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.