The Poor, Mistreated Pastors of the Renewal Groups
John Dorhauer printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Tue Jul 25, 2006 at 07:31:55 AM EST
John Dorhauer, Talk To Action writer
One of the principle claims of renewal groups is that clergy with conservative theologies are persecuted by judicatories: they are kept out of pulpits, denied ordination rights, tried on trumped up disciplinary charges and not given a fair hearing.

This particular claim is attempted on the Faithful and Welcoming website (FWC being a newly created Renewal Group functioning within the United Church of Christ), who try hard to lend credibility to this claim.

Here is how they present it:

"We recognize two common problems in the UCC. First, pastors who consider themselves to be orthodox, evangelical, or conservative in contrast to official UCC policy, or who become active in renewal efforts, sometimes have difficulty with Church and Ministry Committees when seeking license, ordination, standing, or fairness in disciplinary procedures. Second, congregations committed to the historic faith often have difficulty finding a pastor within the system who is theologically compatible with the congregation."

Principally, there are four major flaws in the argument presented here. It is worth pointing them out.

Flaw #1: "pastors who consider themselves to be orthodox, evangelical, or conservative have... difficulty with Church and Ministry Committees."

While it has become popular for renewal groups to portray themselves as victims, popularity does not amount to evidence.

In my time (now over ten years) in service on Church and Ministry committees I have seen liberal and conservative pastors examined for ordination: it has been my consistent experience that those with more liberal theologies gave the committees on which I served more pause than conservative ones - even though in the end it was ALWAYS AND WITHOUT EXCEPTION a matter of the candidates ability to articulate and defend a theological perspective rather than the particular theological perspective espoused that determined one's fitness for ministry.

In my time in service on the these committees I have seen conservative and liberal pastors brought in for disciplinary reviews: NOT ONCE was a candidate's theological perspective asked about, challenged, or considered in any way when testing whether or not one's ACTIONS, BEHAVIORS, or ETHICAL PRACTICES would deem someone unfit for ministry in and on behalf of the United Church of Christ.

The problem here is that some pastors involved in or connected with `renewal groups' have been trained to act in ways that are not ethical. For that they will be disciplined. The claim that they are singled out because of their theological beliefs is unfounded, and is a tactic meant to obfuscate the truth and deflect attention from the unethical behaviors of some among them who believe that because of the truth they shepherd, some noble end justifies their less than noble means and exempts them from punishment.

Flaw #2: "In contrast to official UCC policy."

We are a free church with a covenantal polity. Which means that every member, every church, every conference, every office within the denomination is free to determine its own policy, practice, principle, and theology.

I am not sure to what the author refers when writing about "official UCC policy'" (I note that they refer not to theology here, but policy) but I will presume he or she is writing about our General Synod actions. No church, no pastor has ever been disciplined or persecuted or shunned for not following the direction of General Synod which, as every UCC pastor knows, does not speak FOR the church, but TO the church. Even when churches, at the behest of their pastor, vote to break covenant by cutting off their funding to the United Church of Christ because they disagree with the "official policy," no disciplinary action is taken. Churches in covenant with the UCC are free even to cut off their funding without consequence.

Flaw #3: "Congregations committed to the historic faith often have difficulty finding a pastor."

There are two problems here. The first is the arrogant assumption that the narrow theological territory that pastors are permitted to inhabit by `renewal groups' like FWC reflects in toto "the historic faith." It does not.

The second is that churches that are more conservative (and there are many in the United Church of Christ) have difficulty finding a pastor. This is most certainly not true. Churches that underpay their pastors have difficulty finding one. Churches that have a reputation for being clergy killers (and any who have served in ministry know what that means) have a hard time finding pastors. Churches in isolated rural towns often have difficulty finding pastors. But no church has a hard time finding a pastor because it is committed to the historic faith.

And finally what I think is the most serious flaw in the argument:

Flaw #4: all of the problems listed are peculiar to those "involved in renewal efforts."

The flaw here is the naming of their tactics, their efforts, their intent as one of "RENEWAL."

The United Church of Christ is rich in the tradition of the Reformation. It is constantly seeking to renew, reform, and revitalize its mission. It is not now, nor ever has been, opposed to reform or renewal. It invites it. It seeks it out. It longs for it. In fact, the more we change, the more renwal groups grow irate. Kind of ironic, no?

What the UCC cannot tolerate are the guerrilla tactics employed by some who believe that their theological perspective gives them the right to destroy rather than renew; to deceive rather than revitalize; to disrupt rather than reform. Believing that a theology empowers one to act in ways beyond reproach is both arrogant and dangerous; and it would be a fool who would entertain such practices without some level of accountability.

Renewal groups have a history and a reputation of seeing themselves as bastions of truth and orthodoxy, and some among them believe that such righteousness makes them impervious to the sound judgment of those who disagree with their theology.

Their narrow vision of what is possible, and the arrogant notion that outside of their orthodoxy there can be no truth, make it difficult for them to entertain the notion that their practices, their actions, and their behavior may in fact be seen by others as detrimental to the health and vitality of the body - and that for that they will be held accountable.




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When I've seen these complaints by groups like BWF, I've always read them as part of the larger right wing narrative about the "war" on conservatives, or the "war" on Christians.

The right wing has been selling a narrative of themselves as an oppressed majority for years - they see themselves as the victims of liberals and liberal groups.  Like the War on the Christmas, it's total crap, but it fits a larger mindset in which conservatives, no longer culturally dominant, can whine and cry and carry on about their hurt feelings and refuse to engage in any meaningful debate.  It's also a way of attempting to control the entire conversation.  If we're spending our time either refuting their claims that they're being oppressed and victimized or soothing their hurt feelings, or simply sitting back in stunned silence at their arrogant presumption and astonishing misunderstanding of what it means to oppressed, then we trapped in a dynamic in which the conservatives are in control.  

I've argued before in other fora that if conservatives wish to be taken seriously, they have to grant the right of every UCC member to be at the table in the UCC.  Rather than admit, for instance, that gays and lesbians can belong at the table, conservatives will passionately claim that they are being oppressed by being denied the right to gay bash.  Like a child throwing a tantrum, it focuses the attention and energy of every person involved in the tantrum, and cripples our ability to actually accomplish anything.

by glendenb on Thu Jul 27, 2006 at 09:43:04 AM EST

You have written some really good articles John, but, I would have to say this is the best to date. It puts the ball back in the other court and shows the importance of transparency, responsibility, truthfulness, a grasp of the free-will concept and pluralism that these other groups such as F&W do not have in their tool-box. They are also sloppy in thinking. Something I would not expect from the go-to person when it comes to theology (I would expect a heck of alot more from MY pastor). The sad state of affairs is that they do not give a free hand in a search for a faithful journey to others as the UCC gives to them.

On other forums, I have heard all of this context, of which you provide well thought out and researched material, that folks are just reaching for conspiracy theories OR looking to finding blame for their own shortcomings. If the truth be known, there is a lot of good going on in the UCC and speaking to those issues, as any respected lay or ordained should do in defense of their home, should be an ongoing task. In fact, expected. If no one does it, who else will?

You are dead right (my experience) that C&M committees are partial, if anywhere, to traditional orthodoxy. Thanks for all you do. William

by williambrandes on Mon Jul 31, 2006 at 08:01:34 AM EST
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