Better Late than Never?

My father was the sort of man who found the sentiment “better late than never” to be at least inconsiderate, if not downright heretical. Though more recent friends of mine might not be able to imagine it, anyone who knew me in high school knew me to be early as a rule. As a new driver, never quite sure exactly how much time to allow, it was not uncommon for me to show up ludicrously early – sometimes two to three hours early. When I drove myself to school, I would often be the first to arrive after the custodians.

When it comes to my writing, though, I am learning that when I am running late on a deadline, it is often because I persisted too long in pursuing a fruitless idea. Some ideas should never make it past the brainstorming stage, but when I am feeling a time crunch, I might pick an idea from a thin field and slowly slog my way through the unpromising terrain.  Instead, my time would have been better spent lingering in the idea generation stage: my best ideas inspire me to spend more time at the keyboard, as well as to write more quickly – not least because good ideas lead to more good ideas.  But a bad idea? I can spend weeks trying to build on a bad idea – a half hour at a time of scratching my head, writing a sentence, and then deleting it.

Nothing instills panic in the heart of some writers more than a blank page

Nothing instills panic in the heart of some writers more than a blank page

Most recently, this happened when trying to write a sermon series for the General Board of Discipleship for November. This was a particularly bad summer for me: I was sick all summer long, and ended August with surgery to remove my gall bladder. I had been hoping to write a sermon series for GBOD every month, but getting something written for August and September proved impossible, and by the time I was well enough to write in September, there was not enough time to get something posted for October.  I turned my attention to November.

November is an interesting month for a sermon series.  Most churches have finished their finance campaigns, and are settling back into a worship routine in this last month of Ordinary Time. The month begins and ends with special Sundays: All Saints’ and Christ the King. And November also ends with the civil holiday of Thanksgiving – the day after which has become another civil holiday of sorts: “Black Friday” – the beginning of the Christmas shopping season. During the month of November, often the pastor’s attention is focused on the month ahead. Advent (the four Sundays before Christmas) is one of the a pastor’s two busiest seasons of the church year. A sermon series is just the thing to give pastors new focus to their November worship planning.

As October approached, I found myself with no ideas for November. So when I got my first idea, I ran with it. But guess what? Once I had actually read the scriptural texts (pro-tip: when writing sermons, actually read the scriptural texts), it turned out that the book of Judges does not fit so well as I had supposed into a pat All Saints’ to Christ the King narrative arc.  I had the scriptures selected, and the titles, and the themes, and it was September 30!  So I plowed ahead doggedly, sentence by sentence. Clearly the only thing to do, right?

Wrong. September 30 became October 4 became October 8, and still I had no more than 300 words out of my hoped for 5000+. I was running late – all because I was so scared of being late that I couldn’t let go of my one bad idea.

My turning point came when I realized that sometimes never was better. Maybe I wouldn’t get a November sermon series published. My editor hadn’t shown any anxiety about this, but I can come up with all sorts of nightmare scenarios that may not have any basis in reality. Like: maybe I would lose my contract and never write another sermon series for GBOD… and then maybe word would get around that I was unreliable, and I would not get invited to publish for other United Methodist agencies… maybe all of my best days of writing were behind me!!!

But none of that was worse than wasting time writing something so bad as to be unpreachable. “The whole point of this is to help pastors, remember?” I heard in the silence as I prayed. “Not to get a paycheck or a by-line.”

That is how, when I sat back down at my computer that morning, I realized that everything I had written needed to be laid aside. Maybe there was a good idea somewhere in there, but it wasn’t apparent at the moment, and it certainly wasn’t even the kernel of a decent sermon series.

Looking at the blank page of my “New Document,” I was filled with a profound sense of gratitude. I had been spared more painful hours of writing, as well as sending some truly bad writing to my editor. I was so happy to NOT be writing that sermon series on Judges that I almost posted about it on Facebook.

The light bulb went on. Almost two years ago, a friend had posted something he was grateful for as his Facebook status every day in November. The next year, three other friends were doing it, too. All Saints’ Sunday is all about giving thanks for the people who serve as beacons of God’s love to us.  On Christ the King Sunday, we give thanks to God that Jesus is the good ruler – that the one to whom we owe our highest allegiance is the one who loves us beyond measure. Thanksgiving doesn’t have to be just one day – we can celebrate it all month long!!

After three hours of thinking, research, and writing, I had an introduction to a brand new November sermon series, complete with titles, texts, and themes. I had written half of the first sermon help, and picked out at least one suggested hymn for each of the five worship services. I only stopped writing because it was time to pack the car for a weekend road trip.

One day, I will write a sermon or two or three on that neglected book of Judges. But I will honor the text, and I will not hammer-fit them into an inappropriate structure. Meanwhile, I sure am thankful to have had the opportunity to write about giving thanks!

Check out my latest sermon series on the GBOD website!

Closure

My father was a United Methodist pastor, so for all my young life, moving meant transitioning from one church to the next. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-20s that I experienced that transition from the congregation’s point of view. Now I have seen that transition in multiple traditions: in United Church of Christ, Southern Baptist, and Episcopal congregations, and as a lay member of two different United Methodist congregations. Each transition had features to recommend it, as well as related features that placed certain burdens on the congregations.

United Methodists have a connectional structure, which (for the purposes of pastoral transitions) means that decisions about which pastors serve which churches is made by “The Cabinet” (a committee of designated church leaders), allowing all of the transitional pastors in a conference to move on the same day. One of the many benefits of this system is that it eliminates any gaps in pastoral care or worship leadership that might result from less exquisitely choreographed transitions. But for some parishioners, this can feel a bit jarring, as if their wife died yesterday afternoon, and they woke up this morning to find another woman snoring softly beside them. Who is this person, and how did she get here? And what makes her think she gets this level of intimacy so quickly?

New pastors can sometimes appear to behave as if the church sprang into being when they arrived – they spend the first few sermons introducing themselves – which is important! – but they focus on building a new relationship with this “new” congregation, without openly acknowledging that the congregation may be grieving the pastor who went before them. When I first started out serving two rural congregations, it took me a few weeks to realize that I was doing this, too.

On the other end of the transition, pastors who are leaving may spend their last weeks focusing on the congregation’s grief (and their own, too!), without helping the congregation to begin the process of detaching themselves, making room in their hearts and minds for the next pastor. Part of readying the congregation for the next pastor needs to occur in worship, as many parishioners likely engage in the life of the church primarily through their one hour of “going to church” a week.

In order to enter into the congregation’s experience, pastors must be in touch with their own feelings about the transition, dealing with them in the early stages of preparing their sermons so that they do not accidentally project their own feelings on the laypeople. As in pastoral care on a smaller scale, in preaching pastors begin with the reality on the ground – what the parishioners’ hopes and concerns are (to the best of your discernment) at the moment – before they can be led to a more God-centered view. When through their worship leadership, both pastors acknowledge the congregation’s experience, the pastoral transition is given a much better chance of going smoothly.

About a month ago, I wrote about the many exciting developments in my life as a writer – one of which was writing sermon series helps. I am excited to announce that the General Board of Discipleship of the United Methodist Church has published my first set of sermon series helps: a series for June, written particularly with moving pastors in mind. This series follows the lectionary texts, tying together many elements of healthy closure: celebrating the pastor’s tenure, encouraging the congregation to let go of the pastor, and building anticipation for a new connection with the incoming pastor. These themes are brought together under the umbrella of placing our trust in Jesus – remembering who the true shepherd of the congregation has been and will continue to be.

I feel so blessed to be working with Rev. Dawn Chesser of the General Board of Discipleship, and I hope that the sermon series ideas that I develop under her leadership will prove to be of value to pastors.

Thank you, pastors, for your love and direction at all times, and especially for your faithfulness in times of transition!

Unity and Schism

I am posting this as part of a synchro-blog on the topic of schism in the UMC. This synchro-blog was organized in honor of the first anniversary of Dream UMC.

For my friends who are not United Methodist, I apologize. I am keeping the tone of this piece “inside baseball,” because I didn’t allow enough time today to revise this for a wider audience.

I remember about five years ago, talking with a friend about how frustrated I was with the failure of the UMC to make any forward progress on inclusivity at General Conference. She pointed out the problems that the Episcopal church was having within the Anglican communion because of choosing to ordain gay priests, and said to me, “Doesn’t it pose an ecumenical problem? Because there is so much disagreement about this issue across denominations?”
She and I were both on track to be ordained, each in different denominations. I replied, “Ordaining women is an ecumenical problem, by those standards. Do you think that we shouldn’t be ordained?”

The dilemma in debates about what makes schism worthwhile and what does not is that it so often neglects the reality that the church is already in schism. Many times over the past centuries, Christians have decided that they could not in good conscience continue under what they saw as a corrupt, or unfaithful, or simply ineffectual system. It happened over indulgences, over communion, over pastoral authority… In the U.S., nearly every Protestant denomination split over slavery, including the Methodists – who splintered into not two, but at least five different denominations over the slavery issue.
The Church is already a fractured family. There are those who say that we should always try and stick it out, but given our history, this seems arbitrary. Why is this iteration of our church more sacrosanct than others? For others who vaguely assert that of course there is a line that they are not willing to cross, I would like to know: where is that line, exactly? And how did the failure of General Conference to even name that we disagree not cross it?

I have to admit, I have been hoping for a split. I see the seeds of a split in the actions of the Northeastern and Western jurisdictional conferences – if the jurisdiction can vote to ignore actions of the General Conference, then it is only a short step to having a whole jurisdiction brought up on charges for failing to uphold the Discipline. Which might be the best kind of split, because then churches don’t have to decide where they stand, initially. Instead, the church would split along geographic lines initially, but individual congregations could hash out different positions over time.
I like the idea of a split because I think that we could all benefit from having scaled down operations – from not being such a major player in everything from lobbying to relief to publishing. Yes, we do great stuff with the money and members we have. But we have turned our denomination into an idol, so conferences and bishops and publications all put too much energy into increasing everyone’s anxiety about how many people we have as compared to fifty years ago, and how relevant we are, and what is our brand, etc. Which leads to some truly awful ad campaigns (Remember the one with the dandelion? “If you can wish, you can pray.” Um, no. Way to trivialize church, guys!), and worse – to pastors whose ministries are driven more by fear than by love.
I like the idea of a split because it lets so many pastors off the hook. By and large, pastors in the U.S. are opposed to the restrictions on ministry by and to gays and lesbians, but leaving the church (or even putting themselves in a position to be kicked out) means losing a job with health benefits in a bad economy – usually a job that is the only one the pastor has any interest in having. And let’s not forget how many pastors marry young – which means that they have families to support. Splitting would allow pastors who oppose the restrictions to stay pastors and live into their convictions about gay marriage.
And I like the idea of a split because it would show gay and lesbian United Methodists that they have not been forgotten or abandoned – that they are as important to the church as the bullies are.

But admittedly, I have a much more selfish reason to like the idea of a split: I have already split. No longer clergy, I don’t have a voice at annual conference or the ability to get kicked out for defying the rules that bind clergy only. And after more than 20 years of following these issues, I am tired of waiting for things to change at General Conference. Or, more accurately, I have stopped believing that things ever will change at General Conference. So I find myself in an Episcopalian congregation, but every time I come close to joining, I come up against a reservation that is strong enough to keep me on the margins. I am realizing that I still want to be a Methodist – I am a Methodist without a Methodist congregation, until my gay friends can be Methodist pastors, until they can be married in a Methodist church. Until there is a Methodist option for them, there is no Methodist option for me, either.

Maybe you feel that by leaving, I have forfeited my place at the table. I get that – you are sticking it out, and that is not easy. But the voices of the Methodist diaspora need to be heard. There are many pastors and would-be pastors who were driven out of the church because of who they love. There are many laypeople who cannot be a part of a church that half-heartedly welcomes them. In this sense, the question of whether or not the United Methodist Church should split is moot – the church is already split. There are many Methodists who are sitting in UCC, Episcopalian, Lutheran, and Presbyterian churches – or even not in church at all – who would happily return to a Methodist church that truly welcomes them.

Or, you know, keep trying to win over the people with the loud and angry voices, if you think it might make a difference. Give the whole Central Conference strategy a try, if you think they won’t see through it. I’ve shaken the dust of that town off of my feet, and walked on.