave the UMC or discerning whether they should do so. I consider many of the people making these choices friends, even mentors.* Even so, I find myself a bit like Paul at the border of Bithynia. If I weigh up the pros and cons, if I consider the prospects and the release from the challenges of a long journey through Asia where the Spirit has blocked the gospel, then I might be tempted to leap over that boundary as well. But Jesus keeps standing there with His hand in my face.
My hope and prayer for all of us, those leaving and those staying, is that it is the Holy Spirit who is leading. There are bad reasons to stay in the UMC and there are bad reasons to go. Many right now are like Paul, feeling called by the Holy Spirit into the Macedonia of a new denomination. Some are like Paul at the border of Mysia, thinking the prospects look ripe over there across that boundary in Bithynia, but Jesus keeps standing there and saying “no.”
If the Spirit is calling some of us to leave, then we should be helping them pack up their things and get on with the journey. If the Spirit is calling some of us to stay UMC, then we need to listen, even if we see a lot of good that might be done in Bithynia, especially if we are weary of the mess and missed opportunities in Asia.
For me, this has been a time of discernment and prayer. I can tell you many reasons — to switch my metaphor — that jumping on that boat to Macedonia would be an exciting journey, but it is not my call to make, where I go in ministry. Jesus keeps telling me that He called me to the UMC, and He has said He wants me to stay. With all due respect to my friends and their BeUMC hashtags, I don’t see any other reason why any of us should be or remain United Methodist. Either we have been called or we have not. If the call remains, then that settles the matter, at least for me.
The Holy Spirit knows what He is doing right now. As always, it feels uncertain and it is frustrating to our best laid plans, but we have good company in that. Lord, give me ears to hear.
*I know many of my friends in the UMC have exactly zero interest in leaving and no call to discern anything related to that. If this post feels like it is not speaking at all to your experience, you are most likely correct.