Wendy Deichmann’s essay on Order in The United Methodist Church, found here (http://www.catalystresources.org/the-ministry-of-order/) prompted a memory of how I learned – up close and personal – about Order.
It was the mid-1980s and I was a young pastor. I don’t remember if I had been ordained elder or still served as a deacon (back in the days of the two-step process toward full orders). Either way, I was young and a little stupid. In preparing for charge conference (annual meeting of a parish’s leaders and members), I proposed withholding a certain part of our apportionments (again, old language for monetary assessment in support of connectional ministries). In other words, I was suggesting that we not pay some of our assessment in order to engage in a form of protest. Some members of the charge were not happy about some things going on in The United Methodist Church. I wasn’t happy, either. THAT part of the story would take too long to tell, so I’ll skip it, but I’ll just say, I had reason to be unhappy. It was a case of probably accurate understanding, but misguided response. And please don’t take the faint tone of similarity to what’s going on now as the point of this post. In the end, I’m not making an opinion about apportionments, but rather trying to illustrate Wendy Deichmann’s trenchant critique.
Back to my proposal: I remember the charge conference members gingerly skirting the call to withhold. The discussion was hesitant, tepid. It was one of those moments that rural Kansas church folk are so good at doing – making nice so as not to embarrass someone publicly. It came time to vote. In every other decision that evening we had used voice vote. I sensed something in the spirit in the room and suggested that we do this vote by secret ballot. We did. The proposal failed – almost unanimously. People may have agreed with me in principle, but they did not think that withholding apportionments was the right response. I did not want the parish members to feel backed into a corner. It worked out the way it should have.
After the meeting, my district superintendent, Jon Jones, took me aside and said quietly, gently, “I’m not going to report this matter to the bishop.” At that moment, it hit me. I had just demonstrated in front of my supervisor my willingness to break the Order of the church. I could have been in big trouble, but he perceived that this action was more rash naiveté than mature, calculated thought. To this day as I think about that moment, I give thanks to God for Jon’s wisdom.
Yes, that was then and this is now. We’re thirty years further down the road in our denominational fractiousness. I readily acknowledge the principle of doing what one’s conscience says to do, but that is not my point here. I’m standing on the other side of the equation. I’m trying to illustrate in one practical way the force of Wendy’s observations. And I mean force in two ways. First, the force of the idea: if I say yes to joining this particular covenant community, I have agreed – in the presence of God – to live by the limits of that community’s order. Second, the force (I know, the word seems too heavy handed) of institutional authority. My district superintendent had every right to write me up, to reprimand me. Whatever he decided to do, he had a responsibility to do something to help me understand the gravity of what I had done. He could have put a letter of reprimand in my permanent file. Or worse. Mercifully, he chose not to do so. He saw youthful enthusiasm and decided to forego punishment. Thank you, Jon.
Which brings me back to a very important point that Wendy made in the article. Had I persisted in my rashness; had I continued to insist that I knew better than the community, and that my actions were therefore warranted; had I continued to advocate and agitate, I would have been wounding the covenant community. At some point my supervising authority would have had to step in and engage in some disciplinary action – for the sake of the life and mission of the covenant community to which – before God – I had pledged my commitment.
There are several other issues related to order that plague us United Methodists at this time. I am a lifelong Methodist and I grieve with others over what looks like ecclesial suicide. I don’t know how all our issues will play out, but I do know this: having Order in our ordination vows really matters.