Untied Methodist (John 11:44)

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

Name:
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.

7/30/2005

Untied Methodist has moved!!

Dear Friends:

Untied Methodist has moved to a new location. The new address is www.untiedmethodist.com.

I hope the new location will be friendlier to the browsers that have had a hard time reading this blog.

Please notice that there is a new feed for short items in the right hand column. It is called "50wordsorless" . This can also be accessed directly at www.untiedmethodist.com/50wordsorless.

At the "50wordsorless" feed, you will need to click a headline to go to the page if you'd like to leave a comment, which I hope you will want to do when something stimulates or irritates you.

I am leaving this site functional for the foreseeable future, but I do not expect to post to it again. Unfortunately, while I transferred most of the posts from here to the new site, I could not transfer the comments.

I appreciate your company. Please come see us at www.untiedmethodist.com. Let me know what you think.

Dean

7/28/2005

Should pastors have the right to pick and choose members?

Good News has issued a press release taking sides in the case of the Virginia pastor who was placed on involuntary leave of absence as the consequence of his refusal to allow an openly gay man to join his church in spite of his district superintendent's instructions to receive him.

The Rev. James V. Heidinger II, president of Good News, said the involuntary leave voted by the Virginia Conference's executive clergy session "screams with injustice." He calls the Rev. Edward Johnson "a faithful pastor who was seeking to enforce the policies of our Book of Discipline..."

Given my understanding of sexual orientation (see here, here, and here), I obviously strongly disagree with the idea of excluding anyone from church membership because of her or his sexual orientation.

I think our Discipline could not be any clearer about people being welcome into membership regardless of their sexual orientation. Paragraph 4 of the Book of Discipline says, "The United Methodist Church is a part of the church universal, which is one Body in Christ. Therefore all persons shall be eligible to attend its worship services, to participate in its programs, and, when they take the appropriate vows, to be admitted into its membership in any local church in the connection."

Also, in the statement on "Human Sexuality" appearing in "The Nurturing Community," a section of the church's Social Principles, Paragraph 161G, the Discipline says: "We implore families and churches not to reject or condemn their lesbian and gay members and friends. We commit ourselves to be in ministry for and with all persons."

So I disagree with the basic assumption behind the press release issued by Good News. What part of the Discipline does Good News think the pastor was enforcing by denying a gay man membership?

But, independently of this, I am surprised by the position Good News has taken because of what it seems to say about the role of pastors.

As a pastor I have always felt it was my responsibility to make reasonably sure that potential members understand, so far as possible, the church's membership questions. If they then are willing to answer them appropriately, I have not assumed that it is my responsibility to judge the sincerity of their answers. I think this would be presumptuous on my part.

Over the years I have doubted the motivation of one or two people who chose to join a church where I was pastor at the time. Once had to do with an insurance salesperson who I suspected was at least partly motivated by greed. I think he saw the congregation as a prospect list. I spoke earnestly to his membership class about what it means to commit ourselves to Christ through church membership, but I did not deny him membership. Why not? Well, I may have been wrong to define his ambition to sell insurance to church members as being driven by selfish motives. I may be wrong that greed, as I define it, is a sin. Then, too, I am not so self-confident about the single-mindedness of my own motivations that I can presume to judge others on this.

Shane Raynor at Wesley Blog has an interesting reaction to this question of judging someone's qualifications for church membership. He suggests that if we are going to accept anyone who presents himself or herself for membership unconditionally we ought to do away with the concept of membership all together. But, he adds, if we are going to continue having members and ask them to say vows, we should make sure the vows are taken seriously.

Doing away with a category of participants called "members" is an interesting idea. My churches have always included people who were not officially members but who were active in the congregation's worship, programs, and mission. Some of these were folk I considered to be the best of members, even though they officially weren't. There were always others who were officially members but who did not participate in church ministries the way they said they would when they joined. What church does not experience this? So why bother distinguishing between members and non-members?

Although I would not consider it an essential characteristic of the church, I think asking people to commit to participation is helpful, and I think membership is an okay way to articulate our commitment. Some churches are beginning to ask people to sign on as partners rather than members, but I don't think this changes the basis principle of inviting people to make a commitment to the congregation.

According to Shane's thinking, if we ask somebody to make a commitment, then someone needs to judge whether that person's commitment is sincere and serious before we accept him or her into membership or partnership or whatever we want to call it. This is where I disagree. I am not sure any of us are qualified to make this kind of judgment about someone else.

And even if I did agree that we ought to judge people's sincerity and honesty, then I do not think it should be the decision of any one person, not even the pastor (maybe especially not the pastor). If we are going to judge sincerity before we receive members, we need a jury to do it. We all have our own peculiar biases and subjective definitions of things like sin. No one should take on such a task unilaterally.

So then we would need a convoluted structure for membership screening and testing and maybe even complaint procedures and trials to determine whether membership promises are being kept adequately. Yuck.

Jesus' parable of the wheat and the weeds in Matthew 13:24-30 seems instructive. We just aren't smart enough to go pulling up what we think are weeds without risking that we will uproot the good wheat as well.

7/24/2005

Spooky

On the last day (Sunday, July 17) of our time in Liberia, our hostess and guide Frances Porte invited us to attend worship with her. Her congregation, the First United Methodist Church of Robertsports, was meeting jointly with St. Peter's United Methodist Church, a congregation whose building is located a two-hour drive outside Monrovia. The combined service was held at United Methodist University in Monrovia.

The story the Rev. Unisah S. Conteh, the pastor of St. Peter's, told me helped me understand better the dislocation the people of Liberia have experienced. He explained to me that most of St. Peter's members had fled from their homes into Monrovia during the civil war. Their belongings had been looted and their homes damaged. Even though the war had ended in August 2003, almost two years earlier, most of St. Peter's members do not have the resources to repair their homes or to reestablish themselves back in their home community. So they have stayed on in Monrovia, hoping someday to move back home.

Once a month, Rev. Conteh told me, church members rent a bus for L$1,050 (US$21) and drive home to worship in their own church building. The other three Sundays each month they worship in Monrovia wherever they can find space, often in joint services with other congregations.

During the service I sat up front with Rev. Conteh. He asked me to write down my name and the name of my church so he could introduce me to the congregation. I wrote down my name and the name of my church: "Foundry UMC."

He looked at the paper, then he looked at me, then he looked at the paper again. He got up and walked over to where his choir was sitting and borrowed a hymnal from a choir member. It was one of the old Methodist hymnals that had been replaced in most of our U.S. churches 15 years ago when the new United Methodist Hymnal was published. Stamped in gold on the cover of the hymnal was "Foundry Methodist Church."

Foundry's old hymnals had somehow ended up at St. Peter's Church in Liberia. For more than a decade members of St. Peter's had seen the name "Foundry Methodist Church" on the cover of their hymnals but knew absolutely nothing about Foundry except its name and the name of the person listed inside the front cover in whose memory or honor the book had been donated decades ago.

Without knowing about St. Peter's hymnals, Jane slipped out of her seat to sneak up front to show me the hymnal she was using. Stamped on the cover of her hymnal in gold print was "Arch Street Methodist Church," the name of the church in Philadelphia I had last pastored. First Church of Robertsports in Liberia was using the old hymnals from the last church I had pastored.

So here's the thing: Two congregations happen to worship together in a joint service on the Sunday Jane and I happen to be in Liberia and happen to be invited to worship with them. One of the two congregation happens to use old hymnals from the church I currently serve. The other congregation happens to use hymnals from the last church I served.

What are the odds? What can this mean? Is somebody trying to tell me something?