”I no longer call you servants, because a servant does not know his master’s business. Instead, I have called you friends,” — Jesus in John 15:15a
“We quickly discovered that for us this would mean moving back and forth between multiple worlds, not being specialists but dwelling with and becoming bridges between several communities.” — Heuertz and Pohl in Friendship at the Margins: Discovering Mutuality in Service and Mission
“The Critical Issue for these African American congregations was the status of their ministers. The Methodist Church ordained Richard Allen and other African American leaders as deacons, but deacons did not have the same rights as elders regarding administration of baptisms, marriages, and communion services.” — Peter Murray in Methodists and the Crucible of Race: 1930-1975
In my short time as a pastor in the North Carolina Conference of the UMC I have learned just how much emphasis we place on being multicultural and bridging gaps. It is truly a miracle, given that the Denomination and Conference are both over 95% white. For us to invest so much relational, physical, and environmental capital into persons of color is to me a sign of the in-breaking of the Kingdom of God. As a system we have realized that if we want to be something, we have to invest in that something. But what does that look like?
Institutions in America have traditionally relied upon “experts” to give reason and cast vision, to tell us the facts and let the masses catch up to them. In the past few years we have really seen the problems with this on many fronts. From the oval office, we have seen the 45th President of our country appealing more to emotions than to facts, and from the grassroots of society, we have heard that people realize a disconnect from “facts” and “experts,” which seem to grasp at but not be able to touch some of their lived experience. If you don’t believe me, I’m fine with that, and I don’t claim to be an “expert.” See for yourself.
One of the critical changes that is happening around our country, which is happening in the UMC also, is twofold: (a) the shifting of who is allowed to be an “expert” and (b) the shifting of how we live our lives in relation to each other.
Traditionally, the ordained — in our case Elders and Deacons — have been held up as the experts on a local church level. As of right now, we see a similar situation in the immigrant communities as the Black church did when the African Methodist Episcopal Church split. That is to say, we have a lot of immigrant ministers but not a lot of ordained. Consider this comparison: 65% of the 964 white pastors in the NCCUMC are ordained, while only 22% of the 18 Hispanic pastors are ordained. We are trying to mitigate that, and we have empowered scores of immigrant ministers in varying capacities. We are trying to shift the congregational leaders who are seen as “experts” and leaders, but this is very difficult and slow work, stemming from many reasons (not the least of which is that our Denomination requires a masters-level theological degree, which many immigrant ministers only hope to attain).
How we see our ministers and experts is changing, but so is how we live our lives in relationship with each other. For us Methodists, it’s not just about finding and hearing experts anymore. Rather, it is about developing relationships. For example, consider the monumental campaign to #SeeAllThePeople put on by the General Board of Discipleship. It isn’t about “growing the Church” but “being the Church.” Or consider the new direction taken by the Office of New Faith Communities of our Conference. Rather than a focus on planting new churches, it has taken a focus to empower all Churches in spiritual entrepreneurship and making holy friendships.
This means that our new focus is simply on getting to know people, knowing that Jesus is present, and building the structures of Holy Friendship (much like John Wesley did before us). Even though the struggles are endless, so is the Grace of God that shows up in our friendships.
Consider: Can I take a few minutes to look at the two hyperlinks above, to see the Good News going on in our midst? How can I celebrate this?
Prayer: Oh Lord, who came into this broken world and called broken people friend, we ask that you show up in our friendships. Please challenge us to see other people, and reach out to them. Please help us to build relationships outside of our comfort zones, knowing that building these gets easier, the more we do it. Please help us to know that you build the Church, and we just participate in pointing to you. Thank you for doing the hardest work. Amen.