The Clergy-Laity Disconnect

“The witness of the laity, their Christ-like examples of everyday living as well as the sharing of their own faith experiences of the gospel, is the primary evangelistic ministry through which all people will come to know Christ and The United Methodist Church will fulfill its mission.” – 2016 Book of Discipline, ¶ 127, “The Ministry of the Laity” 

When Methodism was getting on its feet in the 18th Century, the movement was largely one spread by… wait for it… the laity! That’s right, it wasn’t ordained or licensed pastors who were out beating the bushes with the good news of the gospel for all people who the church either couldn’t or wouldn’t reach – it was lay persons who were trained in Wesley’s teachings and on how to preach. Laity were the class leaders and the primary leaders within their societies and congregations. The pastors were there to be the spiritual leaders whose primary job was to equip the laity for ministry. The laity were expected to make most of the major decisions and to be the movers and shakers within the church.

Read that again: It was the laity, not the pastors, who were charged with the responsibility of doing ministry. These were not the prominent people of their day, rather they were the marginalized of British society – the poor.

There were first of all the itinerating lay preachers, assigned in pairs to circuits throughout the British Isles, and eventually sent in pairs to America. There were also the non-itinerating local ministers and the stewards who oversaw the various societies. Most important were the leaders of classes, who provided spiritual oversight for those under their care.

What Wesley did is open the door for hundreds of men and women to become leaders in the vast missionary endeavor of spreading scriptural holiness across the nation. Since most of these were not from the upper classes, British society did not provide avenues of leadership. Indeed some evangelical pastors criticized Wesley for disrespecting the class distinctions they believed God had established. But Wesley recognized their gifts and commitment, and enlisted them into God’s service.

“Wesley and Lay Leadership” – Dr. Henry H. Knight, III – St. Paul School of Theology https://www.catalystresources.org/consider-wesley-51/

At some point this began to change. Dr. Knight points to the merger that created the United Methodist Church in 1968 as a major turning point where the laity became passive consumers – largely due to their lack of education on our doctrine and theology – and the clergy were highly educated providers of religious services for the congregation, specialists in the same vein as lawyers and doctors. As Dr. Knight states, “This was hardly a recipe for vibrant outreach into their communities.”

That perception has only increased as the years have passed. Today, the UMC is hardly the movement where the laity are the primary leaders and the clergy are the equippers and providers of guidance and teaching. Today the pastors are expected to be the CEOs and to make most of the decisions. In the typical UMC congregation, the laity are not involved beyond roles such as Sunday School teacher or the lay leadership roles mandated by the Book of Discipline (which, let’s be real, are often only on paper in many congregations). This is a major problem for many reasons, but the main reason is because the widening gulf between the clergy and laity is yet another way in which we have forgotten who we are.

It’s time for Methodists to get back to our roots.

I was reminded of the width of this gulf is yesterday when I published my proposed re-write of WCA’s proposed church clergy deployment plan. I want to digress for a moment and express my appreciation for most of the feedback given being constructive and helpful. As the comments on social media continued, I realized that the tone and type of the feedback differed between clergy and laity. The reason is because we have different points of view on what is most needed in our churches and how to meet those needs. As I mentioned to someone yesterday, the answer probably lies somewhere in the middle. I believe clergy and laity ought to come together and to hear one another. You know, like John Wesley and the early Methodists did.

We need to get back to our roots.

In the United Methodist Church, we say that we believe in the priesthood of all believers – but do we really? Our Book of Discipline affirms the ministry of the laity but as I read the paragraph that contains this affirmation, I can’t help but question how we actually practice this aspect of ministry.

“The witness of the laity, their Christ-like examples of everyday living as well as the sharing of their own faith experiences of the gospel, is the primary evangelistic ministry through which all people will come to know Christ and The United Methodist Church will fulfill its mission.”

2016 Book of Discipline, ¶ 127, “The Ministry of the Laity” 

Spoiler alert: We suck at this.

There is plenty of blame to go around for how we got here. Part of it is societal norms changing where worship attendance is now largely seen as optional, therefore so is becoming involved in the ministry and leadership of the church. The clergy also have been afraid of feeling less important and have failed to equip their laity for ministry in addition to other failures to teach the doctrine of the church that would not be popular with many within their congregations. I could go on but you get the point.

Pastors, you may not like what I’m about to say but I’m going to say it anyway: We need to give the laity their church back. What I mean by that is, we need to reclaim our roles as the spiritual leaders and the equippers of the laity to conduct the ministry of the church. We need to allow our people to take the lead and we need to let go of some of the control that we have claimed. This is more than a great thing that Wesley taught; allowing the laity to lead is a biblical mandate.

“Now these are the gifts Christ gave to the church: the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, and the pastors and teachers. Their responsibility is to equip God’s people to do his work and build up the church, the body of Christ.”

Ephesians 4:11-12 (NLT)

I realize that this is not the case in all congregations. I’m thankful to be able to say that I know of many churches that are doing great work because the laity took ownership of the ministry of their church. But when it comes to the majority of congregations, we still have a major disconnect and we need to address it quickly. We, the clergy, certainly have our place but so do the laity. It’s time we set aside our pride and our ambitions, took a step back, and started equipping the saints again.

Sports teams are made up of individuals with different responsibilities but with the same goal in mind: To win. On scoreboards, teams are shown as winning or losing, just one individual on the team. The same goes for the church: We all have different jobs but we are on the same team and we ought to have the same goal: To win souls for God’s kingdom. Our job is to minister to the people with the gospel but also by being the hands and feet of Christ. By being doers of the word, we allow God to use us in this endeavor. If the church is failing, it’s because we have failed to carry out this mission. We have all become power hungry or consumers. It’s time for this to change.

It’s time to get back to our roots.

Women, Preach! A Response to John MacArthur

Women, Preach!

A Response to John MacArtur

John MacArthur telling Beth Moore that she and other women who preach ought to “go home” has been well documented. He further insisted, “There is no case that can be made biblically for a woman preacher. Period. Paragraph. End of discussion” (something I believe is a load of bunk). Except with those whom also espouse this hermeneutic, MacArthur has been decried and challenged in his views across the board. Many people would simply back down and acknowledge that not everyone agrees with them and move along, but MacArthur apparently is not content to go quietly about women preachers. Much like certain elected officials, MacArthur chose to double down on his remarks during a recent sermon.

“Women are to maintain submission to men in all churches in all times. Women pastors and women preachers are the most obvious evidence of churches rebelling against the Bible … Women who pastor and women who preach in the church are a disgrace and openly reflect opposition to the clear command of the Word of God. This is flagrant disobedience.”

Oh, is it now? Are you sure about that? You might think that “God said it, I believe it, that settles it” is the way one should read the Bible but this is where you’re wrong. This attitude underscores the danger and outright ignorance that ensues when this hermeneutic is employed (I’ve written/preached about this before). Let’s remember that all scripture was certainly divinely inspired but, at the end of the day, this collection of stories, songs, letters, and biographies was written and compiled by human authors. These authors were often writing to specific people or groups. They were also writing in specific contexts with specific issues that they were addressing. This is not to say that the larger truth contained in them is not timeless but the circumstances described were often constrained to a moment in time. The sort of cherry picking and proof texting that MacArthur and his ilk engage in and claim authority under is nothing short of a disservice to scripture and to their pastoral office.

MacArthur invoked 1 Corinthians 14:34 as a proof text for his assertion that women should be silent in church. According to the article linked above, MacArthur stated, “You don’t say anything,” he stressed, later adding: “Women need to get themselves under control and realize they are not to speak in a church.” For a highly educated man, he certainly does not employ much intellect. If he knew anything about historical context and how to apply it to interpretation, he would know that Paul was not issuing a blanket ban on women speaking in church, rather he was addressing the fact that women who preached in the pagan temples of Corinth wished to preach in the newly established Christian churches. Paul was simply telling them to become educated in the gospel before undertaking this task. That’s it. Dr. Ben Witherington III, the Amos Professor of New Testament for Doctoral Studies at Asbury Theological Seminary, has written an excellent commentary on the Pauline letters, including this about 1 Corinthians 14:34:

Those asking questions were not yet educated enough in the school of Christ to know what was and was not appropriate in Christian worship. Paul affirms their right to learn, but suggests another context. In any case, Paul is correcting an abuse of a privilege, not taking back a woman’s right to speak in the assembly, which he has already granted in ch. 11

Witherington, B., III. (1995). Conflict and Community in Corinth: A Socio-Rhetorical Commentary on 1 and 2 Corinthians (p. 287). Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co.

Let’s not fool ourselves though. MacArthur can claim biblical authority all he wants to but this is about something else entirely: Good old fashioned sexism.

“When women take over a culture, men become weak; when men become weak, they can be conquered. When all the men have been slaughtered, you [women] can sit there with all your jewelry and junk. You’ve been conquered, because you overpowered your protectors.”

There you have it: John MacArthur is afraid of women taking over the world. He feels threatened by women having any sort of power, including the authority of the pulpit and sees this as a threat upon his power. This sort of rhetoric is much more than an old man spouting off outdated cultural norms. This is a man who sees women as inferior, or at least wants to give that appearance, and who will demean any woman who dares to speak up or to take authority.

There is no valid excuse for this kind of sexist, bigoted, weak-minded thinking.

MacArthur’s views are completely unbiblical. The first one to witness the risen Lord was a woman who was told to go and tell the other men. Yes, a woman – often maligned as a prostitute in an attempt to downplay her contribution to the gospel story – was the first one to preach resurrection when she burst into a room where the men had been hiding and shouted, “I have seen the Lord!” (John 20:18) In Romans 16, Paul specifically sends greetings to several woman, including Priscilla and Aquila who he refers to as “co-workers” in the gospel, and to Junia who was respected among the apostles. The original Greek of these instances indicates that these women were on equal footing with Paul and any other man who was in the trenches of pastoral ministry.

One might be quick to say that MacArthur’s view is a simple difference in interpretation of scripture but I disagree. I believe this is something much more malicious. The fact that MacArthur refuses to employ interpretation beyond “God said it, I believe it” aside, MacArthur’s demeaning comments about women in general reveal that he sees women as beneath him and as unequal in God’s kingdom. His point of view has no place in the church and the sooner this sort of attitude is eradicated, the better. This is more than “an old man being an old man.” This is evil. Pure and simple. This is a man who feels threatened by a woman holding power, even going so far as to say that empowering women weakens men. As we say in the south: MacArthur needs to go and sit down somewhere and be quiet.

The only weak man I see in this situation is John MacArthur.

#NextMethodism? What About #MethodismNow?

Another day, another UMC-related hashtag.

The hashtag flavor of the week is #NextMethodism. Some of the United Methodist Church’s brightest – mainly on the conservative side but a few moderates – have been engaging in conservation about their visions, hopes, and dreams of what may come out of any split of the United Methodist Church. The authors seem convinced that the UMC is too far gone to save and so they are preparing for something new to come about, perhaps in the form of a phoenix rising out of the ashes.

If such a thing were possible, John Wesley would be spinning in his grave that such a discussion was even happening.

I know, I know… The whole Methodist movement came about from a schism within the Church of England. And I also know that Wesley never set out to begin a new church. But once the new church began to take shape, Wesley had some heavy expectations out of the people called Methodist. In a nutshell, it was his way or no way (the whole bishop thing excluded) and he was not afraid to let his pastors know that they were out of line. 

I can not help but think that if Rev. Wesley were alive today, he would be having some serious discussions with several of our clergy to remind them that their minds were better served by offering the people Christ now instead of engaging in political pandering and other activities which I believe are unbecoming a clergy person.

This discussion has borne a little quality fruit but mostly it has yielded only horse apples.

There have been conspiracy theories and accusations floated, name calling and backbiting, defensiveness, and a general smug tone taken by those engaging in the #NextMethodism discussion. And frankly, I feel that much of the childish behavior that I have witnessed has been vastly unbecoming of a clergy person and some of the people involved would do well to check themselves.

And at least one lay person (who is no longer UM, I may add) would do well to stop his childish name calling campaign.

I have also been outright offended by some of the articles that have been written (that I will not even dignify with a link from this blog – you will have to find them elsewhere). One particular gem was “The #NextMethodism Will Believe in Christ.” Another was, “The #NextMethodism Will Be Biblical.” Really? So, am I to believe that you, as UM clergy, do not proclaim Christ or proclaim scripture, therefore you want a do-over? 

If one attends any given UMC worship service, they will hear scripture proclaimed and the name of Christ lifted up. In many instances, they will also experience the body and blood of Christ consecrated and given to the people. Hopefully, they may even see and participate in faith being put into action outside the walls of the church.

That is #MethodismNow

I know there is clergy who like to proclaim their political agendas from the pulpit instead of preaching the gospel (this does not seem to be confined to one particular political realm or another) but the vast majority do not engage in this behavior. This entire notion of “they’re bad so I’m going to take my toys and go play somewhere else, and here’s what I want it to be like” is just plain ridiculous.

We have better things to do than further advance political causes to score points with the leadership of any potential new denomination. I am also way too busy ministering in a very drug-infested and poverty-stricken area to be too concerned about engaging in such discussions.

I am not naive, I realize that the UMC as we know it likely will not exist in a few more years. I am also not naive enough to think that I will not have to make some serious decisions about how I live out my calling to pastoral ministry. But I also am not willing to engage in fruitless discussions or to accuse the current UMC of being anything but a Christian church (a charge that I think is despicable).

If there are those among us who truly feel that they can no longer minister in the UMC, I may encourage them to begin considering where they can best serve God and go there.

When it comes to such discussions, I will end with the words of the great philosopher Sweet Brown: Ain’t nobody got time for that.

HIPAA and the Church

hellohipaa_wideWhen I first became an EMT, I worked for an ambulance service that was based at a hospital in rural Mississippi. As it was a hospital-based service, I was required to sit through the same new employee orientation as nurses and others who worked within the hospitals. A large chunk of the session was spent talking about HIPAA. As I have worked for other services and did internships while in paramedic school, I had to have further training on HIPAA. With these numerous training sessions and other research have done on my own, I feel pretty confident that I am well-versed in what HIPAA does and does do and to who it does and does not apply to.

There is much confusion and I would like to try and address some of that.

HIPAA – the Health Information Portability and Accountability Act – is a very far-reaching law and has many moving parts to it. The short version of what HIPAA is for is to specify how one’s health information is to be stored, the type of security measures which should be taken, who can access information, and so on. One of HIPAA’s requirements is that healthcare workers and healthcare organizations who have access to one’s health information may not disclose it in any way to anyone without express written permission, except in very limited ways as allowed under the law (and there are not many). This aspect of HIPAA seems to be what has caused the most confusion. There are many people who think that the general public is subject to HIPAA, who think that clergy persons are bound by HIPAA and that even such things as sharing a diagnosis during prayer requests during a worship service is a violation of the law.

If you are a pastor or a parishioner who fears that sharing about Aunt Mabel’s bunions is going to land you in hock due to a violation of HIPAA, fear not. That won’t happen because HIPAA does not apply to such things.

Simply stated, HIPAA does not even apply to the general public in the first place. You can share your own information to your heart’s content. Further, you can share diagnoses and other health information about anyone with anyone and you are not in violation of HIPAA. Is sharing information without permission unethical? Yes. Illegal? Not so much. The only way you would be in violation of HIPAA is if your information was obtained while you were an employee of a clinic, hospital, etc. and you were obtaining this information in the course of performing your job.

HIPAA does not apply to clergy any more than it does to anyone else. While pastors are bound to ethical standards – which certainly includes not sharing private information without permission or without a legal reason such as to report a person who is a danger to themselves or others – clergy persons are not bound by HIPAA in the performance of their pastoral duties. If a pastor is visiting Aunt Mabel in the hospital, HIPAA does not apply to them. The exception to that is if the clergy person is acting within the capacity of a hospital chaplain or other employment with a healthcare organization. Further, clergy persons are not going to get in trouble with the law for sharing health information in settings such as prayer request time.

Again: Is sharing health information without permission unethical? Yes. Is it illegal (in most cases)? No.

I get really bothered when clergy persons are told that anything they share with their congregation is a violation of HIPAA because this simply is not true. Unfortunately, this is the misinformation that clergy persons are given over and over again by people who should know better but don’t. I know of clergy persons who have been told by leadership within their annual conferences that if they share any sort of health-related information that they are in violation of HIPAA. This is simply not true and I encourage my colleagues to become better educated in the legal aspects of ministry. Such education is a benefit for many reasons.

For more about HIPAA and what it does and does not cover (and it’s likely not what you think), this is a good place to start.

The Power of Words

powerofwords“Words are singularly the most powerful force available to humanity. We can choose to use this force constructively with words of encouragement, or destructively using words of despair. Words have energy and power with the ability to help, to heal, to hinder, to hurt, to harm, to humiliate and to humble.” Yehuda Berg

We see them everywhere. You’re seeing them now: Words. Whether spoken, written, posted, shared, blogged, tweeted, or even thought, words are powerful things. Words can build up, words can tear down. Words can encourage, and words can discourage. There is a reason that an English author by the name of Edward Bulwer-Lytton quipped, “The pen is mightier than the sword.”

As a pastor, I am constantly searching for the right words to communicate a message that will give God a smile and help someone grow closer to the Lord. Sometimes I feel like God helps me to find the words easily, while sometimes I find myself searching for a long time. The words that I use as I preach and pray are vital and I want to make sure that I’m using the best ones possible. Words shape our perception of everything from food to God.

Our words carry great power, therefore we have a great responsibility to use them properly.

One of the biggest pet peeves that I have is the use of corporate jargon. Phrases such as “going forward,” and “best practices” sound like nails on a chalkboard to me. When I hear people say these kinds of things in everyday conversation, I can’t help but look at them as if they are crazy. Buzzwords in general really bother me. My experience has been when one uses such phrases they are only trying to make themselves sound educated and well-versed in whatever business they are engaged in.

Unfortunately, I have noticed the same in ministers.

More and more, I’m noticing pastors, lay ministers, and churches using more and more jargon. A lot of these words seem to be derived from the corporate world, but there are also a lot of “churchy” buzzwords making their way into the fray.

Here’s my question: Why?

Being a seminary student, I seem to be exposed to a lot more of these buzzwords compared to everyday folks. Walking around the quad and overhearing conversations containing words and phrases such as “intentionality,” “creative discipleship” and of ministries being “transformational” is a nearly everyday occurrence. It drives me crazy.

It needs to stop.

The reason I feel this way is not just my personal disdain for buzzwords but a concern I have that using such language simply does not meet people where they are. That in addition to the fact that I think using such words sounds pompous and otherwise just plain stupid. People who are seeking Christ are not going to care what our latest “discernment” (which, let’s be honest, is typically nothing more than an attempt at polite manipulation) on how to properly “do life” is. And they certainly are not going to give much thought to exactly what it means to “be intentional” about prayer, scripture reading, or eating fried chicken at the next potluck.

I don’t have to tell you that Jesus excelled at many things during his ministry, but one thing is really excelled at was truly meeting people where they were. He often used parables so everyday people without temple education could better grasp the point he was attempting to make and used language that people could easily understand. Perhaps I’m crazy and not hip to the latest ministry trends, but I feel that we should “go and do likewise.” It’s great that I and others like me are in seminary (or have been) and are getting (or got) great educations, but at the end of the day, people have to be able to understand what in the heck we’re trying to tell them. Using buzzwords is not going to advance the cause of Christ one bit.

I admit, I’m guilty of using some of these terms, but really it was an attempt to fit in. One piece of advice I received when I first began to preach was not to “use ten dollar words when a word that cost a dime will do.” As pastors, we must make sure that people feel like we can be approached and sounding too smart for the crowd is only going to alienate us from the people we are supposed to be ministering to.

Outspoken and very much non-traditional Lutheran pastor Rev. Nadia Boltz-Webber had this suggestion for using such buzzwords:

Let’s make sure that in seminary classrooms and at church conferences and in congregational life when we use a term or a phrase, that it points to an actual thing, or person or event and is not just a string of words that sound like something meaningful but in fact, lack real meaning. There is a reason that my computer does not recognize the word Missional.

When it comes to using churchy jargon and buzzwords, let’s keep it simple and weigh the cost of our words carefully.

Wakey, Wakey, Blog

wake-up-and-be-awesome-wooden-sign-closeupHas it really been almost two years since I posted here? Apparently it has. Wow.

Lots of things in my life have changed, I’m a little older, I’m a little wiser… Well, two out of three isn’t bad. For real, lots of things have changed. I’m going to try and write here a little more often because I have always found writing to be therapeutic.

I need lots of therapy.

I’m still a paramedic. Also, I’m still a United Methodist pastor, serving a congregation just outside of Meridian, Mississippi. I have entered my final semester as a student at Liberty University and I anticipate enrolling in seminary in the Fall Semester. If all goes as I hope and pray that it does, Jessica and I will be moving to Kentucky so I can attend Asbury Theological Seminary in Wilmore.

There is one other significant change that has taken place since I posted here. The change is both amazing and tragic, a truly bittersweet part of who I am now. On December 8, 2014, I became a father.

And the same day, about an hour later, I learned what it is like to lose a child.

The day that my daughter, Hannah, was born was supposed to be a joyous day. In part, it was. It was also one of the saddest days I have ever lived to tell about. I was at work just doing my typical paramedic things. Jessica had been put on bed rest and was seeing her doctor twice a week. On this day she was at her usual appointment and next thing we knew she was being sent to the hospital for some extra monitoring. We had noticed Hannah not moving as much as normal but didn’t think much about it at the time. Plus Jessica had been under observation before so, again, we just didn’t think much about it.

The next thing I know, Jessica calls me and tells me that nurses are running around and she is scared. I left work and went to the hospital. My EMS station was just up the road from the hospital so it was less than 15 minutes later that I was there. By the time I had arrived, Hannah had been born by emergency C-section. Soon after I found out that Hannah was not going to live. When all the pieces were put together, we found out that nothing we did or didn’t do caused any of this to occur. Hannah had somehow gotten sick and basically gone into heart failure, which caused her other organs to fail. It was a heart wrenching day. Probably the worst part of this whole thing is that we still don’t have all of the answers that we would like to have about Hannah’s death. Unfortunately, we may never know.

This is an ugly fraternity that Jessica and I have found ourselves in, the dismal one called “Angel Parents.” Jessica and I are mom and dad, yet our daughter isn’t here. It’s a strange feeling. Some wound argue that we truly are not parents but I say that is not true. I saw my baby. I held my baby. I rejoiced that, even if for a brief moment, I got to see a part of me alive. Even though Hannah is with God, I am still her daddy and I always will be. While we are sad, we also celebrate that Hannah didn’t have to linger long in a NICU. It doesn’t make it any easier, however.

Jessica and I have learned a lot through this experience and we are still learning. One thing that I think she and I can both agree on is that God will allow us to minister to others who are in this position. In that, I can take comfort. But right now, as we are still grieving, we are thankful for the many, many people who have ministered to us. There’s no way we can adequately express our gratitude.

I would like to go ahead and share some tips for dealing with people who have suffered this kind of loss. First, do not criticize. Do not criticize anything parents who lose their child do or don’t do as a result of their loss. People grieve in different ways. One’s grief is theirs, that grief does not belong to anyone else. No one has the right to tell someone how to grieve.

Also, the reaction of many people when they hear that a couple have lost their baby at birth is to ask, “what happened? What did they do wrong?” More often than not, the answer is “nothing.” This type of loss is tragic and the vast majority of the time is through no fault of either parent. Don’t do it.

This one grates on my nerves more than anything, especially since we’ve been on the receiving end of it now: Do not, and I mean do not, ever tell someone that it was “God’s will” that their baby died or say other pithy things like “God just needed another angel.” Now, I know people who say these things mean well. Sometimes these statements are born out of not knowing what to say (and if that is the case, to say nothing would be the better response). As a pastor, I can tell you that such theology is flat wrong. Not only is it not true but it’s damaging and anything but comforting. A God who takes children away from his or her parents is not a God that I could believe in, let alone proclaim.

So that’s all I have on my mind at the moment. I will write more on this, I’m sure. And I will also write of the other things that come about as we prepare for a big year of transition. Thanks for hanging with us on the long, bumpy ride.

Jonathan