It had been a long week, and I was driving home from my fourth out-of-town disaffiliation meeting in four nights, meetings attended by members from seven small congregations on the Valley Ridge District. My next presentation would be three days later for a circuit of three churches located two hours from my home. As I drove, the smoke from the Canadian wildfires mingled with the quickly approaching dusk to transform the typically serene, pastoral vistas into something resembling a dystopian landscape. I felt like I had eaten every meal for a week in my car.
When a District Superintendent gives the one of the presentations which are necessary to begin the disaffiliation process in the Virginia Conference, we explain to those gathered that the congregation must begin their work with thirty days of prayer and discernment. There are no exceptions to this rule, no matter what objections we hear: We’ve been praying about this for years, preacher! Why do we have to do it some more?
Not only that, their time of prayer and discernment must have some structure to it. They must plan how their will spend their thirty days, and this period of discernment must be submitted to the DS in writing for approval. Typically, these prayer plans are rather short and to the point, although the first church I had disaffiliate sent me a devotional guide they had written that was close to two-dozen pages.
Driving through the dark and smoke this week, something occurred to me that I regret not realizing sooner. Praying for one’s church is the first membership vow that we make when we join a United Methodist congregation. What does it say about us then that we need to be told by a District Superintendent to pray for our church and its future in order for us to actually do it?
As I write this, it is the day before the clergy in the Virginia Conference arrive in their new pulpits, as they continue to unpack in their new parsonages. It makes me wonder how different our churches would be if every single church in the Virginia Conference began every new appointment year with an intensive month of prayer for their new pastor, their new pastorate, and their new ministry together? What if every new appointment year began with each clergy person in all churches being told by their congregation “We are praying for you and your ministry amongst us, so that your ministry will be our ministry, and that all of it will be God’s ministry?
At the end of the District Superintendent’s disaffiliation presentation, we explain how once a church has disaffiliated and is no longer United Methodist, they may no longer use the words “United Methodist” in their church name and how, with the exception of their hymnals and pew Bibles, they may no longer use the cross and flame logo. They must remove it from their buildings, their signs, everything.
Now, I am aware that our denominational logo isn’t perfect. Flames attached to crosses have a very, very bad history in this country, but hang in there with me for a moment while I share two vignettes about our denominational name and logo.
I have a younger brother who lives in North Carolina, and his pastor told him of a time when, in a neighboring town, there was a large, devastating explosion in a local factory. The pastor serving the United Methodist Church in that community could hear it from inside his office.
About an hour later, the pastor heard a knock at the door of the church, and when he opened the door, he saw several people standing there with their equipment in their hands. They were from the Red Cross, and their leader said to the pastor “We knew that because this is a United Methodist Church, you would let us set up here.”
They knew this because of a reputation cultivated by the work of UMCOR.
The second vignette is more personal. In the late summer of 1989, my mother, father, and brother dropped me off at Emory & Henry College, a small United Methodist institution of higher education in the Holston Conference, near Abingdon, Virginia. One interesting facet of Emory & Henry is that it has a United Methodist Church located on its campus; a large, beautiful brick church amongst the dorms and academic buildings along the railroad tracks.
When I came home for Christmas break at the end of my first semester, my mother recalled that day that they dropped me off. She told me that she did not know how she was going to be able to do it. The last event that families attended on drop-off day before the parents drive home took place in the sanctuary of that church on campus. She told me she was sitting there, overcome with emotion, when she noticed the United Methodist Hymnals in the pews. She told me that it was then that she realized “Those are the same hymnals in our church back home. That is the same cross and flame logo on the cover that we know from Trinity United Methodist Church in Richmond. Somehow, this all going to be alright.”
I cannot say this strongly enough, but in a time when it seems so many churches cannot wait to erase United Methodist from their name and pull the cross and flame off their walls, there is still meaning attached to those things that is full of life, hope, and possibilities for this world that Christ died to save. That name, and that symbol represent something that began in a campus ministry at Oxford University in eighteenth century England when two brothers had the audacity to dream of a church for everyone. With a theology of grace and a practical divinity that compelled Christian disciples out of the sanctuary and into the streets to care for the wounded, to minister to and with the poor, to bind up the brokenhearted, to work for the release of the captives, and to illuminate the dim and broken places of this world with the bright light of the Gospel.
Pray for your church. Come what may, pray for your church. Pray for your pastor and pray for the United Methodist Church. The pathway ahead of may be narrow and rocky, but it leads to life and life eternal, and Christ sojourns with us all the way.
And Valley Ridge District, clergy and laity, I give such thanks to God that for another year, I have been afforded the privilege of walking that pathway with you.
Grace and peace, Doug