Trust

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.