I work for two different churches. One is part-time work with an Episcopal church, which I also attend, in which I provide Sunday School education and overall formation for high school students. The second is part-time work with a two-point Methodist charge as a secretary. Within this past week, two people, one from each of those groups, asked me a simple enough question:
“Are you seeking ordination, and if so, will you choose our denomination?”
They are people who represent traditions and communities which I admire and respect. But when they asked me to join, I got nervous.
I can provide a rather solid “Yes” to the first part of the question, but I am still very indecisive as to what my answer is for the second part.
I do want to pastor and lead people in the Body of Christ, to teach them about God’s love for them and the call to love others in the same way. I want to guide people through the deep questions that the biblical text provokes and worship with a community who lives into the dream of God’s Kingdom.
But I am afraid to pick a denomination in which to live this out.
I am afraid of what I will lose if I choose a tribe. I fear I will lose the freedom to ask questions or to admit that I don’t know all the answers. I dread becoming a pastor of whom certain, orthodox answers are demanded when I would rather be with people in every aspect of their spiritual journeys, especially the times of uncertainty. I don’t want to be a part of countless committees that spend a ton of time getting next to nothing done when I could be leading people through prayer that empowers them to do God’s work of justice and mercy.
But mostly, I worry that by signing my allegiance over to a certain denominational doctrine, I will break the covenant to love my neighbors.
I fear whether my loved ones who have been ostracized by the church due to their sexuality, questions, race, or other traits will be fully welcomed by a congregation within certain denominations. While almost every congregation claims to be “welcoming,” it is a rare day when those same communities will go out of their way to find and welcome these people who are too scared and skeptical to enter the doors. I am not content putting “All are welcome” on a church sign. I want the act of being a “welcoming congregation” to be a daily, embodied reality, and I do not see that happening in many denominations due to their strong desire to cling to doctrines which leave out whole groups of people.
I want to be part of a living body, not a dying institution.
I’ve seen life in certain congregations within denominations. I see signs of God’s love and action in the Episcopal church I attend, where I sing in their choir and educate their teens, where people welcome with open arms, worship as a community, and donate to their food pantry. I see God’s feet on the move in the Methodist charge for which I work in their community service and strong local connections.
I love the congregations, but I do not trust the denominations. Congregations can be places of life, but I have also seen denominational standards suck them dry. How can anyone change when the ones in charge insist on doing things a certain way all the time?
I feel the Spirit stirring in me, telling me something new, beautiful, and challenging is on the horizon. I desire to branch out on my own path, to be with people who have long been uninterested in or disillusioned by the church as it is. I want to continue journeying with the nones and dones, doubters, agnostics, atheists, thespians, musicians, fangirls and fanboys, those with less-than-ideal life stories, and folks from all over the political and denominational spectrum. I want us to start something together, because it is in these people that I see the kingdom of God coming to even deeper fruition.
I want to follow this call, but how? By going against the denominational grain and stepping outside of orthodox lines? Or by submitting to the powers that be and negotiating change from within? By risking it all on something new, or settling into something familiar and secure?
I know there is life in both of my congregational contexts, and all of these signs are beautiful and life-giving. They do not always match my dream of what I want the Church to look like, but important work is happening in these places and through these people. I want to continue to honor them and their work.
So do I do this by becoming ordained within a denomination, or stepping out and making my own path with the disenfranchised along the way?