Thursday, May 15, 2014

The Appointment Game, the Coming Schism in the United Methodist Church, and How This May Effect UM Pastors

(No sermon to put together this week - Charlie Dray and youth ministry are taking charge this Sunday - so I'd thought I'd just blog. You know... for old times sake.)

This appointment season has been the strangest for me in many a year... and I'm not even moving. It's been strange for two reasons:

First, as I'm getting ready to start my 11th consecutive year here at Shawnee/Community - 3 years as an "associate in waiting" (that's another blog post in and of itself) and now my 8th year as Lead Pastor - my appointment amongst my colleagues has been the subject of great debate. The longer a United Methodist pastor stays at his or her church, the greater the speculation as to whether or not "this is the year" they are going to move. I mean the UMC isn't known for long appointments. 11 years in one place in my tribe is pretty unusual. Hence, every church (or bureaucratic position) that comes available (particularly if it's larger than this church) inspires a little speculation as to my future whereabouts among my colleagues. In our circles we call this "The Appointment Game"... guessing "who" will go "where".

I haven't been concerned with the appointment game in long, long time. See, my appointment journey has been different than most. The only time I truly was moved by the Bishop and Cabinet was in 1997 when I was appointed as an Associate Pastor to Epworth UMC in Toledo. Since then I applied for and received a conference staff position in Illinois (1998), was recruited to an associate position in Goshen, Indiana (1999), and then was recruited once again to come back to West Ohio and Shawnee (2004). Most UM pastors never leave their conference, let alone serve in three. In my experience when you cross those conference lines you don't know what churches are "desirable", what pastors have served how many years at whatever appointment, or any info you need to know to play "the appointment game".

Then last year I found myself engaged in the appointment system in a more conventional way. Didn't end up going anywhere, but when you get "the call"gauging your interest in doing something new, it's a strange experience. It's shocking. It not only forces you to think about what you've been doing, but what it is you should be doing.

It also forces you to think about everyone else who would be effected. I have a wife with a good job and career ambitions (ambitions she put off while I got established in the ministry and we expanded our family). Our kids all still live at home. The oldest has friends and girlfriend and all matters of connections here in Lima. We've been here so long that outside of the year we were on campus at Asbury, our kids have never been enrolled anywhere but Shawnee. This thing just doesn't effect me. It effects us.

And there's another dynamic.... my call isn't fully my own. When you become an Elder in the United Methodist Church, you are examined by Elders and then voted upon by Elders. The Bishop lays the hands in a symbolic gesture representing the handing down of power through "Apostolic Succession" (google it), but it's your colleagues who determine when you are in, and if you need to be cast out. We hold our call together in a trust, and we are responsible to one another. A decision made by one of us, effects all of us. So you can't be so selfish in this denomination to just unequivocally say "I'm not moving anywhere" or "I'll only go to ________ church." If you turn a move down, it has consequences for somebody else. We are in this together, and we need to remember that, always.

In any event, hearing rumors about where you'll be living and what you'll be doing is unsettling. For the first time, this year, I was the subject of much chatter. No calls from anybody who mattered in the process... just chatter amongst us plebes (which is maybe another lesson... unless it's a DS who calls, just ignore whatever is said). I've never been subject of any chatter before, so this was strange, and I'll admit, difficult to block out.

However, while the appointment game isn't new, this would not be the case for the other reason this appointment season has been strange, and very troubling: Thinking about where you'll be serving when the denomination splits.

A split coming in our denomination. Believe it. 2016 or 17, the United Methodist Church will most likely split. As the coasts, Rocky Mountains, southwest and some of the European conferences become increasingly more progressive, the South and non-European overseas conferences are decidedly not. Especially in sub-Saharan Africa, the issue of homosexuality is a non-starter. It's just culturally taboo. Thus as the two polarized factions are becoming increasingly hostile and less interested in dealing with one another, the reality of schism becomes increasingly real.

The coming division in the UMC will be about homosexuality. Nothing else. I mean there are people out there who will tell you that it's about scriptural authority or size of the bureaucracy, but that's not what is really at stake here.

On the one side you have literalists who take key portions (but not all) of scripture literally. There's not much more to say about this. Some of the literalist arguments are more sophisticated than others. The writings of scholars like Dr. Ben Witherington III and Dr. Bruce Arnold are much better than many of the arguments I've seen, for example, on various Facebook pages of clergy and lay-people. But the various positions always originate out of the literalness of scripture.

On the other side you have people who have seen movement in Christian circles on issues like slavery, race relations, the role of women, the origin of governmental authority, and numerous scientific issues (nobody, for example, is arguing that the earth is still flat.... not anybody worth listening to anyhow) who realize that while the church's understanding of scripture has changed, scripture hasn't. Hence, they're diving into the hermeneutics (history and goings on during the time the scripture was written) and the various literary studies academics use to look inside of what is being said in the Bible, to understand why it's being said in this particular way, at the particular time in history it is written.

In any event, if you live on the coasts and the south, the coming split isn't going to change very much. If you are a progressive pastor serving on the coasts, you're probably already serving a progressive congregation. Same goes in the south for conservative pastors who are most likely serving conservative congregations. When the denomination becomes two denominations it'll be (for the most part) business as usual and probably a feeling of "good riddance" as people who disagree don't have to be yoked together any longer.

But here in the good 'ol Midwest, the situation is more complicated. I'd gather that my conference - West Ohio - is probably the most polarized as any that exist on these issues (hence Ohio always being an "up for grabs swing state" in political elections). Churches in the bigger cities tend more toward progressive theology. Churches in the smaller hamlets tend toward conservative.

And so it goes, for the first time ever, that I wonder about the church I'll be serving when the schism comes and if we'll make the same choice of the two denominations which will exist. 

I know where I live. We moved to this town when I was 10. The community has a long history of conservatism, and not always the good kind which protects personal liberty and freedom. In our past, the Catholic Churches formed CYO sports leagues because their children weren't permitted to play in the ones sponsored by the YMCA and public schools. The Bradfield Center was opened because black kids weren't allowed at the YMCA. All of that has changed of course, but historically we're not real open to change here, so it comes pretty slow. The only truly liberal congregation in the entire county is a church located in a college town, on that college's campus. The rest of us are just either in the "middle", or most likely, somewhere on the "right. People here tend toward keeping things as they are.

As I keep reading authors like Brian Zahnd, Tony Campolo, Rachel Held Evans, Steve Chalk, Jim Wallis, Shane Claiborne, NT Wright, Brian McLaren Alan Hirsch, Michael Frost, and Phyllis Tickle, and listen to the sermons of UM pastors like Andy Hamilton and Rudy Rasmus, I know I am continuing to drift in directions that many people in this part of Ohio aren't interested in going.

That being said, certainly after being here so long this congregation has become very supportive of us and we love each other. And it's not like my tenure here hasn't been tested. People have left, loudly, on a couple of different occasions over displeasure with either what they saw was a denomination leaning too far to the left, or their pastor doing the same. It certainly would have been easier to have been a conservative evangelical in this part of the world, and definitely an easier ticket toward building and funding a ministry. But somehow, at least up to now, we've accepted one another. We see eye to eye on issues of racial reconciliation, poverty, peace with justice, hunger, education, and most importantly, on the centrality of love and grace in the message of Jesus' gospel.

But if the church were forced to choose between a denomination that was openly welcoming of all people wherever they were at in their lives, and one that professed that standing strong on certain issues of sin was a greater witness of God's love than blanket acceptance of everybody..... well, I'm just not sure how that discussion would go. And this lends myself to wonder if the church went one way, and I went another, what would that mean? Would I have to relocate? Would I be commissioned to start a new congregation in this area? Would there be a possibility of a "cross-denominational" appointment and we'd just stay here?

None of these questions have I ever entertained before, but "schism" always seemed like one of those things we'd talk about late night over ice cream at Annual Conference, then the 2012 General Conference happened (the one where nothing got done because everybody was too polarized),

then pastors and bishops starting openly defying the Discipline on Covenant Service and Same-Gender Marriage,

then Frank Schaffer got the boot for officiating the marriage service of his own son (kind of watershed moment for me, personally),

then some bishops started actively ignoring those who violate the Discipline as acts of civil disobedience over what they perceive to be injustice much to the anger of other bishops, pastors, and laypeople,

then both the conservative churches and progressive churches throughout the connection are holding "secret meetings" about potentially leaving the denomination

and so, in this appointment season I'm becoming concerned about what is coming, and how that might effect this church, our family, and the relationship we have meted out together.

I'm still here. I didn't go seeking another church. The PPRC didn't go looking for someone to replace me. But in the coming years I do expect to see pastors seek appointments with what they deem to be "like-minded" congregations. And for those of us in places where there is mutual love and acceptance, and yet still disagreement, harder questions are going to have to be asked, and harder choices are going to have to be made.

Strange days these are. Strange days, indeed.