The General Conference certainly evoked responses from many people: clergy and laity, men and women, even from those who are not United Methodists! As I write this article, only two months after General Conference, the full impact of the decisions is yet to be known. Therefore, I can only speculate as to what will come next. In my reflection on General Conference decisions, I feel concern; however, I choose to rely on and trust in God and move forward in Love.
There are those who have accepted the decisions of General Conference and those who are concerned about them. Even as I express concern, I respect those who have differing opinions from mine.
In working with people as a social worker and then as clergy, one thing I quickly learned was that there are at least three sides to the story—my side, your side, and then, God’s side. It is this “God’s side” that I long to understand in the many questions of life today!
But alas, the picture is too often fuzzy and unclear. In the midst of my trying to see things clearly, seminary taught me that our hermeneutics (life’s experience) play a role in how we understand and view the Scriptures and their application to our lives. Unclear as life is, the Scripture gives us hope of a time when things will be crystal clear. The theme scripture of this Wellsprings is 1 Corinthians 13:12, “Now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (kjv). So, where does that leave me as I try to digest the decisions made by the 2012 General Conference and their impact?
Growing up as a PK (pastor’s kid) in India and later in the United States, I was familiar with conference time. As a child, it was fascinating to hear and more important, to see the reactions of the adults as they talked about the decisions made at conferences. Even as it was interesting to witness the reactions to conference, the details of it were still a little fuzzy. I mean, what young child can understand the finer nuances of conference decisions (or maybe politics is a better word)? I did not know at that time that I would later follow in my parents’ footsteps and enter into ministry. Years later, here I am, having attended eight years as clergy, and I wonder just how much more I understand the “stuff” of conference.
The theme scripture goes a long way as I try to make sense of not only the General Conference decisions, but the decisions we all make in life that impact us in one way or another. In my NIV Student Bible, chapter 13 of 1 Corinthians is titled Love. It seems most appropriate that Paul prefaced the chapter with, “And now I will show you the most excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:13 niv) as he highlighted the importance of “Love.”
The background to Paul’s letter is fascinating: Here was a church that had been established in the Greek city of Corinth, which was known for its lewd behavior and drunken brawling. The Corinthians worshipped the goddess of love, and as the Zondervan NIV Study Bible notes, “their worship practices resemble orgies. Corinth seems the last place on Earth to expect a church to take root.”1 It was in this very place that a church did take root and Paul was able to cultivate and encourage a group of people ready to receive the good news of the Gospel. But as Paul received word about what had been happening since he left Corinth, he was also told about the many controversies that were striving to divide this growing church. In attempting to bring back this fractured group of believers, Paul reminded them of what is essential, and what is the “most excellent way” for them as they tried to address those differing viewpoints. Paul didn’t take sides but rather lifted up the gifts of each person as being important. In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul used the analogy of the body to illustrate just how crucial each person is to the whole church. After all, we are able to do so many things with the different parts that make up the human body. If you’ve ever lost the use of any body part for any length of time, you realize quickly its importance! As Paul came to the point, he lifted up love as being the most excellent way for the Corinthians as they worked together in ministry as one body.
There is a lot that we as the body of Christ can learn from Paul’s timeless letter to the church in Corinth. I wonder if we have reacted any differently than the Corinthians did in their division? Sometimes our convictions bring out the best and worst in us. It’s good to have an opinion and stand firm in it, but it’s not so good when our beliefs lead us to put down our brother and sister in Christ.
Even though I was not physically present at the 2012 General Conference, technology made it possible for us to be “present” in so many ways: through the live telecast streaming, conversations on Twitter, Facebook—there were just so many ways to be a part of the gathering. When people felt hurt, unheard, or marginalized, there were moments when one was able to stand in solidarity with our brothers or sisters who felt unloved. There were those moments. There were also moments when ideas were pushed and opinions were shared, and I wonder how much thought was given to their impact on others.
The issue of guaranteed appointment, which strives to address the effectiveness of clergy, divides those on either side of the issue. There are those who believe that guaranteed appointment serves as a shield for those who are ineffective in ministry. In order for the church at large to grow, we need effective clergy. Yes, I agree that accountability is a good thing. It allows us to take responsibility for our work. As we talk about defining effectiveness, I wonder what criteria will be used to determine clergy effectiveness and if it will be used unilaterally with regard to the individual context and situation. As Paul stated, we are a body with different parts. So, the reality is that each clergyperson, each church, and each situation is different. That is the way God made us, diverse and unique in our own ways. Each clergywoman brings a gift to ministry that is unique, and I don’t believe that God intended for there to be a cookie-cutter definition of an effective clergy member. Often diversity is seen as a problem, but it would be beneficial if we made it a point to celebrate our uniqueness rather than look at it as a problem.
As an ethnic clergywoman, I have questioned some of what I have seen and experienced in ministry. One ethnic clergywoman who had served more than 14 years in ministry and who was well respected by colleagues was told by some church members that she might fit better as a pastor among her own people. Another pastor attempted to share his gift of music in worship, and the response was surprising. Some church members stated that the music was too lively. Other, older members (who usually sit in the back pews) were concerned that they could not hear, or in some instances, understand the pastor because of his accent. Those who complained were folks who often forgot to wear their hearing aids. It is clear that the pastor is making efforts, but his effectiveness in ministry is questioned.
In another instance, a clergywoman was moved from a suburban church because they claimed they could not understand her accent. Too often I have seen that when a church is faced with a pastor who is different, who may have an accent, or who does things differently, there is division and an inability to accept the pastor. In those situations I wonder how much support was given to the clergy. In other situations where congregations question pastors regarding their effectiveness, it seems that the clergy are supported by leadership. This makes me wonder as to the reasons behind these variations.
The following statistics (compiled by Rev. Judy Stevens and Jorge Lockwood of NYAC) were shared at the 2012 New York Annual Conference Committee on the Status and Role of Women (COSROW) Celebration:
Even as I am skeptical about the impact of change in guaranteed appointments, I hope that those involved in leadership are all trying their best. Just as I am trying to make the right decisions pastorally in ministry. Just as we are all trying our best.
As I try to understand and move forward, I hold on to the second part of 1 Corinthians 13:12, which states, “. . . but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (kjv). The reality is that, in my humanness, I don’t want to wait—I want to know God’s truth here and now! (Written as I stamp my foot.) But wait—isn’t there something, isn’t there someone, Jesus promised us who would help us? John 14:26 reads, “But the Counselor, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, will teach you all things and will remind you of everything I have said to you” (niv). The question arises for me that if that is the case, why are we all divided and standing on different sides on all these issues? I can only surmise that it is a consequence of being individuals and diverse people. Our experiences, culture, and realities shape us and inform our decisions. Unfortunately, it is too often these hermeneutics, rather than the leading of the Holy Spirit, that shape our decisions.
So, what next? Well, for me the focus is on moving forward in love, faith, and hope. Moving forward in love with God, who has called me to ministry. Moving forward with my brothers and sisters, who may or may not agree with my viewpoints. But most of all, moving forward in trust in the God who called me to ministry. I hold on to the words of Philippians 1:6, “And I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns” (nlt).