Upon the launch of a new denomination

Note: I wrote the following on my personal Facebook page the day after the Global Methodist Church formally launched. I am publishing it here because it feels like the kind of thing that goes on this blog, even if this blog has been pretty inactive. I’ve added a couple of thoughts at the end as well, but will leave the original May 2 post in tact.

In my own divorce, and in every other divorce I’ve seen up close, the common thread is that both parties had ceased to share a story about their marriage and carried two different stories about their divorce into the days of division. They ceased to be a “we” sharing a common story long before they became an us vs. them telling rival versions of why it ended.

Yesterday, divorce finally arrived in the United Methodist Church. It had been a bad marriage for a lot of years, without much shared between the hostile partners besides mortgage payments, retirement accounts, and those caught in the middle trying to hold together a crumbling family. The Global Methodist Church launched with rejoicing in some quarters and grief or even anger in others.

I was saved in a United Methodist Church. I was called to be a pastor in a United Methodist Church. I was ordained, not without opposition, in the United Methodist Church. I serve a United Methodist Church. I do not feel called by the Holy Spirit to depart, even though a great number of my clergy colleagues who share my understanding of what it means to be Wesleyan and what our principle business as pastors should be will be leaving soon.

I have seen and heard enough anger and hostility toward the GMC to know that I may not be welcome in the UMC very long. Indeed, I know there are those who do not welcome me now.

But here is what gave me hope on Sunday. A woman at my church took time to share how much my ministry has meant to her. Worship was wonderful. I had the privilege of offering the body and blood of Christ to 80 or so people who I could look in the eye and name by name. I set up a meeting with a young man who is searching for Jesus in the midst of some challenges in his life. I met in the afternoon to talk with a small group about joining the church and getting baptized.

I am praying for my friends and for my colleagues who would count me among their enemies, and I’m holding on to the words of one of my favorite hymns: “The church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord.”

God bless the United Methodist Church. God bless the Global Methodist Church.

I am not certain where I will land eventually in all this. The bit about the Holy Spirit is real. It was not my idea to seek ordination in the United Methodist Church. I was called. Either everything I’ve done over the last several years is a delusion, or God decided I should serve Him in the United Methodist Church. I’ve prayed a good deal about whether God wants me to stay or go. He keeps saying “stay.”

I do not know whether my colleagues who find my evangelical theology misguided or harmful will really make good on the promises the bishop offers about there being a place for everyone in the UMC. I only know it is not my decision. In the meantime, I have a flock to care for as best I can and a gospel to proclaim. I don’t think the UMC communication and marketing organs are ever going to clamor for my #BeUMC story, but here I am.

An undivided life

I am fully aware that there are things other people can do that I cannot.

I cannot knit or play guitar or remove a gall bladder. Just because I cannot do these things, it does not mean I am judging people who can.

I hope you can keep that in mind as I write what follows, because, you see, there is something I see many of pastoral colleagues do that I cannot.

I know clergy who live two lives. There is the life they live when they are pastors, and there is the life they live as “normal” people. To them, this kind of distinction not only makes sense, but it is seen as crucial. It helps them preserve boundaries and a sense of self. If I have heard them properly, it helps them to remain authentic and even sane.

I’m sure I am not doing justice to why people do this. I struggle to explain it as much as I would struggle to explain how it feels for a fish to breathe water.

Here is the source of my problem in comprehending this strong need some of my fellow clergy experience. I cannot see this distinction within myself. There is no “me” that needs to be protected from the impinging demands of my vocation. There is only one me, and that me is a pastor.

All of us Christians are supposed to live our whole lives as an outflowing of our baptism. We do not have parts of our lives that are Christian and parts that are something else. We are Christians on Sunday morning and at home and at the ball game. We are Christians when we go to the doctor or when we are haggling with government bureaucrats about something petty and annoying. We are a new creation, the old has passed away.

For a small number of Christians, our baptism finds its expression in our call to pastoral ministry. My teachers told me that a pastor is merely one kind of Christian, a person set aside to do certain things in the life of the church. Being a pastor is not a separate thing from being a Christian. It is the way some of us are Christians.

Indeed, to be completely honest, my observation is that being a pastor relieves me of many of the strains that other Christians suffer. My work does not conflict with my faith. I do not have to navigate the tensions that so many Christians experience when they live huge chunks of their lives in settings and under rules that have nothing to do with the Gospel or may be hostile to it. Being a pastor — for me at least — is an opportunity for work and faith to overlap in ways that the great majority of my brothers and sisters in Christ do not get to experience. Far from being a burden to carry, being a pastor has given me a way to live with integrity.

Yes, I can imagine that I could cease to be a pastor and still be me, but I don’t think I could cease to be a Christian without being a radially different person than I am. I can’t take that part of myself off and just be “normal” me. Being a Christian may be abnormal, but it is who I am. And, therefore, at least as long as the church and the Lord deem me worthy, being a pastor is who I am, as well.

Pity the Holy Spirit

Yesterday, I had one of those conversations that does not leave you easily. I was asked to name my gifts as a pastor.

I halted and backed off.

“You have to claim them,” my conversation partner said.

I mumbled out some things about preaching and teaching and pastoral care and theological reflection. I ended up talking about Eugene Peterson and the unfairly discredited term of “chaplain.”

And here is what has been happening to me since then. The word evangelism has been banging around in my head. William J. Abraham’s little book on evangelism as initiation into the Christian life has been floating through my brain. Will Willimon’s little book on preaching to the unbaptized has been sitting on the shelf trying to catch my eye. The sound of hoof beats from John Wesley’s horse has been thumping in my ears.

It all has me wondering whether my continuing fascination with John Wesley is the Holy Spirit’s way of working on me. He may have been — as my conversation partner said — “an OCD little momma’s boy with an oedipus complex” but there is something about his ministry that grips my heart.

I’m a pretty good pastor chaplain. I can grow still, but I’m not bad. And yet, today, I wonder if one of the messages the Holy Spirit has been trying to pound through my skull by putting all these books on my shelves and directing my attention so often to this zealous Oxford Anglican is that I’m supposed to go places and do things that will not be easy or comfortable for me.

The church has lots of ways to affirm chaplain pastors. It wants even more than it already has. It will have no end of praise for the pastor who cares for its needs. Eugene Peterson is a beloved, grandfatherly figure. And please hear me, I think the unqualified criticism of pastor as chaplain is wrongheaded.

But the word “chaplain” did not sit well on my tongue yesterday.

In response to my conversation partner yesterday, this morning I am prayerfully turning the question around.

Could it be asking the wrong question to cross-index my resume with a list of tasks the church wants done? Could the right question not be “What are your gifts?” but “What are you called to?” Could it be that what I am being drawn by God to be is not what I am today? Could it be that I am being asked to go forth in trust that God will be with me and provide what I need? Could it be?

I pity the Holy Spirit that she has to work on one who listens so poorly.