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February 22, 2011

James Howell: How do clergy gatherings matter?

Recently our church hosted a big conference for clergy, with great speakers, lots of enthusiastic buzz, warm feelings, and expressions of gratitude once it was over.  But what is the purpose of such functions?  Do they really help? Or just bolster our feelings and sense of vocation a bit?

I was left wondering this because I left the event to fly to Germany to represent the Methodists in a conversation with Catholics, Lutherans, and Reformed on the Doctrine of Justification.  When I tell people (clergy or laity) of my destination and work, they gaze a bit vaguely past me in puzzlement.  We don’t care much about doctrine.  We care very much about technique:  at our clergy event, if we’d offered some handy tips on how to increase giving, attenders would have been even more giddy.  But if the event had been about the doctrine of Justification, nobody much would have come.

The cognitive dissonance on this was underlined for me in that one of our event speakers, Philip Jenkins, has a new book entitled "Jesus Wars" -- so I downloaded it into my Kindle to read on the plane.  In the 5th century, Jenkins reminds us, people travelled to big clergy events, not to be “inspired” or to bask in much-needed fellowship.  They came to do what I went to Wittenberg to do:  argue doctrine.  They even hired armed thugs, riots broke out, politicians got involved, and regular shopkeepers and laborers all over the world were abuzz over the debates.

Frankly I’m glad nobody pulled me off the train headed to Wittenberg to break my knees, but I wish doctrine mattered.  If we talk about it at all, it’s in an effort to smooth out differences, to “get along.”  I guess I wish we could get a little fighting spirit going, that your temperature might rise over something I said about Romans 7 or 1 John 2 . . . and I’d want to holler back, because saying true things about God matters.  I wish my Church people cared about either doctrinal debate, or even the clergy event!  They probably hope I had fun, and wondered why I didn’t get to the hospital that day. 

History, and the state of affairs in today’s dim ecclesiastical world, in conjunction leave me depressed.

James Howell is senior pastor of Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina.

5 Comments

good thoughts

I share your concern about the lack of doctrinal and theological engagement amongst our colleagues and congregants. I, for one, would relish the prospect of a clergy gathering centered exclusively on theological debate/discussion. And not on controversial issues, but on foundational subjects: soteriology, ecclesiology, eschatology, etc. The Church would definitely be well-served by a better informed clergy, theologically. At the very least, the United Methodist Church would be greatly rewarded by an increased awareness, on the part of clergy and laity, of our rich theological heritage. We could stand to learn a great deal more about Wesleyan notions of grace, holiness, and the theological impetus for social engagement. And then move to put our theological learnings into practice...

excited doctrine.

As a current student preparing to enter the ministry I wonder about your assurance that a "Doctrine Convention" would be passed over. Granted, I am in conversation about doctrine daily, so it still seems fresh to me. Though I am a current student, I also grew up in the itinerant system and am fully aware that the challenges of daily ministry can feel more important than the dusty doctrine that was written in a book hundreds of years ago.
But what if we were able to be excited about our doctrinal foundations? As leaders of the Church, we have a call to share our excitement with those people who wonder why we were not at the hospital that day.
What if we had a chance to talk about the ways that we see our doctrine behind the choices we make in ministry daily?
I wonder what that would look like. I wonder how that would change the Church.

I'd like to distinguish

between the two sorts of meetings. It seems like the Faith & Order sort of meetings on doctrine really don't matter. This is exceedingly weird, we had a little Reformation over the question of justification, but it's hard to summon much vigor over doctrine. I agree with Kathy that's partly clergy's fault.
On the other, you had splendid speakers, preachers went away with new ideas, I got to see my friends (always a plus). The church gathered. That's a good thing. The Spirit comes when that happens.
Of course, that's true in the first gathering too.

Clergy Gatherings

Perhaps the issue that makes the difference is our conviction that whatever you want to believe is okay with me. We have such a wide range of beliefs among us and we don't care whether our personal convictions are tested by anyone else. The debate requires change and who wants to change? Perhaps the Lord is not smiling as we all stand our private ground and allow everyone else to stand theirs.

Clergy Gatherings

Thanks for raising this issue for us. One of the greatest strengths of the United Methodist Church is its freedom to engage in theological reflection and honor diversity within the denomination. We are not required to be either/or. We can be comfortable and correct in clergy gatherings that focus on life in the local church in one setting, and engage in deep theological dialogue on doctrine in another setting. Both are valid uses of time. We need both to give balance to the journey God calls us to. The journey is both a head trip and a heart trip.

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