Monday, May 09, 2011

Called to Action

I serve a church in a denomination that is declining. The loss in numbers has not happened over the course of the last few years. Rather, we have been losing members for decades. We are now at a place where nearly half of our churches have not taken in a single new member in the last year. We are closing many churches. We have buildings that are in need of great repair. And, while the alarm has been sounding for years, we are finally being called to action. We are being led to take note of what is happening and do something different.

Assigned by the Council of Bishops, a working group in our church has created a new document based upon extensive research. Bishops are now introducing the document in Annual Conferences, encouraging each church to respond and make plans to incorporate 16 ministries/strategies that were found in 5,000 vital congregations across the connection by setting SMART goals and taking note of current trends and statistics. We are all to respond to a call to act - to do something different.

I have participated in two conversations with my bishop on the Call to Action. One conversation was with a large gathering of pastors and laypeople in my region. The other gathering was a phone call with about five pastors and the bishop. We have talked through the document together. I have left each conversation being both inspired and completely frustrated. I cannot get past the first page of the document without feeling my heart rate escalate.

The first page of the document reads, "Disciple making and world transformation occurs through vital congregations." It then says, "Vital congregations are Spirit-filled, forward-leaning communities of believers that welcome all people." The document then refers to Galatians 3:28 in which Paul says all are one in Christ Jesus.

While the church I serve, Mount Vernon Place UMC, abundantly welcomes all people, the denomination of which I am a part is not a forward-leaning community that welcomes all people. Rather, we are still a denomination that discriminates. While we have moved past the days of discriminating based on color, we are still discriminating based on sexual orientation. We are still saying that some are welcome but others are not because their sexual orientation is incompatible with Christian teaching.

While the Call to Action report is calling me to action as I have already started to work with our Congregational Council on the 16 points in the document, the issue of inclusiveness is the real issue that is calling me to action. A lunchtime conversation two weeks ago has heightened my awareness on the need for change.

The woman started coming to our church in the fall having recently moved to Washington from the South. She knew she wanted to attend a Reconciling Congregation but had not yet found the right fit. Someone from the Reconciling Ministries Network had recently spoken at our church, and he suggested she give us a try. He then took time to tell me what a blessing this woman would be to any congregation. She came, and she continued to come. She was there almost every Sunday, attending a few mid-week gatherings, and was back for our Christmas Eve worship.

January came, and I did not see her much. I reached out to her and learned that she had been traveling. February came, and I did not see her much. I reached out again. This pattern continued until we were finally able to meet for lunch two weeks ago.

Over the course of lunch I learned that she had started dating someone. Her weekends were taking her to another place where this woman lived. In addition, the gift of a blossoming relationship built on the common interests of the church, music, family and other aspects of life was causing her to reevaluate her relationship with the United Methodist Church.

She shared with me how she had been part of a congregation that fought hard for change in our denomination. She told me stories of the 2008 General Conference in Fort Worth, Texas. She shared the pain that had come from these battles in addition to offering glimpses of hope. She then continued to talk with me.

I'm not someone who is only going to come on Sunday mornings, Pastor Donna. I am the kind of church member who gives it my all - the kind of church member who always shows up.

I love the United Methodist Church. The United Methodist Church has been my life. But I cannot continue to be part of a structure that does not honor the fullness of who God has created me to be.

With marriage equality a reality in the District of Columbia, I want to be part of a church that will not only accept my membership and all my gifts but one that will allow me to be married - to honor my desire to share the rest of my life with someone I love.

I then asked her where she was going to church when she was in Washington on the weekends. She told me she was going to another church of another denomination right up the street from us. When I asked her what she liked about the church she responded by saying, "The website tells me that I can be married in their church."

When are we as a denomination going to start being the church Jesus has called us to be? We allow rich people to be pastors. We allow divorced people to be pastors. We allow adulterers to be pastors. We allow people to be pastors who fit in a category that Jesus actually had something to say about but we do not allow people to be pastors who are gay or lesbian - no matter the fullness of their gifts.

I have the authority to marry couples who have only known each other for three months. I can marry people who have already been married seven times. I can marry people who have major issues that should keep them apart instead of joined together as one. Yet, I cannot marry people whose lives are a perfect complement to one another - people who deeply and passionate love one another and seek to glorify God through their marriage.

The church I serve still holds a mark of its sin-filled past. One cannot enter our historic sanctuary building without walking beneath the words, "Methodist Episcopal Church South." The grand church was created as a monument to slavery - a testament to a white man's ability to make a black man his slave. Thankfully, different voices started to fill our pulpit at the beginning of the last century. These voices called for an inclusive church. The most prominent voice - the voice that led the church to a place of having over 4000 members, even said on his last Sunday in 1950 that "The problem with the church today is that we have to get past our deep-seated prejudices if we are ever going to be the Body of Christ." I have no idea if he was being called to action by a group of bishops who were concerned about the church. What I do know is that he planted seeds of inclusiveness on that day - seeds that have led to a beautiful congregation that is black and white and many colors in between, housed and unhoused, believers and people struggling to believe, gay and straight, liberal and conservative. He stood for something different - for a new reality - for a congregation aligned with the ways of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Church - my dear brothers and sisters in Christ - it's time for us to wake up. It's time for us to get past our deep-seated prejudices and be the Body of Christ. Hundreds of people are all around us longing for an opportunity to come in. Countless individuals are in need of being told of God's love and experiencing this love through us - the Body of Christ around the world.

I've been called to action. What about you?


Maggie said...

Amen, Donna. Despite the fact that my denomination has a famously gay bishop (who is now so worn out from that role that he is retiring early) I often feel that the signs out front of our churches would be more homest if they said "The Episcopal Church welcomes you, maybe" Thanks so much for your post and for your own ministry.

cherylw said...

That's powerful. Thank you for taking such a strong stand on this. I'm sure it's easy (knowing how you feel, how can you not stand up) and hard (to know the church doesn't support this) at the same time.

I liked on Grey's Anatomy last week how when one person in a lesbian couple was struggling about her church's non-acceptance to have her marry the person she loves, her friend said that our "churches haven't yet caught up to God". Meaning, that God accepts all people and would want her to marry her partner.

It is interesting to think that not so long ago, people of different skin colors were not accepted and look how crazy that thought would be today. I hope we're not too far away from when all people, regardless of sexual orientation or anything for that matter, can be accepted. .

Thanks for moving us in that direction. I'm just sorry we lost someone (and many others I'm sure) because we aren't there yet... though some of us are trying!

Sarah said...

This is such an inspiring post. It reminds me of reactions I've had-- both joy and frustration--when discussing the issue of sexual morality with friends and colleagues. It also causes me to reflect on all the times I've been asked to explain why I stay Catholic, knowing my church's stance on this and other issues. Sadly, the response "I love this church, but I can't stay unless it changes" is one that I also hear often from my students. I do respect that perspective. But recognizing that we are called to enact positive change in the churches we love so deeply--that's why I stay, or at least part of it. It's something I've struggled to articulate to others in the past, and you say it so well here. Thank you for this lovely and inspirational piece :)