Who Is Running This Place?
My cousin Mike has been a pastor in the United Methodist Church for more than 50 years. (In case you are wondering - yes, he is MUCH older than me.) As you can imagine, after all those years of serving churches, Mike has a lot of stories to tell. There is one that stands out and I want to share it with you.
Back in the mid-70’s Mike was appointed to serve the two United Methodist churches in Harpers Ferry, WV. Both churches were very small. The members of John Wesley Church were all persons of color. Some had marched with Martin Luther King and devoted their lives to integration. Some wanted nothing to do with white people – ever. The members of Camp Hill Church were all Caucasian. Some were a part of the KKK. Others yearned for the day when people weren’t judged by the color of their skin.
When the country faced the energy shortage of 1977 and heating prices soared, neither of the two churches knew how they were going to keep the furnaces running. After some negotiations between the two congregations the members of Camp Point church invited the John Wesley Church members to join them in worship – but only during the winter months. Wesley Church accepted the offer and the two congregations came together.
Before the end of the winter a few people from the two churches started talking about a permanent merger. It made financial sense and would be a wonderful Christian witness to the racially divided town. The Wesley Church was in disrepair so the group felt the new congregation should meet in the Camp Point Church. Naturally, this proposal was met with a great deal of hostility in both congregations. Leaders of the Wesley Church received anonymous threats of bodily harm and the bombing of their homes if the merger proceeded.
In the fall of 1977 the time had come for the merger vote. The meetings were convened by the District Superintendent of the United Methodist Church. Each church would have its own vote. Members of the Wesley Church who were against the merger boycotted their meeting. The vote passed 9-0. Members of Camp Point in opposition to the merger used a more confrontational approach. They packed the meeting room with people from the town and surrounding hills who were determined to stop integration. Under United Methodist rules only members of a church can vote and it takes a simple majority to pass a measure. The vote was taken and the merger of the congregations was approved by a 13-12 margin. Cousin Mike provided the 13th “yes” vote.
After the meeting came to an end a parishioner approached the district superintendent (DS) and said, “You shouldn’t have allowed Mike to vote. You shouldn’t have let any pastor vote on this.” The DS asked why. She replied, “Any pastor would have voted the same way: for it.” Again the DS asked why she believed this. She said, “Because every pastor I know is for the brotherhood of man.” The DS responded with a question, “What do you think God wanted in all this?”
“I know God is for the merger,” she said, “But God is not running this church! We are!!”
Friends, our church has entered a season where we are considering what direction God is taking us as a congregation. We are having discussions – some of them quite intense – about what God is calling us to be and do. One day those conversations will come to a close and decisions – some difficult and some potentially existential – will have to be made. I pray that when we come to that place:
-we will humbly submit the process to God – setting aside personal biases, fears and beliefs - and invite God to take charge.
-we will be immersed in God’s love and treat each other with love and respect – especially when we disagree – and that we will seek peace in our midst.
-we will show up and participate in the process and not hand it off for others to decide for us.
-we will come with dreams and visions and hopes and exciting ideas for the mission of this church.
-we will hold those dreams, visions, hopes and ideas lightly – submitting them to God, allowing them to be shaped and molded according to God’s purpose for this church.
-we will seek God’s purpose and will for ourselves and for this church and then act on it.
-we will always remember who is to be “running this church” and, spoiler alert, it ain’t us.