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General Conference Chatter

A couple of days ago I e-mailed a General Conference alternate, John Miles II, and asked him to share with me what he’s seeing and hearing. In a message back to me today John made this observation:

Things are going well the only problem will be the membership issue. There is a lot of energy around limiting pastoral authority.

On my old blog, I wrote a fairly long post about the Judicial Council decision a couple of years ago concerning pastoral authority (I’ll leave that post in the “More” section if you’re interested). I realize most of the rhetoric will center around the homosexuality issue — if the church gives too much authority to the pastor then they can start excluding homosexuals from church membership. Frankly, I think that’s a tiny blip on the radar for most pastors. It’s really a non-issue as far as I’m concerned.

What does concern me is this hypothetical: This afternoon I visited with a woman about church membership. We talked about faith and the four things we commit to when we become members of a United Methodist Church – prayers, presence, gifts, and service. What if she had said to me, “Pastor, I like coming here but I don’t believe in Jesus. I won’t recite the creeds and I’ll ignore every appeal you make to Scripture as an authority in my life.” As the pastor, I should be able to respond, “I thank you for your time, but church membership is not something we take lightly and we believe that faith in Christ is central to our participation in the Body of Christ.”

I don’t know what General Conference is going to decide on this issue, but weakening our role in determining a person’s readiness for church membership seems to be little more than a desperate attempt to inflate our sagging numbers or deal with the unfounded fear that pastors will go on a homosexual member witch hunt.

From the now defunct http://www.revmhj.com

It seems to me and to others with whom I have spoken that the United Methodist Church (UMC) has taken the vows of membership far too lightly. I believe this is a clergy problem as we admit people to membership without properly evaluating their understanding of and commitment to the church. In other words, we ought to, like Wesley, make intelligent and intentional decisions about who should be members of the local church.

Many remember the controversial decision by the Judicial Council in October of 2005 in which a pastor was taken off of involuntary leave of absence and reinstated after he had been paced there due to the fact that he refused membership to a man who was a homosexual. The merits of that decision have been and will continue to be discussed, but after reading some statements from members of that church, it appeared that Rev. Ed Johnson wasn’t refusing membership based upon sexual orientation, but because he had seen a pattern of disregard for the duties of church membership in the life of the man he refused (the duties of which I speak relate to devoting one’s prayers, presence, gifts, and service to the church). Whatever one might think about the hot-button issues surrounding this case, one thing is surely certain: this decision ought to make us clergy think more seriously and urgently about church membership. The judicial council wrote that The Book of Discipline “invests discretion in the pastor-in-charge to make determination of a person’s readiness to affirm the vows of membership.”

As clergy, we are to make a determination of a person’s readiness to affirm the vows of membership. How many of us have taken that directive seriously? Most of us are so excited that some is actually joining a denomination that has been hemorraging members for forty years that we don’t even take the time to find out whether this person has faith in Jesus Christ, whether they understand what faith in Christ actually means, or whether or not the person is committed to the responsibilities of church membership.

We ought to be asking the tough questions. It’s not comfortable to look someone in the face and say, “I’m glad you are thinking about church membership but I don’t think you are ready.” It’s not easy, but we ought to be preparing people for church membership not just letting them sign up as if church membership were as forgettable as that gym membership many of us purchase on January 2nd (at least the gym is getting paid!) Church membership is a responsibility and not a pathway to free church weddings and visits in the hospital. We are called to be something more than that: disciples of Jesus Christ.

Where does the church begin to take church membership seriously? It must begin with the pastor. Brothers and sisters, we are charged with the spiritual nurturing of a body of believers. What are we doing other than babysitting on Sundays? I was so encouraged to hear one of my colleagues say that our Bishop told her, “we don’t want popular pastors. We want Pastors who are faithful and effective.” Hallelujah! If people leave because we do the sometimes painful task of teaching and correcting, well, so be it. We are called to teach the cruciform life of taking up one’s cross and following Jesus. That kind of life is not often convenient but it is the kind of life that makes way for the kingdom of God and that’s the kind of work to which we ought to put our hands to the plow and not look back.

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