Another Way Forward or: Why Ordination Is Incompatible With Christian Teaching

I was kneeling before the entire Annual Conference when the Bishop placed his hands on my head and ordained me in full connection. The moment was overwhelming – the culmination of 15 years aimed toward one particular goal. And when the stole was placed around my shoulders I felt the full weight of the responsibility.

I’ve known no life outside the United Methodist Church. I was baptized in a UMC when I was 19 days old, and spent nearly every Sunday of my life in that particular sanctuary. I was confirmed in that church, played drums for a worship service in that church, felt my call to ministry in that church, and even preached my first sermon in that church. Later I was married in that church and had my son baptized a few feet away from where I had been baptized in that church. 

When I first felt called I felt specifically called to serve the United Methodist Church. Partly because it was the only church I really knew, but also because I was entirely persuaded by our theological conviction of prevenient grace. The God I discovered in worship and in scripture and in community was absolutely the God who offers grace freely to all without any work on our part. I was so moved as a young person by the totality of grace preached in my local church and  that God works through Christ regardless of our morality, or our beliefs, or even our doubts.

It was more refreshing than I can describe particularly when I used to talk with friends at other churches in which everything was whittled down to whether they were doing enough for their faith.

And then when I was 15 years old, I felt pulled to my knees in prayer one night, and when I stood up I knew that I could do nothing else with my life but serve the UMC. I immediately told the pastors at my church and they handed me a snap shot of what the next decade of my life would look like: A Bachelors degree in religion, a Masters degree in divinity, and then at least three years of provisional membership before I could be ordained in full connection. So I finished high school, went to college, went to seminary, got approved by the Board of Ordained Ministry, started serving my first church, and then was fully ordained. 

I am grateful for the journey, as so many of my clergy peers intoned as their mantra during the journey of ordination. And yet, I believe that a lot of the problems facing the UMC today are in large part due to the ways we ordain individuals for ministry.

During the recent Special General Conference I was able to sit down with Bishop Will Willimon and he put it this way: 

“The real trouble started when the General Conference started requiring Mdivs for Elders. It was around 1958. It’s been downhill ever since. As someone who produces Mdivs for a living now, this is a difficult thing. We started adding all these requirements for ministry, and ask any UMC what they’re looking for in a clergy person and, first of all they never mention anything about coitus, and secondly they don’t really care where or whether someone went to seminary.”

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Our ordination process (and it is a process) has become a bloated and institutional mess. It puts so much emphasis (and power) on the institution itself to make pastors rather than the local church.

When I told my pastors that I felt called their first response was, “Would you like to preach in six weeks?” They made sure I had every opportunity to discover what ordained ministry really looked like, they continuously checked in with me while I was in college and seminary, and my home church was constantly praying for me.

I now know that I was an exception to the rule.

In most churches, if someone expresses a call to ministry, they are given a book about ministry/calling and soon they are paired with a clergy mentor (from another church) and begin working with the District Committee on Ordained Ministry. And, of course, the local church still has to recommend the individual to continue on the journey, but ultimately the individual is handed on to another group of people who now become responsible for the calling of the individual. 

I fully recognize the complicated nature of discerning a call, and the community’s responsibility for helping identify the call. Additionally, I completely agree with the work of discovering whether someone is theologically prepared for the difficult task of serving a local church. But passing someone along to another group (or to a school or seminary) continues to perpetuate the condition that we currently find ourselves in.

It denies the fundamental role of the local church and instead places even more emphasis on the structure instead of the Spirit.

I could elaborate on how the professionalization of clergy (and the requirement of a Masters degree) has stratified the ordained from the laity, and how the resentment between those two groups has grown and grown and grown. But I can’t argue against theological education – pastors do need to be theological informed, they need to have their thoughts, ideas, and convictions sharpened in order to serve the local church.

My bigger concern is not theological education itself, but the theology in which clergy are being educated. 

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At the real heart of the matter is the way in which the structures of the church whittle candidates for ministry down to a mosaic of arbitrary conditions.

Today, those who go before the board of ordained ministry have to demonstrate that they are prepared for ministry (at the beginning) or they are effective in ministry (after the provisional process). These are important frameworks for the work of ministry, but they also include interludes into whether or not individuals maintain certain moralities that largely deny the point of needing Jesus’ grace.

Which, to be clear, might be the most important theological claim we have to make at all.

And, for what its worth, this is no new thing. My CPE supervisor once told me that when he was attempting to get ordained (decades ago) he had to record himself preaching a sermon on a tape cassette, but was unable to do so in an actual church service so he recorded it while pacing back and forth in his basement. However, he grew anxious during the recording so he started smoking a cigarette to calm his nerves. He sent the tape off to the conference and their only reply was that they could hear him smoking while preaching, and he would need to quit if he wanted to be approved for ordination. 

No comments about the substance of his sermon.

No questions about any of his theological claims.

Just a moral absolute about pastors not being able to smoke.

Fast forward to today and the Special General Conference just approved a new measure that would allow (and in fact require) boards of ordained ministry to look through an individual’s social media accounts to discern whether or not the person is part of the LGBTQIA community. (To be clear, the Judicial Council has yet to rule whether or not this will be constitutionally viable)

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We are now in a place where the process for ordination is far more focused on the model in which it takes place, and our flawed mission statement, than on the work of Jesus. Ordination, and the ways we preclude someone from it, denies the central proclamation of Word which is at the core of who we are supposed to be. 

I have met far too many people who were held back from ordained ministry for things like their obesity, or their divorce, or their timidity, which fundamentally ignores the God who calls people regardless of their circumstances. 

In light of GC2019, I appreciate Will Willimon’s comment that “God is going to continue calling gay people to ordained ministry whether we like it or not.”

In the UMC we are obsessed with making more disciples (as an end) and it has made it necessary to have clergy who resemble Jesus, rather than having clergy who can proclaim the passion with passion because they understand the truth of grace. All of our talk of perfection (for our sakes) prevents us from admitting that no one is good but God alone. 

Or, as Robert Farrar Capon so eloquently wrote: 

“Alas, in the present panic over faddish clerical derelictions, the church can’t see [grace] for beans. Bad enough that its preachers think their sins make them unfit to preach forgiveness. Worse yet by far that the church itself chases offending preachers unceremoniously (and with precious little due process) off the farm… If a sinner can’t proclaim forgiveness, who’s left to preach? Who, for that matter, could preach better, or with more passion? Of all the deaths that are available to us before we’re stone-cold dead, our death in sin is the most embarrassingly convincing share in the Passion most of us will ever have. The church is not in the world to teach sinners how to straighten up and fly right. That’s the world’s business; and on the whole it does a fairly competent – even a gleefully aggressive – job of it. The church is supposed to be in the forgiveness business. Its job in filling pulpits is to find derelict nobodies who are willing to admit  that they’re sinners and mean it. It’s supposed to take sheep who can be nothing but lost – children who can accept their failure as children, crooked tax collectors who can stare at their shoes and say they’re worthless human beings – and stand them up to proclaim that lostness, deadness, uselessness, and nothingness are God’s cup of tea.” (The Foolishness of Preaching)

Our current ordination process is incompatible with Christian teaching because it expects clergy to be the Jesus in their congregations rather than being the sinners in need of grace who can preach the passion with passion.

Here’s another way forward in light of GC2019 – 

Change the ordination process in the United Methodist Church. Place more power on the local church to not only equip individuals for ministry, but also to empower them to express their call in theologically substantive ways. 

Or, at the very least, stop using subjective moral claims as a way to preclude individuals from serving God as an ordained pastor. If the earliest disciples are any indication (Peter perjured and Paul murdered), immorality should be an expectation for ministry, not something that bars someone from it. 

Such a revision or our ordination process would retain the Spirit-driven and prevenient grace-filled faith that is part of our Wesleyan heritage and it would stop expecting pastors to stand on pedestals that always crumble.

The giant wheel of the UMC spins and spins because we have a process not unlike a factory model in which we expect that if we a bunch of different people in through the beginning, they will all come out the same on the other end. 

I suggest we consider the opposite – we take all these people who feel called to ministry and demonstrate to them that God will use their greatest weaknesses and all of their brokenness to express the kind of reckless grace that’s at the heart of the Gospel. We give people the freedom to see and believe that God calls whomever God wants regardless of our subjectivity. And that to deny someone the call that God has placed on their life because of whatever we might deem as incompatible only goes to show that the process has become incompatible with Christian teaching. 

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A New Way Forward or: Why Our Mission Is Incompatible With Christian Teaching

“The mission of the Church is to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”

It’s a sentence that every UMC pastor, and most lay people, should be able to quote from memory. Found in paragraph 120 of the Book of Discipline, the mission of the church is defined by making disciples and transforming the world.

Which, ostensibly, makes sense because disciple making is one of the last charges Jesus leaves with the disciples (Matthew 28). But making disciples, and more importantly world transformation, have hindered the United Methodist Church from its primary mission; namely, being itself – the body of Christ.

Today, disciple making gets confused with the metrics of worship attendance, professions of faith, and even financial giving. It has resulted in the nearly universal push to get more people sitting in the pews on Sunday mornings while neglecting to interact and connect with the people already in the pews on Sunday mornings. This profound focus is part of our obsessions with a 1950’s General Electric model of denominationalism that cares far more about numbers than it does about faith.

And then we get this bit about transforming the world. Is that really our mission or Jesus’ mission? Does the church exist to change the people and the community around us? Are we supposed to be making the world a better place?

The church is (supposed to be) defined by the sacraments of communion and baptism in order to be a community of peace. The church, therefore, is called not to make the world a better place, but to be the better place God has already made in the world. 

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Today we are deeply steeped in a world filled with the allure of large institutions and we believe that so long as we structure the church like other organizations of growth that we will necessarily grow and grow. We look to the mighty and the powerful so that we can learn how to change the world around us. But what makes the church the church? Jesus. God is made manifest in the world not through the powerful, not through the expectations of the mighty, but through a baby born in a manger, through tax collectors and fishermen, through a poor rabbi murdered by the powerful!

The church is already the better place God has made in the world.

But it’s hard for us to believe that.

It’s hard for us to believe that the church is already the better place because many of us worship other institutions or ideas or even ethical and moral claims the way we once worshipped the Lord. The many ways in which people reacted to the votes at the recent Special General Conference of the UMC (and in particular that some of the highest priority items to be discussed were pensions and disaffiliation plans) goes to show how we have traded in the Lordship of Christ for the institution of the church. Similarly, we follow this never-ending reactive news-cycle of what’s happening to the church to such a degree that we are are more concerned with reading articles about LGBTQIA people instead of meeting them where they are and learning about their faith. 

And worst, we read and repost articles about what can save the church as if those things/organizations are going to bring us the salvation we claim, through the Creed, that Jesus has already brought!

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We have been playing this game of world transformation since the time of Constantine and we are now at a point where we can almost no longer differentiate between the institution and God. Or, at the very least, we assume that if the church is not involved in the work of making the world a better place, then it’s not worth our time and attention.

In scripture, Jesus calls this behavior idolatry.

In the last few weeks there’s been a fair amount of anxiety among the pastors I serve with and within the church I serve. Many are unsure about what the future holds for the UMC. There’s rumor of schism, though many are afraid of what that will do to our pension system and our international mission work. 

I appreciate those concerns. I am currently contributing to my own pension and have been on mission trips all over the world. But for all of the talk of world transformation, we neglect the second sentence of our mission: “Local churches and extension ministries of the Church provide the most significant arenas through which disciple-making occurs.” 

It’s right there for anyone to read in paragraph 120 of the Book of Discipline, and yet what about the state of the UMC today would lead anyone to believe we believe the local church is the primary expression of Methodism? 

Ask people outside the UMC what the UMC is or looks like, and if you hear anything at all you’ll likely hear something about the recent Special General Conference, or a Cross and Flames, or itinerancy. But if those are the primary expressions of our faith, then what kind of faith is that?

One of the problems with our current mission statement is that it’s transactional – it presumes a sort of Constantinian desire to change the world with a measurable system of growth that leaves little room for the gospel. I don’t want the church I serve to be responsible for fixing all of the problems in the world, not just because I know that it can’t but also because it’s not our responsibility. There are a great number of organizations out there that can make the world better, whatever that means, but the church isn’t here to fix the world. 

It is already the better place God has made in the world.

Here’s another way forward in light of GC2019 – 

Rewrite the mission statement of the United Methodist Church, or better yet, get rid of it altogether. 

Such a revision, or omission, would retain the kind of Spirit-driven and incarnational faith that it’s part of our Wesleyan Heritage, but it will also remove the exhausting expectation that “it’s all up to us.”

We, the Church, have drugged ourselves into believing that proper behavior, and world-transformation, and lots of ethical and moral claims in something like a denominational institution, are the keys to our relationship with God. But faith isn’t about what we do – instead it is about what God did for us precisely because we could not do it for ourselves.

Today, we are addicted to a version of the church that is either ABG (always be growing) or ABT (always be transforming) or both. 

We have expectations set in place about church growth that persuade churches to abandon the gospel in order to attract as many people as possible.

We have over-programed our churches because we feel ultimately responsible for making the world a better place which has led to burnout among faithful lay people and clergy. 

Here on the other side of GC2019, our mission statement is growing more and more incompatible with Christian teaching. To have one at all is to admit how drunk we are with power and a vision of the church that looks more like Sears than it does the community of faith. 

A Return To The Case Against “Ashes To Go”

Last year I tried to make the case against the liturgical practice of “ashes to go.” 

It received a lot of backlash.

And I get it. 

But I still stand by the claim that Ash Wednesday is something that the community of faith does together. And I think the UMC, in particular, really needs to observe it this year. 

As the popularity of something like Ashes To Go continues to rise, we lose a connection with the communal liturgical practice that sets the stage for the season of Lent.

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In case you are unaware of the true phenomenon Ashes To Go has become, this is what it typically looks like: On Ash Wednesday, a pastor (or pastors) will gather in the parking lot of his/her respective local church, and a drive thru line will allow people to wait their turn for a ten second interaction where ashes are hastily smeared on a forehead while the traditional words are uttered, “You are dust and to dust you shall return.” 

Or a group of clergy will gather in a public space (like a park or fast food restaurant or a coffee shop) with a simple sign encouraging people to stop in for their “Ashes to Go.” Lines will development during peak hours, people will hear the right words, and they will leave with a reminder of their mortality on their foreheads. 

Now, I recognize that the current pace of our culture makes participating in an actual Ash Wednesday service challenging. I understand the difficulties of a frenetic existence where we are habitually running from one thing to the next. Moreover, I know people for whom the “Ashes to Go” is a sign of the church’s willingness to catch up with the times and start digging itself out of its ditch of irrelevancy. But offering ashes devoid of a liturgy in which the practice is made intelligible, is the equivalent of clanging cymbal without love (to steal an expression of Paul’s).

To those who love “Ashes to Go”: I mean no offense. I only want to call into question the faithfulness and the efficacy of doing so. I have heard about the beauty of meeting people where they are, and the reclaiming of evangelism that happens with “Ashes to Go” but I wonder if there are better occasions to share the gospel without watering down the holiness of Ash Wednesday to fit into other peoples’ schedules.

Two years ago, my friends and I had the privilege of interviewing Fleming Rutledge about Ash Wednesday and she had thoughts on the subject of “Ashes to Go” as well. This is what she said: 

 “It’s pathetic. I know people who do it (people I admire), but people don’t know why they’re doing it. There’s no message involved. Christianity is not just about forgiveness. Forgiveness is not enough; there has to be rectification of evil… When I grew up nobody had ashes, only the Roman Catholics did it, and we all thought it was superstitious. I personally don’t like the ashes very much unless it is done within the context of an entire worship service with a full and faithful homily. Remember: the gospel says wash your face. It’s really weird to listen to that passage on Ash Wednesday and then leave with a cross on your forehead after Jesus just told everyone to wash up.”

I agree with Fleming insofar as without taking place within a full liturgy, ashes merely become another idol, another popular display of religious affection, and it fails to embody what the occasion is all about. Ash Wednesday is not supposed to be easy or convenient; that’s kind of the whole point. It is a disruption of our way of being, a reminder of our finitude in a world trying to convince us that we can live forever, and because the practice is not self-interpreting, it requires the context of a liturgy in which we can begin to understand what we are doing and why we are doing it.

And I use the term “we” purposely. I use “we” because Ash Wednesday is not about individual introspection and reflection. It is a practice of the community we call church. 

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This year, the United Methodist Church (the one I serve) is in the midst of an identity crisis. In the wake of a Special General Conference that resulted in doubling down on the so-called “incompatibility” of homosexuality with Christian teaching, countless members are threatening to leave or withhold their giving, while others are celebrating the exclusion of LGBTQIA individuals from ordination and the ability to be married in a United Methodist Church. I think there is no better time for the church, together, to be disrupted out of its status quo such that it can ask itself: “How did we get here?” 

We can be marked with the ashes on our forehead and realize that we are all incompatible with Christian teaching – thats basically the message of Lent in a sentence.

This Ash Wednesday can then become a marvelous and miraculous opportunity to discover a new way forward for God’s church. 

Outside the fracturing and infighting within the UMC we also live in a world that bombards us with the temptation to believe we can make it our of this life alive, the world is also trying to convince us that we don’t need anyone else to make it through this life at all. According to the world, the individual triumphs. But according to the church, no one can triumph without a community that speaks the truth in love.

Therefore, for me, “Ashes to Go” completely loses its connection with Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent because it just becomes another individualized consumer driven model of the church rather than being the incarnational and rooted practice of joining together to remember who we are and whose we are. 

Terms And Conditions May Apply

Luke 9.28-36

Now about eight days after these sayings Jesus took with him Peter and John and James, and went up on the mountain to pray. And while he was praying, the appearance of his face changed, and his clothes became dazzling white. Suddenly they saw two men, Moses and Elijah, talking to him. They appeared in glory and were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem. Now Peter and his companions were weighed down with sleep; but since they had stayed awake, they saw his glory and the two men who stood with him. Just as they were leaving him, Peter said to Jesus, “Master, it is good for us to be here; let us make three dwellings, one for you, one for Moses, and one for Elijah” — not know what he said. While he was saying this, a cloud came and overshadowed them; and they were terrified as they entered the cloud. Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And they kept silent and in those days told no one any of the things they had seen. 

I think honesty is a pretty good thing to strive for in the church.

While we are steeped in a world of deception, when we never quite know who or what to trust, surely in the church we could do for some transparency.

So I’ll start with this: It’s been a long and difficult week.

I traveled to St. Louis with two of my closest friends, who happen to be clergy in the UMC, and with whom I host and produce a number of podcasts. 

We weren’t really sure what to expect. We sat high above the arena in the press section and were witnesses to every moment of the conference. We tried to write about what we saw and what we felt, and we also reached out to people of all sides of LGBTQIA inclusion or exclusion debate so that we could share, as well as we could, what was going on and what was at stake.

We put out a conversation we had with a pastor who was fired without trial for presiding over a same-sex union. We talked with a man who leads a conservative lobbying group who was strongly advocating for the Traditional Plan. We interviewed a retired bishop about his experiences throughout his career and how they led to a moment like this one. We spoke with a gay pastor and his partner. And we reached out to a lot of people who simply said they didn’t want to talk.

And all the while we waited. We watched the legislative angling in which people from every side of the spectrum argued for their vision to become reality. We watched as protestors stood up to sing hymns in order to drown out people from an opposing view-point. We watched as bishops struggled to keep the room in order as different proposals were brought to the floor.

And then on Tuesday afternoon, after all the fighting and debating, THE vote came before the delegates of the general conference. They were simply running out of time and needed to get everything settled. 

Incidentally, we were on a time crunch to leave the arena promptly because they needed to dumps tons of dirt on the floor in preparation for the Monster Truck Rally that was scheduled for the evening.

It took exactly 60 seconds for all of the delegates to cast their votes through their electronic devices. And for 60 seconds most of the people in the room were wondering the same things:

Would the global United Methodist Church adopt the Traditional Plan that continues to ban LGBTQIA persons from ordained ministry? Would the church double down on punishments for clergy who preside over same sex weddings? Would the language of incompatibility be reinforced and therefore resonate strongly across the globe?

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God does a lot of ungodly things in the Bible, and in particular through the person of Jesus. 

We could expect that God in the flesh would sit tight in a particular region, waiting for the people to gather, but Jesus goes walking all over the place. 

We might expect that God would share a clear and cogent vision for what it means to live a faithful life, but Jesus tells these strange and bizarre parables that leave people scratching their heads. 

We might imagine that God would command people to tell everyone about the Messiah being in their midst, but Jesus usually order people to keep their mouths shut.

So it comes to pass that Jesus calls Peter, John, and James to go up onto the mountain to pray. And while Jesus was praying, his face changed, his clothes became dazzling white, and suddenly two men were standing next to him, Moses and Elijah.

Peter and the others don’t know what to make of it. Scripture doesn’t even tell us how they knew it was Moses and Elijah. But ever eager Peter makes the bold claim that they should stay up on the mountain even though the two figures were talking with Jesus about his departure in Jerusalem. In many ways, Peter wanted everything to stay the way it was, he wanted to build houses on top of the mountain, perhaps to avoid the reality of what might happen down in the valley.

And in that precise moment of Peter’s rambling, a cloud came and overshadowed them, and they were terrified.

I’ve always loved the story of Jesus’ transfiguration. It stands as a high point, both literally and figuratively, in the gospel stories. Whatever the disciples think they know about Jesus takes on a whole new meaning of power and majesty and might, when two of the greatest figures from Israel’s history are flanking him on his left and right. 

Moreover, in these two particular persons, it’s as if the whole of the Old Testament is conferring with Jesus.

Moses is the Law.

Elijah is the Prophets. 

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It’s a great moment for preaching and teaching because everything changes after this divine declaration – all eyes are now aimed toward Jerusalem. The team has huddled together on the mountaintop and there’s no turning back from the cross.

And then the cloud overshadows all of them, and the disciples were terrified.

I imagine that the waiting in that moment was akin to the breathless waiting in the convention center at General Conference. So much would hang one whatever happened next, and yet in that moment of darkness the mind wanders all over the places and through every possibility.

Throughout the arena there were a number of screens that would display the occasional votes, and after the requisite 60 seconds, the results were made available to everyone with eyes to see.

The Traditional Plan passed.

438 to 384

53% to 47%

What happened next was a strange thing to behold. 

At first the room was truly silent, completely unlike it had been in the previous days. And suddenly a group of delegates began to gather in the very center of the room, they embraced one another as the tears began flowing down their faces, and they started to sing. 

This is my story.

This is my song.

Praising my Savior all the day long…

In their singing and in their weeping, the dreams of a different future for the UMC were brought to a halt.

And then something else began to take place. Other delegates rose from their seats, and they made their own circle off to the side, and they started dancing, and clapping, and celebrating the results.

Never in my life have I been witness to such tremendous suffering and such exalted joy only an arm’s length away from each other.

And we call ourselves the church. 

When the disciples cowered in fear as the cloud overshadowed them, they waited for whatever would come next.

Then from the cloud came a voice that said, “This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!”

When the voice had spoken, Jesus was found alone. And the disciples kept silent in those days and told no one about what they had seen,.

There were a lot of people at the Special General Conference last week. There was plenty of talking and fighting and arguing. There were quite a few moments where the Bible was weaponized to knock down someone else for trying to make a theological argument.

And though we started the whole thing in prayer, and though we had a cross up at the front of the room, there was one person who was conspicuously absent from the proceedings: Jesus.

Sure, I heard a lot about what it says in Leviticus. I heard a lot about Paul. I heard people quote precisely from John Wesley. But Jesus? 

I honestly don’t know where Jesus was while we were trying to figure out the future of his church. 

In fairness to our Lord, it felt like he had better things to do than witness the devolution of an institution whose motto is “Do No Harm.”

It seems like we’ve spent so much time listening to ourselves, that we’ve forgotten what the voice cried out from the cloud on the Mount of Transfiguration.

I don’t know what the future holds for the UMC. I’m not even sure what it means to be a United Methodist right now. Open hearts, open minds, open doors right?

But from the time that Peter quaked in fear on top of the mountain, Christians have always known that what we’ve always been taught and what God is saying today aren’t always exactly the same thing. 

Christians have known since that horrific moment where the crowds chose to save Barabbas instead of Jesus that voting and democratic decision making have plenty of flaws.

Christians have known since that first Easter morning, that resurrection is only possible on the path that includes the cross.

In a few minutes we will gather at the table, as countless Christians have done so before us. We do so as a United Methodist Church, whatever that means, but more importantly we do so as disciples of Jesus. Despite what a Book of Discipline might say, there are no terms and conditions on this moment. Nothing can preclude us from the love of God made manifest in Jesus Christ.

So when we come to the table, when we cling to the cross, listen for the voice crying out from the overshadowing cloud. 

“This is my Son, my Chosen; listen to him!” Amen.

What To Talk About When We No Longer Know What We’re Talking About

I bring you greetings from the final day of the Special General Conference in St. Louis on the subject of human sexuality. I know that many in the church are anxious to find out what’s been happening here and, more importantly, what all this means for the United Methodist church. I have seen articles about the conference in a variety of places from local new papers to the New York Times and I wanted to share where we are as of right now.

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I’ve been fortunate to meet with an interview a lot of people in St. Louis including a retired Bishop, a gay pastor and his partner, a lobbyist involved with the Traditional Plan, and more. You can find those interviews and articles at www.crackersandgrapejuice.com 

There are a lot of perspectives and a lot of things going around, but perhaps the best synopsis came from Bishop Will Willimon while we were talking together: 

“Maybe one good thing that will come out of all this is the realization that General Conference can’t do, decide, or help with anything. I have more faith in your congregations that I have in anything going on here.”

The UMC is very clearly divided on the subject of human sexuality, but we are also divided on the ways in which we understand how we are part of a connectional structure. At the heart of the matter is a question of how certain changes can/should be implemented in the US and abroad.

We are not of one mind on anything, and we’ve been here since Saturday.

Today the General Conference is tasked with finishing all of its work by 6:30pm CT (when dirt has to be dumped on the floor in preparation for a Monster Truck Rally that is happening later; I’m not joking.)

After revisions and debates and arguments (and a few prayers) the Traditional Plan (which maintains the status quo and defines swifter punishments for violations) will be brought to the floor today for a binding vote. The One Church Plan (which advocates for contextual reflection on whether to be LGBTQIA inclusive or not) will still be brought to the floor, but it only received a minority vote of support yesterday which makes it unlikely to pass. 

Of course, other motions and final bits of politicking can still take place, so as of the writing of this letter, nothing has been officially sanctioned.

There have been some very challenging moments over the last few days and people on all sides of the discussion have been hurt. This is a difficult time for the United Methodist Church and what happens today, for better or worse, will determine the course of the church going forward.

Personally, it has been devastating to see and hear people refer to those from the LGBTQIA community as “issues.” It is akin to the way some doctors view their patients not as patients but as problems to be solved. When we begin talking about our brothers and sisters in Christ, regardless of their sexual orientation, as objects to be fixed, we no longer know what we’re talking about.

It has been a trying experience, and I’ve been struggling to find hope.

I think that most people here would say the same thing regardless of what plan they hope to see adopted.

So I leave you with the hope I’m currently clinging to:

Regardless of the votes and decision, God’s church will still gather for worship on Sunday.

Regardless of the reactions and disagreements, the tomb is still empty.

Regardless of the uncertainty that today holds, we can be certain that God loves us, and there’s nothing we can do about it.

And The Plan Shall Set You Free

I am in St. Louis with the team from the Crackers and Grape Juice Podcast to provide reporting on the UMC’s Special General Conference on Human Sexuality. The denomination has come to an impasse and we are trying to carve a new path forward. And, because we are a global denomination, we are doing so through parliamentary procedures and democratic voting. As it stands currently, the UMC believes the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching, self-avowed practicing homosexuals are prohibited from becoming ordained clergy, and clergy are prohibited from presiding over same-sex unions.

Here are some of the plans being presented:

The Traditional Plan

This plan will maintain the current prohibitions against self-avowed practicing gay clergy and same-gender weddings. It also broadens the definition of “self-avowed practicing homosexual” to include person living in same-sex marriage or civil union or persons who publicly state they are homosexuals. It will mandate penalties for disobedience to the Book of Discipline with a suspension of one year without pay for the first violation and a relinquishing of clergy credentials for the second violation. 

The Simple Plan

This plan will remove the incompatibility clause and eliminates all prohibitions that limit the role of homosexual people in the church. It will allow, but not require, same-gender weddings in churches across the denomination.

The Connectional Conference Plan

This plan will replace the current geographic jurisdictions with three new connectional conferences based on perspectives with regard to sexuality: Progressive, Traditional, and Unity. Every single individual church across the connection will have to decide with which new connection to identify, and clergy will have to do the same. Eventually a great re-shuffling will occur so that like-minded churches will be paired with like-minded clergy. 

The One Church Plan

This plan will remove “incompatible with Christian teaching” from paragraphs in the Book of discipline, and removes prohibitions against same-gender weddings and ordination of self-avowed practicing homosexuals. It also adds protections so that no clergy person, nor bishop, will be forced to preside over a wedding, or ordain someone, if they theologically disagree with the change in the Book of Discipline. Bishops would take into consideration the theological positions of clergy and churches when making new appointments. 

And there are more that will be considered at the General Conference.

Rather than going through all the plans one by one to address their theological strengths and weaknesses, it is worth considering the strange task at hand beyond the actual ideological divide: we think we know how to save ourselves.

Or, perhaps even worse, we think we can save ourselves. 

To borrow a line of thought from Robert Farrar Capon, I think one of the reasons we are struggling to find a way forward together, is that we are addicted to the religion of our own creation. Religion, here, defined as the belief that so long as we follow a certain sets of rules, practices, and doctrines that life will properly, and perfectly, fall into order. Religion, here, is evidenced by the church’s constant and unwavering work of attempting to have control over itself. Religion, here, is seen in the never-ending requirements we assume exist in order to be saved.

Religion, as largely practiced in the UMC, is a denial of one of the greatest verses in the entirety of the Bible (and ironically a phrase from the communion liturgy in the United Methodist Hymnal!): While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)

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Instead we practice and preach a faith that acts as if God in Christ only meets us after our sins, rather than in them. Or, to put it another way, God only arrives for us when we’ve gotten ourselves figured out. Or, still yet another way to put it, God will only bless our church if we make sure we’ve got all the right rules established.

We love making plans. And I think we love making plans because it convinces us that we are somehow in control of our lives (or our church) when the plain and simple truth is that we are not in control. That’s kind of the whole message of the Bible: God is God, and we are not.

The longer the Book of Discipline becomes for the United Methodist Church, the more we draw lines in the sand about what constitutes incompatibility or not, the more we play into the sin that surrounds us all the time. It creates a version of the church where we will have only proclaimed salvation for a select few who are able to kid themselves into believing they can meet a bunch of requirements that simply aren’t there.

Before we attempt to pave a new way forward for the church, I think it would do us some good to admit, at least, the addiction we have to our own religion. 

Because Jesus was frighteningly honest with his opinion of religion (as defined above) during his life. He ate and drank with sinners, broke the rules of sabbath observance, and was murdered under capital punishment for blasphemy. And he had the gall to break forth from the tomb three days later with a declaration that whatever religion had been attempting to do, was now done once and for all in him, in his life and death and resurrection. 

We cannot save ourselves. And, to be perfectly frank, we cannot save our church.

Only God can do that.

Why else would we call it Good News?

Love Tears Us Apart

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The team behind Crackers & Grape Juice made it safely to St. Louis yesterday in order to observe and report on the United Methodist Church’s Special General Conference on the topic of human sexuality. We sat down yesterday afternoon to gather some of our thoughts about the conference including where we are finding hope, and what rumors were popping up before the Conference started in earnest. If you would like to listen to the episode, or subscribe to the podcast, you can do so here: Love Tears Us Apart.

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