The Conditional Covenant: A Reflection in Response to Tom Lambrecht

Today an article from United Methodist Reporter (UMR) circulated amongst my friends. It is a good piece (in my opinion) by Jay Vorhees that asks some good questions of Tom Lambrecht, the Vice President and General Manager of Good News. Within the UMC world there has been large discussion about schism and the breaking of covenant mostly surrounding the issue of homosexuality which is often is narrated as a larger disagreement around the inspiration and authority of scripture. This post isn’t going to get into the larger issue, but rather two quick thoughts that I had in response to some of Mr. Lambrecht’s answers.

First, I was very troubled by the following question and answer:

Isn’t withholding financial support of the denomination also a breaking of the covenant? 

We believe that the actions of dozens of clergy to perform same-sex unions without a corresponding accountability for those actions have already broken the covenant.  Some progressive groups have already pledged to not only withhold financial support but to disrupt church meetings and impose their agenda upon the church.  To the extent that the covenant is already broken from one side, we believe that to that extent those on the other side are not bound by it any longer.

What really got my attention was that last sentence in the answer: “To the extent that the covenant is already broken from one side, we believe that to that extent those on the other side are not bound by it any longer.” If one is attempting to uphold the importance of the covenant that we have promised to maintain isn’t it an issue to also then break that covenant based upon the condition of the other parties upholding it? The Book of Discipline states:

Ordained persons exercise their ministry in covenant with all Christians, especially with those whom they lead and serve in ministry. They also live in covenant of mutual care and accountability with all those who share their ordination, especially The United Methodist Church, with the ordained who are members of the same annual conference and part of the same Order. The covenant of ordained ministry is a lifetime commitment, and those who enter into it dedicate their whole lives to the personal and spiritual disciplines it requires. (Paragraph 303.3)

The way I understand the last sentence of Lambrecht’s answer he is basically saying it isn’t a lifetime commitment but rather a commitment as long and to the same extent that others uphold that commitment. If we are called to maintain the covenant then we are called to be faithful to it no matter what others may do. Based upon Lambrecht’s response it would seem to me that by breaking the covenant also this move then justifies future breaking of the covenant by those on “the other side” (who up until this point have maintained and upheld the covenant) to the extent that “his side” has now broken the covenant. It becomes a tit-for-tat nullification of the covenant all-together.

The power of the baptismal covenant is the fact that despite our unfaithfulness the covenant remains because of God’s faithfulness. If one is to care about the “other side” in a covenantal relationship then one maintains the faithfulness to the covenant in hopes of bringing the other part back into the covenantal relationship. I can only imagine this argument given by a husband or wife in response to an unfaithful spouse: “Well I believe I am now justified to cheat on you because I am no longer bound by the fidelity portion of our covenant.” A spouse who wants to uphold the covenant and remain in relationship is going to remain faithful (in all aspects of the covenant) in hopes of returning that upheld covenantal relationship.

Basically, that response scares me if this is how any of us are going to respond to the actions of “this side” or “that side.”

Second, I was also troubled by this question and following response:

There are some who have said that the phrase “…those of us who are biblical Christians…” was condescending and suggests that you believe that anyone who disagrees with your positions is not biblical nor Christian. Isn’t the central issue that divides us a different way of approaching and interpreting the biblical text? Are you saying that those who disagree with your positions are non-biblical? Where is there room for disagreement on biblical interpretation?

Progressive groups have adopted the mantra “biblical obedience,” implying that those of us who support the church’s teaching are not obeying Scripture.  How is our statement any different?  We recognize that Christians of good will can disagree on matters of biblical interpretation.  However, the real division in our church today is not over issues of sexuality, but over our views on the inspiration and authority of Scripture.  There are many clergy and laity in our church today who reject the deity of Christ, the atonement, the bodily resurrection of Christ, and other cardinal doctrines of the faith based on the same approach to Scripture that leads them to reject the church’s teaching on human sexuality and marriage.  Those who adopt such an approach are not operating biblically.  Our statement does not claim that we are the only biblical Christians.  It says that “those of us who are biblical Christians AND who have agreed to live by The Book of Discipline” are needing to examine what options are available to us.

I am a bit troubled by the simplicity by which Lambrecht divides the “sides” in this response. There is not really any space for those in the middle (i.e. those who are biblical Christians AND who have agreed to live by The Book of Discipline” but still disagree with the church’s teaching on human sexuality and marriage). This is where I begin to find it a bit disingenuous when Lambrecht states, “However, the real division in our church today is not over issues of sexuality, but over our views on the inspiration and authority of Scripture.” I know more than one evangelical Christian that maintains a high regard and orthodox position around the inspiration and authority of Scripture but has arrived at a different conclusion around homosexuality that is the crux of this disagreement. The final thing that troubles me is that his earlier response to the first question above seems to me to be contrary to his last statement about “those of us who are biblical Christians AND who have agreed to live by The Book of Discipline” since he said neither side was now bound to uphold that covenant to the degree it was violated.

Each and every day that I read more surrounding the divisions in our church I grow more and more thankful for the grace of God and the faithfulness of God in our own unfaithfulness. My hope is that we may be inspired to hold one another accountable but to do it with faithfulness and love towards God and one another.

Image by Flickr user Katie Tegtmeyer. Licensed under Creative Commons. Cropped and Resized from Original.



When Words Hurt

Most people when they see me probably think I don’t care what other people think. I have to admit, I project that. I have gotten better at letting things bounce off me and not stick, but the truth is I am a sensitive soul and I take things more personally than I should more times than not.

But what can really compound the hurt feelings for me is when I don’t know who is saying it. You see if someone disagrees with me or has a critique I want to engage them. I want to understand where they are coming from so I can better understand their disagreement or critique. I want to share with them why I am who I am or why I believe what I believe.

However, anonymity doesn’t allow for that. Every pastor gets them. You know those notes placed in the offering or slipped in the office mailbox. Those notes that critique. Those notes that say someone is not happy with you or the way you present yourself. Those notes that lack a signature or a name.

Those notes that carry with them a deeply cutting arrow that pierces the skin, the heart, the soul and leaves wounds at every level. When a name is attached you know that person. You have an experience with that person that helps you to understand where they are coming from. You can identify what is being said and possibly why it is being said. When there isn’t a name, it is like a buried land mine that you don’t see and all the sudden explodes leaving you writhing in pain. You didn’t see it coming. You don’t know how to avoid it. You don’t know what to do with that pain.

People always tell me those notes should just go into the trash can and be forgotten, but even in that action the words still hang. The words have already penetrated and hurt. Even seemingly harmless words carry so much damage when done anonymously.

Pastor Justin-
We have nothing against you as a person, but think more dignity should be shown at the 9 am service. Hanging onto a bottle (as a prop) during the sermon is not acceptable, nor is telling jokes during the service. As a pastor you should be properly dressed (shirt and tie)(no blue jeans) and lets put a little formality into going to church. Could you stand for the sermon?

I shouldn’t be so bothered from a note like this, but the words hurt. Mostly because it conveys a sense that person believes I don’t properly revere God at this worship service. It hurts because I can’t engage the person and explain and ask further questions. I can let go of most of these critiques because some of them aren’t even close to the norm (like what I wear which usually is what that person is wishing I wore (shirt, tie, khakis, and suit coat or sweater). What I can’t let go of is this: why can’t the person sign their name? Why can’t they engage in a conversation by owning their feelings? Why am I the one receiving the note when everything that has been leveled as a critique in this note also applies to the other minister? Why me?

In the end two things help me process these moments. (1) The realization that this person is more than likely writing from a place of uncomfortableness with the way church (and the world) has changed and longs to have the comfortable world they once knew back. This is their way of processing. (2) In these moments I have to remind myself that I serve God and that my faithful following of Christ and leading under God’s guidance is what matters. In these moments I have to remember that Christ looks beyond blue jeans, water bottles, humor, and sees my heart and knows where it stands. I have to remember that Christ loves me.

P.S. It kind of sucks to have this as the beginning of Holy Week sitting in your box, but in a way I needed it to really remind me of how much I depend on God’s love and how thankful I am for the way that God came down to show me and others what Agape looks like.

What’s Next

So this weekend I have been hanging in St. Louis with over 500 students from around the country for the UMSM College Student gathering known as “What’s NEXT.”  So far it has been a really interesting and inspiring weekend.

Why inspiring?  Well when you find yourself surrounded with over 500 college students that are asking themselves what God might have in store for their lives and for the life of God’s church it ends up being a time of energy and passion.

I am here because I was part of a group of 8 speakers selected to share with this group things that we are passionate about or things we hope will inspire another generation of leadership within God’s kingdom.  The speakers have been diverse and their topics were diverse which to me is inspiring in itself because it shows the ways that God has blessed many different people with many different gifts and passions.  It is a true example of how God’s Spirit works to build up the community of Christ.

The question running through my head as the weekend continues is this:  “What actions and changes will the United Methodist Church experience from the inspiration these individuals received?”  What will be the impact for the kingdom as these individuals go forth empowered through God’s Spirit to do great things for Christ?

The Devil Did It! : Thoughts on the UMC and Guaranteed Appointments.

Those who try to make their life secure will lose it, but those who lose their life will keep it.  -Luke 17:33 (NRSV)

I was raised by a wonderful woman of faith: my mother.  Over the past 24 hours I have been thinking about the UMC and the hot topic of guaranteed appointments after the Judicial Council ruled against their elimination.  I keep thinking about what my mother would say which would be something to this effect:  The devil is great at distracting us from Kingdom work.

Now, mom and I have some differing opinions on the existence of the devil, etc. but man do I wish I could agree with her that this is something the “devil” did.  It would be easier for me to deal with if I could blame it on the devil. Unfortunately, the fact is we have no one to blame but ourselves for this distraction. We are getting pretty good at it might I say.  If it isn’t guaranteed appointments and ineffective clergy then it is something else, right?  We keep bouncing from symptom to symptom to try and figure out what is wrong so we can save the UMC.

Are we so arrogant as to think that God needs us?  Why are we so focused on keeping the life of the UMC going? I mean it seems to me the more that we are focusing on ourselves and our existence as a denomination the more and more we end up being ineffective for the Kingdom of God.

I probably sound pretty negative so far (whoops), but the truth is I love the UMC and it is the place where I found my spiritual home. However, I remember when I became United Methodist and it wasn’t because of an “effective clergy person” and it wasn’t even because of an abundance of “small groups” or “vibrant worship” offered at my local congregation. No the reason I became United Methodist is because my local church pointed beyond itself to God. (at least in my naive 8th grade eyes of experience) My experience was of a church which pointed beyond itself to something bigger. But now I have to wonder, how often are we pointing to something bigger than the UMC (i.e. The Kingdom of God) and how often are pointing at ourselves?

The devil has gone and done it, like a great “shell game” con we have been duped into focusing on the wrong stuff. Well that is if the devil did do it, unfortunately I think the blame lies square on the person looking back at us in the mirror. (yeah even me)

Image taken from:

#GC2012 & Guaranteed Appointments: Part 2

What an eventful morning at General Conference.  From guaranteed appointments being eliminated via the consent calendar to then being asked to reconsider and that being voted down.  What an up and down morning.  What we do know is this: guaranteed appointments are gone and there are measures in place in an attempt to ensure that abuse does not happen.

Again, I have no problem with eliminating them.  I have had this thought since before I was even ordained.  My call comes from God, that has been affirmed by the UMC but ultimately if at any point in my ministry that affirmation is deemed no longer valid I have trust that God is still with me on the journey.  I will always ask questions and challenge because I care deeply about the UMC and about seeing God’s Kingdom advanced.  Job security doesn’t scare me because I trust God will provide wherever that path may lead.

All that being said, yesterday I wrote a post listing some “unintended consequences” that could come from the elimination of guaranteed appointments in an atmosphere of mistrust and decline.  I wanted to write about another unintended consequence that is not meant to say that the elimination is wrong, but rather to make us all aware as we move forward to help address and hopefully build the trust that is so desperately needed if we are to continue in our faithfulness together.  I believe the measures put in place along with the elimination of guaranteed appointments will help guard against many of these, but the truth is often perceived reality is more powerful than actually reality.  If I perceive a threat (whether it is real or not) I am going to react accordingly.  So here is one of the things I believe we are going to have to monitor and address for the health of the entire denomination.

  • Pastor’s who are struggling will hide those struggles out of fear of its adverse effect on their employment rather than bringing it to the attention of conference leadership so that it can be dealt with in a healthy manner for both the clergy, local church, and conference.

There is already a bunch of mistrust in the system even with the guarantee of appointment.  Often clergy who could use help hide that need out of fear of adverse effects on the type of appointment they may get.  I am afraid that with the added fear (again perceived not necessarily actually real) of employment security, many clergy will hide those things that could easily be addressed and then later it becomes a bigger issue with much more damage to all parties.  It is hard to say we need help even in a system of deep trust, but it is even harder in a system where there is doubt and trust issues.

Ultimately, the issue isn’t really about having guaranteed appointments or not having guaranteed appointments but rather it is about trust.  How can we as churches, laity, clergy, and conferences help to address the mistrust and doubt we have within the system.  How can we encourage one another to continue to speak boldly as God leads and to trust that through it all God is with us?  I think it is going to be especially important for clergy to hold one another accountable by building trust and support even in the midst of mistakes and hurt.  We will all need to monitor one another to make sure abuse isn’t happening at all levels of the church.

But basically the biggest question is this:  Can we trust one another and most importantly can we trust God is with us on the journey no matter what?