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Posts Tagged ‘UMC

As I posted in an earlier, more personal reflection, I recently attended the Virginia Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church, the church of my childhood and youth, after having been a part of the United Church of Christ for nearly 20 years. One of the things that struck me in this brief mixture of my personal past and present is that both churches claim “United” in their title, a designation that is very important to their identities. However, I realized that “united” means something very different for each church, and their faithfulness to being united takes shape in unique ways.

The “united” in United Church of Christ speaks to our passion for diversity, inclusivity and openness. Our heritage (and our name) lies in the creation of a new denomination 55 years ago, from four distinct Protestant branches of Christianity. From the beginning, we did not have or ever expect unanimity. Our motto, drawn from Jesus’ prayer in John 17, is “that they may all be one,” and we covenant to live together as partners in spite of our differences and disagreements.

The “united” in the United Methodist Church also grows from a merger, but of a different sort. The Evangelical United Brethren shared Wesleyan practices and Arminian theology with the Methodist Church, and they united in 1968 to form one church in the heritage of John Wesley. They are bound by shared practices of class meetings, the quest for personal holiness and the social gospel.

When I was at the Virginia UMC meeting, I heard speaker after speaker emphasize that word, “united,” almost as much as we do in the UCC. It also became quickly apparent to me that that they were using that word to evoke a very different image of unity. The “united” of United Methodism is about a shared fidelity to the theology and legacy of John Wesley. It is about a commitment to follow his disciplines (“methods”). It is about loyalty to a way of life and to the authority of the church and its leaders. This unity emphasizes the importance of the body, its theology and identity, above that of any one individual’s ideas or customs. Their unity cultivates the virtues of humility, loyalty, faithfulness and discipline.

At my friend’s ordination, she received a certificate detailing her ordination lineage: “John Wesley ordained Thomas Coke, who ordained Francis Asbury,” who ordained someone else and someone else in a straight, direct line to the current UMC bishop who ordained my friend. It was an inspiring thing to see, but it also made me realize how different our understandings of ordination are. There could never be such a document for me, or any of my Congregational colleagues. We have to have more than one clergy present, but all those present participate, along with the entire gathered congregation. Our authority does not come from a lineage handed down over time, but from a congregation that calls us up and out.

To be united in the UMC is to be a branch of a distinguished oak tree. The tree is formidable, alive, holy. It provides shade and comfort and strength and orientation. Much like John 15:5: “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.” The tree grows from one root (Christ, as preached by Wesley), and the church is united because they are all branches of the same tree. Their unity grows by strengthening the tree, and making sure not to be cut off from the nourishment of the root. The signs of unity and wholeness are the growing tree, bearing more fruit.

The “united” in the United Church of Christ means something very different. Instead of a solid tree, I imagine us like a big tent. Our unity comes from welcoming more and more people into the big tent with a giant “y’all come!” As the family picnic grows, we throw up a few more poles and a few more yards of canvas to make room for the new folks. We set up extra chairs and scrounge for more plates. Nothing matches–not the tables or the silverware or even the tent fabric. Most people bring their own chairs to rest in, but we still all mingle together. Sometimes it’s awkward, sometimes it feels like we have very little in common except our commitment to be welcoming and to make sure everybody has a place in the tent. But we are united, no matter our diversity, because we will keep making room for one more, and we won’t cut people off as long as they want to be in the tent with us.

Rev. Oliver G. Powell famously described the UCC in 1975 as “a beautiful, heady, exasperating, hopeful mix!” We are proud to be united with one another, and we work hard to keep growing the tent so that more people can join the party. We are united not by a shared history or theology or lineage, but by our stubborn refusal to leave anyone out and a fierce commitment to one another as fellow followers of Christ. Our unity cultivates the virtues of hospitality, diversity, partnership, flexibility, openness and inclusivity.

There is no right or wrong, better or worse in these different understandings of “united” churches, but I imagine that we often talk past one another when we speak of our practices of Christian unity. Both cultivate important Christian virtues. Both also foster challenges and even vices. I imagine we could both learn much from one another, for the purpose of uniting all Christ’s followers as one, whether tent or tree.

Embracing our newly ordained sister on the conference floor.

Two weeks ago, I spent the weekend at the Virginia United Methodist Annual Conference, the church of my childhood and youth. I was there to celebrate the ordination of my best friend since junior high school, and it was the honor of a lifetime to share in that special moment of the laying on of hands with her. That visit also brought me back in touch with dozens of people that I had known and loved. I got to see women clergy who had inspired me to ministry, old pals from high school and college, pastors of my home church, camp counselors I worked alongside over several summers, my campus ministry chaplains, former Sunday School teachers and youth group leaders, the pastor who officiated our wedding, and even a few old boyfriends (and their parents). My parents were there too, and for the first time in many years I found myself  best known as their daughter.

I left the United Methodist Church and found my way to the United Church of Christ almost 20 years ago, in my final two years of college. I felt angry and wounded at the time, and it was a painful separation for me. I had experienced my call to ministry in that community. I felt known and loved in that body. I loved all those people that had shaped me, but God was calling me out. I stayed connected to people until I left for seminary in California 15 years ago, which was the last time I saw most of these UMC friends. This trip back for the ordination blended the experience of a high school reunion with an odd glimpse of the road not taken.

What struck me most, the whole time I was there, was how much I felt out of place. The experience was entirely internal, because everyone there greeted me warmly and welcomed me home.  I was surprised and delighted to see how many people recognized and remembered me, even though I had been gone so long.  I had an amazing time catching up with everyone, hearing about their ministries, exchanging pictures of children and grandchildren. We had found each other on Facebook in recent years, so that made the reunion even more meaningful.   Most of my old friends shared my theological and social concerns, so there was no tension or inquisition about why I had left.  The difference between us is that I had left the tribe.

And, at the risk of alluding to Frost one too many times, that has made all the difference.

The first time I walked into a UCC congregation, I was overwhelmed with a feeling of being at home, among “my people.” Even though I had known real love and community and faith formation in my United Methodist upbringing, I discovered in the United Church of Christ that I  fit in effortlessly. My theology and ecclesiology were not outsider opinions—they were core values. The vision of Christian mission in the UCC matched my own vision for my ministry and my Christian life. Rather than a reaction against the church of my childhood, my departure was more about being drawn into another one. I had found my tribe.

Returning to my United Methodist roots for this occasion allowed me to share my deep appreciation and love for those who nurtured me in the faith. The pain of old wounds had faded for me a very long time ago, but this reunion provided a time of healing. In the intervening years, my old friends have been drawn in and formed by their tribe, shaped and molded in accord with the values of Wesley’s great heritage. At the same time, my UCC tribe has been shaping me in the ways of Reformed and Congregational life. That is the role of our tribes—to form us. I felt out of place in that gathering because I was out of place, having been shaped for 20 years by a different tribe’s values and practices. I am grateful that I have not spent all my energy fighting that formation simply because I was in the wrong tribe.

I am equally grateful for the way my former church loved and cared for me, for the shaping gifts of their tribe to me and for the powerful witness and ministry they offer in the Christian community. I delight in seeming my friends come alive within the shaping influence of their tribe, even as I claim, with joy, a different path. Thanks be to God for my tribe, and for theirs.


About Me

I am a full-time pastor in the United Church of Christ, mother of a young child (B.), married to an aspiring academic and curmudgeon (J.). I live by faith, intuition and intellect. I follow politics, football and the Boston Red Sox. I like to talk about progressive issues, theological concerns, church life, the impact of technology and media, pop culture and books.

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