Monday, June 23, 2014

Leading Jesus' Church

I have heard a refrain from members of the United Methodist Council of Bishops over the last several years. It is heard whenever discussions ensue regarding the issue of sex & people's chosen behaviors. I have heard it or read it multiple times over the last several months, as the actions of a few unfaithful pastors & bishops have driven the denomination to the brink of schism.

The refrain is heard when leaders refuse to take a side in the debate & goes something like this:

"I am called to lead ALL of God's people, the entire Church, both sides of the issue of sexual behavior."

It sounds like a fair, mediative statement. The issue of a person's chosen sexual behavior is, after all, a very heated one in today's Church. Bishops & pastors alike desire to lead the Church through these times of trial into whatever future the Spirit leads us.

But the more I hear it or read it, the more I find it problematic. When you analyze what the statement is really saying, it isn't a statement of leadership; it's an example of "anti-leadership", an abdication of leadership, a blatant refusal to lead.

To lead, after all, means (according to Merriam-Webster), " guide on a way especially by going in direct on a course or in a serve as a channel direct the operations, activity, or performance bring to some conclusion or condition."

Leadership, then, means seeing a chosen destination in the future & saying, "Follow me." Imagine great leaders of the past. Had they said, "I will not take a side or choose a path. I am called to lead EVERYONE," how might history be different?

Imagine if Churchill had said, "I'm called to lead ALL of the British people; I won't take a side in the issue of German aggressiveness."

Imagine if Reagan had said, "I'm called to lead ALL of the American people; I won't take a side in the issue of Soviet moral integrity."

Imagine if Jesus had said, "I'm called to lead ALL people to salvation; I won't take a side in the issue of sin & death."

In The United Methodist Church, our clergy leaders - especially our bishops - are called to live into our covenant. Our covenant is determined by our exegesis of Scripture through the lens of Church tradition, reason, and our experience of the doctrine of assurance of salvation, all of which is detailed in our Book of Discipline.

Our covenant teaches that while, "We affirm that all persons are individuals of sacred worth, created in the image of God", "the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching."

Lots of persons disagree with the Church on lots of issues, but this is our covenant. It's relatively clear. Leaders will live into this & lead others into it as well. It is a position informed by centuries of exegesis, compassion & grace. It is our position because we love all persons & desire to see them know the liberating mercy of a great God, not because we are mean or desire harm. Persons who understand our theology will understand this. It is unworthy of the clergy office to ignore or apologize for Church teaching which is founded on centuries of faithful exegesis & theological development. It is also arrogant.

If a United Methodist pastor or bishop cannot with integrity live into our covenant or lead others to do so, there is no shame in simply separating from the Church. That can happen in a gracious manner. But live into it we must, or our integrity & character must be called into question.

If United Methodist bishops cannot live into, teach & lead persons into our covenant, why are they bishops? Surely the Church deserves better than leaders who refuse to lead. Unity begins with faithfulness to our covenant. If our bishops truly desire unity, they will live into it.

Conversely, if a bishop cannot with integrity live into our covenant without violating his or her conscience, there is no shame in stepping away from the episcopacy. The role of bishop is reserved for those who are called by the Spirit to lead persons into our covenant, not for well-meaning folks who simply lack the courage or the desire to lead.

I'm reminded of a brief speech in the 1995 movie Braveheart, in which William Wallace says to Robert the Bruce, "Tell me, what does it mean to be noble? Your title gives you claim to the throne of our country, but men don't follow titles; they follow courage. Now, our people know you, noble and common they respect you. And if you would just lead them to freedom, they'd follow you. And so would I."

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