My time spent sitting in the hallways of Candler discussing idyllic images of ministry in The United Methodist Church seems a world away. Things such as church council, SPR, itinerancy, district superintendents, and Annual Conference always seem to work like clockwork as instruments of God’s hands in the world within the walls of the theological institution. When I walked into my office on June 20, 2012, and hung my beautifully framed Master of Divinity diploma over my desk, I knew that these attitudes regarding the United Methodist “system” were sound.
Now is probably the point where one might assume that I am about to rip the system to shreds and talk about how denominations and the UMC are broken organizations that can’t effectively minister in the world. I cannot and will not do this. My calling is to effectively live into ministry as a pastor in The United Methodist Church, and I believe strongly that there is much life in the pastors and faith communities across our connection. What I have found, though, is a sense of realism that I lacked during my time at Candler.
When I walked into my office for the first time in June I was walking into my position as the associate pastor at one of the larger churches in my Annual Conference. In a short time I began to grow to love the people of the church, to work well with the staff, and to develop a healthy relationship with my senior pastor. I saw good stuff happening in the halls of our church on a weekly basis.
My whole system and world in ministry abruptly changed when my senior pastor was placed on leave one week prior to Christmas. I am still processing all of this, but, in essence, the bishop felt as if my senior pastor could be more effective as a pastor if he took continuing education leave and received a new appointment at the next Annual Conference. It is hard on a church when they lose their senior pastor, and, as you can imagine, it is incredibly difficult when this loss happens a week before Christmas.
Over the past several months I have been working closely with my district superintendent and part time interim senior pastor. I have learned much from both of these men as they have faithfully worked to bring healing and transformation in the midst of a difficult situation. Because of this interesting pastoral change, I have taken on much more responsibilities, worked longer hours, and have learned more in four months than I could have hoped to learn in four years.
Through these past few months at times it was easy to blame “the system” for some tough ministry situations, but I have also found that ministry is not the system. The denomination does not work as smoothly as I imagined it did while I was at Candler, but this is not something that has brought me into a sea of cynicism about church organization. Instead, what I have found is that the conference leadership is composed of faithful people with names like Joe and Richard and David and Mary Virginia and Mike. These people are not their positions, but they are working to faithfully minister through their positions in the same way that I am.
As we discussed this almost sacrosanct denominational structure from the halls of Candler I did not have the entire picture. The structure is important, but structure is comprised of names and faces that have families, and therein is the realism. Nothing is perfect, but I am now colleagues with these people and we are all working faithfully to “make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”
During my first semester at Candler I had the privilege of taking one of the final Methodist history courses taught by Russell Richey. In talking about the “machinery” of the denomination, Dr. Richey said that “American Methodists have gloried and agonized [it], from the very beginning.” I am finding that the true value in the Church and life within The United Methodist Church comes in the space between glorifying and agonizing. It is easy for seminarians to glorify our structures (or other ideals) and it is equally as easy for clergy to agonize over the realities of our denomination, but I am finding that real ministry and real life change happens in the space between. It happens in the relationships we have with others in our congregations, with other pastors, district superintendents, and bishops. This is the contextual piece that I learned at Candler. Theology, Biblical scholarship, and polity are incredibly important, but only when they inform our relationships and help to strengthen our love of God and neighbor, that is, after all, the telos of faith.