Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Money on the Table

I had the joy of spending three and one-half days in Atlanta last week at a training for a program being piloted by the Fund for Theological Education (FTE). I have had the the privilege of working with the FTE on different conferences and grant proposals for several years now, but this event was the first training session I have participated in with them. As expected, I returned home with pages of notes and a mind that keeps thinking in anticipation about the journey our congregation will be taking together in Lent of 2010.

Teams of three people from five congregations gathered last week to hear about a new program of Vocation Care - a program in which congregations create a culture of noticing individuals and their gifts, naming these gifts, and then nurturing these gifts to full fruition. A significant part of this program is the art of storytelling - of making space where stories can be told and teaching individuals how to listen and respond. By modeling this practice often last week, we were able to hear and to share many stories. Several of the stories are still haunting the corners of my mind.

I first met David, an incredibly gifted and remarkable individual who was trained as an attorney and peacemaker before responding to a call and entering seminary. He has traveled the world, met with diverse groups of people in hopes of bringing opposition together, is a competent and effective preacher, and radiates wisdom from his entire being. David was a candidate for ordination in the United Methodist Church. Upon graduation from seminary, he had a distinct call. He and another colleague felt called to create a new kind of faith community in Georgia - a community where people of all colors could come together in worship. It would be a new church start in the United Methodist Church - a church that would be created to be intentionally multi-racial and multi-ethnic. In excitement and anticipation, David shared his dream with his bishop, hoping that doors would be opened so that kingdom building could commence. The bishop listened and then responded, "Not in my Georgia."

David is no longer a United Methodist. He's thriving instead in another denomination. Throughout last week, I was reminded each time he opened his mouth of how much the United Methodist Church is missing through this gifted servant. He was ready to serve, armed with a vision of biblical proportions, and the bishop shut him down immediately.

One of the members of our team from Mount Vernon Place was Bill. Bill has already shared a portion of his story with you on my blog through a testimony that I posted on the day he joined the church. Bill is extraordinary - a hymn writer, a talented musician, a gifted speaker, a gentle soul, a patient listener, a laughing partner, a lover of people and the world, and the list goes on and on.

As we told our stories last week, a part of Bill's story that had to be told was about how his call to ordained ministry was shut down. He shared with many people how he had experienced a call on his life, enrolled and completed seminary, was appointed to the local church, and then found himself unable to serve because of his sexual orientation. He's now an extraordinary layperson - an incredible gift that overflows to many pockets of our congregation - but I still cannot help to think about how much our church is missing out on by not allowing Bill and others like him to serve as pastors of our churches.

Businesses talk all of the time about the money being left on the table. Businesses do whatever they can to make sure that all profits are maximized, that no area of revenue is left unturned. They maximize every gift in their team and every possible area that is revenue producing. This notion of money being left on the table was mentioned once last week, but it is one of the key learnings that is sticking with me.

In both of these cases, there is money that was left on the table. Two individuals were presenting themselves as candidates for ordination with significant gifts and a heart committed to spreading scriptural holiness across the land. Two individuals were ready to go and proclaim the good news of the blind receiving their sight, the lame walking, the lepers being cleansed, and the oppressed being set free. One person was told 'no' by a bishop. The other person was told 'no' by a Discipline. And, there are countless others just like these two.

Why? Why is our church leaving so many gifts on the table, turning our backs on what we could be out of fear of what our eyes cannot see? Why is it that we have such a hard time embracing something new when Jesus was always doing something new? Why do we prefer the stone embrace of institutions instead of the Spirit-filled winds of a movement? Why do we prefer to stand in centers of power and stability when Jesus was always dancing in the margins?

How long, O Lord, must we wait before so many gifts are taken from the table and set free - set free to set your world on fire?