In one week, my bishop will place his hands on my head and invoke the Holy Spirit as he ordains me to the office and work of an Elder in The United Methodist Church. Those of you who are United Methodist clergy or working towards orders know that the process can be long, arduous, and at times overwhelming. While I can only speak to my experience, I have found the process to be an incredible, Spirit-filled journey, and as I reflect on my growth and development over these past 6 years (from declared candidacy to the present), the grace of God is clear. I began in spring 2009; during that time, I switched from Deacon to Elder track and even transferred my membership from the New England Conference to the Greater New Jersey Conference. Each step of the way, I have been surrounded by people who have loved me, nurtured me, and, at times, told me some hard truths. I have done my best to be open to the process, and the willingness to do what was required of me and my trust in the presence of the Holy Spirit has made all the difference.
Last month, those to be commissioned and ordained went on an overnight retreat with the Bishop. He gave each of us Henri Nouwen’s book In the Name of Jesus: Reflections on Christian Leadership (Drew McIntyre has an excellent reflection on this book here). This small book could not be more timely. In light of the recent Pew Forum report that indicates certain expressions of Christianity (namely mainline Protestantism, Catholicism, and, to a lesser extent, evangelicalism) are continuing to lose influence and that millennials are overwhelmingly not finding the spiritual food of these traditions nourishing, one might find this an anxious time to be in ministry. In light of the ongoing debates and disagreement over human sexuality in The United Methodist Church and numerous proposals to fundamentally alter our denomination over this, and in light of the denomination’s continual narrative of crisis, one might find this an anxious time to be in ministry. It might appear that ministry in The United Methodist Church — a mainline Protestant church — is an exercise in religious irrelevance.
Catholic priest Henri Nouwen, writing out of his experience of living and working with mentally and physically handicapped people at the L’Arche Daybreak community in Ontario, Canada, wrote:
The leaders of the future will be those who dare to claim their irrelevance in the contemporary world as a divine vocation that allows them to enter into a deep solidarity with the anguish underlying all the glitter of success, and to bring the light of Jesus there.
As I prepare to enter a new phase of ministry that is the culmination of a long process, I believe now more than ever that leaders must refuse the temptation to be relevant. It would be easy to jump on the latest church fad wagon in pursuit of the glitter of religious success. Instead, we must claim the unfashionable radicalness of the Gospel that says that God loves us not because of what we have accomplished, but because we have been created in God’s image and redeemed by the love of God made known in Jesus Christ. Leaders that are rooted in this God-given identity and are committed to this proclamation and praxis by offering their own vulnerable, authentic selves with no conditions develop a Biblical relevance for which many are hungry, a relevance that seeks the face of God instead of the accolades of people. Institutional decline, denominational politics, and generation gaps offer leaders an opportunity to stand in the midst of all this with the Gospel message, to take risks to be the church in new ways, to develop a spiritual life that engages deeply with the hurt of the world.
It might appear to many that mainline Protestantism is in its twilight.
However, embracing our irrelevance might lead to our renewal.