What Makes your Eyes Roll

Most preachers are not very humble even if they seem to be on the surface. As my son once remarked, you have to have some kind of crazy to get up every Sunday and claim you have a Word from the Lord. Yes, that is true. You also have to have a certain amount of stubbornness given the amount of criticism we take as well. All that to say that over time, we build up a hard exterior to protect our hearts. It was not until a few weeks ago that I realized the hard exterior also keeps us from developing as spiritual leaders. At some point we kind of stop. We lack the vulnerability and humility to move deeper into our spiritual journey. We somehow think we know it all and if someone suggests we have more to learn, we roll our eyes.

Last week, I was prompted to take a test on spiritual maturity. It wasn’t my first time to take one. Usually, the results are very disappointing. My spiritual life moved very little over time. So yesterday, I went through the questions again and this time, something had changed. There was a patience that was not present three years ago. There was a willingness to adapt that had not been around for a long time. I’m looking at the results and wondering what changed and why did I not notice it until now. Was it COVID? No, it was definitely not the pandemic. If anything, COVID precautions provided a step backward. Something had move me forward and I could not put my finger on it…until last Monday night.

Every Monday night I gather with fellow disciples and we walk through a discipleship study. We have done a variety of studies over the past four plus years so there is enough trust to tackle the big stuff. For the last six weeks, we have been walking through the video series and study guide of Jemar Tisby’s Color of Compromise, a history of the complicity in the American church regarding racism, slavery, and Jim Crow. I read the book when it first came out in 2018 and watched the videos when they launched but it is the first time we have view it in our small group. For those who watch it the first time, it is hard. We know bits and pieces from our study of history and our experience of the church but Tisby lays it out bare here and sometimes you just get sick watching it. You recognize your church. You see your own arrogance in thinking you already understood all this. WEll, maybe you do but not me.

As we began talking through last Monday’s lesson on the rise of Jim Crow, I realized what had changed. When I moved here in 2018, I had just begun reading about black history but has become my passion for the last four years. Until this week, I had not realized it had become a spiritual discipline. As I grieved through the stories of the Tulsa Massacre, the dormitory fire at Wrightsville, Arkansas in 1959, the unjust sentencing differentials for drug offenses between white and black offenders, and the history of lynching and bombings, it was more than my heart could bear. When you add that to the church’s role in rebranding and promoting our losses in the Civil War as the “Lost Cause” and the sheer evil we have done in the name of God, whatever defenses I once held, crumbled. All I could do is place myself before God and beg for forgiveness and change.

The psalmist declared “The sacrifice acceptable to God is a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” Psalm 51:17. God finally had me exactly where the Spirit needed me to be. It did its work. It is not finished but at least it is a start.

I know, many people roll their eyes when I speak of racial justice. Either that, or they complain to their neighbor, “There she goes again.” Like me, you probably think you have heard it all and it is unhelpful. Or maybe you have struggled with the issue already. I have a suggestion for a different way to spent Lent – read about something you judge. Read about something that causes you to roll your eyes. Read about something that makes you uncomfortable. Maybe it is black history, or gay rights, or being transgendered, or even the Japanese internment. Maybe God will use something else to crack you open and bring you to your knees. Facing my own ignorance is what it took for me.

The Joy of Monday Evenings

My church has a ministry on Monday evenings – we cook dinner for the community. This was the dream of a handful of people ten years ago then one of those dreamers, Sue Silliman, died and left us with start up money to begin. That was in 2015. Our first Monday night meal was served on January 3, 2016. At the end of the first year, there were five churches, three Sunday School classes, the UMW, Boy Scout Troop 6, and two restaurants taking a Monday night to serve a meal. The first two meals served twenty-two people. The most we served that year was 145. Each year, more teams were added as it became community mission project. Lynne Rowland and Patsy Hale were two of the leaders that kept this project strong.

When I arrived as the new pastor in the church in mid 2018, we had teams feeding 40-60 people on Mondays at 5:30pm. Some teams cooked and served. Some served while our team did the cooking. Then we had a few restaurants volunteer to do a Monday night. When COVID-19 hit in 2020, we were serving 80-100 people on Monday nights, including a group that had a class after dinner.

Who came? It was a mixture from the community. We had many older adults who gathered for a shared meal together. They did not have the resources to gather in one another’s homes or at a local restaurant so they came here. We had many who came because they did not know how to cook. Several told me it was their only hot meal of the week. Some came with their children and grandkids. We had a mother-daughter team, Misty and Ruby Beaver, who always had crafts and activities for the children. Others were hungry. For at least one meal a week, they knew they would eat. Then in March 2020, COVID hit.

Immediately, we switched to drive-through take-out. Our numbers fell to between 30-40 each week. As cases grew, we want to make certain the food preparation was safe so we stopped using volunteers and approached the local restaurants who were shut down. Due to the generosity of Lockheed Martin and other grant writers, we had enough money to purchase restaurant take-out dinners and pay for them. We hoped it would keep these businesses and keep our program going. It was a huge success. The local restaurants that participated were Woods Place, Postmasters Grill, What’s Cooking, Catherines, Pop-eyes, Hickory Hut, and La Loma Mexican Grill. The numbers began increasing again.

We had a former local restaurant owner on our team, Jeanette Pratt, and mid-summer 2020, she asked if we could experiment allowing her team to cook fully masked and gloved. It worked great and soon other teams approached us. We no longer needed teams just to serve. We discovered that it was important to have the same people on the outside handing out meals. They knew and practiced the safety precautions and came to know the people and their needs. Some groups chose to participate under the new rules while other groups had to drop out due to limited or aging volunteers. Gradually most of our regular neighbors returned and we started picking up others.

Don Elsea, a long-time volunteer in our food ministries was hospitalized and he encouraged the nurses to stop on Mondays on their way home to pick up dinner for their families. That started a whole new group coming and we loved knowing we were helping essential workers during the pandemic. When the vaccinations were released, we gave out information on how to get your shot. We answered questions about safety. Our church participated in a program to hand out gift cards to people who got their shots at a downtown pop-up clinic. When the Delta variant hit, we handed out masks in the line. I had two cars that would not get vaccinated. One thought it was all a hoax but the other one was cautious and did not get out without wearing a masks. In November 2021, the man who thought it was a hoax died of COVID. That was devastating.

I became the outside person who ran back and forth which gave me a chance to get to know everyone and their pets! We do ministry with our neighbors on that line. Last year we had to move from an all volunteer coordinator of our food ministries to hiring a staff coordinator. We are now serving over 200 people each week and that has become a financial and volunteer labor challenge for many of our teams. Tate Wunnenberg, our staff coordinator, has worked in the hospitality industry for over thirty years and he was just who we needed to help simplify the process plus find ways we can better serve our neighbors as real neighbors.

We have started experimenting coming inside again. The numbers inside have been much smaller but we have changed the way we do things as well. In November, 2022, we had our first indoor meal since COVID. The team from Postmasters Grill did the cooking and serving that night. Our numbers were small and at first, we handled everything like we did before COVID. Since Postmasters has been with us from the beginning, we have experienced servers who had known all the diners from before COVID. We had plenty of food so we offered seconds and take out. A few weeks later, we were indoors again. We offered seconds, take-outs and allowed people to pick their desserts from a dessert table. The tables were decorated with beanies babies which we encouraged them to take home.

Just those small adjustments have changed so much. Last week, we had an abundance of food and offered people extras. Instead of thinking of leftovers, they thought of neighbors who might enjoy a meal. Now they are in mission with us to reach people who may need a hot meal but cannot get out or lack transportation.


Political commentator and former Republican strategist Steve Schmidt began a daily newsletter a couple of months ago. The column from August 22nd entitled How We Get Back to Buchenwald: Edward R Murrow vs. Kari Lake, contained a sentence that struck hard. Trust is earned in drops and lost in buckets. As a pastor for twenty-three years, this phrase spoke absolute truth to me. For us to maintain healthy churches, healthy denominations, relationship marriages, and relationships, we must understand the value of what is being said here.

When I was growing up in America, there were a handful for of deeply committed newscasters. He mention Edward R Burrow in his articles but there were others. Many families watched Walter Cronkite with absolute certainty that only truth was allowed on his set. Our family’s town had an NBC station so we watch Chet Huntley and David Brinkley every night. They were followed by John Chancellor. Peter Jennings was the first I remember on ABC and he seemed like a young upstart compared to the giants on the other stations. There were not different versions of the truth back then. They told what happened to the best of their knowledge. Your opinion of the news did not matter. They were not here to tell you what you wanted to hear; they told you what they saw, witnessed, and believed was important to our nations future.

We do not believe in that simple of a world anymore. We do not even live in a simple news world anymore. Truth seems to be unimportant. We want our often limited and uneducated opinion reaffirmed and if NBC will not do that, I can turn to Fox News. Actually, I do not want to talk about news programs here. I wish to talk about leadership in the church.

First, let me tell you that I would be a terrible politician. I believe in truthful negotiation. When trying to solve a problem, there are often multiple ways of understanding the problem and maybe even multiple ways of solving the problem. Having different people look at a problem different ways should not be a liability. Together, we should be able to come up with a better solution. But partisan politics enters a situation and suddenly, solving the problem is no longer the goal. The goal is winning. And often, the ethics of winning at all cost seems more important than doing the right thing.

My parents were very strict about the ethics of church life in the Southern Baptist Church of my childhood and youth. They tithed. the money in the plate was God’s money so you were careful in how it was managed and how it was spent. While I am no longer a Southern Baptist, those standards are ingrained in me. Another standard was that you never intentionally did harm to a member of the body of Christ or to the body itself. That also stuck with me.

As far as I knew, the ethics of the churches I belonged to as a young adult were just as solid as my home church. Then, I became a pastor and discovered that many churches had a unique way of looking at ethics and perhaps we should say, not looking at ethics. They definitely believed in the church as the body of Christ but when it came to rules, they somehow believed God did not have to follow the same rules as others. When I attended the church meeting of one of my church and discovered that the way they were giving to missions was against IRS rules, that discussion was not well received. In fact, I was very glad there was not a tree outside or I might have been “strung up.” One of the leaders told me later that they would not have hesitated to string me up but they would not have kicked the horse. It turned out okay. Many of them owned their own businesses and realized they would not do things that way. It led to another meeting a few days later to fix the problem.

In every church I have led, I have tried to be straight forwarded in telling the truth, especially when it comes to finances, When we understand the truth, we can solve the problem. Yes, I have had District Superintendents tell me that I might be better off to keep my mouth shut but I do not think that is ethically correct. If there is a fixable problem, let’s take care of it the right way. That worked until one very dark day. I was in my fourth year at a large membership church that was not crazy about having a female pastor. When I came to the church, the finances were in shambles. They were completing a building project and some shortcuts have been made without full disclosure. Money meant to fulfill building fund pledges were used to manage operating expenses since giving was low. A major shortfall in our preschool meant money was borrowed from the building fund to pay out our apportionments. Most of the church had no idea this was done. So I arrive and try to figure out just what is happening with our finances.

With transparency, we got the giving up but as we disclosed that we ended up with more debt than we should have, they decided to shoot the messenger rather than see the problem in a previous time period. Okay. We can take that. Then the finance manager comes to me with a bombshell, the Finance Chairman has paid his personal credit card bill with church funds. I told her to call him immediately and she did and it was corrected. Then it happened again. I told her to call the bank and fix it. He was no longer finance chairman and should not have had access to the accounts. I chose not to tell the Finance Committee because this particular family was going through some issues and I did not wish to make it worse. Perhaps that was a mistake. I did tell my District Superintendent. I believed the issue closed. It did not happen again.

Then two year later, this same man and his wife start a letter writing campaign to get me removed from the church. They were accusing me a financial misconduct. The bishop’s solution was a play hardball. He was ordering an audit that would publicly reveal the man’s use of accounts to pay bills. I told the bishop it was a bad idea and I did not want to go through with it. He said I had not choice so I did what I was told only I publicly made sure everyone knew we were having a audit and that specific years would be targeted. It was my hope that this man, a CPA, would understand what would be revealed and would voluntarily volunteer the documentation to clear himself before it came up. He did not.

So, when the auditors sat down with the new Finance Committee and they learned about the transaction, they were stunned. And of course, the CPA got his back to say it was their fault and suddenly, everyone thought I was devious. It took year to try and build trust and it was gone just like that. The man threatened to file a defamation lawsuit against me and sent about 400 people an email the night before Easter telling them I was not to be trusted…ever. Two days later, I requested to leave that appointment.

We all live with regrets. I wish I had not followed the bishop’s instructions or I wish I had gone directly to the man to fix this before it got out of hand. I have never forgotten this lesson. We hide nothing financially in my churches. That is the way is should be. Trust is earned in drops and lost in buckets.

There Is a Gracious Way to Do This…

Several years ago, I wrote a note to a colleague whose church had just left our denomination. We had worked together early in my ministry when we were both serving churches in Central Arkansas. He was a good preacher and a great pastor. I sincerely wished him the best and told him I would miss seeing him at Annual Conference. He unexpectedly wrote back. He had taken on a church that had been through much trauma and through his ministry, he stabilized it. It had been a new church start but our Conference, in my opinion, had not provided the oversight it should have in allowing a formerly defrocked pastor to repeat his behaviors in another church. Accountability is a big thing in Methodism and we had failed them. I have no doubt that this pastor had carefully walked his congregation through the process of disaffiliation. When the congregation eventually voted to leave, the vote was over 90%. If you check its website, you will see that Grace Community Church in Fort Smith is thriving. This was the gracious way to leave.

And then there was First United Methodist Church of Jonesboro. Let me admit up front, I have my own issues with the pastoral leadership at that church. I served a church in Jonesboro and saw clearly that some things were not done in a transparent way. I do not know if that reflected the leadership of the church or just the senior pastor. In the United Methodist Church, we have a Book of Discipline. It tells us that we are in a covenant relationship with our fellow clergy and we should not participate in any activity that undermines the ministry of another pastor. I violated that a couple of times in going back for a funeral early in my ministry but I finally learned about boundaries and have done my best to keep those boundaries.

Last night FUMC Jonesboro had a vote to disaffiliate. There were 1,363 members present and it required a two-thirds vote to disaffiliate which meant they needed 909 votes to leave the United Methodist Church. They received 944. I do not call that a victory; I call it a tragedy. This is a church, not a basketball game. Since when is it healthy for one-third of the congregation to lose the church they have supported for a lifetime. Since when is it okay for a pastor to be so one-sided that he/she becomes the pastor for part of the congregation but not pastor for all?

Unfortunately, this battle has been played out in the public with propaganda and falsehoods being posted on Social Media without any accountability. Why not practice what we preach? Why not have people come to the table together and see what can be done to move forward in a healthy fashion even if it is moving forward with two congregations? Why does the winner take all? Where is that in the gospel?

My prayer is that we start doing this right. Stick the pastor in the corner if they cannot play fair and allow the leadership of the church to meet together regularly for fellowship, prayer, and discernment. The Spirit is still at work and we do not have to run around manipulating things to get our way. Denying the Spirit means we are not having faith, we are playing politics. We can do better. For the sake of the gospel, we must do better.

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.

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.