The Devil’s In The Details

This week the General Conference of the United Methodist Church, the denomination’s governing body, is convening in Tampa.  The Rev. Katie Dawson is  in Tampa as part of the delegation from the Iowa Annual Conference.  Her post, reprinted here from her blog, “salvaged faith,” raises questions particular to the UMC, but also for young clergy women in other churches.   

Last Saturday afternoon, the Faith and Order legislative committee passed an amendment to paragraph 304.3 in the Book of Discipline that discusses qualifications for ordained ministry.  The change actually removes language that would bar a “self-avowed practicing homosexual”  and removes language that talks about from service and instead inserts this language:


I have a LOT of questions about this amendment that I hope are discussed before we decide to pass this change.

1) Does this amendment refer to only ONE marriage, or does it leave open the possibility for someone to be remarried.  As it stands, the amendment refers to a marriage between a man and a woman and makes no comment on the reality of divorce and remarriage, remarriage after death, etc.  Clearing up that question is important. We have many re-married clergypersons in our midst and if we are already concerned about the retirement tsunami in the next 10 years – this impact might be HUGE.

2) While our standards previously called for “fidelity in marriage and celibacy in singleness” (and still retain that language earlier in 304.2) there were no particular stipulations re: appointment for those who have failed to live out the highest of these standards.  Clergy who today have committed adultery may have sanctions, but we leave room for forgiveness, repentance, etc.  This new proposed language seems to preclude that by including unfaithfulness in marriage (as well as co-habitation) in the list of things that will make a person ineligible for commissioning, ordination, AND appointment.

3) Point two leads to deeper questions if the answer to my first question is “only one marriage.”  With the new language that is listed here, are clergy persons who have divorced and how have remarried not eligible for appointment?

4) What about sexual conduct outside of marriage that happened in the past?  What if I was a wild child as a younger adult and have since matured and changed my ways… does this amendment preclude them from being a candidate for ministry?  What if a person co-habitated before marriage?  Does this amendment apply retroactively to their behaviors and now as an ordained elder or deacon mean they will not be appointed?

5) **thanks to folks who talked with me in person and in the comments here** WHAT IS SEXUAL CONDUCT?! genital sex? kissing? smouldering eyes at one another over a table? Lord help our unmarried younger clergy (which we are trying to recruit) if they have to constantly fear something they are doing might be construed as sexual conduct.

I could go on and on and on about questions and implications of the wording of this amendment… the language needs to be CLEARER or else it might have implications on our current clergy that we have not for seen.

On the other hand, I’m guessing that someone who would respond to some of my questions might see that little word “may” in the fourth line from the bottom.  It says that those persons “may not” be certified, ordained, appointed.  It doesn’t say “shall not.”  It says “may not.” And that means that Boards of Ordained Ministry and the Appointive Cabinet can exercise judgment and flexibility and can leave room for grace and compassion and forgiveness.

And that is because legislatively speaking, “may” language is permissive language.  It has flexibility.  It leaves the question up to the person who is exercising judgment, rather than simply following a set, prescribed rule.

And actually, for friends of the LGBT community… that means it is a step in the direction of inclusiveness.  Previously the paragraph read: “The practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching. Therefore, self-avowed practicing homosexuals are not to be certified as candidates, ordained as ministers, or appointed to serve in the United Methodist Church.”

“Are not” is very different from “may not.”

Words matter.

The Rev. Katie Z. Dawson is a United Methodist pastor serving in Iowa.  A graduate of Vanderbilt University Divinity School, she blogs at salvagedfaith.wordpress.com. She is a reserve delegate to General Conference and was crowned the delegation’s “twitter queen.” You can follow the action @katiez.

Tallow Beach

Naming and Removing Barriers to Sabbath Keeping

My good friend Patrick is currently living in England because of his wife’s work.  Patrick has a Master’s Degree and had spent a number of years here in the US establishing himself in his field, and by the time they moved to England, he had graduated from two weeks of vacation to three.  When he moved to England, he was not able to find a job as a biologist, and so he took a part time job working for a telecommunications company.  When he was hired for this job, the employer apologized profusely that because he was only a part-time employee, he would only be able to have FIVE weeks of vacation.  When Patrick told me and my husband this, we all had a good laugh. Five weeks of vacation?  Don’t they know that we, Americans, usually only get two, and many of us don’t even use all that we are given?

Five weeks of vacation seemed so generous it was amusing, but in fact it is actually good business practice.  And that much vacation certainly does wonders for one’s quality of life.  Patrick and his wife Lisa have made good use of their generous European vacation time and have invited us along on a number of their trips.  There is also scientific evidence to assert the value of vacation.  Scientists from NASA working for Air New Zealand found an 82% increase in productivity following a week-long vacation.

Really, vacations are good for you.  This is a truth Christians should readily affirm, but to do so today is almost counter cultural.  Americans are known for their work ethic, and there’s an increasing understanding that our ethic requires constant labor.  The advent of computers, smartphones and Blackberrys means that employers can expect their employees to be available and able to do their work wherever they are, at any time of day or night. No longer is time at home reserved for family, for rest and relaxation.  No longer is Sunday a day of rest – most business are open, and plenty of people are expected to show up for work on that day of rest.

Taking a Sabbath, taking time to rest and relax requires discipline, since it’s no longer a culturally enforced practice.  We need to have a personal practice of engaging in Sabbath.  Having a Sabbath is, in fact, an essential part of being a follower of Jesus, and yet it is one that is often overlooked.

Mark tells us that while Jesus was in the midst of his healing ministry, “Very early in the morning, while it was still dark, [he] got up, left the house and went off to a solitary place, where he prayed.” A single sentence attesting to rest surrounded by meaningful stories about  healing and preaching is easy to overlook. But there’s Jesus, taking a break – time in a quiet place to pray. He gets up early – while it is still dark out – to go and have some quiet prayer time to refocus and center himself.

I can just imagine a marketing expert looking at this and saying, “No, no this is all wrong.”  Jesus is just beginning “to build his brand.” He has cast out demons and healed the sick. He is getting noticed.  But just when things are starting to pick up, he stops.  He goes off by himself to pray. His disciples could have been moving on to the next town or spreading the Good News, but no, they spend their time searching for Jesus.  A marketing expert would probably encourage Jesus to ride the wave of his success. To just keep going. Push on through till all his goals are accomplished.

Many of us can relate without a doubt to this marketing approach.  We often apply it to our own lives. I consider myself a “recovering perfectionist.” I easily fall into the trap of wanting to keep working at something until it is just right, or even to just keep checking things off on the to do list, even when what would be best for me is to take a break and take care of myself.

It is so tempting to push on through: to put off those things which would actually serve our well-being best, in the interests of hurrying along and trying to accomplish more. We live in a culture that rewards hard work, and so it is so tempting to just keep working. But we shouldn’t.

Sabbath is too important.  It is one of the Ten Commandments after all!

Notice that Jesus doesn’t go off for a week and sit on the beach – although that can be an important and particularly valuable way to “do sabbath.”  Notice that Jesus just takes a little time; Mark doesn’t actually say how much, but we might fairly assume a couple of hours.  He takes a little time for quiet prayer.  He does what feeds him, what centers him.  And he gives us permission to start small.

It is nearly impossible to completely take a day off in this economy and this culture. We can start by following Jesus’ example: Jesus went back to work after his brief prayer time.  Sabbath can be a way of making us more effective at the work we are doing.

Other studies suggest that those who work less than 40 hours a week are actually more productive than those who work extra-long hours without a break.  Just as the creation story reminds us, we are in fact created for work and play. Exertion and rest.  We are supposed to have a break.

There are many of reasons we fail to take that divinely-recommended break.  For many workers, the debate about vacation or time off is not about which Caribbean cruise to choose, but a question of whether or not their family can survive without a paycheck for a week. Those of us in good paying jobs with contracts and benefits packages may complain about our lack of vacation or need to confront our own issues if we are not making good use of the gifts we are given.  But there are also those who do not have the luxury of vacation or even sick days. Millions of people in America have trouble making a living: trouble putting enough food on the table and providing adequate food and shelter for their family.  Taking vacation, having time for Sabbath, is too far down the list of priorities.

But it shouldn’t be that way. Jesus reminds us that Sabbath should be a right and a duty of ours.  It is how we care for ourselves and our relationship with God. We owe it to ourselves to practice Sabbath time and to keep it holy.  And we owe it to our fellow human beings to work for justice in our workplaces and communities to ensure that Sabbath is not a privilege reserved for the wealthy and powerful, but a God-given gift we can all enjoy.

The resume of the Rev. Dr. Molly Field James does not readily suggest that she is someone who takes time off.  Holding a PhD in Theology from the University of Exeter, she now works for the Episcopal Diocese of Connecticut and serves as an Adjunct Professor at Hartford Seminary.  She’s also married and has a kid.  But we’ll take her word for it that she is able to manage all these commitments because she’s learned how to honor the Sabbath.

Photo by freeaussiestock.com

Hunger Games

May the Odds Be Ever in Your Favor

My husband and I were running errands one Saturday when we stopped at a local bookstore.  I noticed a display of books in the center aisle and realized I had never heard of them.  The covers were decorated with solid, bold colors and a large bird.

The Hunger Games?  What’s that?” I asked my husband.

“Oh, The Hunger Games,” he replied.  “All of my students at the high school are reading them.  They can’t seem to put them down.  They walk down the hallways with their noses buried in the books and when I ask them a question, they tell me to wait so they can finish the paragraph!”

“Really?” I replied.  “Well, then they must be good.”

I was enraptured by the Harry Potter series and recently finished The Twilight Saga, so I was anxious to read another great young person’s series.  So I bought the first book in what isThe Hunger Games trilogy.  I read it in two days.  And two days later, I bought the other two books.  I finished all three of them in one week.  They are well-written, intensely violent, page-turning thrillers.  Plus they have a great female protagonist.  Not the stuff of the Bible, right?

Well, I shared them with my father, who is also a pastor.  He read them in four days.  And when we discussed them during dinner one night, I proposed the idea of writing a theological reflection on them.  I had spent a year as a youth minister, and I knew if teens were reading them, then perhaps we as Christian adults should be reading and responding to them as well.  In seminary, I wrote similar reflections for various theology classes.  The Hunger Gamestrilogy proved to be not only an enjoyable challenge, but a fruitful theological exercise as well.

Within this Trilogy there are a number of parallels – including the character of Katniss – with classic Jewish and Christian figures and theology.  However, The Hunger Games trilogy is not an overt Christian allegory, like Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress.  Religion is never mentioned in the book.  Rather, Collins acknowledges her debt primarily to the Greek myth of King Minos, who sends youth to battle the Minotaur in a labyrinth.  She also remembers her father fighting in the Vietnam War and wrote the book out of concern for modern youth’s desensitization towards violence.

Nevertheless, throughout the three books, parallels to basic biblical characters and themes are noted.  As within the Bible, key figures become part of a narrative beyond themselves.  Katniss, for example, is similar to Moses and Jesus.  All three come from marginalized towns and people, receive their power from a greater source, lead a people yearning for restoration, and ultimately defy opposition for a triumphant end.  In Collins’ Trilogy, as in the Bible, suffering and loss do not have the final say, and sacrificial love transforms families and societies.  In the end, Collins offers a vision of a new reality in which everyone’s stomach and soul are filled.

The first movie of the Trilogy opens on March 23.  The movie’s release presents an exceptional opportunity for us clergy to connect core biblical narratives with contemporary culture.  Pastors and teachers can use this movie to engage students and members in their congregation in reflecting on basic theological themes.  It is an occasion to speak with youth and young adults who are disaffected by the current reality of modern society and who have fears about the future.  The books parallel the reality experienced by many young people today.  They witness daily violence on television, environmental abuse, lack of connection between political leaders and ordinary people, a rising gap between the rich and the poor, and loss of hope for the future.  For a younger generation familiar with video games and reality television shows, the novels take their experiences to a thought-provoking level.

The young audience of The Hunger Games trilogy is looking for a hero to arise from among them.  As Time magazine noted when it named “The Protestor” as the “2011 Person of the Year,” there is worldwide passion, especially among the young, to change the direction of the future before the world becomes as dismal and desperate as the one in the Trilogy.  Katniss Everdeen, the hero of the book, becomes a leader her audiences can follow – a leader who offers love and hope through sacrifice.  I admire Hermione and Bella, but I’m casting my vote for Katniss.

Ann Langford Duncan is a United Methodist pastor in Western North Carolina where The Hunger Games was filmed. A more comprehensive electronic version with a discussion guide and questions may be downloaded for $1 from Amazon Kindle: The Gospel According to The Hunger Games Trilogy.

Photo Credit: GoodNCrazy

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Of feminism and pink things

I was in the eighth grade when Hilary Clinton became first lady.  She was from my home town; how could I not have idolized her?  Her feminism was of a comfortable sort; she was a mom, albeit a working one. She spent too much on her hair, but understood that it takes a village to raise a child.  She was an equal partner in her marriage, even though he was the leader of the free world.  It might not have made her any friends in the GOP, but their relationship assured me that smart girls could score worthy men (a key priority as I entered high school; a dream unshattered by his extramarital terribleness).

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In Praise of Clerical Fiction

Of course, as I begin my fifth year of wearing the collar, I know that my vision of the ordained life was not a complete one. I did spend my three years of seminary puzzling out ancient alphabets and surrounded by mountains of religious texts, some more obscure than others, and I currently own more Bible commentaries than I ever thought I would, but throughout it all novels have served as faithful companions along the way. In fact, by discovering the existence of a certain sort of fiction, I was eased of some of my anxieties about taking on this particular role in God’s church.

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Conspiracy Theories

Advent ConspiracyI had no choice but to join the conspiracy. In the summer of 2009, I started my first call post-seminary and ordination as a pastoral resident at a growing, mid-sized, suburban, mainline protestant congregation in the Deep South. During a planning retreat in August with my senior pastor, I was introduced to the Advent Conspiracy (AC), which the church had already joined. It was an amazing, spiritual, and challenging experience for them, during which a congregation of 140 in worship raised around $5000 to build 3 wells in the Chaco Region of South America. They decided to continue it during the two Advent Seasons that I served with them; projects in those years raised funds to dig a well and help build an orphanage in Kenya.

Simply put, the Advent Conspiracy (AC) is a program theme for Advent. The four weekly themes are “Worship Fully,” “Spend Less,” “Give More,” and “Love All.”  AC started in 2006 through the work of five pastors. They head churches that are non-denominational, larger congregations, which clearly state their theological positions on their websites. Most of the leadership roles are filled by men; however one congregation (Windsor Crossing), after two years of discernment, now states that women can have full leadership in the church including the role of pastor.

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It’s Just Math

On September 19th, President Obama proposed a deficit reduction plan that would be paid for by tax hikes for families making $250,000 or more annually, a group that makes up just 1.5% of the U.S. population.  Conservative pundits expressed concerns that President Obama was either engaging in or encouraging “class warfare.” To this, President Obama responded, “This is not class warfare—it’s math.”

At the same time, an “Occupy Wall Street” protest began in NYC, and now similar protests have spread around the world.  Protesters at such events have made a habit of chanting “We are the 99 percent” in reference to the fact that 1% of the nation’s population is taking home a quarter of all income in the U.S. each year (a phenomenon eloquently described by Nobel Laureate economist Joseph Stiglitz’s article “Of the 1%, By the 1%, For the 1%” in Vanity Fair’s May 2011 issue).

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Changing the Conversation: Resources for Talking Money

FundingPracticesIt happens. I don’t want to make excuses about it – but you know that it’s happened to you too. You go to a continuing education event, you take superb notes, you nod in vigorous affirmation, you wonder why you couldn’t bring the biggest nay-sayer in your ministry to sit in the corner.  And then you get home. You have to wade through all of that email, return all of those phone calls and prepare for the funeral of the beloved church member who died while you were away. There is no way that you were going to recapture that energy. Not this week. All those great resources gather dust.

Well, that’s essentially what happened to me this summer after returning from my first gathering with the Lewis Fellows, an opportunity for young clergy to excel as leaders through shared learning, offered through the Lewis Center for Church Leadership at Wesley Theological Seminary. Well, it was something like that. There was another aspect to my story. It was July. Oh, and I’m an Associate Pastor, with no official relationship to the Finance Committee. So, while I was away learning about stewardship, the Senior Pastor was already planning the program with our committee. I missed the boat… this year. The outcome is still the same. These resources collected dust until the editor of this column nudged me. I am unearthing my notes, because in this day and age, in which congregations dare to seek financial stability in an unstable world, their risks must be rewarded, and their challenges met.  Churches talking money need excellent resources.

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Pathos, Passion, and Pine Valley

It’s astounding to me that the entertainment industry asks questions like this, but I suppose it shouldn’t be.  Back in the 1970s, Time magazine covered the move of the networks in expanding what were then half hour soap operas into the hour-long format I grew up accustomed to, and described them – programs which were born as advertising vehicles to housewives – as “TVs richest market.”  Now, this very month, All My Children, which has been running for over forty years, will air its last episode, and it’s only the latest on the network chopping block.  I find this endlessly curious, especially in light of that terrific Time piece (which, I confess, I located as a link in the Wikipedia entry on “soap operas”), which concluded that the market for soaps was no longer limited to blue collar housewives, but had since expanded to include college students (that’s when my folks got hooked), richer housewives, hippies and the unemployed.  It was a “ghettoized” market, but man, did it bring in money.

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Harry Potter 7.2: Thoughts on a journey

I first met Harry Potter while I was in seminary, after my teacher-sister recommended this great book one summer while I was visiting home.  She couldn’t stop reading it.  Or listening was more like it, as the first few books we each passed around were the brilliantly produced audio books.  There were days that my husband came home to find me in our tiny seminary apartment, sitting on the couch, listening to a tape player with tears streaming down my face, with the wide eyes of shock, holding my hands up to him to be quiet and not interrupt this crucial moment.

So then, it’s been around ten years of friendship – for some others I know it’s been even longer.  Ten years of passionate reading, ten years of watching this young boy become a man, along with his two loyal and talented best friends, Hermoine and Ron.  Ten years of experiencing a story so near and dear to our hearts come alive on the big screen.  So it was with ten years of memories that I walked into a late-night showing of the final chapter of Harry Potter movies, The Deathly Hallows Part 2, by myself, popcorn in hand, and filled with a pile of mixed emotions.  Grief, excitement, pure happiness and anticipation, sorrow and anxiety.

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