Word of the Week

Such is a question that many are asking these days. Especially as the influence of denominational bodies around the world continues to shrink:

Does it really matter that you were baptized a Presbyterian then raised by a United Methodist and then settled on an a non-denominational church in adulthood?

Does it matter if you worship with smells and bells and refined liturgy or just follow the words on the screen?

Does it matter if you really believe all the teachings and reverence all the history of the name of the church on the door where you worship?

So many of us are saying no.  Many of us are coming to view our church loyalty to a much more ecumenical home.

This is why you see so many churches offering:

But, even still there are values that make one church group different from another. And some traditions really like to keep up with their rules!

As a pastor, this is what I've observed: so many of us don't know why we land where we do and what actually we agree with when it comes to the place we choose to worship.

For this reason, I'm thankful for my writing colleague, Ed who put together a collection of posts over at his blog  called the "Denominational Derby."  Each week or so he's exploring a different denominational tradition and bringing voices together of those who are of that particular family.

Today, I was asked to contribute from the perspective of the church of my ordination: The American Baptist (USA). If you want to learn more of my story of how by exclusion I landed in this inclusive group here's how the story begins--

When I was 14 years old, I knew that God called me to ministry. One Sunday morning in the mountains of Tennessee, heard a compelling talk from a missionary preparing to leave America. She wanted to help people know the love of Jesus. Something tugged at my heart too saying, “This life is for you.”

When I told my Southern Baptist Church of about this spiritual prompting, they had one question: “Do you want to be a home or a foreign missionary?”

Honestly I had no idea.

What kind of question was this for a young girl who hadn’t even picked a college?

But, for women called to vocational ministry in Southern Baptist life “mission work” is the only option and preferably with a husband.

Want to read more: check it out here.

Furthermore, if you want to learn more about the uniqueness of Protestant denominations, at least from an American perspective, go on over to Ed's blog and sign up to receive his weekly emails for the Derby! 

And let's keep this conversation going.

photoTwo weeks ago, I assisted a youth group for the week packing food boxes at Feed the Children's volunteer headquarter in Oklahoma City.

During the early morning introductions, I told them that I was an ordained pastor. I told them that my husband worked at Feed the Children. I told them that I'd been volunteering with the organization for the past year and half. Later on one of the youth came up to me to ask another question.

It was the most typical Christian get-to-know you question that I couldn't believe took all day to surface.

"What kind are you?" (Which short for: denomination are you?) he wanted to know.

There's an answer to give, of course.

"I'm Baptist" I told him.

My ordination came through the American Baptist Churches USA in 2006. I pastored two churches, both Baptist. One affiliated with the American Baptists mostly, the other with the Alliance of Baptists, mostly. I grew up in a Southern Baptist Church. I went to seminary from support of the Cooperative Baptists. (Baptists have a lot of flavors, you know)

So, from the basic bones of my resume, I am Baptist through and through.

But to have the label "Baptist" as the one identifier stuck to my name made me feel uncomfortable when I answered this youth's question. I am more than this label, as is the nature of any label, really.

Of course, if I had to pick a church that my ideas about church polity and practice most closely align with it would be the Baptist tradition. This was a decision I made in seminary and still know I made the right choice for me.

I love the historic Baptist principles of separation of church and state. I believe in local church autonomy and believer's baptism. I am too much of a free spirit to fit in all the check boxes of a denomination with bishops, overseers and not getting a say in where I live and work.

But, my story has always been about engaging those who are different from me and being ok with being the "different one" in the group.

When I was in high school, my parents sent me to Christian School that was filled with kids mostly from Presbyterian (PCA) homes in Lookout Mountain, TN.

I got a scholarship to attend Samford University for college, a Baptist school in Birmingham, AL. While there I spent two summers on a camp staff-- one mostly Baptist, the other mostly Presbyterian.

I attended seminary at Duke Divinity School made up  and funded mostly by United Methodists. During my 3 years of study, I pastored two United Methodist Churches in NC as their student associate. I had a lot of Anglican friends.

When I came to DC and settled into post-ordination life, I joined a clergy group that met at a Catholic church. One of my favorite clergy peeps was a Unitarian-Universalist. I even got to pray the opening ecumenical prayer at on the floor of the US Senate one day. 

Since leaving full-time pastoral life, I have joined Martin Luther King Jr. Christian Church in Reston, VA for when we're in DC-- a traditional African-American church. When we're in Oklahoma, you'll find us either at a Native American mission in Watonga or a United Church of Christ (UCC) congregation in Oklahoma City.

I do a lot of supply preaching currently in Presbyterian (USA) congregations now and I'm thinking of going back to get my Doctorate of Ministry at some point in the near future at a Presbyterian (USA) seminary but rooming with my United Methodist pastor friend.

Any ordination council or church ruling body would say I've lost my core. I am confused. Do I really know what kind am I? Why not be loyal? Why not spend more time going to Baptist conventions and conferences for networking?

I can't. I just can't be.

Because while denominations matter-- I guess-- in the end, for me personally it doesn't matter that much. I can't imagine my faith lived out in a Baptist (or only one other) context.  Theologically:

duke2And it's ok. And I know I am not the only pastor who feels this way.

For any of you readers out there who are "denominationally confused" I want to say that I am with you.

Our life and our values change over time. Churches and their values (even with the same name on the front door) change when you live in Alabama, Maryland or Oklahoma. I think it is safe to say that you don't have to be "one thing" your whole life through. The Christian life is about loving Jesus. You can do this in many different particular homes.

I most want to offer is that an ecumenical life is possible.  And I am glad to be living it.

In continuation of the conversation about what happens to your own sense of doctrine when calling takes you outside the church?

(The first part of this series can be read by clicking here if you missed it).

What happens when you don't have a denomination or a presbytery or bishop or association telling you to stay within these lines of thought and worship practice (at least publicly that is)?

What happens when you don't have to worry about losing your job if you cross the line just a little to far in your writing or speaking?

What happens to your own sense of faith then? What happens to your own church attendance record?

Such are questions I feel like I've been living into this year with this new sense of calling on my life.

I no longer attend church on Sundays because I have to. I attend because I want to.

I no longer do service activities because it is something that my church asks me to do, I do things because it is just who I am.

I no longer tow the "this is what my denomination believes" card. In the spiritual community I have around me, we wrestle together.

Not that I've ever really been the kind of person who was shut down by those who want to silence my questionings, but to be in a place where my income (i.e. ability to pay the mortgage) is not dependent on what a particular church or a denominational group of churches thinks about what I believe can only be summed up in one word: freedom.

So dang freeing.

Most days now feel like living into the exhortation from Galatians: "It is for freedom that Christ has set you free."

It's been a season of life for me to once and for all put aside the voices in my head from my evangelical upbringing that say things like:

"Christianity is about going to church every Sunday" or "Christianity can't be found outside the church."

And in the midst of this freedom, I'm having lots of new questions about the role of the church in faith. Questions like: "Is spiritual, Jesus-centric community only found in a group of people who get together in a church building on Sunday morning or other times of the week?"

I realize by saying this aloud, I'm on the edge of the heretic zone for some of you.

You'll be getting out the Bible and start quoting passages from Corinthians to me about the foundational principles of church as shared with us by Paul.

"You're a pastor? You can't say these things!"

Ok, I hear you already.

But this is my point: as my own sense of calling has taken me out of the church, I've often found the "church" in what seems nothing like what I've ever known before. And I don't need the church to say I'm right or wrong here. It just is.

Church comes to me in conversations over lemonade or Diet Coke when people of completely different spiritual backgrounds somehow land on common ground.

Church comes to me over Skype conversations with my friend in Africa who reminds me that no matter what, I'm loved unconditionally.

Church comes to me when my best friend in Tennessee talks to me about how she's teaching her 2 year old to pray prayers of thanksgiving.

Church comes to me when I'm standing with Kevin at a Feed The Children food drop giving can goods and life essential products to neighbors in need.

What about you? Where do you find church? Where are you struggling with issues of doctrine and spirituality that somehow get tangled in the word we've labeled "church"?

How many more wake up calls do denominational leaders need before they realized that what they are doing is not working and dying a slow (and painful for the rest of us) death?

I was attending this afternoon the "Senior Pastors Only" breakout session at the DC Baptist Convention annual meeting which Washington Plaza is a member and I found myself insulted, discouraged and wanting to throw up my hands and saying, "What's the point?" once again.

Our church is a member of this ABC-USA regional body for several reasons-- we want to be connected to our larger family of Baptists, we want to be known as an American Baptist church, and we want to partner in missions. Personally, I am indebted to the DC Baptist Convention for its recognition of my ordination, vocational placement service when I was a new seminary graduate, and for the friendship with other local pastors that I have made through attending activities supported by the convention.  As a church, we are personally grateful for the way in which the DC Baptist Foundation came alongside us and helped us with our loan to repair our building last year and for its celebration of diversity, especially racially in its composition of churches. I pray for a really bright future for DCBC as I think there are some good things going for us that could be even better.

But, if this current Annual meeting held this week at the Mt. Jezreel Baptist Church in Silver Spring, MD is any indication of the new direction its leadership is taking, I fear convention life in DC is a sinking ship for progressive churches like Washington Plaza.  We need sessions where we stop playing around with pleasantries and simply say more often what is actually going on.  There is division among us. We don't know each other. We aren't really doing anything new or exciting just going through the motions of the same old things. The church is speaking a langauge that no one "unchurched" understands or cares for anymore and denominations seem to pushing its pastors toward more of the same.

During the session I attended, the presenter addressed the room as if it was 1950 in Alabama. We were told about how to take care of our "wives and children" on repeated occasions. And the word "he" was always used as the pronoun to address who a pastor was. Even though there were at least 6 or more women in the room who were senior pastors of churches like myself, all of the examples the presenter gave related to men. For example, he goes to a men's breakfast every month with other men just like him. He started small groups for other men. It was as if the presenter assumed that the women in the room were pastors' wives. Gross. Really, really gross. And, this is not mention the fact there was no senstivity to those who are single.

I'm all for theological diversity. But, a celebration of diversity always begins with attention to context and respect for those who are different from you. Diversity always encourages out of the box thinking because no assumptions are made that individual thinking is better than that of a group.

For those who think the church and denominational life is out of touch, out of touch and dying, then I say today that I sadly agree with you.  Thank goodness, I'm a Baptist after all and tomorrow I can get back to the work of my local congregation, an autonomous body of believers who isn't afraid to try new things.