Will Willimon still causing me trouble

As I enter into the struggles of my people, I have considerably more to offer than myself. I have the witness of the saints, the faith of the church, the wisdom of the ages. A pastor must therefore be prejudiced toward the faith of the church.

— Will Willimon, Pastor

Will Willimon has caused me no end of problems as a United Methodist pastor. His writings were among the first I read when entering into the ministry, and statements like the one above have dug down deep like chiggers.

The problem created by statements like the one above lies hidden in that whole “faith of the church” bit at the end.

You see, when I was in the process of becoming a local pastor, I set out on a search for the faith of the United Methodist Church. I read my Book of Discipline. I read a whole bunch of John Wesley. I started writing on this blog and asking questions about what we as a church believe and teach.

And this is where I started running into trouble.

It turns out that the faith of the United Methodist Church is hard to nail down. In the early days of my blogging, when my readership was more diverse than it is now, I would post a quote from John Wesley and ask why we don’t seem to teach or preach this any more. I’d often get answers about how Wesley is not our Pope or how we can’t be tied down to his 18th century theology. This happened enough to make me realize that at least a portion of our clergy don’t view Wesley as particularly central to the faith of our church. This was disorienting for someone who took Willimon’s counsel to heart and believed that their must be thing called “the faith of the church.” After all, he was telling me to be prejudiced in favor of it. How could I be prejudiced toward something that does not exist?

I can point to our official documents, of course. But when asked what makes Methodism unique, I would have a hard time formulating a doctrinal answer that would reliably mark out the faith as actually preached across the connection. Even if we think in terms of centered sets rather than bounded sets, it is hard to define a center when looking at actual practice.

For many United Methodists this not a bug but a feature. It is not a problem, but one of the things that makes us great. For me and my desire to be, in Willimon’s words, a bearer of the church’s faith and not merely my own, it is a problem. How can you bear what you cannot identify?

What I have done is attempt to teach, preach, and bear a faith under the influence of our Articles and Confession with a heavy dose of Wesleyan free grace Arminianism. I hope this is faithful to my call and certification as a minister in the UMC. I hope that is faithful to my call and certification in the UMC.

Is that job already taken?

What is the better metaphor for the role of elders in the United Methodist Church: Watchman/woman or Shepherd?

John Wesley most often made reference to the way Ezekiel speaks about watchmen. He spoke often of being clear of the blood of those who did not listen to his preaching. He had Ezekiel 3 and/or Ezekiel 33 in mind.

“Son of man, I have made you a watchman for the people of Israel; so hear the word I speak and give them warning from me. When I say to a wicked person, ‘You will surely die,’ and you do not warn them or speak out to dissuade them from their evil ways in order to save their life, that wicked person will die for their sin, and I will hold you accountable for their blood. But if you do warn the wicked person and they do not turn from their wickedness or from their evil ways, they will die for their sin; but you will have saved yourself.” (Ezekiel 3:17-19, NIV)

But Ezekiel also speaks of shepherds.

“Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: ‘This is what the Sovereign Lord says: Woe to you shepherds of Israel who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock. You have not strengthened the weak or healed the sick or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them.” (Ezekiel 34:2-6, NIV)

Yes, I know these are not the only two metaphors for the work of an elder, but today this is where I am looking.

On the one hand, I am drawn toward the metaphor of the shepherd because it plays toward my gentle and nurturing side. But, of course, in Ezekiel 34, God seems pretty set on assuming the title and role of shepherd for himself.

Could it be that it is God’s task to gather up the lost, bind up their wounds, and provide them with food?

Could it be that the task of the elder is more to be a watcher on the wall than to be a shepherd in the field, to study and speak the word of the Lord? Is that perhaps what Paul is saying to Timothy?

These are honest questions. And I know the answer is probably more both/and than either/or, but I do wonder if we run the risk of usurping the role of Jesus when we see ourselves primarily as shepherds.

It is the Presbyterian who speaks to me

Two contemporary books define between them nearly all the tensions I feel in pastoral ministry.

The first is Eugene Peterson’s Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work. The second is Adam Hamilton’s Selling Swimsuits in the Arctic.

Hamilton is an extroverted and visionary mega-church pastor who in his book tells the story about how selling shoes taught him a lot about what it takes to be a good pastor. Peterson is a Presbyterian church planter, best known for his biblical paraphrase The Message, who recoils at the idea of a church having anything in common with a shoe store.

By temperament, I am much more inclined toward Peterson. He once told his congregational leaders that what he most wanted to do among them was pray, study Scripture and the world, get to know them, and lead them in worship. He wanted to stop all the projects and work of running a church. He also tells the story about the denominational official who told him to respond to a decline in worship attendance by launching a new building program. Americans, the official told him, only respond to projects. Peterson said he left the meeting knowing he was not going to take that advice, but not knowing what to do.

I understand that feeling.

Hamilton, in contrast, is energetic and extremely skillful at casting visions and getting things done. He understands how to communicate and is brilliant at organization. His church has without any doubt had a huge impact on its community and the entire United Methodist denomination. I’m not sure if Hamilton ever had a talk with his congregational leadership about the things that he most wants to do among them, but I have no doubt that he has a list of items that would be quite persuasive as an outline of what a church pastor should do.

I admire Hamilton, but I know I am not him nor will be any time soon. And yet, I still feel the tug of his example. It is duplicated by so many pastors who bring a set of practical gifts for helping other people encounter Jesus and grow in their faith. They are people of action and vision. They get things done. It feels like the United Methodist Church needs people who get things done.

As many people who know me will testify, getting things done is not one of my defining traits. I worry that makes me a poor fit for the needs of the church right now, but at my age I am not likely to become a different person than I am.

And so my copy of Five Smooth Stones is dog-eared and underlined heavily. My copy of Selling Swimsuits is in a box with my other books. It is from Peterson’s book that I find the most encouragement. I don’t think that is because Hamilton is wrong, but he simply is not very much in tune with my gifts and faults. Thank God for pastors like Hamilton. Thank God for pastors like Peterson.