I have been at the annual “Gathering,” this week, a yearly event where all clergy of our annual conference are expected to gather together. In fact, according to discipline, since there is a gathering of the “orders” at the event, it is technically as mandatory as annual conference. But clergy attendance varies from year to year, and looking around I can identify many who aren’t present; and based on conversation I can empathize with them, as even those here question whether the outcomes are great enough to validate the investment.
I have experienced some good fellowship and discussion with clergy colleagues this week. And I have appreciated the willingness of three of our clergy to engage us in conversation about preaching. But like years past, the event has been lacking in some areas, especially publicity (at my covenant group in late January, half did not even know the Gathering was coming up[!], and 80% aren’t here as a result) and planning.
My critiques aside, part of the purpose of this annual event is to gather the Orders, in accordance with changes to our Discipline over a decade ago. And the question has been raised, yet again this year, about what it means to be an “order,” and how might we foster deeper identity and connection with one another.
So I’ve been thinking about the questions, and here are a few of my rambling thoughts.
First, we need to claim our identity as a religious order within a quasi-order of the Church. Let me unpack this going backwards…
The Church, of course, is all those united by “one faith… one baptism… one Lord… one hope…” The capital-C Church is comprised of all people through time and space who, through the work and grace of Jesus Christ, seek to love the Lord our God with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strength (what is the plural of strength?); those who seek to follow Jesus Christ’s example and command to “love one another” and “love our neighbor as ourselves…”
Within the Church, I would suggest that Methodists exist as a a quasi-order (and here I refer to the Methodists in these sense of a movement, not as institutional denominations). Methodists are like a religious order because, in addition to the unity we know in our common mission to see faith working in love, we agree to be bound by a rule of life, the so-called “three simple rules”:
do no harm,
use the means God has given to experience and grow in grace…
It is within these contexts that clergy are grouped into “orders,” be it the “order of deacons,” or the “order of elders.” (Local pastor’s are united in a “fellowship,” and short of reading a copy of the Discipline, which I do not have, I could not define the difference.)
Like other orders religious, Elders in the UMC already have a kind of “rule” by which we will live. (So why do we need to draft a new one?) Through the seemingly never-ending process and experience of ordination, we agree to a mutual way of life and, thus, we enter into an “order” with one another. (I think I’ll reflect more on our mutual rule of life together at a later date…)
According to the 2004 Book Of Discipline (I found the quote online, for anyone wondering why I can find it but not define why local pastors are in a fellowship):
“An order is a covenant community within the church to mutually support, care for, and hold accountable its members for the sake of the life and mission of the church.” (2004 BOD ¶306)
So how do we deepen our connections to one another, that we can “mutually support, care for, and hold accountable” one another? By mandating meetings, gatherings, or covenant groups? Can anyone seriously think that drafting a covenant in committee and voting upon it will deepen our sense of identity and connection as an “order”?
A local church does not grow by telling people they should be a part. A local church grows because the people are being so inspired and transformed that they want to participate and invite others.
If we truly want to grow in our sense of being part of an order, we need to find and foster means of coming together that are “can’t miss,” not because you’re in trouble if you do, but because you realize how much you miss out if you do.
People in a small group does not grow because the pastor tells everyone to be in one. People in a small group grow because they find the joy and transformation of doing life together.
Our connections, be they in “Gatherings” or in covenant groups, cannot be mandated, but must come from the inner drive that we want to do this, that we trust one another and want to share and be encouraged and challenged.
Inner motivation cannot be mandated, it can only be encouraged, and nurtured. Someone has to take responsibility to plant, and then allow someone else to water, feed, prune, etc.
I know that such change cannot come from the top, but nor do I think that helping an existing structure of people learn and embrace a new understanding of life together can simply rise from “grass roots.” Someone needs to be the cheerleader, expressing the vision, encouraging one another to be a part of the new community. And just as the pastor of a local church can articulate and share vision, fellow leaders can take roles in helping to facilitate means for transformation. In terms of our Order, such steps could include:
-Communication of local covenant groups that are open to new clergy members
-Picnic, clergy family camp, and other fun events planned for the families of members of the order
-Reflections on our mutual order of life from members whom we respect, perhaps by blog, or newsletter, or social network, or even social media (eg YouTube)
-Virtual options for connectivity, such as a Facebook page, particularly for members of the order distant from others
-Standing gatherings or meetings of small groups of members of the Order that we can know about and join with to share faith and life together
These are just a few ideas that some leader(s) could take the initiative to help begin to foster a deeper sense of our belonging to an “order” together. I’m sure others can think of or suggest others, but part of the key will be some leader(s) taking responsibility and committing to the work of helping foster a greater understanding of our “order.”