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.

Conference Resolutions and Unintended Consequences

IMG_4576Resolutions often bring hurt and harm. The process taps into deep emotions and strong convictions.  While sometimes necessary to move us forward, the process is also designed to divide. To build upon Bishop Saenz sermon at Annual Conference, this process pushes us into the perspective of disciples behind locked doors, motivated by fear, suspicions, and a need to fix things on our own. In this place it is hard to notice the living Christ in our midst saying “peace.”

After resolutions this year, I have heard colleagues express deep hurt.  I know how that feels and ask forgiveness where I have caused it.  For a personal example, I remember the time when my daughter, as a youth “member,” gave an impassioned speech against a resolution and then was accosted with both physical and verbal aggression.  She literally had to run away in fear.  And, I have noticed people express being hurt, in some cases, by people who express being hurt, in other cases. That’s the power of resolutions.

Much is being said about the hurt that came from the resolution affirming women in ministry.  In hindsight, I believe we need to reflect on this process that can so easily be used to inflict harm, often as an unintended consequence.  It is clear to me that there were intentions of good-will in the presenting of this resolution.  In conversations, the presenters called it an olive branch, a show of support, especially after the tension, and suspicions, around the amendments last year.  I believe we need to honor this effort and give thanks to them.

At the same time, I believe we owe deep gratitude to some of the women who countered this resolution.  While, in hindsight, there may have been other ways to handle it, some chose to excuse themselves from the bar of the conference (not leave the conference) and abstain from the vote.  This was an appropriate political response to a political offering. It was not breaking covenant. It was an action that made us all aware of a need for healing. It may have also saved us from a deeper discomfort. By their nature, resolutions invite opposition.  If it had gotten to that point, someone could have argued that much of the Christian world does not support this and offered a biblical rationale.  Women in ministry would have become an issue to be justified and defend – once again. This resolution was asking women to vote on their own legitimacy – once again.  I can certainly see why this was a problem, and why many felt like they had to come up with a response in the moment (and there was no time for much advanced planning). Again, we owe them our gratitude and continued conversation, not accusations and reprimands.

I have been shocked by the backlash. In most circumstances around resolutions, we fight and move on – sometimes even go out to dinner together. Why did this “fight” lead to such discomfort among us? What do we fear about the deep emotions and strong convictions expressed in this one? It reminds me of father-figures in my life telling girls to “calm down” while telling boys to “get tougher.”  Perhaps the problem for some is that these women didn’t just politely go along. Oh, if we could come together and laugh at the irony and learn from it.

Yes, hindsight is 20/20. In hindsight, I believe that a statement of affirmation would have been appropriate, rather than calling for a vote. In hindsight, I wish some would recognize this, even if they don’t like the way the others handled it. I hope we can all try again in some other form than a resolution.  Together may we give thanks for the treasures of forgiveness and grace held within this “earthened vessel” called the church, full of fallible and flawed beings who are the reason for these treasures and who have the power to make them real.