I ended up getting rid of the narrative I had planned to tell about my ordination journey coming to completion, in favor of writing about the piece of the journey in which we find ourselves now. In my mind, the recent events in the United Methodist Church inform more about the final chapter of my ordination journey than what actually happened last year. So, I am sharing what I wrote three weeks ago, about what is currently happening in the UMC:
My hands have been too heavy to lift above the keyboard and write this about the final chapter in my ordination journey. My voice has been too choked up to speak about it. The ink is barely dry on the paper that the North Carolina Conference of the United Methodist Church gave me, saying that I am ordained as an Elder in Full Connection; it has been less than a year. And this past week the inevitable happened, our Church suffered a schism.
To me, it’s like being on board a ship that hit an iceberg and is trying to heal itself while at sea, a ship that decided to break itself in half so that it could stay afloat. To make sense of that, I’ll share a little bit of what happened this past week in the life of the United Methodist Church. Our General Conference (GC), the only place where the church law of the denomination can be changed or officially upheld, was set to happen in September. However, “[there was] a report based on conversations with multiple officials of the U. S. Department of State outlining the massive backlog of visa applications in some areas. This backlog has led to wait times up to 800+ days for scheduling an initial interview,” according to an official statement from the UMC, as to why it postponed GC until 2024.
That was on March 03. On the same day, as I was reeling in frustration, The Global Methodist Church (GMC), a splinter denomination coming out of the UMC, stated that they would officially launch on May 01st. I read this in a well-curated document that had clearly been prepared for quite some time. Two days later, I read the response of my bishop, Leonard Fairley, who wanted to take time to respond rather than react. He writes, in part, “I cannot help but wonder if we must now lead from our hearts. Leading with the heart of Christ in this world can be a dangerous and often painful thing because the heart of the law is mercy, peace, love and justice. Lord, have mercy, Christ, have mercy. I did not have a ready-made response; maybe I should have. I did not prepare responses either way. I wanted to leave my heart open. Open to my own brokenness and our brokenness as a people.”
Those last two sentences enfold me, as I think about where I am. Bishop Fairley wanted to remain open to our brokenness, to the brokenness of a ship that was splitting in half. I remember my Pastor, when I was a youth in the seventh grade sharing a video with us at youth group. It had a lady sitting inside of a church on a rainy day, the doors open to would-be sufferers in the rain, and it said, “Open hearts; Open minds; Open doors. The People of the United Methodist Church.” Give or take a year, that was the same time this chapter in my life happened, the same time God called me to be a pastor. I took that into my heart like a little child.
And now, many years later, I find myself sitting here and watching as the denomination splits over full inclusion of “open and practicing homosexuals.” (As an aside, even as a youth I wondered if there was someone trying to find out about people’s sex life, because they told me that’s what “practicing” meant. And then it made me wonder how much church leaders thought about everyone’s sex life) As a denomination, we have already welcomed the LGBTQIA+ community into membership of the Church, but this fight is whether they should be partially welcomed or fully-welcomed, including ordination, into the life of the Church and marriage rights. A lot of people would say it is also a fight over whether or not being non-heterosexual is a sin.
This type of fight tends to happen every generation in the Church. Right now we are fighting over human sexuality, but last generation it was a fight over whether or not to include women as pastors. Around 1940 it was a fight that mirrored Jim Crowe, in which we created something called “The Central Conference,” our own version of “Separate but equal.” Before that it was a schism in which the pentecostal and holiness side of the denomination left. Awhile before that, Southern Methodists created a schismatic denomination, wanting to protect their right to enslave people.
As I look at my newly printed ordination certificate and think about my journey up to this point, I think about how this fight has not historically been my fight. I did not start this fight, and I have not been carrying it on. Now that the GMC has prepared to launch, the month after next, I hear echoes of some of its loudest leaders in my ears, from the past half of my life which has been this ordination journey. I have been mentored by some of the top leaders from our Conference, who will leave and go to the GMC. And it breaks my heart.
In many ways, I am a child of the GMC. The church I grew up in and its pastor who was there for a decade and a half, the pastor who mentored me for three years while I was a youth pastor at Divinity School, and the pastor who I served under, who taught me much of what I know about Order. All are preparing to be top leaders in the GMC. To them all, I am grateful, even as I am sad that they are leaving. I cannot leave this denomination to which I feel called.
Currently I am about to enter my third year in a Doctor of Ministry cohort, and all of the other students are rural United Methodist Clergy, about half of them being Gen X, the other half being Millennials, and one being a (baby) Baby Boomer. Most of our conversations about the church split are around, “Why can’t we just reconcile our differences and stay together, because we would be stronger together.” Essentially, this is lamenting the defeat of an idea called “The One Church Plan,” in 2019 which would have kept us under the same umbrella.
Having written the above words three weeks ago and having let them sit for awhile, I am going to move to conclude my ordination journey on that word of lament, of longing…and of hope. What I leave is a hope that we might one day find the Connection that we tear apart now.
Since being in my current appointment, almost five years now, some of my best moments have been in connection with other Christians of different beliefs. There’s the Black pastors, from whom I have learned so much about resilience and local church connections. The Southern Baptist Pastor with whom I disagree on some things, but who has been the first one to respond to my many inquiries about ecumenical worship services. There’s the Cooperative Baptist pastor who went to Divinity School with my wife, who has been a source of encouragement. And then there’s the Old South Confederate, who wishes the South would rise again, who has continually sought a place of unity through division with me, at least wishing for the shalom of our community, of every racial group.
As I think about the way I find Connection with my ideological opponents more in the area I live than the Conference through which I was ordained, I think about the work The New Localism. It is a framework more for cities, but it has bearing on rural life too.
What have I been ordained into? It is a ship from which a large part is breaking.
My heart has much cause for hope. Yesterday, two of my very best friends in the Conference, Jamie and Ernesto, messaged me and told me they were going to be ordained this year at Annual Conference, that they had been approved after their ordination interviews. Like me they had been delayed many times in the ordination process. Like me, they probably had a lot of mixed emotions upon receiving the news of the ordination — some anger or hurt for it taking so long, some relief for the process coming to completion, and some celebration that the Board of Ordained Ministry has recommended them for full ordination.
A few weeks ago I was able to go to an event in Durham in which many new pastors and Masters of Divinity students were present. It allowed me to catch a rare glimpse into the life of where I was a decade ago. My heart catches more hope, that not only is God still calling leaders to the Church, but people are responding, coming into this challenged home, this broken ship.
I end by reminding any reader who has made it this far that our service to God and the world at this time, like our name for a funeral in the United Methodist Church, is a service of death and resurrection. We will not be what we once were, and what we will be has not yet been revealed. But we will be. I believe that. Thanks be to God. Amen.