“Why do you stay?” I have heard that question a lot these days. Many people walked away from General Conference 2019 asking, “Did my church just leave me?” What I thought to be The United Methodist Church—this church of generous orthodoxy, this big tent church—is becoming something I don't recognize in its legalism and stridency. If this is church, do I want anything to do with it?
I have to be honest, I have been asking myself that question for several years now, and not specifically about The United Methodist Church. I believe church is called to be an embodiment of the unconditional grace of God, and our baptismal commitment is that we will be a community of love and forgiveness for one another. But so often, it falls short of that, and when I am looking for evidence of love, joy, beauty and abundant life, I often find it more easily in the world than I do in the church. So why stay?
I answered this question for our conference staff recently as they were pondering how to respond to this new reality and find the words to share with their family and friends who were asking them, “Why do you work for an organization that appears to be so discriminatory?” This is what I told them about why I stay and how I stay at this time when the church seems so out of step with what I believe we are called to do and be.
First and foremost, I know my own conviction that God's love is expansive and includes everyone. No exceptions. We are each loved as we are, for who we are. We are all beloved children of God. One of the questions I frequently ask when I work with churches is, “What is it about your experience of God that you want your community to know?” What I always hear—from theologically liberal, centrist, and conservative churches alike—is that they want people to know that God is love and they are loved, and here they will find acceptance. What I hear preached in our churches is grace. I know who we are here in Minnesota, and I know how I lead. My commitment, as I lead our staff and as I lead in the annual conference, is that we will continue to hold the values of excellence and grace. Living in diverse community is hard work, and we won't always do it perfectly. But we make that our commitment and do it to the best of our ability, so that each person can show up as their full and authentic self, offering their gifts to our common work.
Why do I stay? I stay because this has been my home since my baptism. I am a Wesleyan through and through. That old slogan—a church of open hearts, open minds, and open doors? I loved that motto. It described perfectly what I have experienced in The United Methodist Church and highlighted the best of who we are. We are a people whose hearts have been “strangely warmed,” and we believe God is continuing to work in and through our lives, transforming our hearts. We are a people who bring critical thinking skills, who ask deep questions, who honor doubts, learning, and new insights. And our doors have been open. When I ask United Methodists what is distinctive about being United Methodist that they do not want to lose, they point to our open communion table. We understand that this is God’s table, and Jesus is the host and we are all recipients, coming in our brokenness and standing in need of grace.
I stay because there have always been many places where I am in disagreement with the Book of Discipline and do the dance of living within the spirit of the law but not the letter of the law. I stay because no human organization is going to perfectly line up with my values, and if I leave every time I am disappointed or frustrated, I would not have any community or relationship in my life. I stay because there are people I love and am committed to, and I want to learn and grow with them toward the future to which God is calling us. I stay because 864 people voting at General Conference is not the whole church. When I recently gathered with my 50 director of connectional ministries colleagues, I had a wholly different experience of The United Methodist Church, and that gives me hope. I stay because I understand the complexity of the global church—and I can understand how what happened at St. Louis happened, even though I did not like the outcome. But I still believe love will win in the end, and God can keep changing hearts and minds, so I am not willing to walk away from my life's work and investment just yet.
I stay because I have seen other great change movements where breakthrough happened at just about the time when it felt like all hope was lost. What is interesting about the time in which we are living right now is that fresh energy and movements are rising up. I am curious to see what new things God might be doing. I want to be a part of that conversation, and not shake the dust off of my feet and move on too soon. I stay because I believe there is a need for non-anxious leadership at this time of ferment, and because perhaps God has me here for such a time as this. So I say to God, “Here I am—your servant. I will stay open and available.”
Church, this is holy Saturday. For many of us, our hopes have been dashed. We thought the One Church Plan would pass, and we could as a whole church do what we have learned how to do here in Minnesota: love alike even if we do not think alike. We have experienced death. We do need to grieve. And then we need to remember that this is not the end of the story.
“But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which God loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.” Ephesians 2: 4-5 (NRSV)
And that is how I stay. I have seen and experienced resurrection, and I trust that what God has done before God can do again. So I am choosing to hang around in this Saturday in the church, because if God is up to something, I don't want to miss it!
Rev. Cindy Gregorson is director of ministries for the Minnesota Annual Conference of the United Methodist Church.
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