Why Answer the Call?

One of my favorite blogger-buds, John Meunier, raised a great question yesterday that I feel warrants a full response, so I am framing it as a post.  Here is John’s question:  Why should anyone seek ordination in the UMC given the realities you see? Should those interested in discipleship find it elsewhere?

Why would a young leader have interest in entering the current United Methodist Church system?  What are we inviting them to do and be vocationally?  What promises are we willing to make from the institutional side of the covenant?  In many ways, we are making the “career” of ordained pastor less and less appealing all the time – high indebtedness from seminary at the lead end, less pension benefit at the tail end, reduced insurance coverage provided along the way, and reduced job security as a bonus.  Now, more than ever, a person enters ordained ministry from a deep sense of call and a faithful response to God’s will.  Anything less is unlikely to sustain a candidate through the arduous process of giving more and more to receive less and less.  Top that off with a denominational message of decline, decay, imminent demise, a “death tsunami,” criticism of cultural irrelevancy, and a death grip of “good ol’ white boys” to control what power remains (as more and more power, energy and Spirit shifts to the southern hemisphere), and the draw is anything but attractive.  This is all nested in the global paradigm shift from institutional preservation to spiritual enlightenment and empowerment for transformation – where United Methodism at the center is desperately clinging to the preservation model, while UMs at the fringe are seeking true enlightenment and transformation (currently beyond the capacity of the institution as it attempts to live firmly in the past).  Our lame marketing ploy to “Rethink” rings with an hypocrisy that further damages our credibility with a large segment of our culture.  So, given all of this, why would anyone want to become a United Methodist clergy leader (or laity leader, for that matter)?

 I can only offer a few personal thoughts on this question – and they relate to the many inquiries I receive asking why I stay a pastoral leader in the UMC.

First, I see current reality as Egypt and our potential as Promised Land.  I am not much interested in what isn’t working, what we were like 40 years ago, what we currently lack, or who isn’t doing what.  My focus is much more on what I discern God calling us to be, what we can become, the abundant assets God is blessing us with, and who is truly leading us in prophetic, transformative, and creative ways.  I assess what I perceive to be flawed thinking and under-functioning practice as a springboard to “what if,” alternatives.  I attempt to identify “either/or” over-simplifications to point out “both/and” potential and possibilities.  To put a noble gild on it, I try to walk by faith, not by sight.  Interestingly, many of my critics paint me as a cynic or an idealist.  I have never understood how I can be both at the same time – though I understand that people process me through their own personal filters.  This said, I believe our invitations to new leadership is not an invitation to maintain what is dysfunctional, but it is an invitation to see what we might be able to create together. 

Second, I acknowledge that we are entrenched in an anachronistic, sub-optimized, inflexible system, but systems can be changed.  The reason the system is slow to change is that it is led by those who are most deeply invested in the status quo which benefits them richly and privileges them mightily.  But, this reality is showing serious cracks.  The fact that a closed-door enclave of predominantly older, white males failed to force their agenda at last year’s General Conference is a sign of great hope for young leaders, racial and ethnic constituencies, and many potential leaders on the fringe.  What some anxious and short-sighted bean counters call a “death tsunami” – a cause of panic and doom ‘n’ gloom despair – has the potential for systemic redemption and transformation.  What this perceived internal fiscal cliff scare-the-church-into-action crisis might actually mean is a whole new possibility for laity leadership, tent-maker pastoring, and unleashing amazing young prophetic potential currently locked out of the seats of authority.  This is a rich and fertile time, a time where a large number of one generation will be leaving great opportunity for new voices, new perspectives, and new vision.  It is a “ground floor” moment, where we may be able to rebuild significant aspects of the church from the ground up.

Third, my guiding metaphor for ministry is Matthew 13 – sowing the seed.  There are certainly important processes of nurture, feeding, weeding, pruning, cultivation, harvesting, and sharing, but the basis upon which we are judged is how faithfully we sow.  We trust that God will multiply that which falls on fertile soil, but even if we do our job perfectly, we will never exceed a 25% success rate.  Our best efforts fall on rocky soil, foot paths, weedy patches, and feed the birds – as well as hit the sweet spot and produce good fruit.  I am often asked why I keep calling for open conversation, why I remain hopeful, why I stay connected to a church that I often criticize, why I keep on keeping on – my answer is that I am here to sow seeds.  Just because I don’t see the results I wish to see really doesn’t matter – I believe in what I see, think and feel about the future of our church.  I don’t despair, and I truly don’t blame individuals – we are all part of a system, and systems are designed for the results they produce.  If our church is producing the wrong results it is because our system is no longer appropriate or capable of producing anything else.  No bishop, no General Secretary, no pop-mega-church pastor can change the system.  The system (by the grace and guidance of the Holy Spirit) must change itself.  Wouldn’t it be amazing if we used our time together at General Conference as a global discernment time to refocus on our understanding of our identity, mission, and call to seek and serve the will of God for the twenty-first century?  I honestly believe if we did the deep work of clarifying who we are and why we are here, the lesser questions about our structure and polity would fall very naturally into place.

So, I honestly do believe there is a positive and hopeful invitation we have to make to young leaders across the full cultural landscape.  In the near future, their voices will matter more, they will be offered not only responsibility but authority and power, and the potential for positive change and lasting transformation has not been so great in a long, long time.  What we are today is not what we should be.  Who we have been in the past should be honored and celebrated, but it should not be allowed to prevent us from becoming who God is calling us to be in the future.  This is a great church serving a great purpose in a great world – there is no reason why we cannot recover this vision and passion, if we refuse to listen to all the nay-sayers and prophets of doom who currently hold the ear of the powers-that-be.

18 replies

  1. Thank you for sharing this. I am not a UM pastor. I serve in a different denomination, but much of what you say here would apply to our system as well. And you are right, there is hope. There is always hope.

  2. Both this post and the previous struck home for me. I have been a “good methodist” all my life, mostly a pew person but “did my part”. Because of my upbringing which included family initmately associated with the UMC, my relationship with the church is very complex, Badly handled changes at church several years back, left me spiritually vulnerable and in the ditch–you were absolutely right in an earlier post that forced change creates violence on the person. A family crisis followed hard on the heels of that and and I was at rock bottom. An absolutely amazing UMC pastor who is the most spiritually grounded person I have ever encounterd appeared “out of nowhere” and walked me out of the darkness.

    One thing that has kept niggling me is “It is useless to go back and repeat what you have already done–it didn’t work.” Your comment in the previous post about the people that got tired of the bueracracy in trying to “do things” hit home–I am to the point I “just want to know what this is about, I don’t want to jump through any more hoops”. I tried for two years to get back into church with no avail–I ran into dynamics that I could not deal with and that left me on the “outside”. When the pastor left last year, I left also, stunned at my frustration and disillusionment and desire to try elsewhere because “anything has to be better than this”.

    All this propelled me into an intensive 4 year reading journey and monitoring of the UMC– I was lead to some absolutely amazing and unexpected places. Some of the reading was “off the wall. (Learning about early Methodism and John Wesley are included in that category–things have drifted so badly–I actually had an “aha moment” of realizing “Wow, it is about God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit!) In monitoring blogs that do not involve the upper echelon, I feel God is on the move within the UMC and if financial issues had not created an atmosphere of “need to fix something” she just might have righted herself.

    But there is one thing I learned that has absolutely “blown me away”: the existence of this amazing triune God of holy love who is way more verb than noun. Where has this God been all my life? As a result, I have come up with an “all I want”–the wording is borrowed from others, but they very much struck a chord with me:

    All I want is to go to church and learn there is a bigger and better story than mine going on.
    And then I want to learn how to fold myself into that story:
    Who is this God?
    What has He done?
    What is He currently doing?
    How do I become a Christian?
    How do I remain (and thrive/grow) as a Christian?
    Let’s quit talking about how to “fix this” and start “telling each other the story of Jesus”.

    I know eyebrows will probably go up, but what has helped all the pieces to fall into place is an amazing encounter this past week with a very recent translation of the Heidelberg Catechism as further explained by M. Craig Barnes in “Body and Soul: Rediscovering the Heidelberg Catechism”. As I read somewhere, knowledge of Who God is and Who I am is the beginning of redemption–and I have to agree. I now have the most amazing understanding of who Jesus is and how his life, death, resurrection, and ascencion impacts me and exactly why he is the Savior. I have memorized a small part of the catechism, and already I can tell a difference in having that running in the back of my head–I find myself expanding on it, making it mine.

    People can’t worship and respond to a God they do not know. This style of catechism is an amazing vehicle to impart such knowledge. I have not found much “wrong” with it from what I know of the Wesleyan perspective. It is written for individual faith develpment–the questions and answers can be very “personal”.

    The rank and file person in the 16th century was better armed with knowledge of God than the person in the pew is today–and catechisms were how it was done. A huge problem with the UMC is we are literally “all over the map” with “what this is about” because Wesley’s thoughts and practical “theology” evolved along with Methodism and is spread here there and yon in all his writings–and it appears his thinking was so eclectic that depending on what you read it is very easy to glean different understandings. But I have a sneaking suspicion that at the time the people were very well verbally instructed in “Who God is” as well as “Who I am”. Which, as I have experienced, is the true beginning of redemption.

    PS– M. Craig Barnes makes a very profound argument as to why the church should not lose hold of it’s long standing creeds, hymns and such. They keep uys grounded in the fact that this is actually bigger than one person, church or denomination–the salvation story started long before we were here and will continue long after we are gone, unless of course, God finally gets tired of us continually wandering and muddling the message.

  3. Dan, I wish I could share your optimism, but it has just been made plain to me that I’ve been demoted by the 2012 General Conference from Certified Lay SPEAKER to Certified Lay SERVANT. After 20 years of being qualified to preach and lead worship anywhere I’m called, I now must take an additional 60 hours of training under the new Book of Discipline if I wish to recapture my status as a Certified Lay SPEAKER. I already have more hours of training over the past 20 years than any ministerial graduate — even without the two years I just spent getting certified as a spiritual director. As far as I’m concerned, my days as a Certified Lay SPEAKER are OVER.

    Yes, I agree that God is calling us to a new future, a new church. But that church is decidedly NOT the United Methodist Church. I wouldn’t advise anyone of any age to embark upon the process for ordained ministry in the UMC. Even we laypeople are getting screwed over by those good ol’ white boys with their death grip on power. We’ll have a new church, yes, but it won’t be United Methodist.

    • Cynthia,

      I have been a Lay Speaker since 1988 and got my first Certified course probably in 1990 or 1991. So, I’ve been at it a fairly long time too.

      I’ve looked over the requirements for keeping the “speaker” status…. and at this point, I may or may not pursue it, though I know my giftedness and calling fit the category. I have had several of the required courses, so it might work out.

      Where did you do your spiritual direction training? That is something on the horizon for me, but I am just now finishing up a 2 year Academy, so it will need to wait.

      Though I do get frustrated with the institution and system and don’t see where things are headed and why God would have me as a 2nd career heading toward ordained ministry, it is because of folks like Dan Dick and Elaine Heath that give me the hope for the future and affirm the things I see and sense.

      Blessings on your ministry!

      Debra

      • Hi, Debra! Thanks for your encouragement. I confess that like you and Sharon McCart, I’m pretty low right now about Lay Speaking. I feel like something truly valuable to the UMC has been decimated and tossed aside. I’ve just finished my own blog post about at United Methodist Insight, the aggregation site I edit at http://um-insight.net.

        I just achieved certification in spiritual direction after a two-year course at Perkins School of Theology. Sadly I can’t recommend this program any longer because its founding director, Dr. Fred Schmidt, was laid off by the seminary last September because of budget cuts. The program is being taken over by a faculty committee and none of us knows what will happen or whether its former quality will be retained. Fortunately, my cohort graduated and was certified just before Dr. Schmidt left. I know there is also a good program at Garrett-Evangelical seminary in Evanston, IL, but I’m not familiar with other programs.

        While I don’t have any individual directees yet, I just taught my first seminar in spiritual direction. The course that I created is called “Blessed Is She” and it teaches women to harvest and share their own spiritual wisdom from their life stories. It uses spiritual disciplines to help women discover where and how in their lives God has been guiding them and how they’ve responded. The first set of evaluations looks pretty good, so I’m in the process of revising it for the next session. I wish you a good journey toward this ministry if that’s where God is calling you to go. If you’d like to chat more, get Dan to send you my email address. Peace!
        preparing life stories.

    • Cynthia, I feel your frustation. For me, though, the changes are welcome. But I have only been a Lay Servant for a few years, and preaching is not my primary way of serving. I love the ongoing study requirements, but I know it may not be for all! I think I would be in most of the small groups and classes I pursue even without the change in requirements. But I wish you well and joy in your ministry.

    • Cynthia, I understand that your post is really about your frustration with the new training requirements for certified lay speakers – but those of us who are seeking to follow Christ should never view being known as a “servant” to be a demotion. That is only true in the world around us 🙂

  4. Dan,

    Thank you for your in-depth response here. As you wrote a response to the former post, you mentioned yourself as a ‘voice in the wilderness’. Keep crying out. And, others like you, keep crying out. There are folks who hear and respond. My hope continues to stay alive because of your posts, and books I’ve read such as The Mystic Way of Evangelism by Elaine Heath. Though I won’t be considered “young” clergy, I’m continuing the path until God shows me somewhere different to serve.

    You wrote: “My focus is much more on what I discern God calling us to be, what we can become, the abundant assets God is blessing us with, and who is truly leading us in prophetic, transformative, and creative ways. I assess what I perceive to be flawed thinking and under-functioning practice as a springboard to “what if,” alternatives.”

    If we can re-focus our attention to what God is calling us to be, what we can become, etc., we have a better chance of getting there. It’s not going to be easy, yet I hear more and more voices crying out from the wilderness, so I know folks are not alone.

    Among the other many points you made, you said this about General Conference and discernment: “Wouldn’t it be amazing if we used our time together at General Conference as a global discernment time to refocus on our understanding of our identity, mission, and call to seek and serve the will of God for the twenty-first century? I honestly believe if we did the deep work of clarifying who we are and why we are here, the lesser questions about our structure and polity would fall very naturally into place.”

    That would be truly life changing! Individually and corporately.

    Again, thank you for continuing to speak up and out and for holding hope high and allowing the light to shine.

    Debra

  5. Just wanted to say thanks for your thoughts–here and previous thoughts. I’ve been reading your stuff for a long time, and I had this “aha” moment in reading your latest thoughts. I get what you’re saying more completely, and I think that’s due in large measure to my willingness to put aside my cynicism, proclivity to think the worst, and surf the death tsunami.

    I know you began this post as a response to why young people would pursue a call to ordained ministry in the UMC, and that was the framework for your response. But your thoughts reminded me that we should be working on extending our invitation to ALL people, regardless of age (or any other category, for that matter). I’m thrilled to encourage people in our local DCOM meetings, celebrating with the second career folks and the 20-something folks…and everyone else… alike. Renewal, and the accompanying new life, new hope, new ways of looking at things, exciting new ministry, amazing and surprising new partnerships with other Christians, emerges more clearly when we look at ourselves as a people gathered…not in our respective boxes but together with the walls down. Now that I think about it, that’s something that emerges in your previous posts.

    Thanks again. I appreciate the challenge I find in your blog.

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