Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Who Do I "Speak For"?

I read this line in an article in the Springfield News-Leader this morning:

“All respondents except two, Campbell United Methodist Church and Emmaus, said they speak for their congregations, not just for themselves as leaders.”

Here’s the deal. The city of Springfield is making a rather awkward attempt to engage the question of whether to add sexual orientation to the city’s anti-discrimination language. A part of their process was a survey sent via email to pastors all around town; there was a link in the email that took me to the online survey.

One of the questions on the survey asked if I as the pastor “speak for the congregation.” I thought this was a no brainer - “Of course not. The congregation I serve speaks for themselves.” But apparently out of the 56 churches surveyed, there were only two who answered this way.

So let me tell you why I answered the way I did, a way that obviously places me well outside of the mainstream.

First of all, I know for a fact that people in my congregation think all kinds of different things about homosexuality. Obviously, there is more than just one way to see things. (Less obviously, there are more than just two ways to see things.) It is a myth that there is only one faithful Christian belief set; it is likewise a myth that there are only two. Faith rarely deals in either/or. Followers of Jesus are a diverse group, to say the least.

And so how could I possibly speak for my congregation when my congregation reflects such an array of opinions? Surely our society has matured beyond the glorification of homogeneity. Campbell UMC must be one of those rare congregations that has figured out how to love one another in spite of our differences of opinion. We feel that our diversity is a strength, and a part of our core identity as a congregation.

Secondly, it is tricky to make the claim that pastors truly “speak for” congregations in any context. I may be revealing my Methodist tendencies here, but nevertheless it remains that we are not Baptist, nor AG, nor any of the other pastor-centric structured churches around us. We are Methodist, and I for one am proud to claim a distinctly Methodist identity.

That means we are governed by conference. A group of people makes decisions at every level - the Charge Conference locally, through the Annual Conference, Jurisdictional Conference, and on through the General Conference for the denomination as a whole. No single person “speaks for” a Methodist entity at any level of our governance, and that’s the way I like it. Granted that it makes for some frustrating procedures and processes sometimes, but I believe the trade-off is worth it.

Thirdly, I need to say that my saying that I do not speak for my congregation does not indicate that I am a “moral relativist,” as some might fear. I believe what I believe, and draw upon the “Wesleyan Jazz Combo” (Scripture as the lead instrument, with tradition, reason, and experience as the rhythm section) to inform my theological reflection. I’m pretty confident in my belief that the Bible is clear in what it condemns with regard to sexuality, and a mutually loving and respectful, covenant relationship between two adults who are of the same gender is never condemned anywhere in Scripture.

And with that said, I am aware that there are some who agree with me, some who wholly disagree, some who sort of disagree but aren’t sure why, some who agree partly, some who haven’t really given it much thought, and a whole host of other opinions. And knowing this, I cannot in good conscience “speak for” the entire congregation on this particular question. All I can do is articulate my own belief and engage differences of opinion with respect and grace.

One could make the case that I am in fact speaking for the congregation as I describe it. I’ll go along with that. For example, when I make the claim that Campbell has figured out how to love one another in the midst of our differences, I am in a way “speaking for” the congregation. At the same time, I fully expect that someone who knows the congregation and doesn’t agree with me would call me on it if I said something nutty.

FYI, the other congregation, “Emmaus,” whose response was that they do not “speak for” the congregation, is described on the website as “led by a group of pastors - no single person is in charge.” They hope to create an “attitude of encouragement and accountability” in their ministry. Sounds pretty cool! Like something any congregation should strive for, in fact.

So I hope you understand my reasoning behind answering the way I did on the survey. It’s not that I do not feel I am a “leader” for Campbell UMC; it’s that I would never dream of “speaking for” a group of people who are perfectly capable of speaking for themselves, and doing so with grace, respect, and love.