Throughout my life, I have had to remind myself that my journey needs to be seen from a larger perspective than my own experience. The United Methodist Church has arrived at the time of decision. In six weeks 864 delegates from around the world will gather for what is expected to be a defining special general conference. As we journey toward that moment, there is a tendency to think that this time is unique in church history – that at no other time has any other group of Christians experienced what we are experiencing within the UM Church.
The truth is that while there are unique aspects to what we are experiencing as one part of the body of Christ, those who have gone before us have walked similar roads and encountered challenges far more daunting than what we are facing. Every generation of Christians faces questions like those with which we are wrestling. The presenting issues have often been different, but the deeper realities have been the same.
In his second letter to his disciple Timothy, Paul provided sound counsel for navigating unsettled waters in times analogous to the days in which we are living. Paul delivered a charge to Timothy. Acknowledging that a “time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine . . . and [instead] turn their ears away from the truth,” Paul instructed Timothy to “keep your head in all situations, endure hardship, do the work of an evangelist, discharge all the duties of your ministry.” 2 Timothy 4:3-5.
Even as 2018 concluded, the emotional and spiritual temperature was escalating. No doubt, grief, fear and anger stoke the temperature. For many of us, the UM Church has been our church home for most of our spiritual lives. We have deep commitments and relationships which we realize are being threatened in this season. While we have known change is coming, it is now at our doorstep and it is marked by uncertainty. Many are justifiably concerned the special General Conference will reshape the UM in a way they can no longer support.
When Paul charged Timothy in his second epistle, the movement of which they were a part was threatened from within by Gnosticism and other heresies, and from without by opposition and persecution from the secular culture. Yet Paul was unwavering in his principled convictions. He knew He served a risen Savior who was present as Timothy and he labored to advance the Kingdom of God.
Whether lay or clergy, many of you are leaders in your church. You have been raised up as leaders for just this time. God did not call us because we are especially talented. He called us because we are surrendered to God and committed to being vessels in His hands through whom the Holy Spirit can accomplish God’s work. We serve more than the people with whom we are journeying, and more than an institution – the UM Church. We serve the Living God. On February 27, God will still be the Sovereign Lord. He will still be accomplishing His mission to bring people into an eternal relationship with Him. He will still be transforming lives – ours included – so that our lives increasingly align with His design. And God will know all that we are experiencing.
So who are we to be in this season? First and foremost, we are children of God who have been called to serve Him and His people. Remember your identity. Human institutions (a denomination), labels (a name), and possessions (property and assets) do not define us. We are to remain true to the One who gave us life, who sustains us in every moment, who surrendered His life so we might have truly abundant lives, and who is at work in us and in our circumstances.
Second, in Paul’s words, “keep your head in all situations.” As a teen, those who mentored me shared with me Nobel laureate Rudyard Kipling’s poem “If.” How appropriate his words are in this season!
If you can keep your head when all about you
Are losing theirs and blaming it on you;
If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you,
But make allowance for their doubting too:
If you can wait and not be tired by waiting,
Or, being lied about, don’t deal in lies,
Or being hated don’t give way to hating,
And yet don’t look too good, nor talk too wise;
Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it,
And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!
Spirit-filled leaders, in this season, will be rooted and grounded. They will not react to every shift of the wind. They will not focus on the immediate, but rather on the eternal. They will remember the core of their calling. They will seek Godly wisdom and guidance. They will ascribe the best of motives to those with whom they disagree and hope the best for them. They will be filled with confident hope and communicate that confident hope to others.
The Greek word nepho which the NIV translates as “keep your head” is translated as “keep a clear mind” in the NLT and paraphrased as “keep your eye on what you’re doing” by Eugene Peterson in The Message. Sound counsel for all of us in these days.
Third, “endure hardship,” Paul urges. Paul and Timothy certainly knew hardship. Paul is writing Timothy from a Roman prison facing the reality of imminent death. Timothy is contending with opposition and persecution. What we face pales in comparison, but is daunting nonetheless. In the NLT, Paul’s words are translated, “Don’t be afraid of suffering for the Lord.” Part of our identification with Jesus is walking the road He walked which at times was a path of suffering. Discipleship – following Jesus – is costly. Be prepared to suffer if necessary in the coming days. Consider what Jesus and those who follow Him have done to prepare the way for us.
Fourth, “do the work of an evangelist.” The UM Church in the U.S. is in precipitous decline for many reasons, but chief among them is mission drift. Let’s not contribute to that in this season. Work at telling others the Good News. Keep the Message alive. Maintain perspective. What we are experiencing in the UM Church may not even warrant a footnote when the whole of church history is written at the end of time.
Finally, “discharge all the duties of your ministry.” God has placed each of us in our venue of service. He has defined the territory for which we have responsibility. He is counting on us. Let us count on Jesus all the more in this season. Let us be patient and focused. Let us attend to critical details and fully discharge the ministry God has given us. Finally, let us be winsome and fully engaged in what God has called us to do in this season.
The days ahead will be difficult regardless of the outcome of the special General Conference. Stay informed. Stay engaged. Put on your spiritual armor. Live into Proverbs 3:5: “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and lean not on your own understanding.”
by Keith Boyette
January 8, 2019
Rev. Keith Boyette is president of the Wesleyan Covenant Association and an ordained elder in the Virginia Conference of The United Methodist Church.