Untied Methodist (John 11:44)

A working preacher in Washington, D.C., wrestles with Scripture, the (sigh) United Methodist Church and his soul.

Location: Washington, D.C., United States

Currently the pastor of Foundry UMC in Washington, DC, a wonderful and blessed reconciling congregation. Formerly a United Methodist communicator and editor. Formerly a campus minister. Formerly pastor in Philadelphia for 24 years. Graduate of Albright College and Boston University of Theology. Husband of Jane Malone and father of David, Nancy and Naomi. Resident of Capitol Hill, a wonderful place to live! Articles published in Zion's Herald, a must-read magazine for Methodists, a variety of United Methodist publications, the Christian Century, newspapers.



Several years ago Jane and I were in Zimbabwe to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the United Methodist Church there. About 10,000 people gathered nightly under a massive tent at Old Mutare Mission, the birthplace of Methodism in Zimbabwe. Some had walked for days to get there.

One evening retired Bishop Abel T. Muzorewa preached. Even though he spoke in Shona and I couldn't understand a word, I could tell it was a powerful sermon because, well, you just know when it is. At the end of his sermon, Bishop Muzorewa extended an invitation to full-time Christian service. Dozens of people responded.

After a time of prayer at the front of the tent, those who had responded to the invitation were led away to one of the buildings on the mission grounds. As we made our way to the van to return to our hotel for the night, I heard praying in loud voices, weeping, and moaning coming from the building. I asked one of the Zimbabwean pastors what was happening. He told me that those who had responded to the invitation would fast and pray throughout the night and into the next day to ascertain the depth of their commitment to ministry before they were accepted into the ministerial candidacy program.

Of course, he said, no one would enter ministry without praying, fasting, and watching through the night to make sure his or her commitment was total. The Zimbabwean pastor said this as though to reassure me that United Methodists in Zimbabwe took ministry as seriously as surely we did back in the United States.

When we arrived back on the grounds of Old Mutare Mission the next morning, those who had responded to Bishop Muzorewa's invitation were still together, still praying.

Contrast that with this: Several years ago, when I was a member of another conference, I got restless one afternoon during annual conference sessions. I decided to take a walk and was wandering around the college campus where the conference was held.

I happened upon the building where child care was provided for the children of delegates. I stopped to chat with one of the nursery attendants whom I knew.

She told me that earlier that day she had heard one of the children say to another child: "My daddy is being ordained tomorrow. Then we'll be set for life!"

"Set ... for ... life!" the child sang joyously.

The attendant commented that the child had surely not come up with this on his own. It was something he had obviously overheard at home.

I have great respect for my colleagues in the United Methodist ministry. This is tough and demanding work we do. It is hard to both care for the members of a congregation and challenge them. It is demanding to be with people through their illnesses, divorces, griefs, and deaths. It is hard to live with the criticism --sometimes warranted, sometimes irrational, it doesn't matter-- we face from people whom we serve with all our hearts. Conflict, which is inevitable, saps our stamina and wearies us. It is no lark to live on the salaries we are paid. It is disheartening to see others promoted to pulpits and positions we might enjoy and to not understand the logic by which these decisions are made. It can feel as though our bishops and superintendents make demands of us but provide little support to help us. Are we expected to make bricks without straw?

It is especially hard to be in ministry in our denomination because we have been in numerical decline for 30 or more years. Many pastors my age and younger have never served a growing church. As a friend who is a church consultant reminded me recently, many United Methodist pastors who went into the ministry after 1970 have never had the experience of feeling like a part of something successful. Never.

United Methodists in general, laity as well as clergy, my friend added, have not felt a part of a dynamic, thriving movement for the past three decades. No wonder, he said, so many Methodists are cranky and so many congregations demonstrate so much negativity.

Most of us went into ministry for lofty and idealistic reasons. There are exceptions. In my day some of my fellow seminary students may have been there to avoid the draft. Most of these left ministry long ago. There may be a few who are attracted by the low expectations and security our system seems to offer. These, however, are exceptions. We go into ministry because we want to serve God and to be part of making a difference for time and eternity.

In college I was a political science major contemplating law school. In large part I went into ministry because I thought the church, and the biblical ground on which it is built, offered a foundation to stand outside of and over against an unjust and violent world. I figured that unless we find our self-understanding and identity elsewhere, it is impossible to keep from buying into the basic assumptions of the society of which we are part. I saw the church as the solid ground upon which we could set our fulcrum so that we could move the world.

When is the last time I thought about this? When is the last time I reminded myself why I went into ministry in the first place? When is the last time I had a meaningful conversation with somebody else about why I do what I do?

It is easy to get caught up in problem solving, getting all of those visits and phone calls done, pacifying unhappy members, filling all of those offices, raising money for the budget, teaching another class, attending another conference meeting, and forget why we are here in the first place.

In Zimbabwe I didn't want to get into the van and go back to the hotel. I wanted to spend the night praying, fasting, weeping, and moaning with those who had responded to Bishop Muzorewa's invitation to full-time Christian service. I wanted to feel as committed to ministry again as I had when I first began this journey. I wanted to feel as if I belonged to a community of commitment with those others who had answered an invitation to leave all else behind and to give themselves to full-time service.

Clergy in my conference do not do much to help each other remember and wrestle with the meaning of our ministries. Historically we meet on the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday to hear a sermon, to share our struggles very briefly in small groups, and to recommit ourselves to ministry. This is helpful but not very profound.

I think that we should pick a year within United Methodism and devote it to a renewal of our commitment to ministry. Clergy should spend a year meeting, sharing, praying and studying together to remember our decisions to devote ourselves to ministry in the first place and to discern our commitments anew.

We should plan for this and prepare our congregations so that our people understand that this is going to be a year when we will focus more on discernment and renewal than on the business of the church. Pastors should be released from most church business meetings. How could it be possible that our laity could not have learned by now how to do trustee and finance meetings without us looking over their shoulders?

Laity should be prepared and trained to assist with pastoral care. Pastors should be released from pulpit responsibilities four additional Sundays that year, and we should spend them meeting and praying together. Let gifted laity fill the pulpits those Sundays.

Understand, I don't want to renew my commitment to ministry just in some small cluster group. I want to do it with dozens, hundreds, and thousands of others -- all of us at the same time remembering what moved us to decide for ministry and recommitting ourselves.

Maybe some of us will decide we are no longer committed to ministry. Fine. Let's arrange for severance packages and retooling for those who opt out. It would be the best money we every spend.

At the end of the year all 54,000 of us who are clergy should gather at one place and pray, sing, and share together. We should have a giant service of recommitment. If we need to, we could pass two-year budgets at our annual conferences the year before and cancel annual conference sessions that year to pay for this global gathering of the ordained. We could pray, fast and watch through the night, asking God for a fresh blessing of our ministries.

I suppose something like this is too much to hope for.


Blogger jay v. said...


I'm in.

7:15 AM  
Blogger John said...

Great post! Yes -- success for our church starts with humbling ourself before God; not making our numbers the priority or ambition, but just being before God.

It is so very hard.

10:57 AM  

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