Why I’m Not Freaking Out About the Methodist Apocalypse

My Virginia bishop Sharma Lewis (VAUMC Communications)

In 2019, United Methodism will experience an apocalypse. Representatives from all over the world will meet to decide once and for all how to move forward as a denomination in our endless, life-sucking debate about the validity of queer identity. Apparently there are two options being put forward. One is for the United Methodist Book of Discipline to re-assume its 1968 form before there was any language one way or the other about homosexuality. This would be a huge win for the progressives. The other is for United Methodism to assume a multi-branch structure with traditionalists and progressives presumably being split into different branches. Originally there was a third, conservatives-win-everything option in which no changes would be made and bishops would be forced to impose mandatory minimum punishments on queer clergy and queer weddings. It appears that this third option might be off the table, which is a huge relief since it would cause hundreds of churches to lose their pastors when they forfeit their credentials to stand up for what they believe.

Unlike many of my Methodist blogger colleagues, I am not a lifelong Methonerd. I came into Methodism as a young adult through a mostly queer church in Toledo, Ohio that now no longer exists. I have zero sense of institutional loyalty. The closest thing I have to that is a love for my clergy family in the Virginia Conference. But I haven’t been around my Virginia colleagues much for several years and something deeply painful happened in the past year that pushed me away from them.

My inner spiritual circle and the people whose intuitions I trust the most are an ecumenical group of Christians who are mostly ex-evangelical, mostly queer, and mostly people of color. They are the movement to whom I consider myself most accountable. They are the ones who have been my family in a way that no one outside my blood relatives has ever been for me. They are the ones whose Christianity I want to see win.

I also have some treasured relationships with Christians who differ with me theologically but who so clearly love me and so clearly act with honor and integrity that they have won my trust as well. Sometimes things happen that I can only talk to my Calvinist friend Derek about. Sometimes God can only speak to me through my Baptist pastor friend Jonathan. I’m being mentored by another Baptist pastor who has said some things that indicate likely differences, but whose focus in our relationship is on my wholeness and healing.

I pray several times a week with a woman named Katie who wrote a blog about how she was a little nervous at first as a moderate conservative about praying with such an outspokenly progressive pastor (wondering if I was going to judge her); her consistent faithfulness and warm compassion are what I know about her. One of my favorite colleagues in campus ministry is a guy who’s a good bit more conservative than me but is a genius entrepreneur and bold evangelist whose ideas God has used to give me a vision for our ministry.

More recently, God has put several pastors from Uganda in my life through Facebook. One of them is part of a movement to support basic civil rights and protection from violence for LGBTI people (those are the letters they use there). Another one likely has major differences with me theologically but he has spoken incredibly timely prophetic words to me and he literally fasts and prays for me on a weekly basis.

So God has built an incredibly beautiful ecumenical global church family for me entirely through organic, spirit-fostered relationships that actually provide me with everything I need from a church (well, except a salary). I really like our local district superintendent in Louisiana. My Virginia district superintendent reached out to me within 12 hours when I wrote that I was depressed on Facebook three and a half years ago. I love both of our Methodist bishops in Louisiana and Virginia. But I actually think I’ll be okay if the institution crashes and burns, and the resulting crisis forces us to think like a movement again.

There was a time not too far in the past when I was extremely anxious about the financial circumstances of our ministry. We had our institutional funding cut by about a quarter very rapidly and I thought the cuts were going to continue at that pace (they have plateaued for now… at least until the apocalypse). But what God did was to provide what was needed each time we asked. He put some very generous people in our path between local church members, alumni, and relatives of our students. We have built ecumenical relationships with a local progressive Baptist church and the local Metropolitan Community Church. When I started, institutional funding covered more than two thirds of our budget. Three years later, it’s less than a third. Though it will be hard if our institutional funding disappears completely, I honestly believe that God could find a way for us even in those circumstances.

Earlier this week, I had to transplant a huge rosemary bush from one of my garden beds to another. Rosemary is very fussy about being transplanted. I won’t be surprised if it dies after pretending to be okay for several months (which is what another rosemary transplant seems like it’s slowly doing this spring). But I had to move it because it completely took over the bed, and I need room for other herbs there. I’ve had to make a lot of other decisions like that as a gardener. Sometimes one thing has to die so that other things can live. Sometimes things die because my experiments fail. I roasted about ten baby basil plants today because the direct sunlight was too fierce for them.

In any case, maybe God wants to shake things up in the garden of his church because the roots have gotten way too thick in the United Methodism bed and they’re rotting. Maybe he’s willing to risk the root shock of transplanting us so that the whole bed doesn’t continue to languish. Yes, if we become a multi-branch church and individual congregations and conferences have to decide which way to go, that’s going to suck horribly. But what if as much as possible, United Methodist pastors are able to model a pragmatic missional perspective for our congregations in such a circumstance?

I owe everything about who I am as a Christian to the queer Methodists who mentored and nurtured me in Toledo, Ohio when I was at my lowest point. Because of that, God would not let me stay quiet when I wanted to be an uncontroversial moderate back in 2011. At the same time, if I were assigned to a rural congregation in northern Alabama and somehow they forgot to google me, my preaching and pastoral work would be focused on their discipleship, and I would seek to avoid any stumbling blocks that would sabotage that discipleship. I would affirm everything I could affirm and gently challenge where I thought God wanted me to challenge them, always with their personal spiritual growth as my top priority.

The reason my social media profile and blog look the way they do right now is because my primary mission field right now is a secular progressive student body. God has literally brought students to Christ through provocative Facebook posts that would completely sabotage my pastoral work if I were at the rural congregation in northern Alabama. I’m not just trying to be a radical jackass. Everything I say in public has an evangelistic purpose, though sometimes I’ve miscalculated and other times I’ve lost my cool.

I’m not saying it’s right for me to be a complete chameleon according to my pastoral context. Because I grew up evangelical and remain evangelical in many ways, I can authentically preach evangelical. But God has consistently called me to share his love with the world’s outsiders as my primary mission field. The two demographics of people with whom I have had the most fruit in ministry in the past ten years are queer college students and undocumented immigrant youth. So I think I’m supposed to stay in whichever wing or branch of the church allows me to fulfill the call God has revealed most faithfully.

I just don’t want someone whose call and gifts make them able to create thriving ministry among conservative suburbanites to be sabotaged and unduly distracted by what I’m doing even though I’m convinced God wants me to do it. I have not done a gay wedding and I actually turned down a couple who were referred to me to do one because I didn’t have a pastoral relationship with them. To do a gay wedding, I would need to discern that God is commanding me to put my pastoral duty above my covenant with United Methodism. It would be because of the discipleship of a couple who needed me to be their pastor. I understand and respect that many fellow progressives and especially queer Methodists want full inclusion to be mandated immediately throughout the whole church. I’m glad that’s their stance, because I think if all of us were like Obama trying to compromise with a Republican Congress, we would get the same results he got.

As for me, though I believe God’s will is full inclusion for our church and I will follow his will in my own ministry as he reveals it, I’ve had to make peace with the reality that God for some reason speaks very differently to other pastors whom he has been shaped for a different purpose. They are not bereft of the Holy Spirit and neither am I. I actually want there to be Christian leaders who are painfully cautious about their discernment of social issues because of their stubborn commitment to tradition. When I’m trying to discern truth, I often ask my more conservative brethren for help because I need their push-back. We need both priests and prophets in the church in dialectic tension with each other.

And yet I do think it’s time for us to have some kind of ecclesial arrangement that allows us to stop fighting for control (which many of us are actually doing out of a sense of duty and obedience to God). I think we can be more faithful missionally if we’re able to coalesce and tighten the different theological visions around which we build synergy. A certain crowd gets jazzed about doing small groups exactly the way John Wesley did them in the 18th century. Other folks are inspired by liberation theology. There’s a huge ex-evangelical movement in our country right now that I’m a part of whose energy has brought me closer to God. Who am I to say that God can’t use the Wesleyan Covenant Association to reinvigorate other Methodists’ faith for whom that vision is galvanizing?

I do believe we’re living through a season of renewed reformation and revitalization as a church. Part of our discernment within this season may involve letting conservatives and progressives have respective spaces to do ministry in which we can no longer be hindered by the other side (which denies us the ability to blame them for our problems). I think we can still be in close relationship just as I’m in relationship with all sorts of Christians around the world. But I think the fight for control needs to stop because there’s too great a cost in terms of people leaving the church forever and thousands of hours being wasted in futile arguments and soul-destroying toxicity.

This fall, a girl came to visit my campus ministry who was clearly going to thrive the best in a conservative evangelical environment, so I recommended a couple of my colleagues to her whose communities seemed like a better fit. Likewise, there have been times when queer Christians in other ministries on our campus come out and are discreetly referred to our ministry space. I think God is working every synergizing vision that he can for the sake of bringing the greatest possible range of people into his kingdom. So if God is entering a season of transplanting and replowing the garden of his church, I’m just going to keep on doing the ministry he puts in front of me and hope that he will somehow keep me in this wonderfully naive frame of mind in which I do my best to trust he will make everything okay.

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