Rankin File

Ruminations, fulminations, and cogitations on the spiritual life

The Double-Edged Nature of Denominational Control

So, here is how things stand in United Methodist world:

1.  People are still weighing in on the video wars between Bishop Scott Jones and Maxie Dunnam, et. al., on the “worldwide nature of the church” amendments.  Good News’ “Perspective” has provided the relevant links, including the Reconciling Ministries Network’s contribution.  Despite Jones’ plain assertion that homosexuality is not an issue that would be left to regional conferences, a significant number of commenters on these various sites are suspicious that it will.  

2.  The United Methodist Judicial Council has ruled recently (UM New Service, April 27) that clergy may not perform same gender marriages even in States where such marriages are now legal.   There was one dissenting voice on the Council.  The decision overturned a ruling from the California-Pacific Conference and Bishop Mary Ann Sweson, who argued that clergy have “pastoral and prophetic authority” in such matters.    

We are fighting for control of an organization, albeit an important and beloved one.  Americans are good at fighting for control.    

At the local level, long-time church members are paradoxically dependent on the pastor for some things and determined to control the pastor and the rest of the church in others.  Worship is still the biggest bone of contention, but there are others.  The people who give the money think they ought to get to call the shots.

At the general church level, well, we know what the control issues are.  

Control per se is not at all a bad thing.  I often tell people in ministry that there is a direct link between responsibility and authority.  If one is responsible for some program or task, then one needs proportional authority to make sure things are done well.  There’s almost nothing worse in ministry than being responsible for something that you don’t (and can’t) control.  

We fight for control because we feel strongly about and seek to uphold certain values.  Control is secondary, perhaps, to those values, but when the future of the organization is involved, people who love the organization will fight for control.  This is what is happening in United Methodism and there’s nothing new here, only the issues are different from earlier times.  

Whereas I understand that people who are invested in and committed to the organization are advocating for legitimate concerns in our control struggles, I’m worried about how often we wind up looking a lot more like the world than the Kingdom of God.  We need some collective self-awareness: while we are fighting about how to organize the UM Church, non-Christians are watching and, I think, surely wondering, “Why in the world would I want to join something like that?” 

Even if we are kind to one another in our denominational arguing, we are still fighting about control.  And people notice.  We are dealing with far more than “upholding biblical values” or “making sure that ‘all’ really means ‘all.'”  The struggle for control tempts us to reduce complex matters to quick, easy summaries (yes, “sound bites”).  Christians should never make decisions this way – about anything.


May 8, 2009 Posted by | Ministry, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , | 2 Comments

The Sin in Our Own House

I’ve been struggling with some thoughts for a couple of weeks, now, on a very controversial theme.  Several recent experiences have coincided to prompt me to think about sexuality, especially homosexuality.   Let me give you pieces and then I’ll try to put them together.  

The Spring Leadership magazine, which I received a couple of weeks ago, deals with various addiction and recovery concerns, including addictions that pastors face, and how the church can deal with them.  This is a really good volume, both for insight into specific addictions, but also more generally for churches who want to think about engaging missionally in our culture.  

The first article especially caught my attention, in part, oddly perhaps, because of an email conversation I’ve had recently with a gay man.   The article features the ministry of Craig Gross, the Porn Pastor, the guy who started XXX Church (an internet ministry to people with porn addictions).  He and his family have moved to Nevada from Michigan in order to work more extensively with sex workers and other people caught in the web of this sin.   

And now to the point: In the interview, he refers to a study which found that nearly half of pastors surveyed (48%) admit to porn addiction.  He then ponders whether this fact is the reason churches are generally not dealing very well with this problem.  

Enter my email conversation with a gay man from Iowa, who is understably following closely the constitutional changes in his State.  The heart of our conversation had to do with gay marriage.  

I hold what would be considered a traditional view of marriage and homosexuality, so I wound up expending a good deal of energy explaining myself to this guy.   I’m often frustrated with the terms and lines of argument (or lack thereof) used to talk about this most difficult of topics.  I always wind up trying to distinguish myself from the hard-line Right Wing stridency while speaking (gently) for a traditional view.  

Whenever I get involved in such conversations, and particularly recently, I become painfully aware of our Christian hypocrisy.  Our inability to deal with heterosexual sin with appropriate love and discipline is perhaps the biggest roadblock of all to working out our differences over gay marriage.  

United Methodist Annual Conferences across the country will soon be voting to ratify a number of constitutional amendments.  There are several good reasons for these changes, but traditionalists are worried about potential impact on the gay marriage questions.  So, we’re starting to gear up for floor debates.  I dread them.  

Straight people, we must make some courageous moves toward getting our own houses in order, if we want to have any moral ground whatsoever upon which to stand when we talk about homosexual practice.  The log is in our own eyes.  Certainly we can’t wait until we’re near-sinless before we engage the issues.  But if the statistic about pastors and porn is true and if we face the fact that very few congregations deal well at all with any kind of sin, much less sexual sin (does anyone remember fornication, adultery and divorce?) then it becomes almost impossible for us not to look like utter Pharisess.

April 28, 2009 Posted by | Christian Spirituality, General, Ministry, Pop Culture, Religion, The Church, United Methodism | , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments