Friday, January 24, 2020

Anxiety and the Protocol

How is it with your soul?

To say that there is anxiety surrounding The United Methodist Church these days is an understatement.  There have been issues of how we will be in ministry with LGBTQ+ persons for decades and it seems to be leading toward formal division.

Within the United States, we have difficulty discussing sexuality.  When I meet with couples who are planning to marry, the most uncomfortable part of our discussion is when I bring up sex.  I would guess that a lot of this comes from a fear that I will judge them.  But sometimes I can see that they have difficulty discussing it with one another.  And so, here we have a topic (sexuality) that is difficult for many of us to talk about even with the people with whom we are most intimate.  And this is the topic on which our denomination will make us categorize ourselves?  Now pastors, go and lead your church through this!

Earlier this week, I attended the clergy orders meeting for the Oklahoma Conference and Bishop Nunn's material was striking and insightful.  He suggested that United Methodists have been engaged in a civil war with one another and that we are likely experiencing post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).  He quotes Edward Tick from War and the Soul:
 “The common therapeutic model . . . misses the point that PTSD is primarily a moral, spiritual, and aesthetic disorder – in effect, not a psychological but a soul disorder.  All of its aspects concern dimensions of the soul, inasmuch as the soul is the part of us that responds to morality, spirituality, aesthetics and intimacy.”
After serving as a delegate to the 2019 General Conference, I have often joked that I have PTSD as a result from my time there.  Sometimes our humor is a thinly veiled stab at the truth.

I actually was diagnosed with high blood pressure shortly after serving as a delegate to the 2016 General Conference in Portland.  To be fair, some of this is genetic as my father was also diagnosed around my age.  But I think the timing is not just coincidental.    

Recently, I was on the phone with a Wespath health coach (part of our new benefit package this year) and I asked her if she knew about the upcoming General Conference.  She did not.  I suggested that the stress of this might be affecting clergy health in the coming months and that they might want to make a note for those coaches handling United Methodist clergy.  For any conference leadership out there, don't be surprised to see an increase in health issues for the clergy you supervise in the coming months.    

Part of the stress that I realized in myself is dealing with grief.  I've been no stranger to grief lately in my life.  Both my parents died in 2018 (my mother in the spring and my father in the fall) and I thought it would be helpful in dealing with this grief by going to St Louis in February of 2019.

Sarcasm aside, we think about our most common emotions in dealing with grief from the research of Elisabeth Kübler-Ross when she studied how people dealt with being told they had a terminal illness.  Anyone dealing with loss seems to encounter at least some of these:

  • Denial
  • Anger
  • Bargaining
  • Depression
  • Acceptance

As a United Methodist elder, a large part of my identity comes through the credentialing I received through the denomination.  That sounds rather clinical.  Bishops laid their hands on my head and ordained me to set my life aside in order to do this work on behalf of Jesus Christ through The United Methodist Church.  I think the sadness I feel when thinking about a split in said denomination is warranted, don't you?  

Within systems theory, we remember that systems resist change.  Separation is one of the largest changes we have ever attempted (I would say the largest but our denomination has walked this road before).  Systems theorists also might say that our strategy is to cut-off one another emotionally rather than deal with our conflict over sexuality (not healthy).  Others might argue that the denomination keeps us emotionally fused within our conflict because we aren't allowed to leave (also not healthy).  Both are likely correct.  

And so the pastors have to deal with all of this movement toward separation.  Questions from the congregation might be: Is a split going to happen?  What will happen to our local church?  If there is a split, which direction would our church go?  Pastor, what is your position on all this?

Is your blood pressure rising yet?  Most congregations within the Oklahoma Conference have people on both sides of this issue.  While urban areas have multiple churches that will allow people to select a pastor or church that fits more closely with their beliefs (and thus further polarizing our nation), the rural areas don't have this possibility.  There are no alternatives at least within Methodism.  What happens when a clergy person is leading a church where the majority of membership opposes the pastor's beliefs?
My first time addressing General Conference in 2008.
It might be telling to measure the vital signs
of those speaking!

As stressful as this is, I think our extension ministers have it even worse.  Their employment may not be able to continue as the funding for these positions shrinks and vanishes.  And if their position goes away, will there be any appointments at the local church to be had?  

This is an adaptive problem rather than a technical one.   Adaptive problems are stressful by their nature because we are traveling in new territory.  We don't do well in facing this kind of problem in isolation.  I am fortunate because I serve a church where two other clergy are appointed.  There are also multiple retired and extension ministers related to our charge.  We talk it through.  It helps us to not only problem-solve but to encourage each other.

During the previously-mentioned orders meeting, I was speaking to many of my colleagues who do not have this advantage.  They are isolated in rural areas.  It feels like being on an island.  This does not help them to deal with an already stressful situation!  But one of our strengths is our connectionalism.  As United Methodists, our origins arise from John Wesley's class meetings where they would ask one another,   

How is it with your soul?

I believe that at this time, it is crucial for our clergy serving in appointments as the sole pastor to form covenant groups with one another.   I would suggest four to a group.  Meet online.  Use zoom or some other group video chat software.  It doesn't cost anything.  Meet weekly for 30-60 minutes.  Try to covenant to quit after an hour.  If someone needs more time than that, it may be that a therapist is a good option.  Within the Oklahoma Conference, we get eight free sessions through our health care with the Employee Assistance Program.  And as a helping professional, don't be a hypocrite by refusing to get help after you have referred people in your church for counseling!  

Make sure you don't dominate the time.  Everyone should have time to speak.

I would suggest like-mindedness.  Centrists meet with centrists, progressives with progressives, traditionalists with traditionalists.  The reason for this is that you don't want to end up debating with one another or even feeling defensive toward feelings shared.  This is time for supporting one another.  Of course, ultimately you should do what is helpful to you.

I'm not opposed to crossing theological lines for covenant groups (there would be great value in this) but that is not the rationale for this proposal.

Ask the question, "How is it with your soul?"  Let each one answer as they will and see where it takes them.  

Ask the question, "Where are you encountering difficulty this week with regards to GC 2020 (or the issues surrounding separation, LGBTQ+ inclusion, etc.)?

Ask the question, "Where have you seen resurrection this week?"

Finally, are you facing any unique challenges at your appointment that you would like to bounce off the group?

Don't use things you hear as sermon illustrations without permission!  Pastoral privilege should apply.

While this is designed for clergy, I would think that laity may also find this helpful.  Especially those heavily invested in leadership such as lay delegates, lay staff members, lay leadership in the church.

Remember the five stages of grief.  It is helpful for us to self-identify which stage we may be in (they fluctuate).  And if you are laity reading this, as you self-identify your stage, you might think of how this influences how you are relating to your pastor.  Be nice to your pastors even if you disagree with them.  They did not invent this conflict as much as they inherited it.  If we are angry, we tend to blame the elders who are in charge of interpreting the Discipline for our local church (just as pastors blame superintendents and bishops).

And clergy, let us remember that we are smart, well-educated people.  We are able to move through even this and continue to answer our calling to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.  If you can make it through the credentialing process, you can get through this!  This latest challenge is a part of a larger movement in post-Christendom.  If we were not experiencing decline in overall Christianity across the United States (putting stress at the general and conference levels), I don't think we would be at this crossroads right now.  But here we are.

The world doesn't need us any less.  In fact, I would argue that a Wesleyan interpretation of Christianity is exactly what the world needs.  I am confident that you will continue to make a difference no matter what the General Conference brings!

Blessings to all and may God continue to bless the work you do!

In Christ,



  1. Add to the mix: where will deacons fit?
    Added health concerns for those considering when to retire. Are those nearing retirement valued for work, wisdom and spiritual resources?

    1. You are absolutely correct - there's quite a lot to consider!

  2. Inclusion and my soul are good together.

  3. Also add to the mix, those in the candidacy process. Considering one's call to ministry among all this is challenging, specially if they've already put the time, effort, and financial resources into completing seminary. I've always felt a sense of excitement with my call, and within the opportunity to serve, but it's hard not to feel like I'm fighting to jump on board a sinking ship.

    1. Yes, the complexity of our credentialing process isn't eased any by all the unknowns. I would bid any in the candidacy process to stay the course and know that there will continue to be ministry to be done in local churches when all is said and done.