On October 1 I started a new appointment as the Director of ReStart Initiative, a cabinet position with the purpose of providing care, support, and help with next-step discernment for all who want to remain United Methodist and who are affected by disaffiliation. Some have asked if I am “excited” about this. Since every conversation seems to be born in pain and heartbreak, excitement is not the best word. I have been inspired, however, by the faith of so many who also have hope in the midst of pain and who trust that healing will come. God is definitely at work!
Here are a few stories from these first weeks that I am holding in my heart. For the first one, a man came up to me and said, “I just want you to know that I am conservative.” He then called his wife over and said, “I lean to the right on many things; she leans to the left,” Then he put his arm around her, and said, “Together we make something beautiful.” Even in laughter, a sadness was expressed over how this witness was no longer welcomed in the church they had loved and served for years.
Another man spoke of his newfound calling to make sure that there would be “a traditional United Methodist Church” in their community. I was struck by the word “traditional.” To help me understand, he spoke of a church where people come together to worship, to say the Creed and the Lord’s Prayer together (this was important), and where people could have different perspectives on some things but still honor and love one another. He was proud that his church was one of the very few places in town where an openly gay person could serve among them and was, seemingly, much loved. That all changed in an instant, with a vote. “So yes,” he said, “I want to help cultivate a traditional United Methodist Church in this community.”
For one more story, a woman spoke of how her friends are calling and saying, “We didn’t want you to leave. You are one of us.” With this plea she realized that she could not be a part of a church where “us” meant creating a “them” – where it became okay to objectify others as objects to be feared, as issues rather than people, as agendas rather than members of the Body of Christ. She, and many others, want a church that focuses more on the beliefs and values that are life-giving for all rather than trying to judge some by a different standard and creating an “us and them.” “As I understand it,” she said, “That is just not the way Christ.”
My new “congregation,” so to speak, is made up of many who feel that they have been “disaffiliated” or “exiled” from a church they have loved. While all might use terms like traditional, moderate, centrist, or progressive to describe a part of their calling, they are also committed to finding community under a higher calling and creed. The term used most often to describe this is “United Methodist.” For these beloved souls, this work is not primarily about preserving an institution. It is about cultivating a way of life, where we are called to love one another with patience, kindness, and a humility that does not insist on its own way. As the Apostle Paul says, without this we have nothing. John Wesley called this “true holiness.”
My job right now is to help cultivate this way of life. I invite you into this calling as well – and in this invitation I want to also include all who have, or are thinking about, voting for disaffiliation. There is a more excellent way.