Is There Grace in Gracious Exits?

Around the Way Forward there is much talk about the need for legislation that allows clergy, congregations, and conferences to exit the denomination without penalty.  The proposal is being called “Gracious Exit.” I get the rationale at a surface level, and may even be put in a position to employ it, but I also find it theologically disturbing.  Here are my prayerful musings.

Using the word grace in this context feels like a violation to me.  Grace is a theologically charged word. Grace is much more than a synonym for “kind,” “polite,” or “civil.”  To attempt to define it, grace is the unmerited gift of relationship with the One who is above all, in all, and through all. Grace is knowing that we are not alone and that nothing can separate us from God’s love.  Grace is being included into something bigger than ourselves, indeed into an infinitely larger community where we get to practice the virtues of patience, kindness, humility, forgiveness, never insisting on our own way, and bearing one another in love – virtues not really needed in like-minded religious clubs or if grace is seen only as a personal transaction.  Grace holds all labels loosely.  Grace always works for reconciliation and unity, and in this work challenges our prejudices and holds up a mirror to our narrowly-defined agendas to secure our own comfort and get our own way.  It is this challenge that makes grace hard to accept or trust because this grace requiring so much sacrifice and even more humility.  Faith in something beyond ourselves and our own efforts is so hard, and that’s what is needed to know God’s grace. And so, we often turn away from grace in order to promote our own religious agenda.  And here is the really good news about grace; even in our self-righteousness, grace remains and works for good.  That’s what makes grace so amazing!

In recent days I have heard calls from several “camps” to allow for gracious exits as a part of our Way Forward.  I have heard people call for this freedom to “depart and thrive.”  Often, it feels much more like an invitation for others to leave, wrapped in polite or “gracious” language.  Many want this so that “the issue” will go away and so we can stop talking about it.  It just doesn’t feel right to me to use this sacred word to justify easy divorce and civil schism.  Grace is what beckons us to the common table, not to divide it.  Grace is what allows us to find our true selves in the presence of the Other and “others.”  Grace is knowing we are not alone, and thus the challenge to build life-giving relationships and to truly learn how to love.  Grace is the hard work of our calling.

Yes, we can be polite and civil in our eagerness for divorce, but I wonder, are we denying or cheapening grace in the process? While God can work for good in all things, will we be able to “thrive” with any sense of faithfulness to anything “Other” than ourselves, if we make divorce and cheap grace the accepted norm?   Perhaps our divisions and differences are not “impeding our mission,” as some claim, but are the very realities that make it possible for us to truly fulfill our mission and offer something truly life-giving to the world.  I wonder.

If we make this policy, what are the unintended consequences? Would it not be the de-facto demise of the denomination? What would hold the covenant together in terms of accepting things like apportionments or appointments? Could congregations come and go depending on the current climate?  Could congregations apply this same grace to staying instead of exiting, continuing to act upon the spirit of our doctrine and discipline, as they see it, and with the grace of their contextual colleagues and conference, until another who can claim to have never committed disciplinary sin is thus able to act in righteousness, instead of grace, and start casting stones? (Which may be a good way to look at it).  I wonder and will continue to pray for deeper understanding.

Author: Michael Roberts

I am the senior pastor at First United Methodist Church in Conway, Arkansas. I love this work! Playing guitar, reading/writing, and theological conversation are among my favorite pastimes. My wife, Deidre is also an ordained United Methodist minister, and we have three wonderful children, all adults, and two grandchildren. I hold degrees from the University of Central Arkansas (BA), Duke University Divinity School (M.Div), and Southern Methodist University (D.min).

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