Negotiating a Divorce

In the fall of 1996, I sat down with one of the top divorce attorneys in Little Rock and told him I wanted a divorce. He replied that I was nuts. He was right but then, so was I. He was right in that it would devastate me financially and it did. I was right in that it was the only way I could survive emotionally. Then I told him a secret. I hired him for insurance in case someone from the outside began manipulating the situation but I was confident I could negotiate this on my own. I knew what we had and what we did not have. I knew what our children needed and I understood what my soon to be former spouse valued. Then he gave me great advice. If I did this right, it would benefit every party but it meant complete honesty. I could not be deceptive or manipulative. I had to tell the truth. Together, we laid out a fair plan, something that would give my husband freedom to begin a new life and allow us to raise our children knowing they are loved by both of their parents. Why do you need to know this? My friends, we are headed towards a divorce. We elect politicians but it will require a difference style of leader to make this a good divorce.

There are good reasons to get a divorce. In Matthew, Jesus allows for divorce for reasons of infidelity. In Mark, there is no reason for divorce. I always took Mark’s position until I found myself unable to survive in my own marriage. No, my spouse was not unfaithful to me in the sexual sense but trust was gone for other reasons. Our values were different and while I had deep respect for him as a person, what he wanted from life and what I wanted from life were two entirely different things. This is very much how I see the United Methodist Church at this point. I love many of the men and women who stand by the WCA. I respect them. I would never do anything to harm them. But I have differing values. Scripture has condemned me but grace has redeemed me. 

Not all troubled relationships have to end in divorce. Many couples on the edge of divorce pull back and reevaluate. Many of us hoped over the years that this would be the case for the UMC, especially for those of us who see ourselves in the middle, but the issue of sexuality and the authority of Scripture in establishing the definition of holiness has created a situation that has hampered the witness of the church. It is not the first time the issue of holiness has caused a rip in our denomination. Holiness was the issue that caused the split with the holiness churches such as the Nazarene Church. Holiness has also been used in a negative fashion. According to Jemar Tisby in his book, The Color of Compromise, holiness was also attached to the “noble” white south in their continued exploitation of freed slaves following the Civil War. We need to be careful in using the terms “holiness” to describe either party since it has a loaded meaning from a difficult past.

While it is easy to demonize those we with whom we once shared our hearts, feelings of betrayal must be set aside in working through a divorce. You must practice forgiveness. You must forgive your disappointment in the brokenness and you must accept and forgive yourself for the ways in which you contributed to the lost dreams. In my divorce, I had to take responsibility that at some point, I refused to make myself vulnerable anymore. I did not share my feelings. Instead, I just became a robot, doing whatever I thought would keep the relationship from crumbling. While I could blame my spouse for many things, I had to take ownership of my own “stuff.” You also have to forgive the simple fact that your spouse will not change once the divorce is over.

Having said all that, you must determine what your goals are in a divorce. Here were mine:

  1. Create a system where each of us know what is expected of us financially and emotionally as parents.
  2. Create a system that refuses to allow continual damage to each other and supports and encourages new relationships with others that may develop.
  3. Refuse to use our children as a weapon against one another by minimizing the trauma of divorce.
  4. Insure that our children will continue to have the educational, spiritual, and physical opportunities they would have had if we had remained married. This includes church, college, graduate school, healthcare, and summer opportunities.

What did this mean? It meant I had to let go of physical assets. We sold the house, took the equity to pay of all the debts and made down payments on separate homes. Our agreement allowed my spouse to take what he felt was important which was just about all the furniture, china, crystal, silverware, and appliances. It was a small price to pay for guaranteed college/graduate school tuition, room, board, and books for seven years after high school at the college of their choice. We set holiday schedules of every other Thanksgiving. For Christmas, the children stayed home through Christmas Day at noon then went with their dad for the remainder of their break. We forgot a few transportation issues that arose but overall, it worked. My attorney and I worked towards a win-win scenario. The other attorney tried to throw a wrench or two in the mix but we held firm because we were looking out for her client better than she was.

How does this relate to the UMC? We have to create a win-win for the competing groups while working out a system where our shared children are protected but continue to receive the resources they need to thrive.

  1. Create a system where we define how we will hold ourselves accountable according to our shared values and yet keep us faithful to a future that keeps us from compromising our separate values., doing no harm to each other through the process.
  2. Pray for the mission of the other.
  3. Refuse to use our shared mission as weapons against each other. Have an honest conversation regarding the future and whether or not there should be joint custody or sole custody for each mission. If it is shared custody, be clear about how that works.
  4. There is no piece of property worth the corrosion of an agreement. Find a gracious way to work out a property arrangement. Focus on the mission. This is going to require pastoral and spiritual wisdom to help congregations who may split right down the middle.  It may mean the total number of churches will be reduced but in a way that will allow new churches to thrive or reinvent themselves.
  5. Be fully aware of the financial condition of each congregation and works towards a process to reduce their liability remembering that a church is the people, not the building.

Word of Hope: six months after my divorce, I was confronted unexpectedly to a call to ministry that had actually started when I was 14 years old in a church that did not believe women should be pastors. A year later, I was catching a plane two days a week from Little Rock to Dallas to attend seminary.  I am finishing my twentieth year in pastoral ministry.

For those who are too cynical to believe in a good divorce, let me give you a better reason. We have children together. They are churches, and children, and youth, and young people. They are food ministries and ways to meet the various needs of our community. God is bigger than we are and faith calls us to trust that resurrection happens every day.

 

 

 

 

United Methodist Heartbreak

Today a colleague wrote a gracious column about the possible changes coming in the United Methodist Church. While reading, I realized that we are still making assumptions about those who have differing opinions about the way forward. I believe we are headed for a split and while I do not believe all the motivations are of God (yes, I am making a judgment), I am confident in the long run God will be with every group, whether it is a two way or three way split.

I grieve the changes. I grieve that there will be colleagues that I dearly love and respect that I will no longer share connection. Still, I will love them and they will have my respect. My greatest concern is not my colleagues. They have studied doctrine, history, and Scripture and they must go where they believe God is leading them. I believe they should not be penalized in anyway nor should their benefits with Westpath be penalized in any way.

My grief is for what will happen to the men, women, and children in the pew. Over the past two decades, our theological discernment has been shaped more by politics than actually Scriptural discernment. For many of the larger churches I have served, the congregation is split with many believing in literal Scriptural authority and others believing in the authority of love. These churches, when forced to make a choice, will lose active members. Communities will be torn apart. Small groups will be split. Some will leave church to join the ranks of the dechurched.  Some will follow the pastor because they like the pastor but that creates another unhealthy situation. For those churches who are heavily in debt, a church split will create an unsustainable ministry.

My appointment change last year put me in a situation where theological purity is less important than the faith community and our service to the mission field. What happens in St Louis is irrelevant to what God is doing in our midst. It’s like I have died and gone to appointment heaven. This is the first time in twenty years of ministry where I have not dealt with the “women should not be pastors” or “we do not want a woman” and you have no idea what a pastor can do when you are not dealing with constant negatives. I absolutely love what I do every single day! But it also showed what a distraction the constant UMC conflicts has been in the mission field.

So it is past time that we move forward but my prayer is that every pastor be sensitive to the variations within his/her own church. This will be painful as relationships change over these issues. Given that, may God continue to work through the changes.

Grit with Grace

For those of us who grew up in churches where we learned to memorize Scripture before we could read, you will understand my journey. You may have not have taken the same path or had the same questions but you understand how deeply embedded Scripture is to my self-image and worldview. For many years, Scripture was the blood flowing through my veins but what I could not see was the overarching paradigm of judgment in that blood flow. What I could not see was that Scripture was making me judge others as much as it was making me doubtful of myself. So I write this out of love – a love of Scripture that almost killed me, a survival love that forced me to abandon it, and a reconciling love that reclaimed it in a whole new way. I write this out of love for the church – the Southern Baptist Church of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s who shaped who I am and the United Methodist Church which I chose for my children’s faith and who ordained me as an Elder in 2005.

I was sixteen years old before I ever questioned anything about my faith. It happened at summer camp on beautiful Lake Holston near Abingdon, Virginia. It was there that I discovered a world beyond the walls of my small hometown. There were things to do and people to meet. We skied, canoed, sailed, swam, danced, painted, sang, and talked throughout the week but on Sundays, we gathered around a cross near the lake and sang and prayed and listened to the psalms and the gospel teachings of love. When it rained, we stayed in the cabin and played spades and hearts and bridge. During one of those rainy afternoons, we discussed using marijuana. As we went around the circle, some confessed and others shrugged it off and then it came to me and with great pride I announced that I did not do drugs because I wasn’t that kind of person. I still remember Sharon looking at me saying, “Oh really, and just what kind of person do you think uses drugs.” I could feel the shame rising in my face as I came face to face with my harsh judgment of others. I did not have an answer because as I thought about it, some of the kindest people I knew used drugs and some of the meanest people I knew, did not. It would be nice to think that my judgment ended with drugs but no, I think I was judgmental about many, many things. That encounter confronted my pride but it changed very little in what I said or did. I simply did not know another way to be.

So being a good Baptist girl whose dad graduated from Baylor University, I set out for Waco in the fall of 1974. I struggled to find the right major. I had an experience of call when I was 14 but in Baptist circles, that meant you were going to be a musician or a missionary or an educator. By my second year, I found myself in the School of Music as an organ major which landed me a job as organist for First United Methodist Church in McGregor, Texas. I loved it instantly. I loved the formal worship, the liturgy and the Scripture readings. I loved listening to Christianity being about how you lived and not just going to heaven. I loved that forgiveness was discussed more than the rapture. I loved hearing sermons from Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John rather than Daniel and Revelation. I loved the Methodist Church but I still loved the church of my childhood more. That began to change in the late seventies.

Every freshman student was required to attend chapel and to take two courses from the Department of Religion. Many students took New Testament 101 and Old Testament 101. Most faithful Sunday School attendees found these courses to be particularly challenging because they discovered that David was not the hero and role model taught to them in Vacation Bible School. They find out there are two creation stories and they are not alike. They discover that the gospels do not tell the same story the same way. They hear about the J, E, & P source and Q. They see for the first time that the Bible teaches the world is flat. For some reason, none of this bothered me. My New Testament professor was a disappointment but my Old Testament professor was amazing. I practically memorized the textbook for the course which was written by the Chairman of the Department, Dr. Flanders.

My career as an organist floundered when I got tendinitis before my Junior recital. I took an extra year and received a BA in Music Theory and Literature and stayed another year to get my MBA in Finance and Management. Those two years changed the direction of my life but they also marked changes for the Southern Baptists and Baylor. A movement to return to Scriptural authority had taken over the Southern Baptist Convention and was beginning to find its way on the campuses of higher education. I remember that the Anthropology Department was under attack. Many of my professors who were not Southern Baptists began worrying about their jobs and their chance for advancement. Additional scrutiny was leveled on the drama department since it was judged to be a safe haven for those who may have gender issues. My break-up with the SBC came when my beloved Old Testament textbook was banned until one sentence mentioning evolution as a theory of creation was removed.  I was done. I was not going to raise a family in this environment. It seemed to be far more about power and money than about God. When I moved to Houston, I joined St. Luke’s United Methodist Church. I was married there and my two oldest children were baptized there. Many years later, I would take summer courses there for my MDiv degree from Perkins School of Theology.

Some like to think that Baylor moved on as Paige Patterson moved from trying to takeover Baylor to taking over Southwestern Seminary in Fort Worth but I think the fundamentalist movement had an impact that has led to many of the issues Baylor and our country has faced in the past few years. When the SBC adopted a vision of scriptural “inerrancy” in 1980, it set in motion an “us” versus “them” mentality that has polarized more than just one denomination. The movement seemed to deny women their full and equal value as human beings. The new word regarding the role of women in the life of the family, the church and society was complementarianism.  Women were created in the image of God but they have a different role to play and that role does not include leadership over any man over 12 years of age. Lines were drawn about who was faithful to biblical literacy and who wasn’t. Baylor has been rocked by the recent scandals concerning the sexual assault of female athletes by males athletes without consequences. A theology that does not recognize the full humanity of every person is a theology that condones the objectification of those considered lesser. That same 1980 SBC Convention also introduced political strategies very similar to secular precinct politics that creates winners and losers without considering the health of the whole. Former President Jimmy Carter finally left the SBC when they removed Jesus Christ as God’s ultimate revelation through which all Scripture should be interpreted.

Sadly, I am watching United Methodists repeat the same patterns over the issue of human sexuality. Yes, I know, it is really not about human sexuality, it’s about Scriptural holiness. Sorry, I have been here before and like beehive hairdos and bell bottoms pants, I do not care to wear it again.  If it is about Scriptural holiness then I would like to add these lines to the Discipline:

  • Pride is incompatible with Christian teachings as expressed in Scripture.
  • Avarice is incompatible with Christian teaching as expressed in Scripture.
  • Lust is incompatible with Christian teaching as expressed in Scripture.
  • Gluttony is incompatible with Christian teaching as expressed in Scripture.
  • Wrath is incompatible with Christian teaching as expressed in Scripture.
  • Lying is incompatible with Christian teaching as expressed in Scripture.
  • Adultery is incompatible with Christian teaching as expressed in Scripture.
  • Ingratitude is incompatible with Christian teaching as expressed in Scripture.
  • Holding grudges is incompatible with Christian teaching as expressed in Scripture.
  • Bearing false witness is incompatible with Christian teaching as expressed in Scripture.
  • Fear is incompatible with Christian teaching as expressed in Scripture.
  • Divorce is incompatible with Christian teaching as expressed in Scripture. Yes, I realize Matthew gives infidelity as an out for divorce but Mark doesn’t. It is convenient to see the nuance concerning divorce but stick to the absolutes when it comes to something that doesn’t impact so many “normal” people.

Notice that I did not include misogyny. You can justify misogyny in Scripture and many do. Are we really so shocked and grieved that Amendment #1 and #2 were defeated? And you think a movement that upholds the inerrancy of Scripture without nuance is really not going to eventually remove women or divorcees from ordination?  Did you listen to the discussions from the floor of the Arkansas Conference last year concerning these amendments?

So yes, I abandoned Scripture for awhile because I believed I was headed straight to hell because I got a divorce. I stayed in the marriage for seven years while my preacher told me it was my duty to stay. It was a mental health disaster that I almost did not survive. So I went against everything I believed because I wanted to survive to be a good mother. If I was going to hell, at least I would have a few years of peace and be able to do the right thing for my children. Does that sound crazy? Probably, because that is what happens when you teach the Bible is inerrant. When I finally answered my call to ministry, I remember telling Britt, my candidacy mentor, that I was done with Scripture because I was a failure in living up to its standards. He told me I would change my mind.

I did not change my mind but God did changed the way I saw Scripture and thus, transformed my heart. I remember sitting in Bible during my first year at seminary as my professors opened Scripture up in a whole new way. They did not wash down the stories or explain away the pain. They exposed the violence and pointed out the contradictions. And over and over, Dr. Power revealed that God still loved these flawed and broken people found in page after page of Scripture. God did not withdraw God’s covenant when there were plenty of reasons to do so. There were classes where I could do nothing but weep. When I questioned my New Testament professor about God calling someone who was divorced to ministry, Dr. Black kept asking me, “What is your problem with God?” They opened up Scripture as a history of redemption and not judgment and suddenly, my life was transformed. There is nothing beyond God’s redemption – not my divorce, not my flaws, not my mistakes, not even my secondary status as female.

Here is what I learned in this journey. There is a river of grace that exists between the pride of believing you are living righteously according to Scripture and Jesus. Truthfully, we should strive for scriptural holiness but we are all sinners. Our pride keeps us from truly experiencing God’s grace. When I had no choice but to humbly admit that I was not up to the task, I unexpectedly experienced grace – “drop you to your knees – river wash over you” grace. It is kind of like being an addict. Before, I was addicted to sin and couldn’t see it or admit it because I was proud of what was within my control. If you want to do the twelve steps, you must admit you are powerless to overcome your addiction and you must depend on a power greater than your own. Scripture does not give you that power. Jesus does.

My understanding of Scripture that once condemned me and restricted me now gives me life and gives me hope. Scripture helps me live without fear. It flows through my veins as redemption and compassion and real life and I strive to offer that to others by opening Scripture in the way it was opened to me. I am grateful that God did not abandon me when I went against everything I was taught. For that, and for this amazing journey of grace, I owe God everything.