A clergy colleague said to me, "I'm not staying in a church that is harming my daughter. I'm not giving it my money, either." A former parishioner told me, "I'll give it one more year. After that, I'm gone."
I look at the baptismal collage hanging in my office beside the photo of the water well our congregation helped dig in Liberia. The collage contains my baptism certificate, a print of a dove representing the Holy Spirit, and the words of John Wesley, "Do all the good you can…" The well photo is captioned with my favorite Bible verse, Hebrews 12:1-2: "Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us..."
I was baptized as an infant on November 20, 1955, in the church where my father grew up, Hayes Methodist Episcopal, a small church in farm country in the Thumb of Michigan. My father was baptized there as a youth on October 1, 1944, an event recorded in my grandmother's diary: "We all had to go up to the front and stand while the boys were baptized. A Solemn Service." Her aspiration that her third son be a preacher was coded in his name: "John Wesley Smith." I think of all of the generations of parents and preachers and Sunday School teachers at Hayes Church, and so many churches like it, a great cloud of witnesses.
Should I leave the church in which I was baptized, raised, married, and ordained? Should I leave the church I served as a pastor for more than 35 years?
Nostalgia exerts a powerful pull, but nostalgia isn't enough. I care about the future of the United Methodist Church. Our two daughters are still Methodists, though its official stance on LGBTQIA+ persons judges one and offends the other. Their young clergy friends worry about their careers in a church that will punish them for ministering to all of their congregants. With my daughters and their friends, I long for a church in which all are fully welcome. I long for a church in which one of my preaching students, the descendant of circuit riders, could be ordained, too.
The new punitive clauses in the Discipline to enforce the UMC's forty-year stance declaring homosexual practice to be incompatible with Christian teaching puts me at a crossroads. Is it time to leave? If I perform one more gay wedding, they will kick me out anyway. Should I leave before they do?
Stay or go?
Here's what I say: I'm not going anywhere. This is my church, too. It takes more than General Conference legislation passed by a slim margin to make a church.
The blood of Methodists flows in my veins. Another piece of memorabilia that survived multiple moves is my copy of a Methodist class meeting ticket from Newcastle, England, dated 1843. It belonged to one of my father's great-great-greats, Mary Smith, and was passed from my grandmother to my father to me.
It's more than a piece of paper. It represents my connection with the pragmatic and indomitable spirit of John Wesley, who witnessed to the transforming love of God in the face of persecution, whose spiritual and organizational genius created small groups to help Methodists grow in faith and keep them accountable to each other. I am accountable to those with whom I disagree. And they are accountable to me. The mean-spirited legislation of GC2019 needs to be changed. I'm going to stay to help change it. Stay and disobey.
How, then, do I remain in covenant relationship with those who want me gone, particularly some Liberian colleagues? That's a question for my next blog.