I’m sitting on an airplane to NYC to begin my Sabbatical, which will include much thinking and writing about the nature of a healthy church culture.
I am both pastor and gardener. The first by occupation, the second by avocation. I love both venues. I also often say that there is no place like the church, and the garden, to break my heart.
In the garden, weather, insects, weeds and pestilence often combine to destroy hours, weeks, months of hard work. In the church, we break hearts routinely by our breaking of covenant with God and with each other.
Covenant is so different from contract. Less legally binding and far, far more morally binding, we who operate in covenant connection intentionally make ourselves vulnerable enough to be hurt.
God, who has offered full access into that Holy Heart, must also experience great grief by those who said we wanted to participate in kingdom of heaveNn living in communion with God and then choose to break that promise. Basic rule: passionate, pure and powerful love of God and of others, in just the same way we love ourselves.
Because that is the underlying rule, expectations of behavior in this God-breathed place are surely different than in the places ruled by contract. The practice of loving God and others must be learned slowly, much as an artist or musician learns their skills. First, we master the basics, and then once those basics are thoroughly integrated, glorious creativity has room to flourish.
Corporations, run by contracts, have reason to run lean and mean. Profit is the bottom line, and profit does not lend itself to love of God and others being the first rule of behavior. But the church should not be lean and mean, it should be deep and wide, where it reflects compassion, kindness, sacrificial love, nurture to growth, and holds itself together by the divine and human acts of forgiveness and reconciliation.
When the church takes its playing rules from the corporation, and makes “lean and mean” the primary structuring rule, it has lost both the heart of God and moral authority.
I chose The United Methodist Church because I found both its theology and its practice deep and wide. People of all stripes were welcome and the theological tent spread over a huge spectrum of Christian thought and scholarship. I also chose it because it is E, giving both clergy and churches a larger structure in which to operate and thrive. Having spent much of my life in the stand-alone church, I know too well the weaknesses of that system, the tendency to cultism, and the awful church splits that take place routinely because there is no larger system to help with crises and clergy issues.
This is the best system around. Period.
Yes, it has problems. Yes, we do have a bloated and inefficient bureaucracy. Yes, it is slow and sloggy to make changes. Yes, we’re losing members and very much need renewal from within. Yes, we are aging and MUST listen to the voices of the young and passionate to find again the strong prophetic call to righteousness and sacrifice that have been lost while we skated on the history of an easier past.
Yes, the system needs work, cleaning up, clearing out and renewal of vision, voice and structure.
Renewals always lead to the breaking of old structures and no longer useful strictures. It must. The old wineskins have burst now. They will no longer suffice.
The clergy have been and are going to take the hits here. That is OK. We were called to this profession because we did want to follow Jesus with our entire beings. And Jesus did land at the cross. We have no right to ask for a nicer fate. Others might, we can’t.
But the creation of what is now a class of clergy elite (Bishops and their hand-selected “yes-men/women” cabinets and favored big church pastors) and the demonization of the rest of the clergy (they can’t possibly be effective since they don’t have growing churches which keep raising their apportionment giving) is seriously non-biblical and almost a full buy-in of corporation ethics. Those ethics have no place in a God-breathed, kingdom of heaven-based, organization.
I continue to weep with sadness, but I will also continue to serve with sacrifice God, who has loved me first and receives my love in response to that. Does that mean I will stay as clergy with a “missional” appointment? Only time, and the whims of the Bishop will tell. Goodness knows I’ve been outspoken enough to cause myself some problems in a system where I am on the outside of the power circles.
Am I an effective clergy person? Yes, and I even have the metrics to support that statement. But I am not effective because I have the metrics. I am effective because I chose to live from my call, being fully employed to the work of the Lord, preaching, teaching, mentoring, nurturing, leading, offering the Sacraments with grace and gratefulness, and doing all to the glory of God.