It’s not easy to be a preacher in the United Methodist Church these days. Not that it ever was easy, but right now it’s as hard as it’s ever been. The fault line that has been there from the beginning of the denomination in 1968 has erupted. Fall out is every where, and it seems it will get worse before it gets better.
It not easy to be a preacher in the UMC for anyone. The fault line runs right through every single local church in the U.S. The majority of our pastors are progressive (the majority of Bishops even more so); the majority of our laity in the pews are traditionalists. But those majorities are not overwhelming and they are mixed. The day of judgment is upon us in more ways than one.
Undoubtedly our denomination is under the judgment of God. At best, overall we have been lukewarm; at worst we have been in flat out rebellion against God’s word. And if Scripture is true, God is displeased either way.
I know your works: you are neither cold nor hot. Would that you were either cold or hot! So, because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of my mouth. For you say, I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing, not realizing that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire, so that you may be rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself and the shame of your nakedness may not be seen, and salve to anoint your eyes, so that you may see. Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline, so be zealous and repent. Behold, I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in to him and eat with him, and he with me. The one who conquers, I will grant him to sit with me on my throne, as I also conquered and sat down with my Father on his throne. He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches. ~ Rev 3:15-22 ESV
In many ways things are as bad as they were in Jerusalem during the ministry of Jeremiah.
“But in the prophets of Jerusalem
I have seen a horrible thing:
they commit adultery and walk in lies;
they strengthen the hands of evildoers,
so that no one turns from his evil;
all of them have become like Sodom to me,
and its inhabitants like Gomorrah.”
Therefore thus says the Lord of hosts concerning the prophets:
“Behold, I will feed them with bitter food
and give them poisoned water to drink,
for from the prophets of Jerusalem
ungodliness has gone out into all the land.”
Thus says the Lord of hosts: “Do not listen to the words of the prophets who prophesy to you, filling you with vain hopes. They speak visions of their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord. They say continually to those who despise the word of the Lord, ‘It shall be well with you’; and to everyone who stubbornly follows his own heart, they say, ‘No disaster shall come upon you.’” ~ Jeremiah 23:14-17
Still, many of our leaders will refuse to acknowledge the pattern. Like the leaders of Judah, they will bury their heads in the sand, refuse to call the denomination to real repentance, encourage the rebellious, and condemn the righteous like they did with Jeremiah.
It’s not easy to be a preacher in the UMC right now. For fear of losing significant numbers of people over the years, many have opted to ride the fence. In trying to sustain a certain number of people in the pews, many have failed to provide the sheep a diet substantive and steady enough to sustain a healthy faith. A focus on numerical growth at the expense of spiritual growth has left churches weak and malnourished, vulnerable to wolves, including those in sheep’s clothing. Indifference to doctrine in the name of a pseudo unity has brought us nothing but division and strife, and left the people in the pews to be blown about and tossed to and fro by every wind of false doctrine and deceitful scheming (Eph 4:14). As a result we have lost in both quantity and quality.
The current environment is hard on everyone. The tangled web of conflict and strife has pulpits pitted against the pews, bishops and district superintendents pitted against certain pastors and churches, boards and agencies and seminaries pitted against local churches, pastor against pastor, bishop against bishop, etc., etc., etc. . . . In many cases pastors on the very same staff are actively working against one another, and bishops and district superintendents are actively working against pastors that they have appointed. Progressive students at Duke Divinity School apparently see neutrality as rejection. Nothing less than full acceptance of the full LGBTQIA+ spectrum and agenda will do.
Yet we still hear the repeated assertions of those who insist we can all just get along, even while they insist that traditional views are doing great harm by promoting at least injustice and oppression, and probably even evil. For good reason these types of assurances ring hollow. At best they are incredibly naïve; likely they are disingenuous.
Some churches have pastors who are angered by other pastors on staff referring to the congregation as “sisters and brothers” because it is not “inclusive” enough. For some progressives the only possible explanation that someone can’t clearly see that there are dozens and dozens, maybe even an infinite number of possible genders and pronouns to go with them, is that they are backward bigots. In other churches there are progressive senior pastors who honestly feel like they have to protect the congregation from an associate who has traditional views. There are also lay leadership teams in churches that have felt like they had to protect the church from the views of progressives pastors that deny the warning of eternal judgment in hell or that the Bible is in its entirety really the uniquely inspired word of God, or that deny Jesus as the incarnate Son of the one true God, Yahweh, is the only way to the Father. As a matter of fact, progressives are unhappy about masculine nouns and pronouns for God, like Father and he, and seek to ban their use. Moreover, boards of ordained ministry are under fire because they uphold the standards for ordained ministry or because they refuse to. And annual Conferences and jurisdictional conferences are vowing to defy the General Conference.
Churches have been losing people on all sides of the issues that divide us for decades. That has only accelerate since the 2019 General Conference. These are definitely difficult days to be a pastor in the UMC.
Within the past week I learned that a local pastor in North Georgia has been removed from his church by the bishop and cabinet. Apparently his crime was allowing a WCA event to be held at his local church and working in agreement with his congregation to take advantage of a newly added disaffiliation plan in the Book of Discipline. Although there has been some question about whether the disaffiliation plan is valid, it seems that the disaffiliation plan was upheld by the judicial council. At any rate, it seems for supporting the WCA, which has called for faithfulness to our doctrinal standards and discipline and/or amicable separation, and for working with his church in what at least appears at this time to be a legitimate disaffiliation plan, this local pastor was summarily removed from his church. The reality is that his bishop would probably do back flips to avoid punishing any progressive pastor who would lead their church in open defiance of the General Conference.
It’s really is hard to be a pastor in the UMC right now. It’s hard for people on all sides. It is also painful to the point of deleteriously affecting the health and well-being of our pastors. Some pastors feel like John Eubanks in Jerry Clower’s story of “The Coon Hunt.” Feeling like they are trapped in a tree with a wildcat, some pastors may feel like it’d just be better for somebody to shoot up in the tree amongst ’em because somebody’s just got to have some relief!
In addition to the normal and inevitable stresses of being a pastor, we also have the added stress of possibly being at odds with leaders, who have a lot of power over us, and with a significant number of people in our congregations. In some cases it may only be a significant minority; in others it may be a significant majority; in others it may be split right down the middle. And this is not to mention the increasing pressure from the secular culture on churches and other organizations that espouse traditional Christian views. It is a pressure that many churchgoers and church leaders succumb to and personally bring to bear in their own local churches. In any scenario the fault line has erupted. People must find at least temporary relief on one side or the other; the fence has vanished in the chasm.
The progressive Baptist theologian, David Gushee, said a couple of years ago:
I now believe that incommensurable differences in understanding the very meaning of the Gospel of Jesus Christ, the interpretation of the Bible, and the sources and methods of moral discernment, separate many of us from our former brethren — and that it is best to name these differences clearly and without acrimony, on the way out the door. I also believe that attempting to keep the dialogue going is mainly fruitless. The differences are unbridgeable. https://www.theaquilareport.com/david-gushee-differences-unbridgeable/
Gushee was right. He was also right to say that the only possibility that remains is that one side might convert to the other, as he himself did. The fissure has become a great chasm. Trying to hold both sides hostage in the same church will only bring more chaos, confusion, and calamity. It’s downright painful to be a pastor in the UMC right now, but not hopeless.
God called the prophet Jeremiah to preach to a wayward Jerusalem that had become like Sodom and Gomorrah (Jer 23:14). It was a painful time for Jeremiah. He’s not called the “weeping prophet” for no reason! When God called him, he told him the people would fight against him (Jer 1:19). As a matter of fact, throughout his entire ministry, it seems Jeremiah only won two converts (i.e. Baruch and Ebed-melech). For his preaching, Jeremiah was sorely mocked and severely persecuted. At times he was so weary he wished he had never been born. At times he felt like giving up altogether on preaching the truth; but the fire of God’s word burned too powerfully within his soul! (Jer 20:7-18). Undoubtedly, the vision of hope of better days to come (3:15-18; 23:5-6; 29:10-14; 31:31-40; etc.) sustained him.
It’s hard to be a pastor in the UMC right now. It is painful, but others have experienced far worse. Although God told Jeremiah that the leaders of Jerusalem and the people would fight against him, God also promised him that they would not prevail, because God said, “for I am with you” (1:19). No matter how many may be against us, God being with us is always more than enough. We have to believe that, and hold on to the promise that better days are sure to come.