Leading Theologically

In my last appointment, a woman remarked on the defeat of Hillary Clinton in the 2016 presidential election that no one wanted to listen to a woman over sixty. I had just had my sixty-first birthday. That comment stuck with me for my remaining years at that church and my next appointment to a smaller county seat church. Suddenly, many things made more sense. I had been removed from all my leadership positions and had even been informed that one staff person had requested my leadership but was told no. I was not to be in any leadership positions.

If you have been following the United Methodist Church then you know that we are going through a very difficult process. Some have asked that we not call it a divorce but having a firsthand experience with divorce, I can tell you it is just like a divorce. It is a divorce but not an honest one because another party has been constantly whispering in one party’s ear that their spouse is not only unfaithful but they are also unethical, unspiritual, and undisciplined. What is surprising is that the spiritual leadership intended to provide the couple counseling has failed to realize this when most of the friends have observed this for years.

The whole thing is heartbreaking for me but not surprising. Women were approved for ordination in the United Methodist Church in 1956 and it is now 2022 and many churches have never had a female Elder serve their church as an associate pastor or as a senior pastor. No pastor is perfect but women’s leadership is criticized and scrutinized in ways no male has to endure. Most women have stood up to preach on their first Sunday in a new appointment knowing that someone in leadership has already declared that they will find a way to get rid of “that woman” as quickly as possible. This has happened to me in several appointments. So why and how do we do our work?

It would be lovely to tell you I am attractive and winsome and funny and charismatic but I am an introvert which makes me more than a little awkward in crowds. I absolutely love people, love the Bible, love Jesus, and love the church so that makes up for some of my awkwardness. I also have degrees in finance, music, and theology that help me understand the functions of churches better than most. My father’s illness and death in my younger years gave me a great deal of understanding when it comes to grief, death, and fear so that helps as well. I have known success and failure as a wife and mother. But perhaps my best trait is that all these life experiences and all this education have helped me do one thing very well and that is being able to think theologically.

My seminary was big on being able to think theologically. We were required to do an internship where we constantly wrote theological papers. Still, some never got it. I did. When you come into a church, you have to figure out where they are theologically. If that particular church had a credo, what would it say? It does not matter what denomination is on the sign outside, you have to figure out what is going on inside and how is that reflected in their leadership, their message, and their mission. The clearer a church is on what its credo is, the easier it will be to pastor and lead unless, of course, they are the opposite theological position from what the sign out front says but even then, they can be led to see themselves in a new light. You can move them theologically – through teaching, through sermons, through questioning decisions. If you have enough influence, you can help them see what their actions say about their beliefs. If you are able to do this, much of the tribal warfare will cease and they will start asking the right questions in leadership and eventually, in the church as a whole.

So how do you get that influence? Well, some can be charming and charismatic but for the rest of us it only happens through a great reputation for pastoral care. Learn people’s names. No, not just the ones you hope invite you to dinner. Learn all their names and call them by name. Ask their stories. They will tell you what is important in their life if you sit and listen. If they give just the shallow stuff, ask questions. Be present through grief. I love to hear the family stories when someone dies. Insist that they be honest. As the pastor, you get to be the last person to retell these stories publicly. It is an honor to be able to do so do not be lazy. Do not stand up and read the obituary then give a standard funeral sermon. Everyone has a story. I promise you will do more evangelism by telling how God used the ministry of that one person than you will trying to lead people to the altar.

Now, here is the tough part. You have to have to be tough enough to handle those people whispering deceit in the ear of those who wish you harm. Fortunately, in a few of my churches I had leaders willing to call out those who sought to undermine. I remember in one particular church a woman complained that I had stated the church cared more about egg casseroles than Jesus. I did say that. Still, the SPRC called her in and listened to all her complaints against me then much to her surprise agreed with me that there was more concern over the cancelation of the Sunday School brunch than there was to the fact that we had not had a profession of faith in five years. But there are churches that do not want to upset folks so they allow rumors to fly and tell the pastor just to ignore it. What they do not realize, it is eroding the trust the pastor is attempting to build.

Unfortunately, much of leadership in the UMC is geared towards rewarding charisma over depth and now we have found ourselves in a place where reconciliation is still possible but only if we address the deception of a few charismatic pastors whispering divisiveness into the ears of congregations and do the difficult work of leading this holy mess theologically and transparently. That is very hard when you have allowed the stress of the situation to make everything about you. If you can repent of being self-centered and lead with a deep theological reliance, people will listen. They do not have to like you to listen. Invite them to the table. Invite those you may have harmed first and listen carefully to their observations. Insist that truth be spoken. Sit down with those whose may be sowing division and hold them accountable for what they are saying. If you are ordained in the UMC, you have been called into a covenant and if you are betraying the trust given you, it is as damaging to the connection as any other violation.

Yes, I have one congregation in particular that I wish I had handled differently. I learned and did all the right things at the next congregation. I was moved before my ministry was done there but at least we as the pastoral staff knew we had left it for the next pastor better than we had found it. So now, I’m at my last appointment and I have now been here longer than any other appointment. I have been here through COVID and all its headaches. Here, I keep inviting people to the table. Jesus knew what he was doing. It works.

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