a bit monkish.
Being united doesn’t mean we’re always in agreement. Unity is nothing more than a coalescence of ideals and purpose. The United States of America, for example, is united, but its citizens are certainly not of one mind. We disagree, sometimes over important issues, but in the end we have a greater good in mind: The preservation of the republic. I'm in unity with my fellow Chicago Cubs fans, but we don't always agree on the best winning strategy.
From voices across The United Methodist Church, we hear talk of unity and disunity, and whether or not we can continue to live under the same ecclesial roof. The primary, contentious issue has to do with human sexuality. But human sexuality is a surface-level issue representing deeper matters, such as of the natures of God, humanity, and Scripture.
Why does The United Methodist Church exist? The Book of Discipline states our purpose is “to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.” Yet when we look at the statistics of the denomination, we’re losing disciples, not making them - at least in North America. The Central Conferences are making disciples at an exciting rate while it seems that many United Methodists in North America seek to transform the world through facility expansions, saving the environment, and personal fulfillment.
I like to describe myself as an optimistic realist. I have great hopes for the people called Methodist. However, until we can find theological unity in our disagreements, we’re going to remain shackled by issues that divide us. And while those of us in North America bicker over matters that are clear in Scripture and 2000 years of church history, our African United Methodist sisters and brothers are transforming their cultures, one new disciple after another. They might disagree on discipleship methods from time to time, but they’re unified in the task of making those disciples. Just like Jesus (and the Book of Discipline) tell us to do.
Perhaps the formation of The United Methodist Church 48 years ago was a great theological experiment: Can Christians with conflicting theological views live in unity? The answer is 'yes' if everyone abides by the same covenantal framework. However, once the breaking of covenant is seen as courageous and noble, all that's left is chaos, especially when the covenant breakers are the very ones who are supposed to be leading us.
What used to unite us was our covenant to live together in theological tension, even if our personal views didn't always align with official church teachings or policies. Without faithfulness to our United Methodist covenant, we're no different from the people in the book of Judges, who did whatever seemed right in their own eyes (Judges 17:6). And we know how well that turned out for them.
(c) 2016 Michael C. Voigts
Whether we’re brand new pastors or have been in ministry for decades, it’s important to remember the basics.
1. You’re doing this because God called you to this.
There’s no way around it: you’re in pastoral ministry primarily because of the call of God on your life. Being a pastor didn’t begin with you. It began with God, who created you with gifts for this task. If you can’t clearly describe this call of God on your life, perhaps pastoral ministry is simply about what you want to do rather than what God is calling you to do.
Ministry is taxing on pastors. It calls for sacrifices that your entire family will have to accept. When you get discouraged (which all pastors do), remember that God obviously believes you’re up to the task or else God would not have called you. Your strength is not your own, but God’s. Ensuring that our own relationship with Christ is growing and thriving is one way to made it through the hardships of ministry; hardships that are, actually, a joy.
2. If you see the work of a pastor as a career, you’re no longer in ministry.
My heart breaks for pastors who see themselves in a pastoral career. A career is for those who are pursuing monetary gain through an occupational profession. Ministry, conversely, is a vocation. It’s about serving Christ first and worrying about compensation later. If we see one church as a step towards another, we’re not in ministry because we’re just using people to get to other, seemingly more important, congregations. Ministering to people should be an end in itself, not a selfish means to another end.
I’ve always entered a new pastorate with the idea that it would be my last one until I retired. In that way, I’ve been able to fully invest in the congregation and surrounding community and not look past them for what better church might be down the road. The people in the pews are smart enough to know if your heart and focus are with them or beyond them.
3. Anything you do as a pastor is for the glory of God, so do it in a way that honors God.
In the Old Testament, God’s people were asked to present only the very best to God for sacrifices. In ministry, we should only present to God our very best, because God is worth it. Presenting a sermon or Bible Study in which we haven’t prepared adequately doesn’t honor God. Laziness does not honor God. Procrastination does not honor God. Giving less than 100% in anything, from answering the phone to greeting worship guests, does not honor God. Ministry is definitely a sacrifice, so let's present our very best to God.
It’s an honor to serve as a pastor. Let’s cherish this honor God has bestowed upon us by not, as Jesus said, give what is holy to the dogs. To appreciate the privilege of serving as a pastor is to understand that this requires a level of holiness and integrity that is above the standards others have. All Christians should honor God with their lives. Pastors, however, should honor God with their very breath.
4. You represent Christ before you represent your denomination.
I’ve met pastors who live to further the world of their denomination. I think they're missing the point of who we're supposed to represent. Those of us who are ordained certainly certainly represent the church that ordained us (and we should do that well), but Scripture tells us to represent Christ above all (Colossians 3:17). Denominations will come and go, but Almighty God is eternal. When we minister in a hospital or in a prison, we do so ultimately in the name of Jesus, not in the name of our denomination.
With all that in mind, knowing how to work with denominational leadership is important, for if we cannot live in obedience to them, it’s going to be difficult for us to live in obedience to Christ. We honor Christ by honoring the vows we made before God at our ordination. Living or doing ministry in a way that violates our denominational covenant is breaking a vow we made before Almighty God, and it does not set a good example to the congregations we serve.
5. We should never think we’re too important to take out the trash.
With all the emphasis on leadership in the church today, pastors can forget that as Christians and followers of Jesus, we’re still called to follow before we’re called to lead. It was not above Jesus to humble himself and wash his disciples’ feet. Just because we have a seminary diploma and ordination document framed in our office doesn’t mean we’re above doing the most menial tasks in the church.
Serving as a pastor is not about being respected, or honored, or revered. It’s about sacrifice, service, and promoting Jesus Christ, not ourselves. One medieval saint wrote that we should “love to be unknown and esteemed as nothing.” That way, people will see Jesus and not us.
NOTE: To be ‘fair and balanced,’ I’m working on a list of 5 basic truths for laypeople.
(c) 2015 Michael C. Voigts
The paragraphs below are some random thoughts that have been swirling around in my mind for several weeks.
What is a prophetic voice? Is it, as Isaiah wrote, “the voice of one crying out in the wilderness” (Is. 40:3)? Is a prophetic voice one that rails against the status quo? Perhaps a prophetic voice is one who advocates for the poor and marginalized in society. Prophetic voices may even exist in politics. Community leaders have prophetic voices as they advocate for the poor in their neighborhoods. Protectors of the environment may have prophetic voices for the sake of the planet against the industrialization of the world. However, as Christians, our prophetic voice should differ from the prophetic voices of those outside of the faith, for the forthrightness of our prophetic message should encompass eternal, not just temporal, issues in the world.
In the Old Testament, the prophets of Yahweh were conveyers of God’s message to God’s people and beyond. They called people not to new ideas about Yahweh, but a return to a more traditional and obedient relationship with Yahweh. God empowered these prophets because the people had abandoned their covenant with Yahweh in order to embrace the worldview of the pagan nations around them.
In Jeremiah’s day, the prophet was criticized (and his life threatened) because he dared to call the people to repentance and restoration with the God they had abandoned. Much of Jeremiah’s life was spent countering the false prophets who advocated new ideas about religious life. Jeremiah 23:13 states, “In the prophets of Samaria I saw a disgusting thing: they prophesied by Baal and led my people astray (NRSV).” Voices in United Methodism are doing the same thing: Rather than becoming prophetic voices for a return to apostolic understandings of God, they are calling us, like the false prophets in Jeremiah's time, to abandon the truth of God for the moral fashion trends of the culture around us.
The true prophetic voices of Israel and Judah called for a return to Yahweh as the basis for social justice. Micah's prophetic call “to do justice, and to love kindness,” is grounded in the call “to walk humbly with God.” For Micah, social justice is an offshoot of our faithful covenant with God. Our social holiness sprouts from our personal holiness. Later, when John the Baptist called people to repent, he was calling them to turn back to God, which would result in them treating others fairly and justly (Luke 3:3ff). Without personal holiness, social holiness becomes nothing more than secular social action. Secular social action is needed in our society, but for those of us in the church, we have something more to offer.
Like people standing on a beach believing a hurricane will dissolve before it reaches the shore, many in the UMC refuse to accept the reality of where we are as a denomination. Factions have grown so opposed to each other (and have allowed the politics of social issues to infiltrate the church) that meaningful dialogue cannot exist. When clergy openly and blatantly violate the very Book of Discipline they once vowed to God to uphold - and do so without fear of consequences - it make me wonder what practical role the Book of Discipline has in the life of the church.
Lest one think that I am a conservative proponent of maintaining the denominational machine, please know I believe strongly in the power of prophetic voices. Challenging the status quo has been part of my ministry since I was ordained in 1993. Prophetic exhortation keeps us from regressing into denominationalism and maintaining the system for the sake of maintaining the system. I’m all about pushing the limits of who we are as individuals and as a denomination, particularly through the viewpoints of others. Surrounding ourselves with others who do not agree with us and who push our beliefs is not only spiritually forming, it is also theologically strengthening.
Current issues in the UMC seem to have been hijacked by secular social activists who don’t claim to see life and events through the lens of Scriptural truth. It almost seems as though some in the UMC desire that the media and others in society approve of who we are and what we're doing. In The Sermon on the Mount, Jesus referred many times to the Mosaic law and offered practical interpretations that were more strict than what even the religious leaders of the day believed. Jesus led the discussion of a more obedient life in ways that were in violation of the cultural norm - even the religious cultural norm. He didn't encourage his followers to cater to the whims of society, but to challenge the whims of society by obedience to God.
In the book of Acts, the earliest Christians did not embrace the Roman culture, but prophetically attempted to woo people to Christ and away from the Roman culture. In some ways, we're seeing the opposite of that today: some in the church are rejecting Biblical understandings of what it means to be human in favor of what the culture tells that it means to be human. We're forgetting who we are as people created in God's image.
One constant thread running through the Bible is that God’s people are called to have separate values than the world has. From the giving of the Law in Exodus to the example of God’s faithful people in Revelation, our covenant with God is that we’re to be different - and separate - from the culture around us. This certainly doesn’t mean that we’re to avoid people outside the Christian faith! But this does mean that we should have the influence on society, and not the other way around. We love all people, but as Christians we’re bound to the timeless moral laws set in motion by Almighty God. The spiritually blind should not lead the agenda for those who claim to live in the light of Christ.
How did we get here? It seems our United Methodist Church is anything but united. I've even heard some say that we’re beyond denominational repair. As we approach the Connectional Table’s meeting in May, Annual Conference sessions this summer, and General Conference in the spring of 2016, we’re going to hear a lot about prophetic voices in the church. I hope that when we begin to think about these prophetic voices, we remember they should have thousands of years of Biblical tradition behind them. God's prophetic voices call us back to an obedient relationship with God, not towards an embrace of the culture's changing view of morality.
We should love people as they are. We should accept them as Christ accepts them. As the people of Christ, one of our primary tasks is to invite people into a saving relationship with Christ. May our agenda not be a political party, or a social cause, or even a tradition. May our agenda be the furthering of the life, message, and work of Jesus Christ as presented in the Bible, by the transformational power of the Holy Spirit working in us and through us, and to the glory of God the Father.
Note: The image above is of a statue of Bernard of Clairvaux. Notice how Bernard's eyes are fixed upon the eyes of the crucified Christ, even as he shares his written words with us. This is the essence of a prophetic life.
(c) 2015 Michael C. Voigts
I'm a follower of Christ serving as an Associate Professor of Spiritual Formation at Asbury Theological Seminary.