Homecoming

Two years ago, when I decided to take a break from the United Methodist Church, I wrote about the decision both on this blog, and on another blog convened by a friend of mine from Wales. I also wrote about my feelings of being “in exile” in the Episcopalian church – still identifying with the theology and history of Methodism, but unable to continue participating in a church culture that denied many called and gifted friends of mine – denied them an opportunity to use their gifts in service to the United Methodist Church. They needed to be honest about their desire to partner with someone of the same gender, but the church denied that it was possible for their relationships to be as blessed and life-giving as the best partnerships between men and women.

That is, the church denied it in a legal sense. The question was put to a vote – are United Methodist Christians, after prayerful scriptural discernment, still divided on “the issue of homosexuality” ? The majority at General Conference 2012 voted to deny that this is so. And since, by the law of the United Methodist Church enshrined in the Book of Discipline, one can only speak for the United Methodist Church by using those words that the General Conference votes on by majority rule, we are left with the awkward ability to assert: “The United Methodist Church has chosen not to tell the truth about how individuals associated with the church feel about same-sex relationships.” Because, after all, the vote was not unanimous. Not even nearly so. Which means that the rejected motion was precisely correct as written – while the majority of United Methodists have decided that same-sex relationships go against what God desires for us, there is a sizable minority that disagrees.

If you read my post from 2 years ago, “Invisible Methodist,” you can see how my thinking has shifted slightly on this topic. Then, I interpreted the Conference’s decision to be declaring that I, and others who agreed with me, were not thoughtful, “Bible-believing” Christians – not, in fact, United Methodists. But now, I have decided that I was disempowering myself and the rest of those who think like me by granting this power to General Conference. I had not considered the other possibility: The General Conference, and so The Book of Discipline (and thereby, from a church law perspective, the United Methodist Church) can lie. And that is what the church elected to do that day.

Denominations are fallen institutions. The United Methodist Church is not the only group with a prevarication problem. But it’s my family, and so they are the group I am concerned with at the moment.

I’m sharing this now because I am long overdue to announce: I am back with the United Methodist Church. There is a sense in which I never left, in that the entire time that I was worshipping with the Episcopalians I never officially joined the Episcopalian Church. I was following UMC news, staying in touch with UMC pastors, and reading and writing for UMC publications. But insofar as my family officially has been attending Duke Memorial UMC since before Advent, and as we joined a couple of months ago, I am connected with a local UMC congregation again.

In the midst of the ongoing debate about whether the UMC will divide over the issue of relationships between persons of the same gender, I have hesitated to announce this new congregational affiliation on the blog. I do not want for this personal action to be reinterpreted as a witness against schism. I have done no such thing. Indeed, I do not know how long a “union” can last when one group feels compelled to hide the very existence of people who disagree – or at least chooses to deny that any folks who disagree with them (including their fellow church members) are really Christian. Instead, I have decided that I shall no longer allow a narrow majority of Conference delegates be the ones to determine whether or not I am “really” Methodist. Though I have returned to United Methodist congregational life, I will not be silent when I feel that those who lead us are moving in the wrong direction.

I enjoyed my sojourn with the Episcopalians at St. Luke’s – they are a delightful family of committed Christians, and it was a privilege to be invited to join in their common life. I miss weekly Eucharist, and weekly coffee hour, and the kneelers… I miss the dear sisters and brothers I met there. But I felt called back into the happy mess that is United Methodism in the American South. I have returned to the place that, more than anywhere else, is my earthly home.

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!