A few weeks ago I had a chance to sit on a panel of Appalachian clergywomen and speak about our experiences to a group of men and women from around the world who take on the issue of how the United Methodist Church deals with the status and role of women (General Commission on the Status and Role of Women).
One of the questions posed was about obstacles we face in our ministry settings.
I spoke a bit about isolation, because it has been a common theme throughout my ministry. Starting with seminary (where I was the only West Virginia student in attendance, a cultural isolation) to my first appointment, by choice, in the Southern Coalfields (where I was the only elder in the entire county, a geographical isolation) to my current appointment in a region of the state that is most rapidly growing (population and economy), I have been isolated.
But, I explained, the isolation I feel now is unique and disheartening, because there is positively no reason why I should be isolated. Some of it has to do with being a bit of a liberal in a conservative area (okay… a big liberal), but that isn’t really the problem. Most people are open and receptive, even when we don’t always agree on issues.
The problem is a disconnect between what church leadership requests of us and how they respond when we deliver it.
Whether it is in seminary classes, at monthly clergy meetings, church conferences, or preaching events where District Superintendents and Bishops speak to the body of Christ which identifies as United Methodist, we are told to be bold. To speak the prophetic message whether it is popular or not. To think outside the box. To not obsess over pleasing the members, but reaching out to those yet unchurched. We’re told to resist the status quo, to rethink what church looks like and what Christian lives look like.
Students like me, people who never quite fit in the “status quo” and who always sort of marched to the beat of her own drummer, eat it up.
Then we start the ministry; and, what is lived by those who had been preaching to us to be bold is completely different.
Suddenly, we are warned that if we look different (I’m moderately–on my way to heavily–tattooed) we are limiting our ability to do ministry.
Suddenly, when we preach a gospel of love and forgiveness, when we point out that Christ’s table is open to all, we are told that maybe our radical positions aren’t a good match for our congregations.
Suddenly, when we dare to step out on a limb in total faith and stand for what we fully believe is God’s justice, we’re told we should just be quiet on those issues.
Don’t stand up, you’ll rock the boat!
But how can we preach the gospel on Sunday and then fail to live it on Monday?
And why are our church leaders crying to the heavens that they need a new breed of preachers just to get us and immediately begin to try to mold us into their image?
Since that meeting I have been pondering all of the above and more as I try to make sense out of some of the events of the past two years of my ministry.
I took a controversial stand in adding my voice to other clergy men and women advocating for marriage equality.
I knew that my position was in a minority view in my own state, as well as my denomination. I also knew that my parishioners, on the whole, did not share my conviction. But it was an issue I had been wrestling with for a decade.
Much like Jacob wrestling with God down by the Jabbok River, I walked away with a limb. And a new conviction to walk with God, even when God was leading me into troubling places.
It was a bold statement. And, of course, it was unpopular. When the backlash came I wasn’t really surprised–I was only surprised by how some it was manifested.
Knowing this was a precarious situation I was in, and knowing that I was fairly new in the ministry (only in full-time ministry five years at that point, ordained for only two years) I made an effort to keep my District Superintendent informed. Mostly, though, I just wanted his advice.
Unfortunately, all I heard from this minister of four decades was that I shouldn’t have “rocked the boat” and that as pastors we are best served not taking controversial stands on hot-button topics.
This was in direct opposition to what had been preached at me for years as I came up through the local church, climbed through all the steps of ministry in the United Methodist Church (we’re called ‘Methodists’ because we’re so methodical in our practices–elaborately methodical, so there were a lot of steps).
But when I look at what Jesus did when the disciples found themselves in a rocking boat on a lake being ravaged by a storm, he certainly didn’t tell them that they shouldn’t have gotten into the boat in the first place.
In Matthew 14:22-33 we get the story of Jesus sending his disciples across the lake while he disperses the crowds that had been gathered around him (this is right after the feeding of the five thousand) and he goes off to pray.
While they are doing as he had told them to do, disaster sets in. They’re battling a strong headwind. Their little boat is being battered by the waves. They are a long way from land on rough water and things just aren’t looking good for them.
Suddenly they look up and see Jesus walking across the water and they freak out–as any one with any common sense would do.
But Jesus didn’t offer the sort of advice I frequently hear from church leaders–he didn’t say, “You should have checked the weather reports and tested the waters before you went where I sent you.”
No–he offered the sort of advice I was yearning to hear as the worst of the backlash battered me in my little, frantically rocking boat: “Be encouraged! It’s me, Jesus. Don’t be afraid!”
In many ways, I think that’s all I really wanted to hear.
I knew the puddle I thought I was stepping in had turned out to be quite a bit deeper than I had realized, and I didn’t expect any magic words to make it disappear. I knew there was no formula to follow to make everyone happy and cool with each other. I knew I had a long way to go. I just wanted to hear: “Be encouraged! It’s Jesus. Don’t be afraid!”
I had wrestled with and resisted making that stand for so long–I had discerned and then discerned again and again and again the message I was receiving from God in my life, in my studies, in my experiences, in my relationships, that I knew I had to speak. I had run out of excuses to remain silent.
All I needed was to hear the words of Christ spoken to me through my brother in Christ: “Don’t be afraid.”
But all I heard was, “You shouldn’t have rocked the boat.”
I’ve come to realize that most of us in the ministry are in that rocking boat, whether we want to be or not. For that matter, all of Christianity is pretty much in that rocking boat. And no matter how hard we try, we can’t steady it. The waves are battering us. We are being tossed asunder. But if we look, we’re sure to see Jesus walking on the water toward us because the chaos and craziness of this world can’t knock him down, no matter how ferocious it gets.
Some of us will stay in the boat–some of us will get so excited we jump out of the boat like Peter so that we can walk on the water, too–and chances are, like Peter, we’ll realize where we are and we’ll begin to sink.
As I look back, I realize taking that stand was my “getting out of the boat” moment in my faith. When I looked around and saw how terrible the storm really was, how much worse it looked once I was out of the (illusion of) safety of the boat, I began to sink.
I looked to my leaders for help–I looked to them to be the hands and feet of Christ. I expected to hear, “Don’t be afraid”. I expected to see a hand reaching into the depths to lift me up out of the despair and hopelessness into which I was sinking. But all I heard was, “Why’d you do it? Why’d you rock the boat and then jump in?”
I’ve learned from the past two years. I’ve learned a lot.
I’ve seen a side of myself I didn’t know was there. My faith has been tested and it turned out to be stronger than I ever imagined it could be. I’ve found new friends. I’ve found an unconditional love. I’ve been forgiven. And by some I haven’t been. I’ve realized how many wounds a soul can take (full disclosure: it’s more than you would believe). I walk with a pretty dramatic limp these days… but I walk as a new woman, a stronger disciple, and filled with more hope and love than I knew existed.
I’ve learned from my mistakes. I’m still learning from them. I hope to always learn from them.
I’ve cried and I’ve laughed. I’ve mourned and I’ve celebrated.
But most importantly, I’ve learned that maybe what people most need to hear in this world is exactly what Jesus said to his disciples, what I yearned to hear from my brothers and sisters in leadership positions around me: “Be encouraged! Look! There’s Jesus! Don’t be afraid!”
We may not always agree with the people we see sinking in despair–but that is not the time to lecture and chastise about the decisions they have made or the reasons why they thought they thought it was time to leap out of the boat. It’s the time to be the hands of Christ in this world.
It’s the time to reach into the depths and lift them up.
It’s the time to speak words of encouragement and comfort.
Maybe, just maybe, if we–the church–were being that voice of encouragement and comfort no one would have to feel so isolated from the Body of Christ. Maybe, with a word of encouragement and comfort, we’d all be a little bolder, a little more willing to speak a prophetic message, to seek God’s justice in this world of chaos.