Who are we now?

Given the fact that most of my longstanding readership is moving or has moved out of the United Methodist Church, I’m not sure who will read this or have any interest in this, but I feel a bit like the guy stranded on a desert island building a fire in hopes a plane or ship passing by might see it.

We in the United Methodist Church have a serious problem.

It is easy to look at the huge wave of churches and pastors leaving the UMC and say it is all about misinformation and animus. That would be a foolish conclusion.

The most effective argument, by far, in persuading people to depart the UMC is that our polity is broken. The argument goes something like this: our Book of Discipline is a “scrap of paper,” our accountability systems are arbitrary at worst and ineffective at best, our General Conference is pointless and toothless, and the meaning of what it means to be United Methodist depends more on who your particular bishop is rather than any shared tradition, belief, or covenant among us.

Again, you can pretend none of this is true, but if the UMC wants to convert this hemorrhaging into a total collapse, we will say those who left had nothing to say and we have nothing to learn from the last few decades of strife. Because here is the truth: Even as we lose members by the thousands we have thousands – perhaps millions – of members still in the UMC who have very little faith in the denomination.

I, honestly, don’t know how this can be fixed. Perhaps it cannot.

I don’t even know what the first step is.

I recall over the last couple decades how often someone has asked a question along the lines of “What makes a United Methodist a United Methodist?”

I was just talking about that with a person considering membership in the congregation I serve. I talked to her about universal beliefs we all share as stated in the Apostles Creed. I talked to her about this evangelical renewal movement started by John and Charles Wesley that preached ceaselessly about justification by faith, free grace, and the power of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer. I talked about the movement that was so passionate about the gospel that it adopted whatever means it could discover to save souls, and in doing so transformed communities and nations.

My sense is that this story no longer is shared by United Methodists as our story. When we look for the things that unite us, too often, it feels like we look to the superstructure of the denomination rather than the power of our story.

If this is not “our story” any longer, what is our story? Who are we now? What is the vision of United Methodism that can give us the clarity and will to repair what is broken within our denomination?

I guess a better question really comes first. Do we want to be healed? Do we even think it is necessary?

The pastor, his wife, and his girlfriend

I’ve been asking versions of the following question for about 10 years.

My understanding is that my clergy colleagues in the United Methodist Church who support what they call “full inclusion” are arguing that the denomination celebrate and solemnize same-sex Christian marriages between two people. I understand that my colleagues are sincere in their belief that such a stance is not only loving and biblical but also a matter of justice.

So help me out, please.

The City Paper of Pittsburgh recently published an anonymous article claiming to be written by a pastor of two UMC churches in Western Pennsylvania who claims to be bisexual and polyamorous. He writes of having a wife and a girlfriend and how his desire is for them to be able to all live together, but he knows if this arrangement were known, he’d lose his position as a pastor.

Since it is written anonymously, we cannot know if the facts provided in this article are true, but let us just assume for a moment that they are.

Here is where I need help.

My polyamorous colleague from Western Pennsylvania longs for the day when his polyamory will be affirmed and celebrated by the UMC.

To my centrist and progressive brothers and sisters in the UMC, I have a question and a request.

Is this the direction we are heading?

If it is not, please, please, please tell me the biblical and theological argument that stands in the way of his longing? I know the traditional argument about this, but that position has been deemed retrograde by most of my centrist friends and certainly my progressive ones. So without the traditional argument — or some version of it — how does the church answer the longing of this pastor and what I assume are some number of laity?

Back in 2013, I wrote to retired Bishop Melvin Talbert a similar question. At the time, he was leading the Western Jurisdiction’s resistance to the Book of Discipline and defying the Council of Bishops in pursuit of what he believed God required with regard to gay marriage. I wrote and I asked him if he could help me understand what arguments the church would have in the face of polyamory if we abandoned the one man – one woman definition of marriage. The bishop wrote me back to say he was only interested in the struggle that was before him not ones that might come later.

Well, later is here. It is unclear to me what resources the church has to respond to my anonymous and polyamorous colleague from Pennsylvania. Saying “Love is love” and “All means all” does not sound like a very strong argument to keep the girlfriend out of the parsonage.

Stumbling through Anatolia

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.