Wednesday morning before we were to consider the Bishops’ proposal of a way forward we did something different. We prayed together. No, praying together wasn’t that unusual, in last ten days we prayed more than an unprepared college student taking an Organic Chemistry final.
We were asked to pray with folks we don’t usually talk to. The group from Susquehanna Conference in central Pennsylvania had been next to us for a week at that point. That’s them in the photo above, and some of us in the background. They’re way happier about holding hands than we are.
So we crowded around a table and we were to tell our stories, and no further instructions were given.
There were eight or nine of us around the table: men and women, clergy and lay, black and white, some older than others, Browns fans and, well, you get the idea. What was remarkable was the number around the table who had spawned pastors. One had a college freshman discerning a call, up to one whose son was in his second appointment as a pastor. About half of the group was focused on the future of the church for very intimate and perhaps even selfish reasons.
One of the two active pastors with a parent at our table had been following the proceedings online and just a few minutes earlier had sent his dad a text: “Save a church for me to serve.”
What a gut wrenching text to receive. And at the time it seemed spot on, the very existence of the church was on the line.
Last week I had written about the Trust Clause, the concept that the current members of a church don’t own the church, but hold it in trust, a gift from previous generations and a gift for future generations.
Being entrusted with a local church is a real responsibility, but being one of 860 people on the hook for an entire denomination is something else. The church that had been handed down by the Wesley Brothers, Francis Asbury, Bishop James Thomas and even Rev. Orland Ruby, who neither baptized me nor married me but took care of everything in the middle. They had all given us the keys to this thing, and it seemed like we were on some pretty slippery roads.
As I board the red eye flight home tonight, I will do so knowing that there is, indeed, a church left to be served. But that’s not a complete victory, it seems. We are still divided. The biggest issues we were asked to face were kicked down the road to the next General Conference, whether that happens in four years or less. And in those intervening years our churches will continue to make disciples. We will spread the word to children and adults who need to hear it. We’ll feed, clothe and advocate for those who need us, just as we were taught by John and Charles, Bishop Thomas and Rev. Ruby.
That college freshman will retire 50 years from now. That means she is counting on The United Methodist Church being more than twice as old then as it is now. I believe that as long as we keep doing the work of the church, the business of the church will take care of itself. Maybe the United Methodist will fail, but the Word of God won’t.
And the local church is far more about the Word of God than the Book of Discipline. And that’s the source of my optimism.
I am confident that there will, indeed, be a church for these young pastors to serve. The business of the church will look far different in 50 years, but the work of the church will endure forever.